Thursday, July 18, 2013

Electric Lundy Land

It’s occurred to me lately that I may not possess any original ideas on fitness and training for climbing. Most of the training we do at Garage Gym is a blend of ideas I ripped off from either Gym Jones or Mountain Athlete. Their fitness foundation plans helped me train for and meet my goals. So after completing my long-standing project of doing 100 High Sierra routes, I needed a new challenge. I have never been particularly good at sport climbing (I maxed out with a few Cave Rock 5.12b’s in the early 90’s) so I decided to focus some energy on hangdoggin’ and clipping bolts. Sport climbing requires an entirely different type of training than what I’ve been doing the last 15 or so years. Alpine rock climbing requires the ability to hike long distances, scramble along miles of loose ridges and fire off multiple pitches of (usually) sub 5.10 climbing. It’s like an ultra marathon.  Real sport climbing starts at 5.11. You need finger strength, power endurance and the ability to recover on overhanging terrain to succeed. It’s a sprint. Over the years I’ve allowed my free climbing ability to drop to an embarrassingly low standard. It was time for a change.
5 year old Oona Davis at Bachar Boulders
            I’ve been aware of Steve Bechtel’s web page for a few years. Steve has training for sport climbing down. I ordered his excellent book  “Power Endurance” and got busy. The Gym Jones and Mountain Athlete foundation programs I’d been following were heavy on squats, lunges, box jumps and step-ups, so one of the first things I needed to do was drop some of the leg mass I’d built up. I remember reading that when Tony Yaniro wanted to get back into climbing he had a doctor cast his legs to atrophy the massive quads he developed mountain bike and nordic ski racing. Since I’m an operating room nurse I figured I could get one of the orthopedic surgeons I know to cast my legs, but I then realized that might be going too far. My wife is freaked out enough by some the whacky training shit I’ve done over the years. I can just hear her on the phone with her mother “…..Mike? well, he has his unbroken legs in cast to lose weight…he’s laying down “recovering” watching climbing videos.” With that option ruled out I got serious about my diet.  
            About a month ago my friend James Coborn called and asked if I’d be interested in climbing a route called Electric Lundy Land III (5.10a). I’d heard mixed reviews. Was it an alpine sport route? Or was it a bolted backcountry route? The one thing everyone agreed on was that it had a lot of bolts. As we approached the climb it became obvious that the route was on the same formation I’d climbed with Tim Maas in 2001. In fact, our route shared the first pitch with Electric Lundy Land and parallels just right all the way to the top. We descended down a gulley to the south where Tim spotted some big horn tracks, hence the name Big Horn Buttress III (5.8). We carried a small rack and no bolts. We didn’t “report” our first ascent but I drew a topo and gave it in jest to Dave Nettle. Dave and I have a running joke about every route that we’ve ever done could be recommended to somebody i.e. each other. But I don’t really have an issue with the number of bolts on Electric Lundy Land. I’m sure there are a lot of climbers these days that could climb it without any bolts. But to complain about some bolts in the rock an hour and a half up an old road that’s littered with mining debris (which is somehow historical and cool?) seems lame. And to think that the sky is falling and soon there will be over bolted sport routes right next to Sierra classics seems really lame and paranoid. Don’t like it? Don’t ask me for a topo.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Training Aesthetics

Stevie Haston
     The most important thing when training for rock climbing or any other sport is getting results. If your not seeing measurable increases in performance from your workouts, than why bother? There are so many variables that effect human performance that it can be difficult to isolate what you need to be working on. Here’s a hint-it’s your weakness. A complete training program will encompass practicing complex skills and improving mental and emotional control. But we all tend to focus way too much on gaining strength, power and endurance. Part of the training process for me involves the aesthetic side. If I’m not enjoying the process of training, than why bother?
            In the late 80’s I read and article about Patrick Edlinger’s training program and how he felt that wearing the right clothes and listening to the right music was just as important to his training as doing the right number of pull-ups. An inspired workout is going to yield better results than just going thru the motions. I will say that it’s probably better to rest another day than to plod thru a compulsory routine. I also feel that the aesthetics involved with training lead to more inspired training and better results. Obviously, if you don’t like the gym your training at you’ll probably just stay home or leave early with a bad attitude (see last post) Or, let’s say you finally bought your first fingerboard and you decide to put it up in your dark, cold and dank laundry room. Are you really going to go out there after a hard day of work? Fuck no! A better plan would be to put it in your living room near your DVD player so you can watch Hard Grit again while you crank out another set. Below is a list of suggestions for improving the aesthetics of your training and some general guideline for getting better results.

