Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Alpine Bouldering Guidebook by Jamie Emerson

About a decade ago, an eon in the ever-evolving world of climbing, a new niche of the sport was born when boulderers started visiting a relatively obscure corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, Chaos Canyon. Hidden in plain sight, the boulders there truly revealed their potential with the arrival of Dave Graham and suddenly bouldering in Colorado became important again.

It has taken a while, but thanks to the efforts of Jamie Emerson, there is finally some documentation, presented in book form, of the fantastic climbing opportunities awaiting visitors. I recently went over the e-book version of his new guidebook Bouldering Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans published by my friends at Sharp End and was very impressed by what I saw. It is a clear and wide-ranging guide, well illustrated and complete with extensive material about contexts such as geology and flora and fauna. High quality action photos of important problems are plentiful as well.

It should be emphasized that the book is not comprehensive. The author and publishers, by agreement with land managers at Mount Evans, decided not to include anything besides Areas A and B at Evans. This means that what is likely to become the most popular and accessible alpine bouldering in the state, Lincoln Lake, is not included, along with the less popular Areas C and D and the Aerials. The newly re-discovered area of Endo Valleyin RMNP is also not here. And there are many spots and boulders in RMNP left out for environmental considerations as well. This book could be seen as partly a record of an extraordinary era in bouldering, a remembrance as much as a guide, of a time the likes of which is unlikely to occur again in Colorado. For visitors, it is an essential guide and companion to one of the most beautiful bouldering areas in the world.

Looking over the book in more detail, it is very usable, tackling head-on the daunting challenge of navigating the endless talus of Upper Chaos. Detailed maps, accurate distances and elevations and many useful photographs should get first-time visitors where they want to go. Just as importantly, the book renders good advice on dealing with the specific nature of the alpine environment, its weather especially and of course altitude. It might have been a good idea to note typical patterns of cell-phone reception and also emergency numbers in case of an accident and perhaps some basic first-aid advice. Also important are the reminders to behave in this environment as responsible stewards rather than thoughtless consumers. Jamie’s work on this book has been thorough and I can’t find any serious flaws in terms of names or grades. He has done his homework and it shows throughout.

The excellent essays that are found throughout the book give readers and visitors a good sense of why bouldering here is a uniquely enriching experience, how the presence of powerful natural forces makes a climbing day here much more significant than most. The long approaches, severe weather and stark terrain stand out in contrast to the tamed surroundings of many other bouldering meccas. I won’t describe the tone of the book as nostalgic but there is a sense that many of the writers have moved on, either to different areas or even different phases in their lives. The boulders still stand, for now, as witnesses to a brief period of incredibly focused and creative climbing that transformed the sport in important ways, not just locally but nationally. The sense that something special happened here is inescapable. I wonder, now that many have moved on to the much more accessible and concentrated terrain of Lincoln Lake, whether visitors may, even with the publication of this book, be able to recapture something of the peace and solitude that existed here before.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Other Side of the Mountain

I have been very busy working on the book this past week but have squeezed a few visits in at Area A, Mount Evans. The snow has been piling up in RMNP all spring and although a few have ventured up that way, the action has clearly been at Lincoln Lake. The earlier (re)discovery of Endo Valley had primed the pump (in a manner of speaking) and the news coming from Wolvo/LL has been mostly fast repeats of last year's new problem testpieces along with the usual downgrades. Cool stuff to be sure and I look forward to heading out there later this summer. But all this focus on the east side has had a beneficial side-effect on the west side.

My acclimation treks to Area A have been marked the near-total absence of other boulderers. This has its downside, namely an absence of extra pads to work the problems at the Dali. But to be able to sit on a sun-washed boulder, drinking in the sky and clouds and the light changing across the cliffs above the talus, and hear nothing but the wind is a treasure beyond price.

The project is of course Clear Blue Skies (the hardest V11 in the state?). Easy first move, annoying and very difficult second move off the small crimp, strenuous cross-through to the most frustrating hold I have ever used. Pulling on this flat semi-crimp with minimal texture, I continually come up short throwing for the finishing jug. To me this problem feels as hard as European Human Being and much harder than the old pre-break Small Arms. I feel it coming together for sure and the hike is such good training (much harder than Wolvo or RMNP)that I will persist a while yet.

