Matt and Joanne’s Page

September 16, 2009

The Nose (El Capitan)

Filed under: Climbing — Tags: , , , , — Matt Stamplis @ 6:42 pm

El Capitan….what a great name for a wall – just mention the name to a climber and an image of sheer granite walls is sure to form in their head. Rising a dramatic 3000 feet from Yosemite Valley, it is one of the tallest cliffs in the United States (perhaps the tallest? A google search didn’t turn up anything taller!). And if that wasn’t enough, you can park your car and walk 15 minutes to reach the base of it. In terms of accessibility for such a big wall, it is unmatched anywhere in the world. Which explains why every Spring and Fall (and summer/winter for those who have a screw or two loose) climbers from all over the world migrate here to climb on the sun-soaked granite.

After a few years of climbing with trips all over the Western U.S. we began to tire of answering “No” to the question “Have you climbed in Yosemite? You know…that big ditch in California”. We figured it was about time to go see what all the fuss was about. And what better way than to jump right in and climb one of the longest and most classic routes in the Valley, The Nose. Neither of us had ever been to Yosemite, let alone climb there, but we figured we’d just throw ourselves at it. Looking over the guidebook, the climb doesn’t sound particularly difficult. Yes, it’s LONG but many of the pitches can be free climbed at 5.10 or easier. We figured we’d BLAST right up it in 2 days or so. Well, turns out that the guy who told us the route was the most sandbagged route in the world might have been right…

El Capitan, from the meadows below. The meadows make an awesome place to just lie down in the shade and watch climbers slowly inch their way up the wall. The Nose tackles discontinuous crack systems in a meandering line directly up the tallest part of the wall. The route more or less follows the line in green. The blue arrows show all the pendulums on the route (there’s lots of them). Some of the belay positions and notable features have been drawn/numbered in.

We arrived in Yosemite Saturday, September 5th. My dad had flown in from Michigan to watch us climb so we met him and took a brief tour of the valley. We had heard of people waiting in line to climb the The Nose so went in the afternoon to check out the base of the route and see how crowded it was (it was Labor Day weekend, to boot). We arrived and saw a party starting up the first pitch and another party just arriving on Sickle Ledge (pitch 4). Not a great sign but we were both excited enough that no line was going to stop us. We’d worry about parties in front of us only when it became a problem. That first afternoon, we took an hour or so to drag the 80-pound haulbag up to the start of the route. This would put us in position to get an early start in the morning.

Sunday morning. Alarm goes off around 4AM – time to get moving. Breakfast is cereal for me, ramen noodles for Joanne [her last real food as she merely put in 500 calories each day on the wall]. We’ve slept in a lousy motel outside of the park and have to drive an hour or so to get to the valley. By the time the sun is rising, we’ve reached our haulbag and have set off on the first pitch of the climb. The other parties who were climbing yesterday are no where in sight – hooray!

We’ve decided that I would lead the first 4 pitches as they consist of somewhat tricky aid/free climbing and it might be faster if I try to free them. They’re harder than I expect (or maybe I just don’t bother trying) so I just pull on gear most of the time. Near the top of the first pitch a nut pops out of a flared placement and sends me for a 15-foot fall. Wheee! I climb back up to my last piece, put in a better nut and pull through to the belay. Alright – 1 pitch down, 30 more to go!

Matt working away on pitch 2. We quickly got a feel for the rock on these pitches – many of the placements are old piton-scars. The placements were not as bad as I had heard though I consider offset brass nuts an absolute necessity here. (Thanks to Stoneworks Matt for letting us borrow his – by the way, Stoneworks is the best climbing gym ever!).

Pitch 4 : This pitch leads up to a fixed piece that you clip then tension over to another crack. Then there’s one more tension to reach Sickle Ledge. I found this a bit devious – on my first try, I pendulumed too early and couldn’t reach the next fixed piece and was looking at a dangerous fall back into the corner. I went back and climbed a little higher and things went smoother.

We passed a haul bag at the top of pitch 3 and then another one on Sickle Ledge (the top of pitch 4). I’m not exactly sure what those other parties were doing but it didn’t matter anymore – we had passed them! Neither team did much climbing that day and we never saw them again. Climbing is always much more enjoyable when you can focus on the route and not people above or below you.

The worst hauling on the route was encountered dragging the haulbag up to Sickle ledge. Even using a 3:1 pulley system I had to give it everything I got to move the bag a foot at a time. I was totally gassed by the time Joanne arrived on Sickle Ledge and I was happy to give her the next couple leads (and hauling).

Joanne linked the next two leads together – a 4th class pitch followed by a 5.9 corner. This leads you to the top of the Sickle. The Sickle is the sickle-shaped (duh!) feature in the middle here. This is an uncomfortable hanging belay. We’re in this picture but it’s really hard to see us unless you look closely.

From the top of the Sickle you have to lower out and pendulum over to reach a new crack system. Here’s Joanne reaching over to the next system. Apparently she was terrified because every time I would give her a little more slack she started screaming like she had just seen the face of the devil. My dad, down in the meadows, said he could hear her loud and clear. I think he was a little embarrassed for us!

The fantastic Stove Leg cracks. Named after the huge pitons (made from the legs of a stove) that were used on the first ascent here. Nowadays you just leap frog #3 camelots till you realize there’s nothing between you and a 100-foot fall but a single piece of gear (gulp!)

All in all, the first day turned out to be our hardest. I don’t think either of us had quite adjusted to living on the wall yet – you have to find time, while hanging/belaying/climbing, to eat and drink and perform other bodily functions. That first day, neither of us had anything to eat and only a very small amount of water. By evening, I was getting terrible cramps in my forearms/biceps which made climbing incredibly painful. All night my chest hurt and no matter how much water I drank, my throat was dry. We had packed around 5 gallons of water but it wasn’t clear if we would have enough to finish the climb. It was in the back of my head as we climbed but neither of us even mentioned the possibility of bailing – we were determined to head upward. We climbed a total of 10 pitches on day 1, ended up just 40ft short from Dolt tower. It is really too bad because we could have a more comfortable night. Instead, we slept on our poorly put together sloping portaledge.

Early the next day my nose started unexpectedly bleeding – now I was dehydrated and dripping blood all over my clothes and gear – great! But fortunately, our persistance was soon to pay off…or maybe we were just incredibly lucky…

From the top of Dolt Tower, you do (another) pendulum to the right to reach a 5.7 squeeze chimney. I back cleaned all of this lower section and climbed a long 5.9 fist crack to a belay a short ways below El Cap Tower. Joanne brought us up the rest of the way to the best ledge on the entire route.