Reinhard Karl
1.     Believe. You must believe that your training will help you achieve your goals or train simply because you enjoy doing it.
2.    Gym. The vibe at the gym is so important to me that I built my own. I can train how I want, when I want. I can listen to the music I want as loud as I want. I don’t have to wait for equipment to open up or make small talk with people I don’t like. Sometimes before work I’ll go out to my gym and look around, maybe touch some holds on my climbing wall or hang from the pull up bar. It always puts a smile on my face. I can get thru the grind a lot easier knowing my gym is there, waiting.
3.     Partners. I usually workout alone but I do enjoy training with other people. My main training partner is my friend Todd Burks. Todd is so strong that he can have the flu, injuries and come off a night shift in the ER and still crush me. It’s important to train with people who have similar goals and can push you.
4.    Music. I don’t always listen to music in my gym but when I do I like it to be high energy. Pandora is awesome for training. My current favorite stations are Fugazi and the Clash. Sometimes having a long forgotten favorite come on is all you need to take it to a new level. This recently happened when Gang of Four’s  “Armalite Rifles” came on.
5.    Time of day. My schedule is too variable to have a set time to train. I usually try to get into the gym as early in the day as possible before “emergencies” distract me.
6.     Be here now. You are what you do. I try to be hyper focused on every single breath and rep. This can be extremely difficult when I’m in the depths of a kettle bell breathing ladder and my six-year-old son is practicing his Parkour moves right next to me. The point is to try and achieve a Zen like state where nothing else exists except what you are doing. This is why I don’t always listen to music while training. It can be a distraction.
7.     Leave a little in the tank. As a man in my fifties I find it difficult to recover quickly from hard workouts. I’ve found that a single ill-conceived workout can put me into a recovery hole for a week. This is not a desired result. In general maybe 1 out of 10 sessions should require more than 48 hours to recover. 3-4 out of ten should require a rest day. The remaining 5 or so training sessions should leave you feeling ready to do it all over again the next day. Younger athletes and people on andro can go harder more often.
8.    Post workout. When possible I try and have a few minutes to relax and maybe take a short walk after a training session. I really enjoy this type of cool down and I feel that it aids recovery.

            This is just a partial list. Every athlete should create they’re own aesthetic that inspires you to training harder with better results. Embracing the aesthetic side of training makes training something that you want to do instead of something you have to do.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Home Gym

