Volunteering in a K9 Search and Rescue Unit

Article and photos by Kevin Machtelinckx

As the Pacific Northwest’s summer heats up and people begin their annual exodus outside, we’re bound to see stories of lost and missing hikers in the Gorge, around Mt. Hood, in the Jefferson Park Wilderness, and many others. Search and rescue volunteers are called upon regularly to provide the manpower for searches that often span hundreds of acres. Although many volunteers have important support roles to perform, K9 units are the ones scouring the forest floors for scents and clues leading to the missing persons.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was lucky enough to sit in on a K9 training session put on by Mountain Wave Search and Rescue (SAR). Brian McLaughlin, Barbara Linder, and Terri Hines, all K9 handlers, gave me a behind-the-scenes look into what it takes to become a handler and participate in these missions as K9 SAR volunteers.

Kevin Machtelinckx (KM): What is your dog’s name, age, breed, and specialty?
Brian McLaughlin (BM): Schooch, 3 year-old Australian Shepherd, air scent.
Barbara Linder (BL): Opal, 3.5 year-old Labrador retriever, air scent.
Terri Hines (TH): Rook, 3 year-old Belgian Shepherd, human remains detection.
KM: What does your dog’s specialty mean?
BM: Scent is wafting off each of us all the time. When outside, that scent is carried by the breeze. So there is an ever-widening path of scent wafting downwind from everybody outside (generally called a scent cone). My job is to navigate the area I’m given to search in such a way that we’ll intersect the scent cone of anybody that might be out there. My dog’s job is to react to that scent cone in a trained chain of behavior that includes following the scent to the subject, returning to me, alerting me that he’s found a subject, then leading me back to the subject he’s found.
TH: A Human Remains Detection (HRD) dog is trained to do just that, find human remains in any phase of decomposition and alert the handler of its location. The dogs are trained to recognize the smell of human remains versus animal remains or any other distracting odor that may be a normal attraction to a dog. They are trained and able to detect human remains on land, underwater, or buried for concealment.

KM: Walk me through what a dog and trainer have to go through to become certified.
BM: Air scent training begins with what we call a runaway. The first runaways are simply having a training partner wave the dog’s favorite toy in front of him, making a bunch of noise and generally acting a little crazy and animated, and then turn and run away 10-20 yards, turn back around, and call the dog. The dog runs to the subject and is grandly rewarded with praise and play and maybe a treat. Doing this a few times makes running to that subject the most fun and exciting game the dog could ever hope to play. Then when the dog reaches the subject, you start calling the dog back to you to get the reward and praise. Before long, the dog understands that this new variation of the game is great too. Then you ask the dog to alert you somehow (Schooch pulls a special tug-toy off my belt to indicate he found someone) to get the reward and praise. Soon, the dog learns that he needs to do the alert to get his reward. Finally, after alerting, the subject calls the dog back to him, the handler follows him, and it’s a grand party back at the subject. You do this over and over again, and the dog learns to do that sequence of trained responses when playing the runaway game. Then, the subject starts ducking behind a tree when he runs away, so he’s out of sight when the dog is released. As time progresses, the subject ducks further and further aside and hides further and deeper from the last point he was seen. Then the handler turns the dog away as the subject runs, so he can’t see where the subject went at all. I always mark the beginning of the game by putting the search harness on the dog so when it comes out, Schooch knows it’s play time. Soon, there doesn’t have to be a runaway at all - the game has progressed to where the harness goes on, and the dog is ready and anxious to start playing the search game. All the training culminates in a certification test which is a demonstration of your ability to navigate a 120-acre piece of wilderness as outlined on a map with your dog to find a hidden subject within four hours. Dog and handler will have demonstrated their ability to do that day or night, rain or shine, prior to the certification test being scheduled.

KM: What kind of training do the handlers themselves have to have in order to go out on searches?
BM: In our group, handlers need to be OSSA Type II certified. That means they need to demonstrate the ability to build fire and shelter with what they carry, navigate unfamiliar wilderness areas with map/compass and/or with a GPS, basic first aid and CPR skills, understand the Incident Command System, basic radio communications, search types and methods. You need to carry gear and supplies to enable you to stay in the field for 24 hours with your K9 and potentially a subject. Our group trains anyone that is planning to be in the field on these skills. All K9 handlers are required to have this Type II certification to participate in a search with their dog.