Here’s where we got lucky as we found a stash of 2 gallons of water welcoming us to the inviting ledge of El Cap Tower (best bivuoac site on the route, by far) Instantly, I knew we would be OK in terms of water supply so I stopped and drank half a gallon on the spot. Plastic-flavored Water never tasted so good! We even stopped to eat a little food and let Hans Florine and his partner pass us. They were doing a one-day ascent – we watched them do the King Swing and before we knew it they were out of sight and gone. They were the only climbers we talked to on the entire route – there was no one else between us and the summit!

Looking down the Texas Flake (pitch 15). Supposedly it looks like the state of Texas…some people have an imagination, I guess. This pitch is the hardest on the route that you HAVE to free – it is a runout 5.8 chimney. There’s one bolt partway up the chimney but a fall from the top would be devastating. Fortunately, the chimney is reasonably secure so you probably won’t fall!

Up to this point most of the climbing was a mix of free climbing and french free-ing. We had only used the etriers on a few pitches. Also, I had done the majority of the leads – but from here, we switched gears to mostly aid climbing and Joanne took over most of the leads. We figure she weighs less than me so she’s less likely to pull out marginal pieces!

After the Texas flake, a short bolt ladder leads to a very thin crack which has some of the first difficult aid climbing on it. A few pieces later, though, you’ll reach the gravy goodness of the Boot Flake. The Boot Flake itself is a slightly disturbing feature, a gigantic boot-shaped flake, just barely attached to the wall. When this thing decides to fall, I sure hope there’s no climbers on it!

You can see the Boot Flake and Texas Flake from here. It’s not at all clear how the Boot Flake is still on the wall – it’s kind of attached on the bottom but all my intuition about physics and gravity tell me this thing should have fallen a long time ago.

Joanne starting up the bolt ladder from the top of the Texas Flake (Pitch 16)

From the top of the Boot Flake is the start of one of the most unlikely climbing maneuvers you’ll ever do – The King Swing. Joanne lowered me down past the bottom of the boot, almost all the way back to the Texas Flake. From here you start running back and forth along the wall to reach a handhold WAAAAAY to the left. I had images of my rope getting sawed in half in my mind – I tried to push those away and concentrate on running back and forth on the wall. It took me a few tries (I had to lower down farther than I thought) but finally, I was able to reach out and grab the jug and pull myself around the corner – woo-hoo! I’m hoping to get some pictures of me doing the swing later – have to get the pictures from my Dad.

We goofed up slightly with Joanne following. We didn’t realize how long the swing was so when she lowered herself out she ran out of rope and had to take a bit of an uncontrolled swing to get on the route. Last year a guy did something similar and got badly injured – fortunately our rope was a lot longer than his so Joanne’s swing was pretty mellow!

We reached Camp IV (at the end of pitch 20) just as it was getting dark on our second day – this would end up being our most comfortable bivuoac site, by far. The ledge wasn’t flat so it wasn’t perfect but at least there was plenty of room to spread out. The only nuisance was a large number of big ants living on the ledge, probably living off climber garbage. Everytime I moved at night I looked under my sleeping bag and there were dozens of ants crawling under it. Fortunately, they only seemed interested in crawling under me and not biting me! Joanne slept on the portaledge and had no problems with ants.

Our ledge is crap. Or at least we can’t figure out how to get it even. I told Joanne to just sleep on it alone – it’s way scarier with both of us on it.

Joanne jugging up the first pitch of day 3. The exposure is starting to creep up on us….

The Great Roof! One of the most famous pitches on the Nose, and for good reason. It’s such a cool feature in an exposed location – with mostly easy aid climbing.

Under the roof, the pitch sports entirely fixed gear which makes for quick aiding. I took a picture of Joanne leading and before I realized it she was at the belay! Free climbing this is crazy – super thin undercling crack with imaginary footholds.

The Pancake Flake. Just after the Great Roof is this super fun pitch. This starts with incredibly fun and easy free climbing until you reach a ledge. From here, the pitch gets thin and I aided up this section. Offset nuts proved invaluable here (and everywhere on the route, in fact).

Here’s where I hurt myself. I took a fall onto the ledge at the bottom of the picture and hit my right heel pretty hard. This picture was taken after the fall – I got right up and finished the lead but by the time I reached the belay I knew my foot was not in great shape. I think I only did two more leads out of the last seven pitches – Joanne was on a roll and climbed all the hard aid pitches! (with no falls, I might add!)

Pitch 27 – The Changing Corners Pitch. You climb up a nice crack, reach over to a bolt, swing over a sharp arete (don’t think about it cutting your rope) and into this ridiculously thin crack for about 30 feet of tenuous nut placements (C2). Joanne said she was mortified when she saw how long the pin scar pitch is and thought this was by far the hardest aid climbing on the route and I believe her, as just the motion of me jumaring knocked out more than half of her placements. I’d recommend not falling on this pitch!

Also, when we reached the top of the Changing Corners, the exposure really kicks in. You’re hanging on a vertical to slightly over-hanging wall with nothing but air for thousands of feet below you. I remember thinking…wow, how did we get so high?

We had hoped we might finish the route in three days but as the sun disappeared it became painfully obvious we would have to settle for a 3rd night on the rock. We have read before that day 3 is the toughest due to the difficulties of each pitches after the roof and we sort of verified it. We only climbed 8 pitches on day 3 leaving us with 3 pitches for day 4. The final night would prove to be the most uncomfortable. As usual, the portaledge was a total pain in the butt and we couldn’t get it even remotely usable. Finally, desperation set in as it got darker – Joanne wasn’t happy about hanging in her harness all night so we gave it one more shot. The pieces clicked together and was stable enough for us to sit on. It sucked and I was afraid it would break all night but it was way better than hanging.

This was our final bivouac – a tiny ledge that one person could stand on. Clearly not enough room to sleep on so we had to use the portaledge.

Just a few more pitches to go – this is how I look when I’m pretty tired. Bloody knuckles…blood all over my shirt. Even with that I would usually be smiling but my lips were way too chapped to do anything but give this expression.

Looking down on the route from the very top…best view on the route? It’s really weird looking down on the climbers who are just starting the climb, several days away from your location. And the way the wall sweeps up from the base gives you a feeling that you are just hanging way over them. Try not to drop anything from up here!

Just a few more pieces to clean (fittingly, on a traverse). The final bolt ladder is incredibly steep with a few missing hanger bolts – it makes it difficult to aid or follow. We had a few rivet hangers but Joanne didn’t have it with her and ended up using nut as substitute. We paused a moment here to enjoy our accomplishment, then busted out the final few moves to the summit!