Within five minutes of my home in Truckee California there are four commercial gyms and two Crossfit studios. But I prefer to train alone in my garage. For me athletics are not a social event or a competition. Most of the time I climb, ride and ski alone. I enjoy the freedom of going where I want at my own pace. Almost all my friends and co-workers are Nordic skiers. If I don’t want to spend my ski time saying “hi” and discussing wax conditions I need to have my ear phones in, sunglasses on and my head down. I try to avoid crowds at all cost. Although I did suck it up to see Jane’s Addiction last month. I had no idea four years ago when I began converting my garage into a gym what it would evolve into today.
Sometimes you don't have a choice.
Sometimes the process of “going to the gym” can be enough of a deterrent that you just say screw it. What do you wear? Does your Sealfit tank top still smell like fish? Did you wear it last time? Would anyone notice? As you throw all your stuff plus your half full (or half empty) water bottle and half eaten protein bar in your nasty gym bag you discover the socks you wore at a Tough Mudder event over a month ago. Then you get in your car and realize you forgot to post on Face book that you’re going to the gym. At last your there, but there is nowhere to park and there’s no way you’re going to walk more than fifty yards just to workout. You see several cars of people you don’t like and think about leaving but you’ve come so far, your nearly there! Inside you feel overwhelming pride as you scan your little card and are allowed in. The clerk doesn’t recognize you. The locker room smells like ASS! After changing, you weigh yourself and know that no one has calibrated the scale in months. You grab a few mags like Glamour and Muscle and hit the recliner cycle. You notice that Fox news is annoying even with the sound down. After 15 minutes you’re bored-out-of-your-fucking-mind and decide to leave. Total elapsed time 1 hour 7 minutes 38 seconds.
         Having the ability to train at home eliminates the excuse of not having enough time – you’re already there. Just put on some shorts, crank the stereo and hit it. Total elapsed time 2 minutes 48 seconds. Actually it takes me a little longer, especially in winter when I first need to warm up my garage. But I always know what workout I’m going to be doing and that saves a lot of time. At home I can listen to the music I want - as loud as I want. I never have to wait for equipment so I can do intervals, density and work capacity training without being delayed or asked for a spot. But really no one wants to see me rolling around on the mats gasping for breath anyway. My point is that any real training you could do at a commercial gym will probably draw more attention I assume than you want. Plus you might get banned for life.
The late great Alex Lowe 
You really don’t need much space or equipment to train at home. You could start with a 35# kettle bell, pull-up bar and a few dumbbells. Rock climbers might also want a fingerboard. These items cost less than the enrollment fee at a gym. You can also find cheap gear on Craigslist and at garage sales. As far as space goes, you only really need enough room to lie down. I encourage people to try and get to a point where they can coach themselves. Every athlete has different goals, history of injuries, fitness level and schedule. So why settle for a generic workout of the day? Sure you’ll get pumped and stumble out of the gym in an endorphin haze, but is it going to help you improve at the sports you love? If you keep an open mind there are great books, videos and websites that provide enough information to keep you progressing towards your fitness goals.
         With limited equipment and space your best option for efficient training is dumbbell or kettle bell complexes. (see older post)  By manipulating the rest to work ratio you can compress a very intense training session into a short time. Some people refer to this as “metabolic” training because the high intensity is known to raise your metabolic rate and burn fat for hours and even days after a workout. I highly recommend Robert dos Remedios book “Cardio Strength Training.” His barbell, dumbbell, kettle bell and body weight circuits and complexes are easy to follow and very effective. His training methods require very little or no equipment.
       One of the most inspiring home gym training stories I’ve ever heard is that of The Wide Boyz Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker of Great Britain. These guys set out last year to climb the hardest offwidth cracks in America. Since there are very few offwidths in England the two converted their basement into a custom wide crack training facility (see photo by Alex Ekins) Their gym was equipted with several overhanging and horizontal offwidth crack machines. Granted these lads were pretty badass free climbers to start with, but their vision and dedication to training paid off with an impressive state side tick list including the first ascent of Century Crack (5.14b) in Utah. 
But maybe having a home gym is just part of your overall training program. You could still go to a commercial gym, hire a coach or go to Crossfit and also have the ability to train at home when you otherwise “don’t have time.” Just like the Wide Boyz a home gym also allows you to get more sports specific with your training by tailoring your gear and space to your goals. But be careful or you’ll end up like me with friends, and then friends of friends wanting to come over to train. Next thing you know your running a gym, coaching and writing a blog. Now I really don’t have time.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Route Collecting

“They were scrappy little faces with no appeal besides the tick I could put in my guidebook- Alex Honnold.