In a following post, I will discuss two very valuable tools I am using to aid in this quest.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Daniel Woods Interview

Please visit my other blog to read more about Daniel Woods in an interview I just did. More on my activities in a bit.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Moon Gear Review

Since joining the Moon Climbing team this year, I have had the opportunity to try a number of items made by this small grassroots climbing company based in Sheffield. Though many climbers of a certain age will automatically recognize Ben Moon’s huge contributions to sport climbing and bouldering in the 1980s and 1990s, these days a younger generation may know him primarily through his company. I ordered a number of items that I felt that I could use and that might find favor with American climbers and boulderers. Since roughly March, I have been consistently putting this gear to the test in a number of settings, both at the gym and outside bouldering and roped climbing. While it is true that this review is going to be somewhat partial, I believe it will prove helpful to anyone thinking of trying out this brand. There is no question that Moon is very popular in the UK and Europe but it is less well known in the US, except among a relatively small circle of climbers. I would like to help change that so read on.

The Cypher Pant, Moon T-Shirts, and Logo Hat
As some readers of this blog may know, I have long been looking for good pants for bouldering for some time. These pants need to be lightweight, able to withstand abuse, have a natural feeling fabric, fit well, and look good both at the boulders and on the street. I have been wearing the Moon Cypher pant pretty much nonstop for the past three months and can say that they meet the above criteria with flying colors. I have taken them on brush-choked gully approaches in Clear Creek, waded with them through thigh-deep snow at Mount Evans, and climbed all sorts of terrain in them from low-angle trad to steep gym bouldering. They are reasonably loose without being too baggy and come with a very lightweight closure at the ankle or can be rolled up. They fit well under a harness or during bouldering. They are very windproof and felt warm even while belaying near the sea in a brisk damp breeze in North Wales. The poly/cotton fabric dries very quickly and breathes well during warm strenuous hikes.

I wore nothing but Cypher pants during my 10 day trip to the UK where they performed very well in all conditions from a breezy and cool session at Stanage Edge to navigating the crowds in the National Gallery in London. Easy to wash and quick to dry, they could be the perfect traveling climber’s pants, especially as they resist the “grimy” look common with other fabric types. They also pass easily style-wise from cragwear to streetwear with understated colors and a moderately loose fit. While some may wonder about the reversed pocket “elephant ear” flaps, they become unobtrusive quite quickly and provide a distinctive look. I would absolutely recommend trying these out. The Cypher also comes in a ¾ length and shorts style suitable for warmer conditions. Recently these pants have been made available in organic cotton as well. For my alpine bouldering trips, the poly/cotton blend will be perfect.

Other items I have tried include several t-shirts and a very nice light-weight and warm beanie. In particular, I liked the hemp t-shirt with the Bus Stop 8b design. All the t-shirts have clean striking graphics with an urban feel and fit well.

The Warrior Pad and Bouldering Shoulder Bag
The Warrior Pad is an excellent pad, very lightweight but durable, which has a unique design that keeps the shoulder straps on the landing side so that the pad stays relatively clean. When folded, the side that rests on the ground stays on the inside keeping backs, car interiors, etc, free of dirt and mud. A velcroed carpeted flap goes over the straps while climbing and then folds across the bottom when it’s being carried, keeping gear and shoes securely in the pad. As an alpine boulderer, I find the lack of a waist-strap a bit of a problem but the word is that this may change, especially with their upper-end pad, the Saturn. For me, especially because of its light weight, the Warrior is the perfect second pad as a recent snowy carry into Mt Evans proved.

Moon’s Bouldering Shoulder Bag is a great deal. It is a compact and very versatile design allowing a lot of storage in a small space. You can carry it as a shoulder bag or as a backpack, the adjustment between the two taking just a few minutes. I have used it extensively both in the gym and on recent travels and found it a hassle-free way of carrying everything from chalkbag and shoes to a netbook and passport. The zippers and Velcro all work very well and it carries fairly heavy weights easily. At only $46, this bag is a real bargain given its versatility and quality.

Bouldering Chalk Bag and Moon Dust
The Bouldering Chalk Bag is a superb simple chalk bag with a secure roll-top and Velcro closure. It sets up well at the base of a boulder problem and closes easily on its own if it tips over, a very convenient feature. I really like the Moon brand of chalk and have found it works well across all sorts of conditions and rock types. I also appreciate the message of respect towards the environment that is printed on each bag.

In sum, I have been very happy with the performance of the gear that I have had the opportunity to use and am very enthusiastic about spreading the word to other climbers. I believe that you will find it money well spent. The quality is excellent and the prices are very reasonable. In the US, Moon is a very small company with a personal touch, being run primarily by well-known boulderer, photographer and author Wills Young. Please visit the website to find out more. I will be testing more gear and writing about it over the rest of the year and hope to continue to promote here in the US and abroad.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


After my all-too-brief stay in North Wales, I went to Sheffield with Alan James director of Rockfax Publishing and UKClimbing. This was a great opportunity to revisit a place I had not been to since college when I spent a couple of semesters at the university and doing a lot of climbing, especially on gritstone.