Glad to be on the summit! Joanne looks way better than I did…

Awesome views of Half Dome from the summit. We opted for the East Ledges descent – supposedly this takes 2 hours but with my bum leg, some route-finding issues, and no water it ended up being a mini-epic 5 hour descent. Still better than the 8 or 9 mile trail down!

Excited to be back at the car, gorging ourselves on fresh watermelon!

Last thoughts: Each pitch individually is not particularly hard, but stacked on top of each other, The Nose is a very physically demanding route. If you’re thinking of climbing it, the best training you can do is just get in the best physical shape of your life and be ready to take some abuse. Practice following pendulums and traverses as there are a LOT of them. All in all, the climbing and position is incredible – I wouldn’t argue too strongly against someone claiming this to be the “Greatest Rock Climb in the World”!

Also, we were totally hammered by the climb. Originally I thought we would take 1 day of rest and then climb some more. But even after 4 days of rest, we were still recovering. What a calorie burner!

Gear notes: 2 sets of nuts including some micro nuts (brass offsets are absolutely essential!), 2 sets of cams from the tiniest TCUs to #3 camelots. Triples from 0.5″-2″. We got away with just a single #4 camelot though having a second one is pretty useful on the pitch leading up to Dolt Tower. A (functional) portaledge is nice, as most of the ledges are not that comfortable. Finally, if it’s reasonably warm out (it was 80-85 and sunny for us) you really need 1 gallon of water per person per day. We easily finished 7 gallons in our 3.5 days.

August 10, 2009

Washington Pass, Liberty Crack

Filed under: Climbing — joannestamplis @ 8:35 pm

We managed to get out of the Portland area for the first time in a couple months and planned to steal away for a few days into the North Cascades. Leaving Portland around 7PM on Friday we drove North through Seattle then East through Darrington and Marblemount, stopping only once for gas, until we tiredly arrived at the Blue Lake Trailhead at 1:15AM. We reclined the car seats and shut our eyes for a few hours, rudely awakened at 5:20AM by our cell phone’s alarm clock.

Our objective was to climb Liberty Crack on Liberty Bell Mountain – we fought the urge to go back to sleep and started moving around. I wolfed down a hunk of french bread and brie cheese, made some final gear organizations, then drove down the road a mile to the side of the highway where the hike in begins. From the pond next to the highway, we picked up the trail and continued steeply up into the forest. Though steep, the trail is mercifully short and probably didn’t take more than an hour or so to get up to the base of the climb. Unfortunately, we had been beaten to the start of the route by a team of two who looked to just be starting up – D’oh!

We watched the party above us solo up to the base of first pitch. We decided to rope up and it was a very good idea as there was definitely at least 1 5th class move there. Joanne led up and hang out at the base of first pitch for quite some time before the first party got off the pitch.

Emerging from the trees on the hike in, you’re rewarded with a great view of the East Face of Liberty Bell Mountain. Liberty Crack shoots straight up, somewhere around the left skyline.

Talus-hopping along the base of route. By this point we realized we’d been beaten to the start of the route!

With somewhere around 1000 feet of technical climbing, including several sections of aid, we were unsure if we’d be able to finish in a day. So we packed fairly heavily, with a couple jackets, one sleeping bag, and one bivy sack. Basically enough to ensure that an unexpected night on the mountain wouldn’t be cozy, but at least not completely miserable. Of course, climbing technical terrain with that extra weight is a bit of a pain in the bit, which became pretty obvious on the first pitch. I had planned to free climb this but with a pack on, it quickly became obvious that this wasn’t happening so I just pulled on anything to get up it.

Matt hauls himself (and his bag up the first pitch, 5.10+?)

Joanne joined me and she got to lead the next pitch, which is likely the most memorable part of the climb, the Lithuanian Lip. I’m 1/4 Lithuanian so maybe I was born to climb this…but it was Joanne’s turn to lead. With fixed gear all the way to the lip, the aid climbing here is really straight-forward and she shot right up it. The trickiest part looks to be placing a piece above the roof and then awkwardly backstepping in the twisting etriers to pull yourself up over the lip.

Joanne working up and over the lip. This is a pretty unique pitch as you’re just dangling under the roof. Also fun to clean this pitch!

The third pitch is supposedly the “crux” of the aid climbing (A2) but once again, with all fixed gear on the thin sections, this pitch is pretty easy. It’s worth noting that the fixed gear here is in pretty sorry shape, an assortment of bashies with mangled wire cables that look ready to fail at any time. I think if I did it again, I’d let Joanne lead this one (she weighs less than me!).

The 3rd pitch. Looked real thin and probably really scary to try to free, on the existing fixed gear.

Most of the fixed pieces here had frayed cables and just looked like they were about to pop and send you for a ride. Fortunately, they all decided to stay in place that day…

At this point, the guys in front of us pointed out that we were moving faster than them and graciously let us pass at the end of pitch 4. It was nice to be in front (as another party had come up behind us) so we switched on the turbo jets, climbing and swinging lead like maniac! We never saw any of the parties below us again.

From the end of pitch 3 you can put away the etriers and turn into free climbing mode. The climbing stays steep and interesting, with all pitches clocking in at 5.8 or harder (until the last pitch or two). In particular, we liked pitches 4, 5, and 7. Pitch 4 is a cool splitter crack that goes free at around 5.9+. Pitch 5 is a fantastic sustained 5.8+ dihedral. And pitch 7 throws some interesting slab moves at you. For a long alpine route, there were very few bad pitches (though the “Rotten Block” on pitch 6 is definitely scary – what is holding that thing onto the mountain!?!?).

Somewhere around pitch 9 – 5.9 climbing is much more interesting with a large pack…

By the time we reached the rappel station, there were already lines formed from the Becky Route so since we have to wait anyway, we decided to unroped and solo onto the summit. The final summit pitch is easy with a crux friction slab section which is a little tricky to down climb. Less confident climber should definitely get belayed for this section.

All in all, not counting the time we were waiting behind the other team, we climbed the route, base to summit, in 7-8 hours, which was waaaay faster than we expected. For teams that are competent on 5.10 terrain with some aid climbing experience, we’d make the following recommendations: fire the climb in a day (don’t bother fixing the aid pitches), get an early start to get in front of other parties, and bring a relatively light rack (1 set of stoppers w/ micronuts, 1 set of cams from the smallest TCUs to a #3 or #4 camelot, doubles in the 0.75, 1, and 2 sizes). Also consider linking the two pitches above the Lithuanian Lip (the A2 pitch and the 5.9+ splitter).

The obligatory summit shot with fantastic views of the surrounding spires and more distant peaks.

Looking back at the descent gully and Liberty Bell from a different angle. The gully was fairly ugly to descend, though not as bad as the horror stories I had heard.