James Colborn in yet another notch high on Tower One with Incredible Hulk behind

 “Well that’s it,” I said to my partner James Colborn as I pulled the rappel rope. “This was my one hundredth High Sierra route” “Congratulations” he said, more concerned with the steep gully descent than my spray. We had just finished what we thought was a first ascent, that is until we found a rap anchor on top of the final spire. We tried this route last year and had envisioned a long ridge route from Ice Lake Pass to the summit of the Incredible Hulk. That attempt ended with horrible rock and a spectacular thunderstorm. Today from the top of the spire, which we call Tower One* III (5.8) we could see that traversing to the top of Mt Walt and the Incredible Hulk was pointless. The Route ends here. On the long descent I had time to think about not only about the 100 routes I’d climbed, but the many different partners I’d climbed them with. As we rigged a rappel in the descent gully I told James about the many, many failures it took to succeed on these routes. We had to leave an old one and a half friend that I’ve had for 25 years. I brought it on a lot of High Sierra routes because it was a “leavable” piece. If you succeed on every climb you try, then you’re not playing the game the right way.
Tower One as seen from Hulk base camp. Our route follows the obvious buttress in the center of the photo.

         By the very nature of our sport, climbers are collectors. Were always looking to add routes to our collection that we haven’t done. We dream, train, plot and plan until we can tick the object of our desire off in the guidebook. I believe that routes have more value before you do them, forcing you to train harder and smarter. You may need to quit your job or end a stagnate relationship to find the time and inspiration to succeed. But once you’ve ticked that elusive route it becomes a bloated boasting beast-kind of like this blog. My first hit list was to do all the 5.9’s at Donner Summit. A few years later I wanted to do 10 routes on El Cap. Why ten? Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some of the characteristics of OCD are making list, collecting trivial crap and “extreme hording”.  Over the years I’ve talked my friends into joining me on some pretty scrappy and obscure routes like The East Arête of Simmons Peak or the North Buttress of Mt Dade. While I really enjoy climbing routes with no topo, crowds, chalked holds or fixed anchors, it might be considered “extreme hording” climbing some of these routes just to add them to the list.
Northwest Arete of Center Peak photo:Tim Best

   My friend Tim Maas first introduced me to climbing in the High Sierra by showing Ken Ariza and I the Roper guide in the early 80's. Over a case of Lucky lager and cheap Mexibud we groped at the small grainy photos and decided it wasn't worth the hike. Why not just go to THE VALLEY? But a few years later it was time to look for some new challenges in the mountains. The first routes I chose to explore were the most Yosemite like climbs that I could find-the Harding Route on Mt. Conness and Keller Needle. Other than on big walls I didn't know anything about bivouacing or backpacking so it was just easier to go for it car to car. Every where I looked I saw big faces, soaring aretes and jagged ridges begging to be climbed. The hook was set. Looking back on it I feel very fortunate to have climbed many of the classics before they were discovered by the masses. In the summer of 1989 when Chuck Ashbaugh (see older post) and I climbed the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire we would have been shocked to see anybody on it. But I guess every generation feels that way. These days it just requires more imagination, skill and effort to get away from the crowds. 
    It was about six years ago that I realized that I might be able to do 100 different High Sierra Routes. Of course I would have to establish criteria for what constitutes a High Sierra route. To avoid any confusion while talking to Sierra section peak baggers, I decided that the climbs had to be at least a grade III (5.6) requiring at least a two hour approach, and starting above 8,000 feet. I also counted routes that were considered “classic” by their inclusion in either Peter Crofts “Top 40 High Sierra Rock Climbs” or “100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra” by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler. Routes on 14,000-foot peaks like Mt Langley were tallied regardless of their grade. Some of the routes were unreported first ascents. I also counted a few other routes just because I felt like it. Some routes like Cathedral Peak, the Red Dihedral on the Hulk and the West Ridge of Conness I’ve done multiple times but counted them only once. It's my list, my criteria, and of only real lasting value to me. I won't debate it. The last fifteen or so routes proved to be the most difficult. By this time I had picked all the low hanging fruit. While it maybe easy to find a partner for the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak, try finding a partner for the South Face! Also family life and career were in full swing making it difficult to get away. Injury and illness also slowed production when I quit climbing for a few years.
Another view of Tower One

         So what’s next? I have a list titled “High Sierra Ideas” with over 150 routes, link-ups and traverses neatly typed and organized by region and difficulty. So thirty years from now I’ll probably be in diapers, drooling on myself in a nursing home in Big Pine trying to convince my poser nurse that the Northeast Face of Jepson is a classic and we should get on it right after bingo.

