How to Climb Multi-Pitch Alpine Rock ... With Style

Rebecca Schob high up on Paisano Pinnacle as 
Burgundy Spire looms in the background. Photo: Katie Mills. 
by Katie Mills
I used to shy away from long alpine rock routes because hey, when have I ever climbed more than, say, four pitches in a day? Never! There was no way I’d risk getting stuck on some heinous ledge, shivering and thirsty, reluctantly spooning with a stinky climbing partner, praying for the sun to come up.

So I kept climbing in my slow, tedious fashion. Along the way I read some books, endured some ridicule about my bad habits, started training harder, and picked up tips for more efficient climbing. I’d like to share some of them with you.

Reduce pack weight
Pack weight will make or break you. Do you want to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart in two days or four?

When I did the complete North Ridge of Stuart, the only thing I brought for camping was a one-pound sleeping bag. I slept on top of the rope and the back pad from my pack. Besides the clothes I wore, I carried only a lightweight puffy. If you’re doing a day trip, ask yourself whether you can get by with only one pack for the following climber to carry. No, you will not bring your “ten essentials” on a vertical rock climb where speed is safety.

How little water can you carry? While doing Stuart’s North Ridge, we left the ground with 2 liters per person. It’s true we had no water from the summit until we hit Ingalls Creek five hours later. It was uncomfortable, but we were fine. If I weren’t willing to suffer a little, I’d have stuck with cragging.
I started wearing minimalist trail runners on approaches. They work great and weigh much less in my pack than a pair of hiking boots.

Check out Extreme Alpinism by Mark Twight if you want to learn more about what you really need in your pack on a climb. Also, get a lighter pack! I have a small, very lightweight pack I affectionately refer to as my “crusher pack.” It weighs so little it makes me CRUSH! CiloGear makes some great light ones and they are made here in Portland.
Katie Mills enjoying granite for days on 
the north ridge of Mt. Stuart, Washington. 
Photo: Todd Eddie.

Do your homework
How did people climb before the advent of the internet? I would have just wandered around lost in the forest. These days, people put topos on the internet! Sometimes they post photos of mountains with giant red lines painted on them where the routes go!

Study these in town. The better you research the route, the less time you will waste staring at your topo while on route. Know what to expect at different points during the climb. Don’t be the person who does no research and therefore can be of no use when it comes to making navigational decisions. Two informed people are much more likely to make the right decision than one. Getting off route can really ruin your day. If the route looks weird or untraveled, backtrack before you make things worse. People who are “really good at navigation and route finding” probably aren’t any better than you; they just studied the beta beforehand.

Speed up transitions
Many people climb with no sense of urgency. A leisurely pace is fine until you have 20 pitches to complete before the sun goes down. Transition times should take no more than five minutes. Rack gear properly as you clean it. Stop lollygagging. You’ll find more tips in Speed Climbing by Hans Florine and Bill Wright, a highly informative and enjoyable read.

Be a vigilant belayer
Always keep the rope tight on the follower so he/she can climb as fast as possible. I had a partner who thought he was saving time when he stopped belaying me so he could eat. But I wasn’t climbing while he wasn’t belaying. So he really saved us no time. Followers should climb as fast as possible. This is alpine and there is no glory on top rope anyway. Pull on gear and do whatever else it takes to move as fast as you can.

Dial in anchor skills
Take two bomber pieces, each of which you’d trust your life on (three if you’re hanging precariously, or taking a Mazama class), and tie them together with a power point. What are you bumbling around for with your wishy-washy decision-making? Stop wasting precious time! If you can’t build an anchor quickly stick to a smaller scale climb until you’re ready.

Avoid rope drag
One time my lead climber led the route then had such horrible rope drag he couldn’t pull the rope up, so I just stood there dumbly wondering why he wasn’t taking in slack and doing nothing forever. Don’t let that happen to you! When in doubt, extend! If you really need a piece in a wandering area you know is going to cause horrible rope drag, will it be possible to get above the difficult part and then remove it? Check behind you periodically to make sure your rope isn’t caught on a horn or flake.

