Monthly Archives: August 2012

Ring Around the Tower

After a week in the flatlands and another week of catch -up, it was time for a tune-up. Rich was agreeable, so we started on the West Face and chased the shade on moderate classics. Here’s the program: First pitch of El Matador, 5.8, First pitch of McCarthy West Face, 5.9+,

Climbers on the second pitch of McCarthy West, upper first pitch is the crack to the belayer’s left

First pitch of Carol’s Crack, 5.10a,

Carol’s Crack pitch #1

New Wave, 5.7 and 5.10a (we link the pitches – they’re pretty short),

New Wave

Assembly Line, 5.9.

Jedi Master Frank S. and client getting ready for the finger crack start to Assembly Line

Frank on Assembly Line

There are many others, Rangers Are People, 5.9, Mystic and the Mulchers, 5.8, Soler, 5.9, El Cracko Diablo, 5.8, First pitch of McCarthy North Face, 5.8, etc. If you plan to visit Devils Tower, consider these routes rather than insisting on a miserable experience on Durrance. You won’t get to the top, but then again, the top really isn’t that interesting.


The mighty Bartizan, from the Spires

The Bartizan is an oft overlooked gem. It flanks the Cathedral Spires on the West, and because it sits slightly lower and isn’t pointy, people walk on by it without a second glance. It does, however, sport several features of interest to climbers. I could tell you about a quaint little 5.7 on the North end, or the truly horrible chimney and off-width right next to it. However, I am a snob trained by snobs, so I will only talk about the two best routes on the rock.

After the 5.0 approach up the gully, The Crack…

The Crack of Earthly Delights is a crack, but it is so much more. It is a lie-back, a face climb, an alpine rock climb and a stemming problem. It is also potentially dangerous. The crux comes low on the route, just after stepping off a little pedestal. If you piece it together properly, after the fact you’ll be able to say, “I can see how you could call that 5.9.” But if you put the right hand where the left should be or disregard the improbable-looking holds out to the left, you’ll be faced with a frightening lie-back which takes you far enough above your last gear to risk dynamic re-acquaintance with the top of the little pedestal should you fall.

So this is how steep the crux really is.

The remainder of the climbing in the corner is safe and fun. A hard left turn before the crack ends takes you to an exciting run -out to the anchors on a pinnacle to the left of a small gully.

Looking up toward the roof

Kevizan goes from the base right up the middle of the formation. The first pitch is an off-width with an overhanging section.

Looking SE from the belay ledge

The second pitch continues the off-width for a few, desperate feet, then eases up before turning a roof.

From the top

A key, hidden flake on the right takes you past the overhang to some of the best finger locks and hand jams in the Needles – if you have the sauce left to stick to them.


Tagged ,

Beetle Battle

The Cathedral Spires after the beetles

The mountain pine beetle is a native son of the Black Hills, but nobody around here is very proud of the little guy. I like him. He’s tiny and a weak flyer. A victim of his own reproductive tactics, he’s a bit like the Lemming – doomed to population booms and busts that make him look stupid. Nevertheless, this little insect has thwarted the will of the baddest mammal on the planet.

For the most part, the life cycle of the pine beetle is typical, boring high school biology. It’s one of those egg-larvae-adult-egg affairs that fits well in a circle of arrows on the textbook’s margin. In late summer, adult beetles emerge from trees infested the year before and fly to new trees, where they burrow into the bark and lay eggs. The eggs hatch quickly into grub-like larvae which begin to eat the tender, inner layers of the bark. After a Winter’s break, the larvae finish their meal, metamorphose into adults and the cycle begins again.Within this staid tale, there are a few interesting details that, under the right conditions, conspire to make the smoldering, little endemic population of beetles into a conflagration.

First, there’s that Winter dormancy. To prepare for the cold, the larvae produce antifreeze. If cold weather strikes before they are ready, many will die. If they are ready, though, they can survive temperatures down to thirty below zero, Fahrenheit. Besides allowing more larvae to survive, adequate preparation means the larvae are further along in their development when they wake up in the Spring. Sometimes, they are far enough along to complete two generations in one year.

Second, the trees don’t just stand there and take it. They have an immune response to the beetles. As the insects dig into the inner bark, the injury prompts the tree to force resin upwards.  Sap spills out of the defect in the bark, smothering the beetles. If the beetles are few enough, and the tree is strong enough, the immune system can prevail. In turn, the beetles have adapted to overcome the trees’ defenses. They produce a pheromone which calls other beetles to a tree under attack, giving them the opportunity to exhaust the tree’s immunity with sheer numbers.

Blue stain fungus

The beetles have also developed a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that weakens the trees. The ‘blue stain’ fungus thrives in the core wood of pine trees, where it interferes with water transport to the crown. Beetles carry fungal spores on their bodies as they breach the outer layers of bark which normally bar the fungus entry.

Under usual conditions, things work out so a few trees die and a few beetles survive. However, if the weather is right and the trees are already weak, a positive feedback loop ensues and the beetle population explodes. Usually these excursions amount to little bursts, limited by the availability of suitable trees.  But presently, due to a lucky convergence of human and beetle preferences, there is no limit to the availability of suitable trees.