*If anyone has already climbed this route please contact me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

High Sierra Training

Temple Crag

The current literature on training for climbing centers on bouldering and sport climbing. Information on training for multi-pitch, alpine and big wall climbing is usually thrown in late with the chapter on kids, vegetarians and climbers over sixty. My extensive research into fitness and training for climbing has revealed very little useful information on the subject of training for big endurance days in the mountains. Although somewhat dated, Mark Twight’s book “Extreme Alpine Climbing” does successfully address the training needs of the serious alpinist. I have also heard rumors about an upcoming alpine training book by Steve House. The climbers training at garage gym don’t have time to climb all day at the crags three to four days a week as one author suggest.  Ruthlessly wired top rope laps are the most common practice to build endurance for long routes. While this isn’t a horrible idea if you’re training for the Rostrum-Astroman link-up, it’s not the type of endurance I’m talking about. 
Let’s say for example, your goal is to climb the Sun Ribbon Arête IV (5.9) on Temple Crag in the High Sierra, car to car in a day. This adventure requires roughly fourteen miles of round trip hiking, 10,000 feet of up and down elevation change and eighteen pitches of mostly sub-5.7 rock climbing to the 12,999-foot summit. This type of climbing is closer to ultra running than, say, doing The Regular route on Half Dome in a day. We’ll assume you have the technical expertise and experience to handle it. We’ll also assume that maybe your tough enough to survive it right now, but you might have a lot more fun if you were fit enough to style it. I chose to use the Sun Ribbon Arête car to car as an example because I’ve done a ton of this type of climbing and it typifies the High Sierra backcountry experience. Here are some training ideas that have worked for me.

Tim Best tags the summit of South Guard      
Power Hiking-This is not strolling along, checking out the view and identifying wild flowers. In fact, on the approach it should be too dark to see anything for about the first hour anyway. Power hiking is hiking with an elevated heart rate and a sense of urgency. The best way to training for power hiking is power hiking or trail running. Ultra runners typically use a combination of running on the flats and power hiking and puking on the hills. I used to run quite a bit until foot problems forced me on to a mountain bike. But I soon realized that while mountain biking is fun, and pretty good for building an aerobic base, it does little to prepare your body for the pounding of backcountry hiking and climbing with even a light pack. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way last summer when I tried to squeeze in a summers worth of backcountry climbing (see Simmons Peak blog entry) into a few weeks, and ended up with a stress fracture in my foot-again. So get out and hike….a lot! I would even suggest giving up part of some cragging days to get in some steep miles.
I’ve also started experimenting with kettlebell hikes. This involves power hiking with a kettlebell in a farmer’s carry (at your side) and switching hands as needed. I stop every five minutes or so to do step-ups on longs and rocks. On flat sections I do Kettlebell swings, Goblet squats and snatches. I also hike short sections with the Kettlebell held in a waiters carry (overhead). I’ll post more on kettlebell hiking in the future.

Alpine Rock Climbing-To be really good and fit for alpine rock climbing you need to be fast and solid with a minimal rack and sloppy boots on easy (sub 5.6) to moderate (sub 5.10) terrain. Easy? Not really. I’ve seen some pretty strong free climbers slowed to a crawl on loose and exposed Sierra ridges. British training guru Neil Gresham suggests that you need to practice your easy climbing, but he may have been talking about 5.11? So instead of trying to build endurance by doing top rope laps on 5.11 and 5.12, I found the best way to get strong and fast for alpine rock climbing is by climbing easier (preferably obscure multi-pitch) routes all day. Can your ego handle it?
Ultra runners rarely do any sprinting or speed work- it’s all about the miles. If you can’t get to the crags that often, it is possible to do some quality training for backcountry climbing in a gym, but it’s probably harder mentally (boring) than physically challenging. I’ve never trained specifically for backcountry climbing in a gym, but I have done some foundation work that looks something like this.

-Stairmaster x 60min. @ 60-70% max heart rate.
-Climbing wall x 500’ < 5.9
-Dumbbell, Barbell or Kettlebell complex x 6 rounds
-Climbing wall x 250’ < 5.9
-Burpees x 50
-Stairmaster x 30min cool down.

