Tag Archives: Wyoming


Like it was made to be climbed...

Like it was made to be climbed…

The Hills have lots. Limestone is one of our most abundant resources. Most of it is the typical yellow stuff, with many small pockets, butter-dish edges and thin cracks.
There is some black rock mixed in. Much of it is moderately overhanging, with a few roofs, often close to the ground.
There is also a bit of sandstone. Nothing like the acres of patina found in the South, but of good quality.
Looking up at the roofs on Dedicated to the Game on the SW shoulder of Devils Tower

Looking up at the roofs on Dedicated to the Game on the SW shoulder of Devils Tower

For sport climbers and boulderers, there are worse places to be. Still, the magma-forged stone is the main attraction.

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CIMG4015Seven is the number of pitches for Broken Hearts, one of the best climbs in the Southfork valley. The trouble is, those pitches do not often coexist in time. The upper tier of three amphitheaters waits for the Spring to grow its pillars. By then, the sun has eaten away the path up the ice that leads to the show.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

Looking back at the road from the half-way point on the walk up.

What a show it is, too. The final three pitches, along with Carotid Artery, are a different story from the lark in the lower drainage. But there is a price. To reach this venue in Springtime, when the lower pitches are missing, one has to walk up the walk-off.

Carotid Artery

Carotid Artery

Walking around on the valley walls in Cody is ill-advised in principle. The slopes are steep, loose and rocky, and it is easy to reach  a precipitous dead-end, resulting in grueling detours and back tracking. The course which skirts the lower canyon of Broken Hearts is better than most.As I plodded the solid hour of uphill however, I found myself making notes for the next time: “Remember, it is that bad, it is that bad, …”.

My Only Valentine

My Only Valentine

In the first of the three bowls, Carotid Artery was not formed. Some new fixed gear adorned the crack behind the hanging dagger, but the ice was too far out from the wall to make a mixed version feasible or safe.



The rest of the pitches were there, though. We knew from the start that the seventh belonged to Rich. We didn’t need to discuss it. He had been thwarted twice before, having to walk away from the climb due to conditions and time. Conditions were not perfect this time. A massive amount of water poured over the roof at the top. We were prepared for it this time, though.


Like a character moving over landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book, Rich made his way up the twisting series of steps and columns. He was able to skirt the roof, though the climbing to do so was still past vertical.  As I swore away the barfies at the top, water dribbled from the velcro cuffs of my current hand-wear. I found myself making notes again: “Remember, gloves with gauntlets next time.”

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

Lap 2 on Pillar of Pain the next day

By the end of it all we were wet, cold, miserable and exhausted. We would be the same way at the end of the day tomorrow. Ice climbing is just freaky like that, and if you aren’t too, you probably won’t keep doing it. I will. I found myself making more notes on the trudge back down: “Remember, it was worth it…”

The upper valley

The upper valley

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It’s an Ice Fest Every Time

Sheep on Deer Creek

Sheep on Deer Creek

Rich made that comment while we discussed the merits of driving to downtown Cody to visit the Southfork Ice Fest. It would have been nice to see Aaron’s slide show, but we were kind of tired.

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch's Brew

My kingdom for a Bosch! Mixed potential left of Bitch’s Brew

Regarding the source of our amotivational state, Rich summarized as only he can, “Someday we’re going to bite off more than we can chew.”

Pitch 2, Bitch's Brew

Pitch 2, Bitch’s Brew

We always seem to end up in Cody on the Ice Fest weekend, but we never make it to the event itself. I think our efforts to dodge the “crowds” (this is the one weekend where you can expect to see other people during your day out on a route) sabotage us. We end up going to things like Illogicicle that are harder to access and farther back.

Steep ice on Who's Your Daddy

Steep ice on Who’s Your Daddy

This time it was Bitch’s Brew and Who’s Your Daddy. Bitch’s Brew is just across from Smooth Emerald Milkshake a couple of miles up, and I do mean up Deer Creek trail. The latter climb is a relatively popular moderate, so we figured some ambitious festivants would be breaking trail for us. We were wrong.

Fortunately, we only had a few pristine drifts to break through. The climb was worth it, as usual: one WI 4 , 65 meter pitch, followed by a pitch of wind-sculpted WI 5+, a short pitch of WI 5, and some grade 3 possibilities above. Did I mention it is in the nice warm sun all day?


Who’s Your Daddy is the alternative to the first pitch of Ovisight. The approach was mercifully in good shape. The Legg Creek pitch was too. Where the whole drainage pours through a 2 foot wide slot, there was a solid, 6 inch wide strip of through the last 20 feet of climbing (it even allowed a good stubby ice screw). The trip up the last, left side-drainage was a slog.