KM: What would you say has been the most difficult part of training your dog?
BM: What slowed our training down most was my lack of experience in training this kind of thing! Learning how to keep track of where I was and making sure to navigate my dog into potential areas of scent while paying attention to the dog and seeing/understanding his behavior took time. You learn to understand what small, seemingly insignificant pauses, glances, and gestures mean. You learn to see when your dog is trying to work out what he’s smelling and what direction that faint scent is coming from, and he learns that you are encouraging him to do that. As for problems that he had - I guess I’d say that it would be related to chasing squirrels and such (he’s tangled with skunks too!). To deal with that, we would spend lazy afternoons on our back deck, sitting on the loveseat, just watching the world go by until… a squirrel would skitter by on top of the fence. Schooch would leap from the deck and go tearing after that squirrel. I would leap from the deck and go tearing after Schooch! I was very gruff with him —in his face, “NO ... NO ...,” in a low loud voice. The first time I did that, it kind of scared him, because I generally don’t talk to him like that. The second time (a day or two later), I did it the same way, but he didn’t seem scared—just put out. The third time a squirrel went by Schooch tensed and prepared to jump off the deck, but he paused and looked back at me. I gave him a gentle “no, no.” He turned back toward the squirrel, paused, and lay down. Since then, a gentle “no, no,” is generally enough to dissuade him from squirrels, other dogs, etc. He gets a good round of praise every time my “no, no” results in him standing down.

KM: How often do you and your dog participate in training exercises?
BM: Our group holds training sessions six times a month. We generally make it to all of them. I also do obedience training more or less constantly—every interaction I have with my dog is within the bounds of my obedience expectations. I also take him places to stretch his experience and his trust in me. For instance, taking him on elevator rides, through a crowded MAX platform, through the hustle and bustle of the crowd waiting to get into the zoo on a Saturday morning, riding on a MAX train, etc. Training like that has resulted in a dog that, when he’s nervous/anxious, is right close at my side. That’s right where I want him if he’s a little fearful or nervous, and I praise him big time for that.
KM: In your opinion, what is the most dangerous aspect of search and rescue for you and your dog?
BL: I don't like to search in urban areas due to the risk of getting hit by a car because Opal can range out of sight. I have to be careful with her in the Gorge as she could easily cliff out with her focus on searching and not paying attention to the terrain.

KM: What has been your most memorable rescue, call out, or training event since you started doing search and rescue with K9’s?
BM: My best example was when we were assigned to go up a trail in the Columbia River Gorge and hook up with another trail to follow back along a creek to base. The “trail” turned out to be over rock and scree fields with pitches that required ropes to get through and sections so narrow that you could look down to your left and your right to see cliffs and/or very steep slopes where one wrong step would be very costly. When we were 6 hours in, we had a team member who was struggling a bit with the terrain. We hit snow and decided not to continue. You really need to know your abilities, and it’s always OK to say no. After getting home after that one, I looked up that trail and discovered it is listed as one of the most extreme trails in Oregon. If I’d known that in advance, I probably would have declined, but I’m pleased that the whole team made it back safely.

KM: What is one thing that you think people don’t realize when they think of search and rescue dogs?
BL: You don't "buy" a SAR dog ... you are a team and you bond from day one. It would be very difficult for another handler to search with my dog as one of the important aspects on a search is the ability to "read your dog." During a search, you watch closely for behavior changes and work off those behaviors.
TH: When people see the dogs working I don’t think they realize the amount of training that we put into the dogs to get them ready for deployment. It’s typically many days and hours per week and it’s ongoing until the dog retires. While it is a job for the dog, it’s also like a big game to them, even to go out and find human remains.

KM: Any final thoughts on the bond you’ve developed and shared with your dog?
BM: It’s amazing. Working with your dog—and relying on him—on such a regular basis on a task that has you out in the woods in strange places with your dog off leash, looking for people, and seeing him perform his task in the dark, in the rain, and in the snow, simply because he wants to please you and play the game—it’s amazing. There’s a two-way trust that develops. He trusts that you won’t put him into a situation that will hurt him, and you trust him that he will do his job no matter what. It’s all done for the play time at the end—there’s reward in that for me too.
BL: Opal is a very high drive lab and while we have had challenges along the way due to that drive, it has only bonded us together as a team even more. I love her commitment to work and I’m proud of her abilities and trust her to do her job when needed.
TH: I adopted Rook when he was just under 2 years old so I didn’t get to bond with him as a puppy. He had already been in at least two other households so I really had no idea what kind of life he had prior to me bringing him home. I think training and learning this skill together allowed us to bond faster than if we were not involved in SAR. There’s a lot of trust that is required between a K9 and handler, and without that special bond that you form I don’t believe that you can be a successful team.