3x per week for 6 weeks.

         In the example above you should increase the intensity by adding weight to the load every week, or preferably, wearing a weighted vest for the entire workout. You could start with 2-3 pounds in the vest and increase it by 2-3 pounds a week. At first it may not seem like much, but by starting light and slowly increasing the weight, you will insure that your making progress while minimizing your risk of injury.

         Two a day. Ultra runners have been using this method with great results for years. A lot of fun hogs I know employ this method unwittingly by running or biking in the morning, then climbing in the afternoon. You could also workout in the morning then go for a power hike at lunch. The variations are endless, but you get the point.

Hardy Bullock ultra running 
         Core stability. Hiking on trials and loose talus with a pack requires a lot of core stability to keep you in balance, moving forward, and staying on your feet. Fortunately, you can train for this in a gym. Choose exercises that focus on rotational stability like barbell anti-rotation, kettlebell lunges w/ rotation, and my personal favorite-kettlebell collateral step-ups. To do this just hold a kettlebell over head in your right hand and step up onto a bench with you left leg 10 times, then switch sides. These are good for kettlebell hikes as well.

         Getting fit enough to do a route like Sun Ribbon car to car in a day is really about low intensity, high volume training. You will need to hike and climb a lot, not only for fitness, but to have the confidence to move quickly over a variety of terrain. Any indoor training, like the examples above, should be considered as a supplement to actual climbing and hiking. If time is tight, you’ll need to get creative. Power hiking can be done anywhere day or night. Actually, nighttime power hiking is a good idea. For inspiration and creative tips on training with a tight schedule checkout Dean Karnazes “Ultra Marathon Man.” And guess what? You just ran out of excuses!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Blacksmith Peak The Forge

In the summer of 1996 Dave Nettle and I made the first ascents of The Forge III (5.11) on Blacksmith Peak and Astrohulk IV (5.11+) on the Incredible Hulk. I wrote the following piece that winter and promptly had it rejected by several publications including my own fanzine-The Vertical Cannibal. Rereading it now, sixteen years later, I would be a little embarrassed to post it on this blog in its original form, so I did some editing. But my “writing style” does reflect how important these High Sierra routes were to me at the time, and they still remain two of my proudest climbing achievements.

Part I

Nettle and I were talking about it again. It’s the same conversation we have at potluck dinners and coffee houses around Tahoe. This morning, just before dawn, Nettle is reciting a list of candidates from behind the wheel of his meticulously kept Subaru wagon. His tone suggests that he hasn’t given the idea much thought, but we both know better. “Maybe Angels Wings, Mt. Chamberlin or Mt. Hale” he says, wiping coffee from his equally kept moustache with a neatly folded 7-11 napkin. A rush of cold air fills the car as I open the door and dump the remains of my coffee onto Highway 395 South. The roar briefly drowns out one of Dave’s favorite tapes-BTO’s Greatest Hits. “What about that thing we tried last year on the Incredible Hulk?” I ask. “Yeah that could be it,” he says. “It’s big enough, steep enough and probably hard enough. At Bridgeport we head west. The morning alpenglow is just beginning to catch the crest of the Sawtooth Ridge. “I guess it depends on if we can free the big corner at the top,” Nettle says, staring straight ahead at the jagged ridgeline that extends upward from year-round snowfields. “Could be just what were looking for,” I add. “A long, hard Yosemite-style free route high in the backcountry. The “Astroman of the High Sierra.”

But today’s mission doesn’t meet the criteria. At only eight or so pitches, the Northwest face of Blacksmith Peak simply isn’t big enough. A week ago we checked out a new line from a nearby ridge and now were returning to give it a go. As we rack and pack in the Twin Lakes parking lot, I notice dark clouds building over Matterhorn Peak and the Dragtooth. I think about mentioning this to Dave, but he’s to busy cleaning muffin crumbs from the seat of his car with a whisk broom.