August 5, 2009

Having fun staying local

Filed under: Climbing — joannestamplis @ 9:12 pm

We haven’t been making any long road trips, staying local most weekend. Last weekend, we were checking out the local crags near Mt Hood. Here are a few pics from our trip, I’ll try to add more when I get more time.

Hiking around Ramona Falls

Matt having fun climbing finger crack

We had the whole Bulo Point crag to ourselves

April 29, 2009

Old news = new news

Filed under: Climbing — joannestamplis @ 8:04 pm

We have been really lazy in posting updates on this blog. It’s not like we haven’t been doing anything, it’s just that we are so lazy. Anyway, here are some old news, things that happened since the last post.

First thing first, my mum finally went home. She spent almost 6 months in US with us. I’ve gotten so used to her being around, making me breakfast, lunch, dinner and keeping things tidy. It’s going to take a while to adjust being just 2 of us again. She made it home to Malaysia safely even though sounded like it was a big adventure because she never travel alone before.

Zach visited us a few weeks before and we took both him and my mum to Leavenworth, Washington.

Here is Zach climbing in bare feet.

And since we were in a Bavarian town, we got to have some pig feet.

And Yogi of course get a taste of it too.

Here is Matt climbing some crazy slab route.

Ahhh…aren’t they cute…

Last weekend we went to Index. We heard so much good thing about it so we figure we might as well check it out before the close the access to the Lower Town wall. The routes are all great and fun. Camping is pretty horrible because we literally sleep next to the train track and the train goes by at least 8 times the whole night. Thanks to Eric, we have a few good pics of Toxic Shock. We mostly we just climb and not take any pics at all.

This is me braving through the crux, resisting the urge to pull on my purple camelot. I was so glad when I got to the thank god hold.

This is me top-roping after I bailed before the cross-over to the splitter, my mental crux. The move is pretty easy on top-rope but the fall factor is too great for me to risk.

November 24, 2008

Bukit Takun

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 11:28 am

OK, I can’t resist: One last post from our stay in Malaysia! The day before our flight back home we decided to go “check out” this climbing area near Kuala Lumpur, called Bukit Takun. It has some of the only trad routes near the city and we were looking to climb something (after our failures on Kinabalu and Tioman!). So we met up with a local climber (Zee) who had been there once before and got a ride with him to go see.

Bukit Takun! A pretty impressive looking wall. There are numerous short routes along its base but the only route that tops out goes up the bushy looking face on the right. The imposing center of the wall is unclimbed!

The approach is not bad but requires some diplomacy and possibly some animal handling: the wall is in the middle of a gated community and golf course. Fortunately, the guard was willing to let us through. The approach trail picks up at the end of the road, right in front of this huge house. So we parked down the road to be a bit discreet and then walked by the house. Of course, they have 3 dogs that start barking like mad (there goes our discreetness); fortunately, the biggest dog was behind a gate. But the other two were getting a little close for comfort so we kept moving and entered the jungle.

Immediately we were swarmed by hordes of mosquitoes! The approach to the wall took, at most, 10 minutes but in this time we each donated a sizable portion of blood. The good news is the mosquitoes seem to bite you and then leave. After five minutes of hanging out at the base of the wall we were left to ourselves. But we lit a few mosquito coils to make sure!

Joanne and I didn’t really know what to expect from the climbing here. We figured we would climb a few pitches then head home. But Zee suggested trying the 9-pitch route that goes to the top. We figured sure, why not? I think we were half expecting to make it halfway then bail so we brought a little less than 1 liter of water for all 3 of us. Hot sun beating down on us in the tropics, 95% humidity: how much water could we really need?

Zee taking the lead on pitch 2. This was one of the best pitches on the route. There’s a great looking roof crack above his head that might make a fun variation. We ended up doing a traverse to the right.

Following the traverse on pitch 2. You can see the golf course in the background.

The first 4 pitches of the route are bolted on interesting rock. Bukit Takun is mostly limestone but it’s growing over a base of what might be granite. So the first pitch appeared to be granitic and the second was on incredibly shaped limestone: pretty weird! These pitches were well-protected and mostly fun. But at the halfway point up the wall, the bolts disappear and the route changes character dramatically. It becomes what I think could affectionately be called “jungle-neering”: an insane vertical bushwhack on roots that are loosely attached to flaky limestone. The climbing was never hard but it was always sketchy and I frequently found myself 20 feet above my last piece testing my holds and holding my breath as I cautiously moved upwards.

Jungle madness! I think you can spot Zee if you look closely. At least the mosquitoes didn’t follow us up the wall.

So maybe now it’s time to mention our water supply. By the end of pitch 3 or 4 we had finished our water; mercifully, the wall had moved into the shade but we were still thirsty. At one point I lead 4 pitches in a row but was starting to wear out so I gave the last lead to Joanne who took us over the last stretch of dagger rock to the summit ridge. But now we needed to get down!

Someone spray-painted arrows in places to mark the way down. But even with these markings, several times we found ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff and were forced to backtrack to find the correct way. We were slowly running out of daylight so there was a sense of urgency but it was still slow-going. Note to self: bring shoes for the walk off! Finally, we could see the remains of the old military camp that was here and found the short rappel down to the ground. Our tongues like sandpaper, we stumbled through the jungle until we came across a stream. Coming right out of the rock we figured it was about as clean as we would find and we all drank and drank. Maybe a little too much, too fast! I also picked a leech off me before he could sink his nasty little fangs into my ankle.

We made it down safely before dark and managed to navigate past the dogs again. After rehydrating we stopped at a restaurant and had some beer and noodles. 12 hours with no food and minimal water will certainly build a healthy appetite! All in all, everything turned out great (except the color of my urine that night, but that’s a different story…yuck!).

Bukit Takun certainly gave us some good adventure: we felt great to finally succeed on SOMETHING in Malaysia. But to any future climbers, and especially the local Malaysian climbing community, I would recommend finding alternate access to this crag. If it ever becomes more popular you can be certain that homeowners will shut down the current access road. Perhaps a longer trail could be established that comes in from a different side: it might make climbing here more painful but it would be better than having it closed for good. Or if there’s any incredibly rich climbers, buy the house at the end of the road!

November 19, 2008

Tioman Island

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 11:14 pm

After killing some time on Singapore (more on this later!) we took a trip to the tropical paradise of Tioman Island. We wanted to scope out the climbing on the island and take a stab at the imposing Dragon Horns. From the mainland we caught a ferry to the village of Genting. But we had to get to Mukut, on the south tip of the island, so we had to hire a boat (a bit costly – haggle!) to get there.

Mukut village, nestled between the ocean and the beautiful Nenek Sumukut (Dragon Horns).