3rd pitch

3rd pitch

The two, steep steps to solo combined with the thigh-deep snow burned up a good chunk of daylight. The three upper pitches delivered however, especially the third, which had an overhanging section in the middle. Here’s to good dental health.

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The Dry Cat Food Paradox

So close, yet so far...the Tetons

So close, yet so far…the Tetons

I’ve recently had the privilege of attending a continuing education conference in Jackson, Wyoming. As a climber who thinks of himself as primarily an alpinist headed to the Tetons, I should have felt like the proverbial cat who ate the canary. Instead, I left my gear in the basement. It wouldn’t have fit in the car with all the ski equipment and clothes anyway (the whole family of four was signed up for the trip). It wouldn’t have done me any good even if it did fit. Four months out of the year, those mountains are shut down due to a horrendous snowpack. When conditions allow, the climbing is still high up and far back.

It turns out that it is almost as hard for a climber to subsist on Teton routes as it is for a cat to live on hunted birds. Signs of compensation for these difficulties were everywhere in Jackson. Right around the corner from the conference center, was a sign for the “Teton Ice Park”. When the first morning of lectures ended, I walked up to take a look. What I saw was the result of  a noble effort, but one obviously born of desperation. An enterprising guide service had run a few hoses over a 40 ft. retaining wall to produce about five, moderately-angled chunks of ice. The ice park rented gear, but I decided to utilize a different compensatory facility – the climbing gym just outside of town. It turned out to be quite nice.


Back in the conference center that evening, I was mulling over the dissonance of indoor climbing in the Tetons when the next set of lectures began. Maybe I should have been paying better attention to the speakers. However, it was a series about nutrition, and though the subject is interesting, the hard science behind it could be covered in about fifteen minutes rather than the three hours allotted  As I considered my Teton climbing experience, I kept coming back to the viewpoint which kept me in the Black Hills for all these years: alpine climbing is more about training than actually climbing. Adaptation to harder routes in the mountains paradoxically required less time climbing mountains. Living in a place like Jackson resulted in strong legs and weak skills. Unless a climber availed himself of  an artificial training facility, the volume of technical climbing needed to improve was just not accessible, at least to anyone with a job. My mind wandered back to the lecturer. He was talking about the Paleo Diet and I found it strangely relevant to the contradictions involved in trying to be a good alpine climber.

Guide service storefront.

Guide service storefront.

This diet is supposed represent our nutritional heritage. It encompasses the type and mix of foodstuffs our hunter-gatherer ancestors adapted to eat. Therefore, runs the logic of the diet’s proponents, it is the mix of foods that we ought to eat to  maximize our health and longevity. On the menu is lots of meat and a few plants. Grains and legumes are out. We should eat more like cats than cows, the speaker admonished. To back up his assertion, he flashed a slide on the screen with a picture of a cat at the top and a chart favorably comparing the body compositions of hunter-gatherers with those of cats.

The picture looked a little like my cat, but my cat thrives on dry cat food. I say “thrives”, because I have a dietary comparison-state for her. She was a stray who showed up in our garage when the weather got cold. Before coming to live in our house, she had, in fact, been subsisting on the cat version of the Paleo Diet – fresh, free-range mouse and bird meat. She wasn’t doing so well. She was thin and listless. After a few weeks living inside and dining on kibbles, however, she was tearing around the house like a maniac, destroying rolls of toilet paper and climbing the curtains.

Here are the first four ingredients listed on her cat food label: chicken by-product meal, corn grits, chicken fat, tuna, brewer’s rice. One would expect a wild cat to catch birds, but I doubt one ever took down a tuna, much less an ear of corn or rice. Still, a cat’s ability to live a long and active life eating nothing but rock-hard brown morsels shouldn’t surprise us. Evolution makes the most  of things, not necessarily the best of things. Wild cats developed the capacity to survive on mice and birds. Cats are therefore well suited to that diet. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a diet better suited to cats. Perhaps humans are much the same.

A subsequent  slide showed a Kung! tribesman butchering an antelope with a stone tool, and then a chart with cholesterol levels and heart disease rates demonstrating the sterling health of various modern hunter-gatherers. Unfortunately, the health data for the Tarahumara, a group of indigenous people living in Mexico and renowned for their feats of long-distance running, look just as good. The Tarahumara subsist primarily on corn, beans, chiles, and beer.The answer to this dietary conundrum is not found in the diet, but what comes with the diet. Both the Kung! and the Tarahumara are incredibly active, and they do not suffer from surplus. The Paleo diet is not the answer to our health problems. No such simple answer exists.