The forest that we have cultivated is made of trees which are just the species and size that the beetles prefer. Plus, we’ve made a dense forest, so even the mountain pine beetles’ weak flying skills carry them easily from trunk to trunk. Our relationship with the pine forest has unwittingly, coincidentally helped turn the little pops in beetle numbers into a boom. Modern human activity on the land, from fire suppression to agriculture to habitation, has attenuated a kind of herd immunity inherent in the age, size and density of the trees.

Cuttin’ & Chunkin’

Now, we are trying to stand in for that herd immunity. We want our forest back the way it was. It gave us logs, shelter and aesthetic satisfaction. So, we try to cut infected trees before the beetles can emerge. We try to trick the beetles with pheromones (the insects actually release a repellant pheromone when their host tree harbors too many beetles). We even spray neurotoxins on the trees in ‘high value’ areas, like Mt. Rushmore.

Beetle-thinned forest

Close up, our efforts look pretty smart, like a beetle attack on an individual tree looks smart, with its chemical communications, antifreeze equipped larvae, and fungal force multiplier. But just as the beetles are already doomed to population collapse by the time they start to thrive, we have already ensured that we won’t have the forest back the way we like it, simply because we liked it that way so much in the first place.

It will work out in the end. Preservation is a fool’s errand anyway. We pursue it for sentimentality’s sake, and because it makes us feel like we may be able to avoid our own eventual extinction. When the beetle epidemic is over, we will learn to like the new forest and maybe we will recognize the beetle battle as a farce. For at a proper distance, our interaction with the habitat is indistinguishable from that of the beetles. Like them, and the Lemmings, we’re condemned to a lifestyle that allows us to survive in spite of a built-in vulnerability to chaos.

Tagged , ,

Dirtbag Libertarianism

Wool, fiberfill and Scotch-guard – vintage dirtbag

In recent years, there’s been a loud discussion in the black community on the merits of the N-word. Specifically, people have disputed the value of  ‘claiming’ the word. Many have offered eloquent arguments on either side of the issue, but few have looked for lessons in history. Those lessons exist; here is a familiar and recent one.

The word ‘dirtbag’ is an honorific in the climbing world. It refers to devotees whose total commitment to the sport has led to a de facto vow of poverty. Nowadays, the word calls to mind the romanticized, early days of climbing in Yosemite, where the pioneering resident climbers, in the course of surviving in the Park, earned the label as an epithet.

The Park Service and the concessionaires saw the climbers as parasites – dirtbags who camped illegally and stole food scraps while contributing nothing to the park or society in general. The authorities were correct, too. Most of the climbers were parasites, due to lack of means and a single-minded desire to climb. They didn’t pursue parasitism, they fell into it by default, abetted by the availability of a corpulent, plethoric, degenerate host. Besides, their parasitism produced results.

Climbing  thousands of feet of seemingly impassable rock may not be worth anything to society at large, but it might buy you a word. To the original users, ‘dirtbag’  meant someone who was nothing but a worthless nuisance. A ‘dirtbag’ who could climb El Cap. might still be considered a worthless nuisance, but it was hard to say that was all they were. Plus, not all those who lived to climb were rootless kids looking for an outlet for their dissatisfactions. Always, some dirtbags chose an austere life to pursue their visions.

The latter group planned to work only enough to buy gear, subsist on cat food, and climb as much as possible. Their’s was a long-term plan, and it became a template. Over time, they emerged from the rest of the ‘dirtbags’ but never disavowed the name. Through them, ‘dirtbag’ came to mean ‘the opposite of dilettante’. So much so that modern climbers see ‘dirtbagging’ as a rite of passage and a special opportunity.

By this definition, all sorts of people, from artists to Buddhist monks, are dirtbags, and many of them have taken to using that shorthand description for their lifestyles of devotion. Of course, the original sense of the word will persist. No derogatory term can escape its origins, and the American conservative libertarian will continue to call everybody who chooses to live low and climb high, a dirtbag in the original sense of the word.

He didn’t build that wood stove, and the Yeoman farmer didn’t mine the iron for his plow. There is no free-range human.

That’s one of the good things about dirtbagging, though. There may be some true libertarian dirtbags – people who believe in the myth of the Yeoman farmer. There are precious few American conservative libertarian dirtbags – people whose credo is: “Everyone must be free; free to be just like me”. Just as being a dirtbag can teach one the difference between voluntary frugality and true poverty, wearing the word can be a reminder of the source of its negative content, and serve as a warning against perpetuating that negativity.

Nevertheless, claiming the word is a perilous trick. The term is a poisonous thing at heart, and it’s hard to play with it without getting any on you. However, some people are going to call climbers camped at a crag with nothing but a rope and a rusty Subaru to their names, ‘dirtbag’ anyway. Tucking tail and slinking away or trying to teach stupid people a lesson don’t seem like better strategies, and overall, owning the dirtbag label has worked out pretty well for the climbing community. For what it’s worth.

Tagged , , , ,