Mountains and Mentors: Reliving the Perigrine Traverse

Author topping out on the

by Rick Allen

I had snapped the lid closed on a box of climbing gear several weeks before, saying goodbye for what I thought would be the last time to chalk bag, shoes, and harness. I spent over 30 years drifting in and out of climbing, always looking for a partner, but never able to make a lasting connection. A professional career jealous of free time and energy also left me with catastrophic injuries which made me a perfect weather barometer, but limited my diminishing physical capabilities. Yet the rock called me to come back again and again. I wanted to feel the flow of moving over it, to be one with it and not at war. Old flames separated by time and circumstance reunited, discovering they were still in love with each other.

I never made the transition to indoor gym climbing, at least not successfully. Overhanging thuggish routes replaced my beloved thin, high angle face climbs. Slab. That's what the kids called them now. Slab, said with disgust as if they were spitting something distasteful from their mouth. The internet had allowed me to find one of my first climbing heroes, Patrick Edlinger "Le Blond." I would watch his Life By the Fingertips and remember the first time I saw it on television in 1984. It inspired me to recover from my injuries and reconnect with the rock again. When I mentioned him to young climbers at the local gym no one had any idea who I was talking about. Slab.

An email received from a climbing acquaintance had me prying the lid off that box of climbing gear once again. A recent college graduate would be spending the summer in Eugene and he needed a climbing partner. Would I be interested? Once more into the breach. Hope springs eternal, and so I began my relationship with Jordan Machtelinckx. An alpinist who wanted to improve his rock climbing for future mixed routes, he attacked routes with a raw power I could only dream of, yet he was open to suggestion. Over beers and pulled pork nachos I told him of Edlinger and Ron Kauk, those masters of climbing elegance I so admired, and a seed was planted. Weeks passed and Jordan progressed from murdering 5.9's with blunt force trauma to gliding up 5.11's with the grace and poise I knew was there within him.

The summer months advanced and I knew my time of having a steady climbing partner would end, as all good things must. Jordan was more than ready to stretch his wings on a worthy project and he was eager. We wanted more than the typical Smith Rock multi-pitch day. Beer and nachos gave way to Guinness and Irish whiskey in my backyard. Jordan poured over guide books as I refilled glasses.

We agreed on the Peregrine Traverse of Acker Rock. Touted as Oregon’s longest sport climb, it is ten pitches of sparsely bolted rock in a remote part of the state. There would be no ten minute approach from a paved parking lot. No stairs or easy rescue if things went badly. No running water, no cell service, no nothing. I read the route description and looked at photos again and again. Ten pitches. I didn't need to do the climber’s math to realize it is going to be a very long day, and I am 58 years old. I reach for the whiskey and poured four fingers. I felt the twinge in my gut and recognized the feeling for what it was. Fear.

I am not one for tilting at windmills. There is no room in my life for Walter Mitty fantasy. Occasionally, when I look in the mirror I see my father. I recognize ugly truths and accept them for what they are, despite what I might wish and dream for myself. My best years have come and gone. My body is broken and I am old. I am old.

Labor Day arrives. The end of summer. We load gear into my truck and drive south in the darkness, sunrise still hours away. Paved roads turn to gravel as we drive deeper into the forest under morning light still devoid of color. I suddenly see an enormous black bear playing peekaboo behind an equally enormous old growth stump. I try to direct Jordan to it but what is clearly evident to me is invisible to him. The ensuing conversation borders on the comedic. It's right there! Where? There. I soon realize we are seeing the world through different eyes.

After a few missed turns we arrive at the parking area and see the gate is closed. This means a longer approach hike than we had hoped for. Certainly longer than I had hoped for. As we gather our gear and rack up, the last climber group from the weekend is leaving. They wish us well and say, “You have the place all to yourselves."

We begin the long uphill walk and Jordan chats happily. I am not exactly gasping, but my replies are short and I let him carry the bulk of the conversation, as well as the pack weight. Suddenly, I hear a sound I recognize as claws on tree bark, followed by the cries of a wailing child. We have inadvertently startled a bear cub who has scampered 40 feet up a tree and now screams for mama to come to the rescue. Jordan fumbles with his phone trying to take a photo as I explain to him we really don't want to be here when its mother returns. Jordan is enthralled by this rarely seen sight while I am recalling the size of the bear I had seen earlier. We are seeing the world through different eyes.

