Tag Archives: mixed climbing

The Hammerhead Mentality

Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

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This Is Going to Feel a Little Weird

No parking on any street. Fee area. Do not walk on the ski trail.
“This belongs to Charlie,” I thought, “and Charlie sure don’t surf.”
But Charlie owns the guys who write the tickets and pack the wheel boots. My friend Tim got a ticket the last time we were in Vail. I remember it because the fine made him swear – and he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I parked where the signs told me to park, and learned to hate Colorado just a little more. I’d come back to climb, though. I had to grudgingly admit that the climbing was good enough to make the Hippie/Richie Redneck ecosystem survivable.
I had a little more hatin’ to do as we crossed the ski trail. I was a terrible skater, but I left better tracks than those, over drifts and deer tracks no less. They needed a little de-grooming. But then we got the nice boot packed trail to the Designator amphitheater. It was worth it. The Rigid Designator was a pitted, overhanging hook-fest up the middle, but had a nice line on the left.

Left side of the Designator

Left side of the Designator

Just before we finished our second lap on the climb, I got a call from my oldest son. Cell service at the base of the ice – another Colorado aberration.
“We’re done and we’re standing at the Hotel where the gondola starts and we’re cold. Come get us.”
He is still learning the new way of things.
“Take the shuttle back to our Hotel,” I replied, “You have the key and I have food for you in the room. Do you remember which bus to take and the room number?”
“Yeah,” he answered with renewed confidence, “OK.”
He is almost there; soon I will be wishing he really needed me again.
Firehouse area

Firehouse area

Rich was a very good sport about it all. We packed up after the second lap and headed back to town.
The next day we went to the Firehouse area for some easy ice and mixed. With the rope through the anchors, however, our eyes began to stray to the scratch marks below the roofs and smears of ice. We didn’t come to Vail to top-rope, but we did it anyway despite the damage to our arms. At least hanging out in a practice area gained us some information. Rifle was in, said the guide belaying down the way.
A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

Rifle was a bit of a drive. It made me too nervous to leave the younger boy on his own while we were climbing over an hour away. Lucky for us, he had had enough snowboarding for the time being (When his legs get sore, he stops. We should probably bring him along more often.). He agreed to be our documentarian for the day.
Final Curtain, Rifle

Final Curtain, Rifle

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Having climbed out Rifle, we were back to the amphitheater for the big blow-out. Rich was set on the Fang. I had no interest. It was too damned wet. I wouldn’t be short of alternatives anyway. The lads had been busy while we were away. The last time I’d been standing behind the Fang, it had been easy to sort out the clip-ups on the cavern wall. Amphibian was the one on the right and the other one was Fatman and Robin. Now we had to ask the college kids who walked up behind us, which was which. Even so, I’m not sure what I climbed. I’d always wanted to do Seventh Tentacle, since I’d climbed Frigid Inseminator during my last visit. It was kind of a Robert Frost thing – “Two routes diverged on the crappy rock..” and I always wondered what the other one was like. Whatever it was, it was steep and led to the dry, left side of the hanging ice.

Up to that point, I’d remained unaffected by my single-parenthood. But the ice was brittle and my arms were tired from the day before. My swing was just sloppy enough to shatter large plates in the ice instead of driving the pick in cleanly. Normally, I’d need three ice screws to feel like the upper section was a sure thing. I was down to my last one with about twenty five feet to go.
Right after my wife died, I promised my boys that I would never voluntarily leave them. I could make no promises about objective hazards, but the subjective ones, I would avoid. I did have more screws, clipped to the rope below me. I down climbed to the last one which would prevent a ground-fall, pulled it, and climbed back up. I could feel the vibration of Rich’s teeth grinding, but he said nothing.
“Thanks for your patience,” I told him back on the ground.