Inspired by the building clouds, we complete the approach in less than three hours. As I foot-pack a stance in the snow at the start route, Nettle extends his closed hands palms-down, like the start of a chess match. I choose the left hand that reveals a small stone and the first lead. After a bit of on-lead cleaning and a traverse right to a ledge, the first two pitches go at easy 5.10. Next, Nettle leads a sustained, splitter 5.11 finger crack to a sling belay where he places the only bolt of the route.

The sky is utterly black as I lead around a small roof and the first thunder of the day rattles the wall. Is it my imagination or is the rope buzzing against the wall from static electricity? Above Blacksmith Peak, lightning and thunder explode simultaneously making it difficult to focus on the grainy rock and thin protection ahead. Our dream of a first ascent on this remote peak is beginning to fade. Just out of reach, a small alcove looks like a good place for a belay but rope drag from below the roof is making it difficult to move. I shout into the wind for slack and then stack enough rope onto a chest- high sloping ledge to make it-hopefully-to the alcove. Thunder prompts me to step up onto a small black knob. Now that I’m fully committed and can just creep my chilled fingers on to a skin-piercing flake at the base of the alcove. The pile of rope lays motionless at my feet and I start to question my unorthodox methods. SNAP! The knob breaks and my feet paddle around on the grainy rock as I hurl myself into the alcove. A full-leg-press mantle is required as the now taut rope conspires to rip my harness and pants off and pull me backwards off the wall. Hail has started to fall as I build a belay and bring Dave up.

At the next belay, we decide our safest option is to sit out the storm on some small ledges. After moving all the metal gear away from us, we sit shivering silently in our rain gear as hail coats the talus below like the first snowfall of autumn. An hour later, the worst of the storm has moved just enough to the east to allow for a sprint to the top. I then lead a full rope length of damp, rounded and near vertical 5.10 fins of granite. At least I’m not shivering anymore. At the belay I scan the wall above for a line to the summit ridge still 300 feet away. “It looks like you have your work cut out for you,” I say to Dave as he arrives at the belay. But with some sporty simul-climbing, we reach the ridge in one very long “pitch,” and then scramble to the top accompanied by frequent thunder, lightning and intermittent rain. I crouch low on the lightning-rod summit block to sign the register. “Hey Dave, what should we call this thing?” Nettle, seeing no reason to stand on the summit in a thunderstorm is busy preparing a rappel. “I was thinking,” he says in the same tone that suggests he hasn’t given it much thought. “Seeing how we forged our way up, how about The Forge?” (photo first pitch of The Forge)


Yosemite Valley’s Astroman IV (5.11c) is one of the most classic and sought-after long, hard free climbs in the world. Originally called The East Face of Washington Column before it was renamed Astroman (after the Jimi Hendrix tune) when it was first free climbed in 1975 by John Bachar, John Long and Ron Kauk. Nothing compares. Yet many climbing areas boast their own version and name them “Astro” this or that, such as Astro-Elephant on Elephants Perch in Idaho. Dave Nettle and I named our route (which is actually a link-up of several existing routes and a few new pitches) Astrohulk in this tradition. However, Nettle would go on to put up other routes on the Incredible Hulk that are more worthy of being compared to Astroman. Two of these are Sun Spot Dihedral IV (5.11b) in 1999 with Jimi Haden and in 2004 Venturi Effect IV (5.12+) with Peter Croft.

Part II

This is new I thought, camping in Little Slide Canyon instead of going for it car-to-car. But Dave Nettle and I need some extra time to work on the first pitch. Dave and Tahoe free climbing ace Mike Carville had been working on a variation to Positive Vibrations IV (5.11a) earlier this year and had added a new start. They dubbed this pitch “Power Rangers,” and it involves technical and tricky 5.11+ moves. Nettle and I worked on this pitch in the afternoon and added a bolt to the bouldery first moves.