Of course, there are limits imposed by natural adaptation and on artificial adaptation. Artificial answers are also incomplete. To be a good alpinist, one must climb a certain number of big routes in the mountains. But plate after plate of summits will limit a climber’s potential in the end. Though it isn’t complete in itself, some artifice is required as well. Likewise, when my cat came to live in the house, she didn’t just get dry food, she got a warm, stress-free place to sleep, immunizations, and anti-parasitic medicine. I’m sure she would not be so healthy if we limited our involvement with her to setting out a plate of kibbles on the driveway.

Of the billions of humans alive now, most are suffering from the short-comings of an agricultural, and subsequently an industrial, society and a few are suffering from its excesses. As the most realize the economic, social and technological benefits which drove the move to agriculture in the first place, they no longer get the grace period which the few enjoyed. The harms of excess come right along with the initial development. We can’t simply go back, though. Solutions will require some artifice, and may have an unsatisfying appearance – less like grass-fed beef  and more like a bowl of dry cat food or an indoor climbing gym in the Tetons.

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A Moister Brownie…

4th pitch of Mean Green

4th pitch of Mean Green

…is not necessarily a better brownie, especially when it comes to dirty ice.


The Southfork is not is stellar shape this year. Climbs like Moratorium haven’t seen enough water to form up properly, while South-facing routes like Ovisight haven’t seen enough cold.


Mr. Mulkey has pulled off ascents of Pillars of the Community and the mixed start to Joy After Pain (the latter with help from a friend, see video and photos at coldfear.com) but even those climbs are beginning to sublimate away.


We squeaked by the third pitch of Broken Hearts.


On the return trip, it was gone.

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

6th pitch of Broken Hearts

Carotid Artery wasn’t even close enough for me to agonize over.


Mean Green looked to be missing the fourth pitch, but it turned out that the ice was just so full of dirt, you could barely distinguish it from the rock.

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

The Valley from the top of pitch 5, Mean Green

It feels like the season has never gotten started this year; thoughts of Canada are already popping into my head unbidden.

Ten Sleep

Ten Sleep

We’ll give it a couple of more weeks.

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Oh Suzanna

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

Elusive ice in Ten Sleep

The pick made a distinctive ‘plink’ as it bounced off the rock. The sound always sends a shock down my spine, but I can’t tell if it’s the nature of the noise itself or purely the implications. I tapped a little higher and the tool set with a hollow sound no less disappointing than the ‘plink’. The resonance came from a layer of air separating the ice from the cliff face. I spared a glance down.

By the road in the shadow of the canyon floor, I could just make out a tiny brown stain by the car where the dregs of my coffee had flash-frozen when I poured them out an hour ago. The shadow ended in a sharp line half-way up the steep drainage and the upper portion took full morning sun.  Twenty feet below me, my last ice screw basked in the direct radiation. I drove another short screw into the ice. It gnawed through with dismissive ease.

The ice may have been just four to six inches thick, but it was not vertical and was well supported by a thicker lip of ice at the bottom. So, even though it was not continuously attached to the rock, it wasn’t likely to break off in a sheet unless I got very clumsy. The consistency was perfect, too. Though too soft to hold an ice screw well, it allowed the points of the tools and crampons to bite and set. ‘Hero ice’ was the name for it. The whole trip had been black and white like that.


Every time we drive through Ten Sleep Canyon we look up into the second drainage East of the fish hatchery, hoping to see ice. Usually, we only see a water streak. Sometimes we see a thin smear. Very rarely, we see a fully formed climb. When the ice is formed, we vow to climb it on the way back through, but it always disappears before we return. Nevertheless, when we saw substantial ice in the drainage on our way out this time, we took it as a good omen.

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the river

High on Boulder and Moonrise from the trail.

The sense of good fortune evaporated as we traveled from Cody to the Southfork the following morning. Just as we reached the gravel road, something went wrong in my stomach, and the organ decided to right things by turning itself inside out. We were reduced to a driving tour of the valley between puke stops. The conditions looked dry. Moratorium was thin. Mean Green had a translucent 4th pitch. Ovisight lacked a first pitch. Broken Hearts looked pretty good, though.

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

High on Boulder and Moonrise (right-hand climb)

Rich had to make a day of downtown Cody once we got back, but my problems subsided over that time and once again we felt fortunate. By the following morning, I was ready to try again. We headed for the lower pitches of High on Boulder, plus Moonrise.


I hate Moonrise. Rich says I have a psychological problem with the climb. I may, but it often forms up with a series of short roofs, and as everyone knows, roofs are for short people – short roofs the more so.