The Fang

The Fang

We took a run at Amphibian a bit later, but we were too whipped to get past the fourth or fifth bolt. I think we were just not very motivated either. Things had changed all around since the last time we were on the route. Our practice crag at Whitewood now had climbing just as hard or even harder. I can’t say we were disappointed, just a little wistful. That’s the way it is with climbing. Nobody gets an olympic medal. Maybe you win a Golden Ice Axe someday, but the next morning some punk kid will hike your prize route and then retro bolt it. And the rest of the world honors your achievement even less than that punk kid. But that’s how it should be. We’d be back to climb Amphibian for the enjoyment rather than the achievement. I knew we’d be back because I still hadn’t climbed the route down the way, Octopussy, and I wouldn’t be a real mixed climber until I’d climbed Octopussy

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Success Is Just Another Word for Something Left to Lose

Sixty degrees was the forecast high temperature for the next day. Standing in the Hyalite parking area, we felt some bitterness at having squandered our forty degree day. A bit of information would be our only solace. We had just come down from having a look at the route, Zack Attack. There are some things in climbing for which I would risk serious injury or death. I could now declare: Zack Attack was not one of them. That’s all our best weather day would yield, and it was a brand of success, I suppose.
In our defense, it was very hard to judge the nature or condition of the first pitch from the road. So, first thing in the morning, we labored up the valley wall, bypassing the unformed steps of easy ice which would have made the approach entertaining in itself. When we arrived at the base of the climb, we saw that the reports of “all ice” were outdated. Several warm days had cleared the first short corner of its climbable adornment. The naked corner wasn’t much to look at – a collection of blocks and frozen turf. Except it wasn’t frozen. As I climbed up to have a look, my ice tools cut into the clumps of grass with light pressure from my wrists. Some of the blocks shifted ever so slightly under the crampon points.
As I looked up the route, the only obvious gear placements appeared to involve similar sets of blocks and flakes. The climbing didn’t look desperate, but the protection was illusory at best. In short, it was uninspiring. Besides, others were waiting by that time.
A team had come up to stand in line while I was scoping out the first pitch. Their persistence despite our priority and the look in the eye of the younger one made my decision even easier. I climbed down. Back on the snow platform, I let the guy with the look know what I’d seen. I knew he wouldn’t heed my assessment; this route obviously meant something to him. We watched the other for a bit before heading down.
He moved up to the first cam placement behind a flake, plugged in the gear and moved on, fifteen, then twenty feet to the next, similar opportunity. Eventually he found something which looked like it might hold a fall, just ten feet below the crux. He paused to think about his situation for several minutes and we took our leave. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to stay and watch.
Like Lot’s wife though, we were compelled to look back as we picked our way down the slope, and he moved ten, then twenty feet above his last good protection. He was driven right by the difficulties of the route onto ground which the guidebook describes as “sporty”, shorthand for unprotectable. Now at least thirty feet out, he stood for an hour in one spot, searching for gear or another way forward. Finally accepting the fact that the nature of his situation was plain climb or die, he made the moves left and up, achieving easier ground atop the crumbly slabs.
For my part, I’m glad he made it and I didn’t. He has a story to tell now, and a good one. It will be the kind of story I was recalling as I frowned up at the blocks and dirty slabs from the start of the route, and I’ve enough of them, thank you.

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Oughto Elimination

CIMG4053“I ought to be able to climb this,” I thought.

My partner agreed. “You got it, man,” he called from the belay.

Of course, the problem was that I didn’t have it. If the helpful blob of ice for my left foot had been there instead of the mushy snow that was, I would have had it. If the sun had not already melted loose the key chunk of ice above my head, I would have had it. If there were a foot hold above the little bump of granite which supported one point of my right crampon, I would have had it.

I pulled sideways on the quarter-inch, diagonal edge which provided the only purchase for the picks of my ice tools on the overhang which I was trying to exit. The ice having proven useless, I tried to clear it from the rock and then ratcheted my way up, fishing for an edge to latch onto with my left tool. Before I found one, my right foot popped off the little bump. My knee took up the counter-pressure before the pick of my right tool popped off the rock.