We arrived towards the end of the “tourist season” so Mukut was devoid of tourists. In fact, the only other tourist was a Frenchman named Martin who had stayed in the village for 2 months: during this time, we were the only people who had stayed overnight! It seems to me that it might get lonely staying in a village where no one else speaks your language. Then again, Martin drank 20+ liters of wine in less than a month. So that’s one way to pass the time!

A closeup of the Dragon Horns. The left horn has been climbed only a few times. A local Malaysian is working on another route but for now, there’s only one established route, called Waking Dream. To get to the base requires a moderate 1 hour hike from the North End of the village. The trail is mostly obvious, and a guide is definitely not needed. You’ll know when you’re at the base of the route when you reach a nice little platform with a broken radio (dropped by someone on route?) and a huge boulder with a nice hand crack on it.

The first “pitch” is sketchy jungle thrashing to reach a big ledge at the base of the real climbing. Here’s Matt hanging out on this ledge.

It turns out we didn’t get too far on the route, though: I took the lead on this 2nd pitch and started working up it. I was mostly aid climbing and while moving slowly, I was starting to get into the rhythm when I was getting close to the top of the 2nd pitch. It was here that the crack system began to thin and I found it hard to get any gear in. A hook (which we forgot in KL -d’oh!) might have worked and though the moves looked fairly moderate, I just couldn’t work out a sequence. So instead, I fiddled in a tiny micronut and eased myself into the top step of my aiders. I started reaching up towards a good looking handhold and then *POP* I was flying. I gave out a short scream as the micronut below me caught my fall.

I got back up there and started playing around with gear for around an hour but I couldn’t make any progress. So I down aided (the micronut I fell on is now fixed) then we bailed from the route. So we hauled food and water for 3 days but we never even spent the night on the wall. Instead, we went snorkeling and enjoyed the beautiful beach and atmosphere. Not a bad trade off!

Bailing on the route: rapping through a jungle with a heavy pack sucks!

Getting ready to snorkel. The water here was probably 40 feet deep but amazingly clear. Neither of us had done much snorkeling before this but we really had a great time, seeing beautiful coral, schools of fish, and even a big sea turtle. If you’re lucky (well, maybe that’s not the right word) you’ll see blacktip reef sharks: we saw one just standing on the dock. Fortunately, they’re not dangerous!

The beach at the village of Juara is pretty hard to beat. Beautiful sand, great weather. This is my definition of tropical paradise.

When we got tired of the hot sun we came to this swimming hole to cool off. The water here was cool and incredibly refreshing.

Our last day on Tioman, enjoying breakfast with our buddy Martin. He was the only other tourist in Mukut!

This was one of my favorite places we visited in Malaysia. So much so that I have reservations of posting some of this on here. If too many people visited some of these small villages it would change the place dramatically. (Yes, I’m selfish!) So I’m already thinking about when I’ll be able to return. 2010 maybe?

November 9, 2008

Borneo Part 2 (Mt Kinabalu)

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 2:35 pm

Our 2nd day of hiking was shorter (probably less than 3km) but we still had 2300 feet to gain to reach the Gurkha Hut, our basecamp. And we were pretty worn out from the previous day’s hike. Joanne was really struggling with her load: our guide offered to shoulder some of the load. We were happy to oblige and the day ended up being considerably easier than the 1st day’s effort, though I could feel the air getting a bit thinner. And so we arrived at the Gurkha Hut early in the afternoon.

We received a pleasant surprise on arriving: the hut is easily one of the coolest places to stay that I’ve ever seen in any mountain! For starters, it’s weather proof and rodent proof (though you can hear a rat moving around outside at night). Rain pours from the roof into two water storage tanks to provide water during droughts. Inside, you’ll find 4 mattresses, cooking ware, leftover fuel from other parties, and a small collection of books including a real gem: 3 volumes of journals that record the building of the hut in 1984 and all the visitors who have stayed in the hut. It makes great reading when the weather is bad, which is almost inevitable!

The Gurkha Hut! A cozy place for 2 to stay. You could squeeze a couple more people in if you wanted to be close.

The Western Plateau of Mt Kinabalu in all its glory! From left to right are Alexandra Peak, Oyayubi Peak (the tilted tower in front of Alexandra), the Dewali Pinnacles, Victoria Peak (the huge prominent peak on the right), then finally St Andrews is identified by the insanely overhanging prow in the bottom right. The Gurhka Hut occupies prime real estate here, right below Oyayubi: Any of these peaks can be reached with just a short stroll from your base camp, making for incredible access.

Alexandra Peak, as viewed from the Gurkha Hut. Despite being right next to the hut, the prominent face in the middle of the picture is unclimbed. Of course, all of the orange rock is overhanging and looks loose. And there are no crack systems on the lower half of the face!

The overhanging face of Oyayubi towers directly above the Gurkha Hut. Also unclimbed, I spent a lot of time looking over the face but it was difficult to see any line that wouldn’t be highly artificial. Some things might be better left unclimbed! Instead we climbed the much easier South Ridge of the peak. It was 4th class or so and was terrifyingly loose without a rope.

But before you get too excited about the prospect of first ascents and book the next flight to Malaysia it’s worth giving a word (or two) of caution. The rock here is geologically young and hasn’t been weathered as much as granite that I’ve climbed in the US. As a result, there is considerable amount of loose rock and there are very rarely continuous crack sections. And many cracks end up being shallow seams. As a result you’ll often find yourself climbing on semi-detached and hollow flakes with little or no protection.

And the other drawback to climbing on Kinabalu? The weather! Usually April-June and Sep-Oct are considered to be the dry season. But this year, things have been a little strange and the locals told us it’s been raining pretty much all year! And the weather didn’t change for us: it rained every single day. And almost every night. So we would wake up in the morning and it would usually be somewhat clear but the rock would be completely soaked. So we would wait for things to dry out but the weather inevitably would change, often with no warning.

The video shows a pretty typical view from the Gurkha Hut. There is so much bare rock and hardly any soil so the water just pours down the rock and forms rivers and waterfalls everywhere you look. I’ve never seen anything like it. During these rains the Gurkha Hut is cut off from the rest of the park: it would be life-threatening to try to descend the slabs back to Park HQ. I hope you brought a kayak!

So with horrible weather we did pretty much the only thing we could…wait. And wait.

I didn’t know anyone played Solitaire except on computers…

Occasionally the weather would clear up and allow us to play OUTSIDE!

On the edge of the abyss. From here, Low’s Gully drops for thousands of feet towards the Pacific Ocean. Some of the biggest (and most remote) walls in the world can be found here. Just reaching the base of these walls can take close to a week of rappelling and scrambling down the gully! Maybe next time…

Occasionally we even climbed with a rope. Here is where I decided it would be more fun to do a jig instead of climbing! Taken on the Southeast Ridge of Alexandra, shortly before bailing due to high winds. Then when it started raining an hour later we figured we made the right call.