Coming from a background of New Hampshire granite, the cracks and slabs of Peak District gritstone were a natural fit but there was also the allure of entering an intense urban climbing scene, the likes of which Sheffield was probably the first to inaugurate. This was aided immensely by the institution of the dole, essentially welfare payments for the chronically unemployed. By the time I arrived in fall of 1985, the hard free-climbing revolution was well under way, propelled in large part by the proximity of motivated impoverished climbers and a huge variety of climbing options. The only drawback was really the weather which in turn gave rise to climbing walls, public and private, and lots of training. Coming from an insular and parochial New England scene, it was a profoundly transformational trip, especially when combined with a stay in Buoux in the spring of 1986

I spent most of my time on gritstone, as it was closer to the city by bus and much less expensive to reach. Burbage, Millstone, Froggat, and Curbar Edges were the most popular options though I did make the trek to Stanage on oocasion, most memorably to onsight solo Archangel and Right Unconquerable. The sense of space, light, and atmosphere I always found more compelling than the humid overgrown and often polished limestone cliffs in the valleys below. On the other hand there is no denying that if you want to get strong, limestone is the way to go.

The first afternoon Alan and I went for a walk over to Burbage North where I took a few laps on the 20-foot crack, a perfect 5.7 hand crack, and scoped out the Remergence area, ticking the venerable classic Banana Finger and scoping out some other problems. Sadly, being sans pads, I didn't put any time on the harder ones. The intermittent rain and strong winds didn't help much either.

Next we went over to Stanage, just next door. A quick look at the outcrop that holds Hamper's Hang netted only more wind so we headed down to the Plantation Boulders, perhaps the most famous collection of gritstone boulders in the Peak. The first boulder problem I tried was The Green Traverse, probably about V6, and a really fun series of moves on fairly large holds. I flashed it and then had to repeat it for the video! After looking around a bit at the testpieces such as Brad Pit (V10) and Careless Torque, a beautiful and tall V11, I set to work on Crescent Arete a relatively moderate but fairly insecure and tall V2. This took a few tries to get the feel for the crux, especially with no pads. The landing is fairly flat but you would be jumping from high up with excellent ankle injury potential. A couple of pads would reduce the commitment and perceived grade substantially. Anyway, after I got the balance worked out, I committed and reached the easier upper bit without any problems. A great pair of problems! Here's the video.

Thanks again to Alan for shooting the video and taking the nice shot of me on Crescent Arete.

The next day I was picked up by climbing legend and owner of Moon Climbing, Ben Moon, along with his daughter Sylvie, to check out Burbage West and perhaps meet up with some friends. After a quick tour and some easy warmups, the rest of the crew turned up including Jerry Moffat, Marcus Bock, Gerhard Horhager and Andy Cave. We set to work on some slightly harder problems including a cool little V5/6 overhang called the Nose, which I shot a picture of Jerry on, spotted by Gerhard.

After this, we moved on to West Side Story, one of the most famous problems on grit, a vertical wall with a thin seam, graded V8/9. This has a couple of methods, one coming in from the left which I tried and another coming in from the right, which Gerhard tried. The key for the more direct method on the left is getting a fairly bad sidepull with the right hand and standing up on poor feet to throw for a good break. A highball finish awaits. I was making pretty good progress but having trouble finding the sweet spot on the sidepull. Increasing sun made completion unlikely as well. A good problem to try in fall or winter with a few thick pads.

Ben and I decamped for Stanage to find some other friends of his. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the midst of Stanage on a warm weekend. I already was thinking of my trip to London scheduled for the next day and then one more day before heading back to Colorado.

Monday was my last climbing day before going back home and I decided, since the weather was rainy and I really needed to train a bit harder, to check out Climbing Works, the newest gym in Sheffield, and the only one dedicated to bouldering. It was a good choice though a bit idiosyncratic for a visiting climber. The walls were fairly slabby throughout though the so-called competition wall was fairly steep. Perhaps the biggest issue was the lack of tape for finding problems. This made it very hard to follow sequences or locate starting holds. Once found the problems were actually quite good but after about an hour and a half, I focused on the campus board. There was also "The Motherboard" a steep woodie covered in terrible little wood holds but again the lack of clear problems and a number of arcane rules made this option unappealing.

Nevertheless, I got a solid workout in and felt like I had sampled (or resampled after 25 years) a bit of the Peak scene over the past few days. Looking back to that time, I recognize that one of the motives for going to Sheffield in the 80s was finding a place where residents really focused on climbing but within an urban context, that a critical mass of climbers lived climbed and trained together but not in a campground like at Yosemite. Now of course, such locales are much more common, perhaps nowhere more so than here in Boulder. But in the 1980s such places were very rare. For me, in my early 20s, this time was a revelation of sorts and left a lasting impression of what could be achieved in climbing.