Pleasantly surprised to find myself still attached to the route, I lowered gently back onto the little bump. Ambition drove me up one more time, with predictable results.

“Not gonna happen today,” I said, “I’m coming down.”


That attempt was my third on the route. We rappelled the three pitches below and descended avalanche debris to the floor of the cirque. As we coiled the ropes, a few tons of wet snow rumbled down a ledge system beside our abandoned line of ascent. We walked back to camp in silence, crawled into the tent and took our boots off.

“Well,” I offered, “we could always go climb at the Tower.”


Few who climb remember the moment they started. The best most of us can do is to recall a time when we realized that we were climbers, but we were well into it by then. It sprouted as an inspiration regardless of the seed. As we acted on the landscape though, it changed our notions of what we could do and what we wanted to do. Aspiration took over from inspiration.

For most of us, ambition came close behind. Everybody’s had a list or project take possession of them for a stretch. In the worst case, our projects frustrated us, wore us down and made us quit, even if we finished them. In the best case, by the time we achieved our ambitions (or at last abandoned them), they had changed us so that the climbs to which we devoted ourselves no longer seemed so hard or so desirable as the routes we had discovered along the way.

Two Winters ago, an old man began to frequent our local ice climbing crag. He was a person of some renown, with many first ascents to his name in the ranges of North America. But, he had never climbed the waterfalls in the South Fork Valley of the Shoshone. He was training for the Valley’s steep cascades with miles of rolling ice between them, by climbing at the little cave we had nicknamed “forty feet of fun”.

His equipment was antiquated, but he wielded it with an ingrained ability reflecting many years of focused movement over ice and snow.  Still, he was slow and the length of his reach and the height of his steps betrayed the effects of 70 years of mountain travel on joints and tendons. He must have known what he was doing, so he must have known that his chances of getting up any of the climbs in the South Fork were extremely slim.

Finally, I had to ask, “What do you plan to climb in the Valley?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m just going to go and see.”

A puzzled smirk spread over his face as he spoke, and I began to suspect. I’d felt the same expression of bemusement on my own face on occasion, after pulling a hard crux, usually on a “project”, when I couldn’t recall the moves involved or even how hard they felt. Then I would walk around for the rest of the day with the fading suspicion that maybe I didn’t climb it, maybe I fell off and even died, but had lost the capacity to notice in the process. Maybe the old guy felt that way all the time now; I didn’t ask about it or anything else, and I never found out how his trip turned out.


Back in the tent, both of us stared at the nylon floor for a few moments.

Then my partner lifted his head and replied, “You know, climbing at Devils Tower has been on my list for a long time.”

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Weird Seasonal Activities

It’s time to be mixed up. A little good-humored anarchy prepares us for the fearful chaos of winter climbing.

This isn’t mixed climbing, where one foot is on rock and the other is on ice. This is climbing rock with ice tools.

Without crags developed for climbing with tools and crampons, it would be nearly impossible to be an ice climber living in the Black Hills. Being an alpine climber would  be entirely impossible. But with our specialized crags, when the waterfalls finally freeze in Cody and the faces and gullies ice up in the Big Horns, Tetons and Canadian Rockies, our strength and balance are tuned up and with a few swings of the ice tools to knock the rust off, we are back in the game.

Now,we just wait for the cold.


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Climbing is generally misunderstood. The sport’s diversity alone makes it opaque. The motivations of mountaineers, sport climbers, boulderers, alpinists and aid climbers are inherently heterogeneous solely based on the nature of the climbing discipline each group pursues. Add to that inherent diversity the large number of  dilettantes and duffers which climbing attracts; participants who themselves do not appreciate all the possible benefits and dangers the sport offers. Little wonder the public sees climbing as a sort of gray soup with a troubling  aroma, which would be a puzzling thing to sample voluntarily.