Combine pitches like a boss
Jeremy Lubkin on the NE Ridge of Mt. Triumph 
in the North Cascades, Washington.  
Photo by Katie Mills
No matter how many pitches the guidebook or topo says (22? 26?), climbing 1,500 to 2,000 feet normally takes a whole day and breaks down into 10 to12 full rope-length pitches. Yes you must run pitches together. Bring a few more slings and rock gear than you normally would. A full rope length pitch is 200 feet. That’s the equivalent of six routes at most climbing gyms. No wonder I’m so exhausted after each outside lead. You have to climb at least twice a week to maintain the endurance needed for a full day of full-length pitches. Hate the rock gym? You’re thinking about it wrong. The rock gym is like a McDonald’s Playland except for adults! I get to go play with my friends! Oh and I get stronger and more badass in the process. This doesn’t seem to happen when I go to happy hour. Cardio and overall fitness is important, too, for building the endurance necessary to tackle long pitches. So keep up the running, biking, rowing, etc.

Should you simul-climb?
Simul-climbing will speed your journey, but fewer pieces of pro and more slack in the rope creates a lot of risk. In deciding whether to simul-climb, consider the terrain. Is it below you and your partner’s ability? Ok, then maybe. More difficult than you expected? Better not. The weaker climber should lead while the stronger follows because if the follower falls, he can rip the leader off the wall. I am comfortable with simul-climbing when I lead since I’m so small I feel like I’m on belay with a portable anchor following behind me.

So maybe you followed all this advice and had an unplanned bivy anyway because you left your new headlamp batteries on the coffee table as you ran out the door and your headlamp died and now you can’t find the critical rappel on descent in the dark and you’re out of water and you start dry heaving after trying to choke down a granola bar and you reluctantly spoon with your climbing partner as you convert your pack into the world’s smallest sleeping bag and pile the rope on top of you as the world’s worst blanket and shiver pathetically through the night. These are the greatest climbs, and the ones you will remember most vividly. And even though you were miserable at the time, you’ll forget the suffering. Instead you’ll remember how much you loved being one with the mountain that night—with no worries about your 9 to 5 job or the laundry or the traffic—when your only focus was making it through the night. You felt the wind on your face. You eagerly awaited the sunrise. And that sunrise was the most beautiful thing you ever saw—so beautiful it made it all worthwhile. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad either. As long as you get out there and climb, you win!


Archive Exploration: Harold Bonebrake

by Maggie Tomberlin

Two hikers and Mt. Adam’s southeast face.
Photo: Harold Bonebrake.
As a new archive volunteer, I was excited to explore the Mazama’s historical collection. My first project, accessioning a collection of photographs by the late Harold Bonebrake, did not disappoint. Bonebrake was an avid photographer and an active Mazama in the late 1940s through 1960s. He volunteered his time on several committees, including the photography and research committees, and often showed his work in the Mazama Annual Photographic Exhibition. Highlights from the collection include photographs from past Mazama Annuals and outings, as well as photos of Mt. St. Helens before the eruption. In addition, the collection contains several excellent photographs of local glaciers, providing a valuable record of climate change in the Pacific Northwest.

Two hikers and Mt. Adam’s southeast face. Photo: Harold Bonebrake.


Flower Finder: Top Spur Trail to McNeal Point Shelter Loop on Mt. Hood

by Barry Maletzky

Following the maze of roads to access the Top Spur Trail is worth the small effort as this route gains you the quickest access to the wonderful profundity of alpine wildflowers surrounding Mt. Hood, both in forest and meadow. All you have to do is look down at the start of the trail to see a miniature version of the flowering dogwood tree. Bunchberry, also called Canadian Dogwood, looks like someone plucked a cluster of dogwood tree flowers, then strewn them across the forest floor. As with the tree, the actual flowers are tiny dull thing-a-mig things poking up in the center of the four white “petals”, which only masquerade as petals; they’re really leafy bracts colored bright white to attract pollinating insects.

Also prominent in these woods is Parrot’s Beak Lousewort, a low-growing pinkish-purplish plant with reddish leaves. Although the name sounds derogatory, it stems from the belief that many plants in the lousewort genus could rid homes and pets of lice, another myth exploded by reality. All our louseworts (including the famous Elephant’s Head) are in the Snapdragon Family and are thus distant cousins to Indian paintbrushes. Just about ¼ mile in, near a stream area, note Bugbane on your left. This plant, about 3 ft. tall, is visually rare along Northwest trails. It stands out as a spiky white specimen because the actual flowers are tiny but an army of stamens points outward as the most visible feature of the plant. Do not be deceived by its name: it has never protected anyone I know from the biting flies and mosquitoes common in these woods.