We climb over an embankment and leave the gravel road for the climber’s trail, which is nothing more than an animal trail. The trail is loose and off camber. I struggle with the unfamiliar weight of a pack and I feel unstable. I stumble on and, without the aid of trekking poles, the inevitable happens. Jordan stares at me quizzically as I attempt to regain my feet. We have not even begun the real climbing and I am already on my ass.

Rick below summit.
Photo: Jordan Machtelinckx.
A brief glimpse through the trees gives me my first full view of Acker Rock. It seems immense. Huge and, for me, intimidating. We finally reach the area known as the Sun Bowl. Aptly named, we are bathed in full morning sun. Jordan ropes up to lead the first pitch as I organize his belay. I look up at the rock. Ten pitches to go.

Jordan breezes through the first pitch and establishes our first belay stance. I marvel at the solid coarse nature of the rock, glad to have made the decision to keep my leather belay gloves on. I am starting to relax, thinking I may actually remember how to do this. The last time I did any serious multi-pitch climbing, I was Jordan's age. That simple thought causes me to reminisce about climbing the Bastille Crack in El Dorado Springs Canyon. So long ago. What happened to my life? Where did it all go? Jordan takes off on the second pitch and I return my thoughts to the present and the task at hand.

One pitch follows another as an easy, pleasant pattern develops. At the end of each pitch we share a PowerBar and water as we discuss the joys and difficulties of the preceding pitch. I feel the sun's intensity on my face and skin and know the climbing helmet I am wearing is doing nothing for me as a sunblock. I open my flip phone and check for a signal. Zip. Zero.

It is taking us far longer than we imagined it would. This won't be done in a couple of hours. It will be an all-day affair. We continue moving upward with Jordan in the lead. I pause at certain points on each pitch for a good look around, taking mental snapshots. I am savoring this extended moment in time with my young friend. I am ushering him in the beginning years of his life of adventures as he is leading me upward to the end of mine.

The lengthy wait at belay stances causes my body to stiffen and old injuries begin to ache. I struggle at the beginning when it is my turn to climb. I am the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz looking for a can of oil.

We begin to find a rhythm and are now hundreds of feet up. I watch falcons glide back and forth across the face below me. Jordan is high above me and out of sight. Just when I think all is well he calls down to me. "I'm not sure.....I....I think we're off route." Off route. It's a sanitized version for lost. A voice that had been happy and confident was now filled with concern. We are almost out of rope and Jordan cannot find the established belay anchors. He creates a solid anchor and yells down to me with words that sound something like, "rappel off." Oh the hell you say! I cup my hands and yell back. "Put me on belay and bring me up. We'll talk about it."

I reach Jordan and am relieved to be together again. I see he has made us a solid anchor by stringing webbing and cordelette around what looks like an upside down sugar cone. He talks again about rappel. I am against it. I tell him sketchy rappels are how people die on these things. An old memory from my first trip to Yosemite returns to me. A guy had rappelled down to a ledge I was on. We spoke briefly and then he stepped back to finish his rappel, 70 feet to the ground. I had looked away but heard the unmistakable sound of rope running rapidly against rock. I turned back and lunged for him, but it was too late. He was out of my reach and falling, his eyes wide, locked with mine, begging for help I couldn't give him. The wild windmilling of his arms carried him away from the rock as basketball sized granite boulders at the base awaited his arrival. I shook the memory out of my head. Lesson learned, there was no point dwelling on it.

Jordan looks around us, then up at the remaining portion of the route, then at me. He is not convinced. I tell him, "Look, I have the rack. Let's take the gear for a walk. I bet the anchors are just over that bulge above us." I can see sunlight reflecting off a bolt line above us. I reason with him, saying, “All roads lead to Rome, we just need to keep climbing up and we'll find our way.”

Jordan is not enthused about my leading and expresses his concerns. Valid point and just in time, as I am scared like hell at the thought of my first time on lead since before he was born. I can’t believe I am stupid enough to suggest it.

It was time for a pep talk. "Look, you're a 5.11 climber. This is several grades below what you're capable of. I know we can finish this. You just need to breathe up, center yourself and execute,” I say. As if on cue, he closes his eyes and begins some focused, purposeful breathing. Thirty seconds later he looks at me and gives a sharp nod of his head. I put him back on belay and he is gone. Jordan disappears over the bulge and seconds later I hear a happy shout, "Found 'em." We are back in business.