Among the various disciplines in climbing, soloing is the hardest to understand. Abandoning all safety equipment save one’s own body and adjunctive tools may appear foolish, bold, transcendent, or egotistical depending on the observer. It is a challenging taste for climbers and non-climbers alike.

To be clear, soloing means intentionally trying something hard without a rope, not accidentally venturing into a climb or die situation. Everyone has one or two of those in their closet. Nor does it mean dispensing with protection on ground one dominates. Purposefully entering a situation in doubt with the understanding that there will be no salvation takes something different and gives something different than those incidental circumstances.  Much, perhaps most, of the climbing community disavows it. But the truth is, most who participate in the sport have pursued it at some point. That’s logical, since soloing is the only reproducible means of achieving one of the unique benefits of climbing: self-destruction.

We all harbor the urge. Who hasn’t felt the fleeting impulse to steer into a bridge abutment or fought the pull of the abyss while looking over the edge of a precipice? This impulse to rebel against the rules of self-control is quite reasonable. After all, our identity is just a convention. It is a yoke imposed by the thin layer of cells covering our brains on all the structures beneath. To have any hope of success, the self must be founded on a tyrannical belief in its own preciousness, only then does it have the strength to make the rest submit to the restrictions inherent in its own preservation.

This product of the cortex is illusory. Ever since we became aware, we have tried to wipe away the limits which the illusion imposes. Our religious history is a chronicle of such efforts and their failures. We have a messiah who cried out for himself from the cross. We have scores of Bodhisattvas, but no more Buddhas. Rather than unshackling us from our identity, religion has settled for turning the self against its own weaknesses, but the project of making us “good” has  always been play-acting. Our consistent hypocrisy shows what a poor compromise it’s been. We were fools to think we could shake our identities in the presence of others. The only place to remove the self is in isolation, where it has no hope of salvation from outside.

I have done a few solo climbs, but most were on the soft side. They were climbs I had done before with a rope or technically in little doubt. A couple have been for real, though, and the Black Ice Couloir was the realest of those. The route is not particularly hard from a technical standpoint. However, it is an alpine climb with attendant difficulties, including loose rock and variable ice conditions. At the time I climbed it, it was only a couple of grades below what I had ever climbed in the mountains and I was equipped with straight shaft tools, plastic boots and Foot Fang crampons. I wasn’t set to dominate the terrain.

I hiked up Valhalla Canyon the afternoon before the climb and tucked myself under a rock for the night. Several times on the walk up, I changed my mind. Immobility, nightfall and the confines of the bivy sack did nothing to ease the turmoil. Through the night I picked away at my fears with my ambition until both were in tatters. At about 2 AM, there was nothing left but the decision to climb. I sat quiet for two more hours, waiting for the alarm.

I moved up the first icefield by headlamp, and climbed a short, steep chimney on the right side of the headwall. A section of easy climbing passed quickly and I arrived at the second icefield with the light of day. Up to that point, I had felt calm, almost empty, but as I moved onto the ramp above the icefield, an intense focus and motivation took hold. Every move was perfect. A bolt of lightning couldn’t strike me from the rock. The traverse across the third icefield and the climb up the final gully seemed to pass in no time. The short mixed section where the ice ended felt so secure I wished it could go on forever.

Back in the sun, I made my way down to the lower saddle, lay down on the tundra and went to sleep. When I woke, I set off down Garnet Canyon and on to a path of destruction in the world beyond. I tried to bring that sense of perfection and unitary movement with me, to recreate it in the populated world. Of course, it stayed in the mountains, but the expectation was a portable hazard. A hard object, it battered everything softer than itself.

People and their things cannot reproduce the rewards of soloing, despite humans’ capacity to have those experiences for themselves. The preparatory tear-down itself precludes it. Doing that to yourself is illuminating; doing it to somebody else is just plain nasty. Besides, perfect things are transitory by nature. Held closed in memory or kept as principle, they turn rancid, however gently they are tended.