Another view of Moonrise

Another view of Moonrise

I climbed poorly on Moonrise. After such a depressing reversal, I was sure that the column in Ten Sleep had fallen. Yet as we passed the fish hatchery, there it was intact. We pulled a quick, dangerous U-turn on the shoulderless highway and parked in the last pull-out. The approach was longer and steeper than expected. The climb looked less steep than expected, maybe a WI 4(-) but with the thin ice, imaginary protection and bent pick, it remained interesting. As we rappelled from a bundle of icicles at the top, an old song kept running through my head, “…sun’s so hot I froze to death, oh don’t you cry for me… ‘least I don’t live in Alabama, so don’t you cry for me…” Or something like that.

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A Few Photos

Days are getting short. The Weird Season is about to begin. It’s time to cram as much Tower climbing as possible into early Autumn’s ideal weather window.

The sloping horror, Tulgey Wood.

Deli Express, much tastier than the hermetically sealed, gas station sandwiches.

September light on the NW shoulder.


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I Don’t Get a Scooby Snack (But Then Again, Who Does?)

Being an all-around climber is like being a pig: it’s a dirty life spent wallowing in mediocrity, which garners no respect and may end early by trauma. While the rock purists are hiding from the snow in the desert, we swine are mutilating frozen waterfalls and scraping our way up icy rock with tools and crampons. When the last pillar of ice collapses in the spring and the wet snow avalanches start to slide, we must set down our tools, pick up our sticky slippers, and relearn the more delicate art of rock climbing.

Climber on El Matador

It’s a frustrating experience, but a person gets used to it. Progress is starting at a higher level and getting back to ‘go’ quicker each year. For me, that means starting on the 11’s at the Tower earlier and earlier. This year, I arrived back at my previous high point in July, and my first 11 lead of the season was Way Laid, the thin corner just left of McCarthy West Face.

Looking up Way Laid

We belayed high on a ledge where the two climbs diverge. You get to ease into the difficulties on this climb, as the corner it follows turns gradually toward vertical. Building confidence on the lower section, I made my way up the thin crack to a horizontal break where the corner gets steeper. Even as the terrain got harder, the moves felt good enough that I could enjoy the route’s puzzles rather than simply having to worry about sticking to the rock. Soon I stood below the first of two small roofs and the technical crux of the route.

Rich approaching the crux

Wedging my left foot in the corner, I stepped up into a under-cling and then latched onto a solid finger lock with my left hand. Another flared finger lock let me move my left foot up to a sloping foot hold above the roof. With my palm out on the right wall to provide counter-pressure, I moved my right foot up to a tiny edge and stood up. It all held. In fact, it felt good. As I locked my fingers into the next solid hold, I was probably feeling a little too good. The next roof went well, as did the mantel onto a narrow ledge below the final difficulties.

From the ledge, the top of the column where the route ends is very close. If you had the guts to pull up some slack and jump, you just might be able to snag the edge. When considering this plan, two things give one pause. First, to make the distance, you really ought to be able to touch the rim of a basketball goal from a standing start. The second concern is the gear. There is a bomb-proof gear placement just below the little mantel ledge.  Above the ledge though, the crack pinches down and the only protection is a nest of micro-stoppers. Overall, the situation seems to call for a less parsimonious, more controlled solution.

The three stoppers protecting the last moves

To that end, I placed my right foot on a diagonal hold out on the face and grabbed a disappointing side-pull with my right hand. A tenuous crank on the side-pull let me paste my left foot higher on the blank wall above the mantel ledge, then move my left hand up to a better side-pull above my right hand. Here’s where the unreasonable optimism from my performance at the crux came into play, along with a little pigeon shit.

View past the line of roofs on the West face

As I reached for the next hand hold, a ‘thank god’ sort of edge, I noticed a blob of guano right where I wanted my fingers to go. It looked dry, but as I prepared to sweep it away I noticed a very slight squishiness. Instead of smearing the whole hold, I left the turd lie and laid a finger on either side of it. Now my situation had changed and it demanded a reassessment and probably a little stabilization before I continued. And I would have done just that, if I hadn’t been feeling so damned good about things.

Instead, I proceeded with plan A. Moving my left hand up to an edge that would prove a very good hold once I swung my feet around, I cut loose my left foot and tried to swing my right over to a hold on the edge of the column. With no potential to generate lateral force on the crappy hold, I couldn’t make it happen. With the holds now well below and to the wrong side of me, my feet blew off entirely and started to make the sound that a startled Hanna-Barbera character’s do as they scrabbled for friction on the wall.