Taking a walk over to the incredibly aesthetic South Kinabalu Peak. This was one of the few peaks we were able to summit! A clean slab with a 4th class move or two gains access to the summit and a spectacular view.

The view from the top of South Kinabalu Peak: you can see some of the huts far below.

After a week of crushing rain, our spirits were getting low. We had spied a few potential lines to try but the weather wouldn’t cooperate long enough for us to even walk over to their base. We hadn’t finished any technical climbs (though we bailed from several) and our food supplies were getting low. And then we received a text message from Park HQ telling us that there was a mistake with our permit and we would need to come down to sort things out. Argh!

We had been rationing our food supplies to try to stay as long as possible but when we finally decided to bail off Kinabalu we started gorging ourselves on the remaining food, trying to lighten our loads for the next day. And so, after 7 nights in the Gurkha Hut, we packed our things up and started the descend down the mountain. Despite ridding ourselves of fuel/food our packs were heavy enough that the 10,000 foot descent was quad destroying. It took 4 days of rest before we could walk downstairs without pain.

Before we left the park, though, we made one last stop at Park HQ. Here is where we had one last look at how things are run. We were leaving early so we wanted to see if we could recoup some of our fees; namely, the unused insurance and hut fees. Neither of us really expected to get anything back but we figured: why not? So we talked with the fellow who had helped us get our permit in the first place. He told us he couldn’t do this but he could ask his boss. So he called up his boss who told us that he, also, was unable to refund our money. But he could set up a meeting for us with an even bigger boss. Alright, sounds good!

We eat lunch and then come back to meet with this big boss. We’re lead upstairs to a secretary who lets us in to the room. This “boss” has a gigantic room, with over-sized chairs and an over-sized desk. Behind the desk, dozens of windows provide a magnificent view of Kinabalu. We’re mightily impressed and starting to feel confident that if anyone can give us a refund (or at least tell us “no”), this is the man. Of course, things don’t work out exactly like that.

It turns out there is an even bigger boss, “The Big Boss”, who is _still_ on vacation so no decisions can be made here. Even though the refund we are requesting is less than $100, we are told to leave an address and write and sign a letter requesting a refund. We are told that they we will get a reply. Not surprisingly, we never heard a word from them again! I could care less about the money but the experience was truly eye-opening. Needless to say, the management of the park is embarrassingly inefficient.

So I have mixed feelings about the park: Mt Kinabalu is a spectacular peak and the Gurkha Hut is the best base camp you could ever hope for in the mountains. The weather is a mixed bag: from reading the journals, there are spells of great weather so we just had some bad luck. And because of the elevation, temperatures are so much nicer than anywhere else in Malaysia (temperatures frequently drop to around freezing). And while a lot of the rock looks terrible (really sketchy loose flakes) there are sections that look fantastic. I won’t give away all the places I found but No Name Peak and Victoria Peak might be good places to find solid rock.

But park management left a bitter taste in our mouths. I would like to return and try our luck again in a couple years but there’s many other places out there, most of which don’t have such hassles involved. Still, as far as adventure climbing in South East Asia goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re thinking about making a trip there, feel free to e-mail or leave a comment and I can fill you in on all the details. Of course, there’s no guarantee things won’t be very different in a few years!

Next time: A trip to the incredible caves of Mulu! But first, one last parting shot from Kinabalu: we passed this guy on our way down. And this is why things are so expensive at Laban Rata!

November 7, 2008

Borneo Part 1 (Mt Kinabalu)

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 8:46 am

Alright! Now that the jetlag has worn off it’s about time we started posting about our travels in Malaysia. We ended up not climbing nearly as much as we originally hoped because ….well, we’ll get to that later. First, it’s time to go to Mount Kinabalu! Read on to hear about absurd weather and even more absurd bureaucracy! I’m going to try to not be too bitter and nasty in some of the rants below but no promises.

We started our trip with one of the longest plane trips I’ve ever taken. We flew from Detroit to Atlanta to Seoul to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, arriving some thirty hours after we left Detroit. Hello frequent flyer miles! Kota Kinabalu is a small seaside town in the state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Borneo (the 3rd largest island in the world, behind Greenland and New Guinea) is split between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a bit owned by the Sultan of Brunei. The entire island was once pristine tropical rain forest though recent logging has made irreversible impacts. Despite this, parts of the island are among the most untouched places to be found on Earth.

Our first destination on the island was Mount Kinabalu. Isn’t the name just fun to say? Kin-a-balu! At 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) it is the tallest point in Malaysia and depending on your definition of the region, the tallest in Southeast Asia. But our real reason to come here was to explore the upper regions of the mountain with it’s vast amount of exposed granite and dozens of peaks.

The view from park headquarters was inspiring!

But first we had to pick up our permit and figure out where we were going to sleep that night. I had e-mailed the park before our arrival to reserve the West Gurkha Hut and secure our “Multipeak Climbing Permit”. (Here’s where the fun begins). After reading over the permit we became a bit confused: it specified 3 peaks that we were allowed to climb. And so we asked: “Well, what about all the other peaks?” We were informed that those peaks are “technical” climbs and require a rope (!) so we can’t climb those. HUH!? We actually had to show the park guide some of our gear: I don’t think he believed we had proper equipment.

And here’s where the confusion started: when visiting Malaysia 18 months before we picked up a copy of the local climbing guidebook, “Climb Malaysia”. It features a section on Mt Kinabalu and has the following to say about permits (for rock climbing): “You’ll need a Multi-Peak Climbing Permit … Send your applications along with your climbing resume…”. The park officials found the book fascinating (they hadn’t seen it before!) and asked to make photocopies.

Meanwhile, we decided to ask how we could get a “Rock Climbing Permit”. How hard could this be? This is when we were politely informed this request was impossible. Only one individual, the head of park operations, is allowed to issue these permits. And this individual was on vacation, enjoying the beach on Tioman Island. We had packed 2 70 meter ropes, 2 full sets of cams, 2-3 sets of stoppers, aid hooks, etriers, and ascenders and flown across the world with all this gear. You can be damn sure I was going to find a way to use them if I could!

Fortunately, the ranger we talked to was willing to do what he could to get a permit, making phone calls and trying to get a hold of “The Big Boss”. We had already decided we were going up the peak, whether or not we got an official permit. But we figured we’d give the park a day to figure things out: While waiting we decided to go figure out our accommodations. we needed to get a room for the night and then figure out a place to stay on our hike towards the summit. The price to stay in the hostel at park headquarters turned out to be RM80/person ($46 for 2 people). Our first question: where’s the cheaper accommodation? It turns out you can leave the park, take a right and walk a quarter mile to rent an entire room for RM30 ($8.50). Likewise, food just outside the park is much cheaper than the restaurants within. This was our first sign that the park had some dubious pricing practices.