I haven’t done any more solos. Perhaps someday I will again, when I’m no longer wrapped up with other people or when I’ve honed my schizophrenia to an edge sharp enough to cleanly divide climbing from everything else. Until then, I’ll use a rope to protect me from falls and dangerous expectations.

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Dutch Whatever

“I’ve noticed that in the alpine, everyone’s hesitant to rate anything harder than M6 – and then everything’s M6. Why do you think that is?” Mike wondered.

M6 is a grade given mixed rock and ice climbing. For most folks, it’s the grade that consistently feels hard, the place where you start to feel like you could fall off. I thought back to the previous day in the Clarks Fork. When you’re trolling for blind pick placements under a sheet of snow, yarding on apparently frozen blocks with the secondary points of your crampon wedged in a crack coated with ice and running with water, it really is all M6 until you’ve climbed it.

Looking down the 6th pitch of Broken Hearts

It had rolled for us, though. We had felt good after sneaking in six pitches of Broken Hearts as the climb melted around us. It was a good omen, and we had word that the climb in the Clarks Fork had looked feasible as of two weeks ago.

Beta doesn’t obviate omens when it comes to going into the Clarks Fork, though. The climb was probably there. The approach was surely there, and in the usual condition: a brutal wallow through the continental snowpack, followed by a dicey stumble down frozen dirt beside a stream bed.

It was quite a reward at the bottom, almost enough to make you forget you had to walk back up what you just came down. The morning sun shone into the gorge, tanning the 800 ft. granite walls, while the river grumbled under ice, welling in pools where the channel widened.

Call of Cthulhu first pitch

And there was the climb I’d fallen off two years ago. The weasel-like part of me that scampers around the base of my skull was disappointed I wouldn’t get a rematch with the mixed version of the first pitch. The more clear-thinking part was glad to see the first pitch touching down.

The climbing wasn’t too hard, it just took a light touch on the sun-baked, arching pillar. Mike accepted the ramble up the second pitch with equanimity.

Mike nearing the end of pitch #2

The third pitch was alpine climbing, the beautiful sort of stuff made of rock and ice at once which defies any sort of rating, with a little bit of M4 (after the fact) to finish.

Pitch 3/4 belay

Mike got his karmic justice for enduring the mediocrity of the second pitch. Steep sunny ice on the fourth pitch lead to a spacious belay cave at the end of the route.

Beginning pitch #4

By any name, it was a stellar climb. So good, I barely noticed the quadriceps hematoma from rockfall on the way down. Hell, I’d even forgotten the walk out by the time we left the parking lot. Ok, maybe that’s a lie, but it was pretty damn good.

Pitch #4

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48 Hours at the Gym

Welcome to our facility at Whitewood

 Going to the gym in Wyoming is a little different. You don’t just pop over for the afternoon, it kind of takes all day. There is generally a commute involved.

 With luck it does not involve a shovel and a come-along. 

There is often a cost of admission, but if you are clever you can bargain it down. 

Every training session involves some cardiovascular work – mandatory cardiovascular work.

Approach to Leigh Creek ice

The machines are limited, too. No circuits, just different versions of the same exercise.



The motivational posters are great, though.

Just a little bit of limestone, Ten Sleep canyon.

And you can’t beat the ambiance of the locker room…

…or the cafe.

Mid-continental sushi after basking in the sun for 3 hours on the back seat. Thank you Baby Jesus, for giving us Wasabi.

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Not lookin’ good

Not much ice in Spearfish canyon. 11th Hour is about the only thing climbable.

The cave was trying earlier last week, but there’s not much left now.

If you’ve got the secret weapons.


You can still make the best of it.

Those global warming skeptics best hope they’re right, though. Because if these temp.s are the new normal, they’re gonna find out what it’s like to get cramponned boot up the ass.

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