Finally, I let my legs hang and resorted to the ‘skills’ gained from all those hours of training in the basement. I skipped my left hand up to a slightly better hold, then my right, just like working the campus board. At last, I flopped onto the apex of the column. It wasn’t the graceful finish I wanted, but it was controlled. I guess I ought to just be happy with not having tested out those micro-stoppers.

Climbers atop the first pitch of El Matador

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The Three Most Commonly Heard Lies…

…in Wyoming: “Yes neighbor, my pick-up truck is paid-for.”, “Yes darlin’, I won my belt-buckle in the rodeo.”, “Yes sir officer, I was just trying to help that ewe back over the fence.”.

Like any terra incognita, Wyoming has accumulated quite a bit of mythology. Mythology should be debunked, but it is notoriously resistant to fact. So even though Wyoming is not just rednecks and national parks, I know that I can’t prove that with data. Gestalt is the remedy. Here is the feel of the place – the good and the bad.

The Good

  • The Weather: Much of the state is arid or semi-arid and above four thousand feet. The sun shines a lot. In the Summer, even if the day is hot, the night will be cool. Because the humidity is very low, sweating works. By the same token, low Winter temperatures often prove much more tolerable than the thermometer alone might imply, due to the sun’s warmth and the dry air.
  • sandstone


  • Geology: Uplift, sedimentation, erosion, volcanism – Wyoming has it all. Many states have mountains, but none have the sheer profusion of geological features and types of rock found in Wyoming.





  • Self-sufficiency: A state economy based on mineral extraction and agriculture, sparse population and dearth of urban amenities have bred a powerful streak of self-sufficiency into the inhabitants of Wyoming. This quality leads to a breadth of experience in the populace, with an attendant measure of curiosity. Self-sufficiency also makes for humility and an appreciation for the knowledge of others. Nothing shows a person their limits and cultivates a taste for learned advice more than mandatory DIY. Being far from help makes one value help and be willing to lend it too. It’s rare to see a single car with its hazards on by the roadside in Wyoming.




  • Critters: Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Moose, Elk, Wolves, Mountain Lions, Bison, Antelope – you get to see them all, up close and personal.


The Bad





  • The Weather: Sometimes the place catches fire. Wind is considered a natural resource. Remember the line from the song Oh Suzanna, “…the sun’s so hot I froze to death…” ? Wyoming is  the place that makes sense of that line. The snow forms ten foot drifts as hard as concrete and the snowpack is often a thin crust over bottomless depth hoar. There are frequent ‘ground blizzards’, with blue sky above but impenetrable white in every other direction.






  • Geology: Unfortunately, geology translates to geography. Monumental forces make for monumental obstacles – expansive basins and high, jagged mountain ranges. A short drive is anything less than 400 miles. A short walk is anything less than 6 miles.





  • Self-sufficiency: The habits of self-sufficiency lead to a surfeit of caution and a preference for ‘good enough’. Enterprises are frequently one-of affairs. The atmosphere is friendly for extractive industries and Republican politicians, as it is in third world countries everywhere. Witness the number of ghost towns in the state.
  • Critters: Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Moose, Elk, Wolves, Mountain Lions, Bison, Antelope – you get to see them all, up close and personal. Don’t feed the dog outside. Keep the collision insurance on your car. Buy an orange hat and a can of bear spray.

There it is.


Tower Blowout

I should have known better. The term “blowout” is never associated with a good aftermath. At best it entails something nasty issuing from an orifice of some sort. I prefer the Tour de Tower, which is a trip around the monolith, hitting as many routes as possible along the way. Some of those routes may be Killer b’s (the 10.b grade at the Tower is a universal sandbag), but not a bunch of 11’s. For me, those are still part of a three route regimen: one warm up, one desperate struggle, and one warm down to wash away the cotton-mouth.

When Mr. Swift suggested the blowout before the voluntary June climbing closure, I figured it would be OK. He’d lead all the hard pitches. Nobody can string together those steep, crimpy slabs and fingertip cracks all the way around the Tower without getting tired. I’d lead the approach pitches and then, when he folded, I’d take over and ease things back into the classic tour.

He didn’t fold, he escalated. Before it was over, I found myself on routes I wasn’t sure I could even follow. I managed, but only just. When it came time for the warm-down, it was I who was forced to quote the great Roberto Duran. No mas.

At least all that time on the dull end allowed me to get some amusing photos.

Anonymous climber on Everlasting, aptly named since you’re sorry you got on it by the second clip and then it just won’t end.

Making his “O-shit” face.

It is important to chalk up here to take your mind off the crappy footholds. 

Busy day on the NE shoulder.

Baby bird doing what good babies do best.


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