But we still had to sleep 1 night lower on the mountain before reaching the summit plateau. And the park has only one option for sleeping on the mountain: Laban Rata. Last year they charged RM29/person for the dorm-style accommodations. But they decided to raise prices this year, to a whopping RM190/person. How could prices rise so much? They force you to buy 4 meals to go with the room and all the food has to be carried by porters up the mountain. We tried to get them to exclude the food (we had our own food) but they told us this was not possible. Setting up a tent is not allowed. So we were forced to pay $109US for 1 night at Laban Rata. Sheesh – what a rip off!

Who says the American Dollar is weak? Here’s the bathroom we got for $109. Un-sanitized water and cold water included. But hey, the toilets flushed! Laban Rata may be the world’s most expensive shit-hole hostel. It wasn’t the worst place we stayed at in Malaysia, but it was, by far, the priciest.

Finally we got some good news, though: we would be able to get our “Rock Climbing Permit”. We went in to the park office and signed a bunch of legal documents and then went to pay our “fees” (a nice word for the extortion racket the park runs). RM400 for “Rock Climbing Permits”, RM380 for 19 days at for the Gurkha Hut (which used to be FREE), RM380 for 1 night in Laban Rata, RM180 for a “mandatory guide”, RM266 for insurance (one of the documents we signed essentially said if we get in trouble on the mountain we’re screwed as the park provides no rescue resources – so I’m not sure what this insurance is). This adds up to a grand total of RM1606 ($459US). D’oh!

So after coughing up nearly all of our cash, we were happy to finally get started up the mountain! But with one bizarre stipulation from the park: they wanted us to send them daily updates to make sure we were OK. Of course, if we’re NOT OK, they’re not going to rescue us. OOOO-K. We were getting a distinct impression that park officials would prefer every visitor to follow their cookie cutter plan for reaching the summit. And they certainly did their best to dissuade us from following through with our plans.

The trail map to the summit.

Our first day we were hiking 6km from Park HQ (866m) to the Gunting Lagadan Hut (3323m). If you do the math, this is a whooping 8000 feet of elevation gain in just 3.7 miles! As I’m writing this, this is the first time I did this calculation – holy crap that’s a big day. But what made the hike more ridiculous was the size of our packs. We were both carrying about HALF of our bodyweight. My bag was somewhere around 80lbs, Joanne’s about 55lbs (I weigh about 150 lbs).

We must not have been very far on the trail at this point. I know this for two reasons: the trail is still flat and Joanne is smiling. Joanne was actually mistaken for a porter on several occasions!

The hike was, needless to say, one of the hardest I’ve ever done. The trail is relentlessly steep and with a crushing load I sometimes felt like I was climbing a ladder, using my hands to grab roots and whatever else I could to keep from toppling backwards. The last kilometer became a real fight: we would make it a few hundred meters at a time, taking frequent breaks. When we dropped our bags I noticed by legs were actually shaking from the effort.

Finally, we reached the Gunting Lagadan Hut, collapsed in our room, took a cold shower then went for dinner at Laban Rata. We slept like rocks, waking up at 7 still feeling pretty tired and headed to breakfast. The food is pretty mediocre at Laban Rata, especially considering the price. I was excited, though, to see french toast. I loaded my plate up and poured “syrup” all over the them. I started eating and immediately I commented how salty the food was. Salty fried rice, salty meat and worst of all, salty french toast! Gross! Then we realized what was wrong: the “maple syrup” I had liberally drowned my food in was, in fact, soy sauce. A bit confusing since it was in a maple syrup container and placed next to the french toast!

After filling up on what would be our last big meal for a while, we shouldered our packs in preparation for the final 2.5km to the Gurkha Hut…

Next time: Gurkha Hut and Kinabalu’s Western Plateau and (much) the bureaucratic nightmare continues… and many better pictures of the mountain! Click Here for Part 2!

August 31, 2008

Devil’s Tower

Filed under: Climbing, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 6:44 am

Our last stop in Wyoming was Devil’s Tower. When we first moved to Oregon 4 years ago we didn’t stop because we were in a hurry and the tower is an hour or so off I-90. Of course, now that we’re rock climbers, it would be very hard to drive right by it without a stop!

Devil’s Tower, from the campground. The campground was shady and relatively uncrowded: each site has lots of room to spread out.

The first pitch of the Durrance route. This is the easiest way to the top of the tower and by far, the most popular climbing route. Our first day here we showed up fairly early and there was already a line for this route. We couldn’t believe it: there’s somewhere around 200 established climbs on Devil’s Tower yet everyone flocks to this route. And, to top it off, the climbing on this route is not particularly aesthetic (lots of awkward climbing): we had more fun on pretty much every other route we climbed.

Joanne starting up the Bon Homme route. Looks like a nasty offwidth above but we took the popular Horning variation, stepping left into a more friendly, though bizarre, crack system. The cracks are a little hard to describe but I’ll try: The tower consists of tall columns abutting one another. Over time, erosion has opened up gaps between these columns and formed the cracks that climbers love. When three of these columns meet in a corner, there tends to be a double crack system which is a bit unusual: it’s much more common to have a single crack in a corner. Anyway, I guess I found this to be a bit interesting! It also made me start thinking about what’s holding these columns together: from all the rock debris around the tower you can see that many of them have fallen in years past.

Here’s Joanne on the summit of Devil’s Tower. The top is big and flat: you could easily play a game of frisbee up here! So the worst thing about climbing at Devil’s Tower are the other tourists you have to walk by on your way back to the car. I’m not joking when I say at least 7-8 different people asked us questions like “How long did it take to get to the top?” and “How do you get your rope down?” and “What’s it like on top?”. It’s fun to chat with the first couple people but by the time we’re 100 yards from the car we try a different strategy: talk amongst ourselves and avoid eye contact. But even these methods did not keep us safe from the masses…

The tower is the largest but not the only attraction in the park. There is a large and active prairie dog community on the drive in to the visitor center. Prairie dogs were always one of my favorite zoo animals so I had fun watching them doing prairie dog things.

August 28, 2008

(Mis)Adventures in Grand Teton NP

Filed under: Climbing, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 7:35 am

Alright, another national park! We originally planned on staying a couple weeks here but we cut our visit short…but we still had some interesting moments, including some close encounters with the local wildlife.