The next morning was quite cold, so Dave and I opted for the original 5.9 start and quickly climbed over the familiar first four pitches of Positive Vibes to a large ledge. It was almost a year ago to the day that Nettle and I huddled here waiting for a howling west wind to drop. Later, as we rapped off at my request, Nettle told me that this would be a good day in Patagonia. As I struggled with frozen fingers and my rap device, I made a mental note not to mention any desire to climb in Patagonia in front of Nettle again. But while today is late-September-cold, there is no wind and we cruise across easy ledges to the start of the Bard-Harrington “Suicide Route.” Here is where the business starts-three steep and sustained 5.11 pitches that include the wild detached flake known as “The Sea Serpent.” At the base of a large right-facing corner where the original route pendulums left, Dave drills two 3/8-inch bolts (by hand of course) in record time.

Now we’re finally in the sun, but the warmth does nothing to ease the sight of the desperate looking corner above. It’s beyond steep, and protection in the strange, rounded grainy crack looks non-existent. My assessment of this pitch (later named the “Enduro-Corner” after the fourth pitch of Astroman) would not be complete without the overriding fact that the man himself Dale Bard and High Sierra pioneer Bob Harrington had elected to swing out left to easier ground. I assumed they didn’t even want to aid the thing! Neither did I, so I passed the lead to Nettle.

Dave steps out of the belay into a full lie-back with his feet skating around on the thin loose flakes that line the crack. I try to adjust my belay so that if Dave falls he won’t end up in my lap. Dave manages to finagle in an unlikely number four Camalot that is tipped-out on the lip of the crack. Next, Nettle calls for tension. I pull in the slack and brace for impact. Nothing happens. The stem of the cam is completely horizontal and looks ready to snap. “I’m gonna drill,” Dave says, and gets busy. I’m more gripped than he is. I need to chalk up just to belay.

I look to the west and try to calculate the remaining daylight and the distance to the top. It’s going to be close. Dave finishes the bolt, clips in and lowers to the belay. “How’s it look above?” I ask. “More of the same,” he says as he checks out the rapidly sinking sun. “I may have to place the number four like that again.” After a quick drink of water Nettle is liebacking past the bolt. Another twenty feet go by before Dave places the four cam again in the same dicey manner. But instead of placing another bolt, Dave continues on and finally latches a loose flake way out from the shifting cam. I chalk up and brace myself to catch a huge fall. He’s too pumped to place gear to protect a mantel on to the flake. Dave says “watch me,” then manages to shake his way onto the flake.


Sierra evening air is starting to cool as Dave continues up the corner to a big ledge. It takes every cubic centimeter of my forearms to follow the pitch without falling.

“How hard do you think that was?” Dave asks. It takes me a minute to catch my breath, then I answer between gasp, “I don’t know, 5.11+ or 5.12a?” “You think?” Dave asks looking down the pitch. Then he says something that totally shocks me “I think I should rap back down and place a bolt to protect that section before the mantel” I look at Dave to make sure he’s serious, then shift my gaze to the setting sun. But my thoughts aren’t not only on the late hour. “Look Dave.” I begin. That was a real masterpiece of a lead; let the next guy do it.” While Nettle is thinking about this, I start eyeing the next pitch. “I just want people to repeat it,” he says as he’s hands me the small brass nuts. “You might need these.” I grab the nuts and say, “Listen Dave, this route’s been your gig from the beginning. If that’s what you wanna do, go for it.” As I rack the tiny nuts I look up and wonder where the hell am I going to place these? “Dave that lead was a moment in time, don’t discount it man” Dave smiles and I begin lacing up my shoes, then continue. “I’ve never seen doing first ascents as community service.” Dave gives up the argument with, “you’re on belay.”

I start leading out above the corner where I’m faced with a tricky maneuver that forces me back down to a good stance. If I fall here I will fly past Dave‘s belay and rattle down the corner. I think about placing a bolt, but after my speech on style, I decide to go for it. The move turns out to be much easier than expected. I finally plug in some pro and run out the rope to the North Ridge. Dave and I high tail it to the familiar summit via simul-climbing with an occasional belay. Dave signs the summit register:

“First ascent/link-up of Positive Vibes, Bard-Harrington, and Direct Finish, Astrohulk” IV (5.11+) F.A. Dave Nettle, Mike Davis 9/9”