The delightful Avalanche Lily peppers the open woods here and although its white flowers droop, they have nothing to be ashamed of. Note the bright yellow centers of these close siblings of the Glacier Lily, which is totally yellow. As you turn right briefly onto the PCT, then almost immediately left onto the Timberline Trail, you may note the delightful Queen’s Cup Lily, a white six-petalled flower resting amidst a cluster of thin parallel-leaved leaves. Parts in sixes or threes usually denote the Lily, Iris, and Orchid Families, quite different in their evolution from most flowering plants, which hold their parts in fours or fives.

You labor upwards here gradually at first and should locate several examples of Merten’s Coral Root, a saprophyte all red and straw in color, lacking the need for any green chlorophyll but making its living off fungi and bacteria in the shaded soil. We have two other Coral Roots in our woodlands – Striped and Spotted. All are actually in the Orchid Family but I’m afraid tropical inhabitants might look down their noses at these compared to their large and colorful cousins down south.

In the transition zones here between forest and meadow, at around 6,000 ft. elevation, blue Jacob’s Ladder graces the sides of the trail. A Phlox Family species, it can be recognized by its ladder-like arrangement of leaves growing up its stems and by the charming sky-blue flowers nodding at the ends of its 6-9” stems. A close cousin, Sky Pilot, grows even higher in our alpine regions. Rub the leaves of either to smell their carrion-like odor, quite in contrast to their pleasant appearance. The trashy smell attracts the flies which pollinate this lovely plant.

You now proceed into the lush west-side meadows so characteristic of the high Cascades. Bear Grass, here up to 10 ft. tall, lends a subtle lily-like perfume, while blue Lupines and crimson Tall Paintbrush paint the meadows by a series of large boulders (note several Tiger Lilies on your left here as well) with spectacular views of Hood’s west face and the Sandy River drainage basin. After several miles on the Timberline Trail, look to your right just after a sharp left bend in the trail to catch the steep spur to McNeil Point Shelter. Walk through a crushing maze of daisy-like pink Cascade Asters and yellow Sawtooth Groundsels (or Senecios), these last with triangular sharply-toothed leaves, along with battalions of Sitka Valerians, the common white-topped plant of alpine meadows. Some of the asters and groundesls are taller than most hikers, giving the feeling of swimming through a floral sea. The rude path steepens here but the way is brightened by the many red and yellow Columbines you pass as you near the shelter.

But do not stop there. A few minutes hike above McNeil Shelter brings you to even grander viewpoints and the presence of my favorite lupine – Lyall’s, or the Sub-alpine Lupine (also called Lobb’s Lupine). The silvery-green leaves provide a gorgeous backdrop for the tiny blue and white pea-like flowers common to all lupines but in miniature: a jewel amongst the giants below. You can continue on an unofficial but well-maintained trail to complete a loop, and thus marvel at scarlet Paintbrushes; blue Lupines; Drummond’s Cinquefoils (the small yellow flowers); and the seedheads of the Western Anemone, with its dusty mop atop 2 ft. tall stems looking for all the world like the grey messy hair of the old man of the mountains. Many Avalanche Lilies will still populate crannies by trailside rocks and, as you descend through woods, the daisy-like yellow heads of Broad-leaf Arnica stand out against the monotone of green.

At several ponds at around 6,500 ft., often dry by mid-August, you will be rewarded with the sight of Fringed Gentian, a 2-ft. tall plant with petals the deepest of blues and green spots held upright and with fringes on each of their edges. In the woods below, just before you rejoin the Timberline Trail, there are two stream crossings which feature large gatherings of two Monkey Flowers: The yellow one is Mountain (or Tilinget’s) Monkey Flower, here mixed vibrantly with the shocking pink of Lewis’ Monkey Flower. These two line streambeds throughout our mountains; monkey flowers are also members of the Snapdragon Family, although their resemblance to an ape escapes me.

This loop often contains patches of snow throughout the summer, especially as it traverses meadows beyond the hut. However, ample footsteps and by-passes preclude the need for an ice ax. The way is only steep and rough in places just below the hut; otherwise, the trails are broad, relatively gentle, view-filled, and provide one of the best alpine flower shows in our state. If you’re not off on a climb and have a free day in July or August, this loop should not be missed.