Mountain scenery…Mt Owen and its reflection in Amphitheater Lake. The hike to the lake is 5 miles one-way, but we took a more interesting approach by climbing a route from Garnet Canyon (Open Book) to reach this beautiful area. At the nearby Surprise Lake we saw a guy in a bathing suit – he hadn’t jumped in the water but I was curious if he ever did. The water must be pretty close to freezing.

Irene’s Arete is a pretty cool route, a definite classic with lots of great variations to pick. From campground, the arete is pretty prominent. The hardest crux 5.10a variation is really wild because you have to cross this gap that has lots of air underneath (reminds me a little like the Mace but not as extreme). The move is well-protected, balancy but quite easy for the grade.

Open Book on the other hand was harder to spot even though the guidebook made it sound so prominent. Nonetheless, we found the route quite easily following direction from the guidebook. The best pitch of this route is pitch 2 and definitely the crux pitch: a 5.8 layback followed by a very nice long, sustain finger crack, lots of stemming and great pro. The final pitch has an intimidating 5.9+ grade but the move is more like 5.8, kinda weird and definitely not the crux.

We camped for 3 nights in the Meadows, a beautiful area surrounded by big peaks. While there we climbed a few shorter routes (Irene’s Arete and Open Book, mentioned above), but our big goal was to summit the Grand Teton via Exum Ridge. The Grand is the high point in the park and from many views around the area is the most dominant point on the horizon.

Joanne climbing “The Black Face”, the crux pitch on Exum Ridge. We were in the shade all morning and it was COLD (there was even some ice on the approach to the route). So we climbing as fast as we could. The rock here reminds me of some kind of chocolate/vanilla ice cream swirled together. Yummy….

We climbed so fast we didn’t stop for any pictures until….the summit! I may have lost count but I think we passed about 4 parties on the Upper Exum Ridge and the whole Exum Ridge took little over 4 hours to climb.

(Joanne comment) We did the lower Exum in 3 pitches, linking p1 and 2, p3 and 4, p5 and 6 together using a 70m rope. Not sure I would recommend this unless you can tolerate lots of rope drag :). Pitch 5 is the weirdest because the pro is thin and the route is not as obvious; you have to make sure you follows the piton. I went a little off at first and was looking at long distance, steep bulge with no pro so I came back down and angle right and found the right way after that. It was a relieve when I saw the pitons.

Upper Exum is so easy that we simul-climb most of it, belay 2 short sections and then solo to the summit, passing parties most of the time. Almost to the summit, there was a guided party of 2 and the guide was belaying a woman on this super easy section and I saw fear in her, she was gripping the rocks so tightly. In comparison, here we came behind her, no rope, I wonder what she’s thinking at that moment. Anyway, I didn’t want to climb above her until she’s not directly above me because if I were her, I would never want a soloist to climb above me neither.

When we got to the summit, there was already a guided party of 4 there, hanging out. The guy who took this picture was with a guided group. We couldn’t believe people would pay $1000 (or more!?) to climb this peak, especially on the easier routes on the mountain. With $1000 you could not only buy all the gear you would need to climb the Grand but also probably take classes to learn how to use it. But I guess not everyone has the time (or interest) in doing that. We spent about 2 mins on the summit and started to head down. They were surprised that we were not hanging out there like them. I guess summit is just summit to us, not that big of a deal after so many summits. Sometime I wonder if we are starting to take things for granted and not taking time to appreciate the beauty of nature. Oh well…the way I see it if I’m only half way there and I can never relax until I get back to the bottom.

Safe and sound on the Lower Saddle. Exum Ridge is the prominent ridge above and slightly right of Joanne’s head. We originally planned on camping here the night before our climb but instead we stayed down at the Meadows. This meant we had a longer summit day but it would have been a huge pain in the butt to haul all our heavy packs all the way up to this point. Not to mention the potential of getting hit by lightning.

The AAC Climber’s Ranch: the best place to stay in the park. $12/night per person was a bit on the expensive side for us but included showers and a bed so we stayed here 2-3 nights. Plus it was mega convenient since it’s right near the main trail heads and ranger station. During the evening, everyone gathers at the cooking shelter, making for a much more social dining experience compared to the typical campground. And despite the name, you don’t need to be a climber to stay here (though many are).

So what about these wildlife encounters we’ve alluded to? Well, there’s buffalo, moose, and elf all over the Jackson area so most visitors will probably see one of these. And then when we were hiking down from the Grand Teton I almost ran into a black bear who was eating berries. He didn’t even look at me and kept eating even though I was just 10 feet away. Joanne didn’t want to go near him so we had to throw rocks in the bear’s direction (not AT the little fellow) to force him to run off.

But our most interesting (and scary) encounter was on our way to do the Grand Traverse, a long route tagging the summits of most of the major peaks in the Tetons. We set off in the dark at 3AM, heading up the forested slopes towards the East Face of Teewinot Peak. About an hour into the hike we were going up an endless number of switchbacks when we heard some large animal moving in front of us. We shined our headlamps in front of us and a pair of eyes lit up. We made some loud noises and after a few seconds it closed it’s eyes and moved off. We figured it might have been a moose or a deer so we continued on our hike.

We hit another switchback and started forward when we saw the same pair of eyes in front of us. We made a LOT of noise but this animal was just hanging out, watching us. Finally after shining our headlamps in it’s eyes for a minute or so, it turned away. Alright, I figured, that’s the last we’ll see of him (her?). But after hiking another switchback, the eyes were back, maybe 40-50 feet away. I was starting to get a bit annoyed and a little bit unnerved. And it was then, as we were shining our lights on it that I got a glimpse of it’s tan-colored coat that I realized maybe it wasn’t a moose or deer but something potentially much more dangerous!

I’m no wildlife expert so I still can’t say with 100% certainty that it was a cougar but the signs seem to point to it. It’s eyes were in the front of it’s head, definitely a predator. It’s possible it might have been a coyote but from the quick glimpse I got it looked much too large. Too bad our headlamps weren’t brighter to give a definitive answer: We shone our lights at it for a good 5 minutes or so without it backing away from us. By this time we were understandably nervous so I thought it might be best if we slowly back up, and find a safe place to stand (not sit!) until it the sun began to rise.

During this whole time, we were creating a huge ruckus by yelling and banging ice axes together so I can’t believe this animal wasn’t annoyed by the noise. I figure it was mostly curious: if a cougar meant to attack I’m certain we wouldn’t have had any warning at all. This all threw a bit of a wrench into our climbing plans. We lost well over an hour waiting for the sun to rise and this encounter took a bit out of our enthusiasm. Joanne thought it was some kind of omen so we decided to turn around and leave the Tetons that same day. Our next destination?….a quick stop to see the amazing geysers of Yellowstone!

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