Jordan had been leading well all day, but the next two pitches are a thing of beauty. He is powerful and confident. He cruises up a final squeeze chimney that I murder by sheer force. As I reach him, he gestures to me with arms stretched out, as if to welcome me. I collapse beside him in a combination of relief and exhaustion. Still he reaches toward me. “What? Are we hugging? We're not done yet?” I ask. Jordan chuckles and says, "No, dude. I love you, but right now I just want your slings." One more pitch to go.

Pitch ten is an exposed traverse across the knife edge summit ridge. When I say exposed, I mean exposure that would send any normal person’s nether regions on the express elevator to their throat. We forge on and top out. The Peregrine Traverse of Acker Rock is complete.

I sit next to Jordan and revel in the exposure. We look out at a never-ending sea of trees. Alone here on this grand piece of rock, I am happy. I truly enjoy silence. Moments like this border on bliss. An ear splitting whoop sounds across the canyons as Jordan celebrates his achievement in the way young climbers do these days. My head snaps around to glare at him for disturbing my peaceful moment, but then I see him standing with his arms raised up in exaltation.

My annoyance gone, I can only look at him and smile. I hope he will seize the life that lies before him and have many more of these days ahead. The button-down 9 to 5 world can wait. I look toward the setting sun and know this is most likely my last summit, but I am glad I shared it with him, grateful to him for leading me to this glorious end.

Nearly three years have passed since that day spent on Acker Rock. Jordan moved on and completed an Odysseus-like trek across western Asia. He is living the life I had hoped for him, filled with meaningful work, loving relationships, and continuing adventures.

I write this from the comfort of home, my cat sleeping peacefully in my lap. I continue to climb at the local gym and get on real rock when the rare opportunity presents itself. I keep track of current climbing news via the internet. I see that Chris Bonington has returned to climb the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 80. Peter Habler, an old climbing partner of Reinhold Messner, has topped out on the North Face of the Eiger at 72. I gaze out the window and allow myself to consider what might be possible. Maybe, I think. Just maybe.

Sunset from fire tower on Acker Rock.
Photo: Jordan Machtelinckx.


From Rambler to Scrambler

Group picking our way up Old Snowy.

by Sue Griffith
Photos by Sue Griffith

Do you love hiking but crave a little more challenge? Is the specter of ropes and harnesses keeping you from reaching summits? To get a taste of what climbing is all about, you might want to start with a scramble.

The term scrambling is highly subjective and means different things to different people. Experience, trail conditions, and fitness can make one person’s scramble another person’s climb. Though most agree it falls somewhere between hiking and climbing, the Yosemite Decimal System provides a more precise standard: Class 2 (simple scrambling, with possible occasional use of hands) and Class 3 (scrambling; hands are used for balance; a rope might be carried). Scrambling is often a hiker’s next step toward climbing and typically means leaving the maintained trails, navigating a steep slope, or slogging through talus and scree—or any combination of these. For me, it means getting my hands dirty, my knees bruised, and a huge sense of accomplishment.

Scrambling is often associated with non-technical summits but don’t be fooled—all un-roped climbing carries risk. Be smart and know your limits. Do not underestimate the effort required simply because a route is called a scramble, rather than a climb. Turn around if you feel unsafe and bear in mind that what goes up must come down—don’t put yourself in a position where the trip down is trickier than the scrambling up and might possibly exceed your abilities.

Listed below are three of my favorite scrambles. While they all offer non-technical summits, each is strenuous and none should be attempted without appropriate skills and conditioning. Need more inspiration? Check out Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon—Best Nontechnical Ascents.

North and Middle Sister from South Sister

South Sister

Camp at the trailhead and plan on an early start to tackle this six mile route up a 10,358 ft. stratovolcano. After following a pleasant forest trail to a high plateau, get ready for a steep climb as you scramble up loose cinder and scree to the crater rim. Once on top, the views of the Cascade Range and beyond will make you forget the pain of getting there.

Looking north from the top of Old Snowy.

Old Snowy Mountain

Nestled in the center of Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness, this 7,930 ft. extinct volcano is a popular summer hike, rewarding climbers with 360 degree views on a clear day. While primarily a long, 14 mile round-trip hike through beautiful scenery, the last mile or so leads you along a steep, exposed ridge with plenty of loose rock. Be cautious. At one point you will need your hands and solid footholds to continue up. This is a strenuous climb but determination, stamina, and a bit of scrambling will get you to the top for those spectacular views!

Kings Mountain Summit

Elk/Kings Loop

Plan to do this rugged coastal hike after a period of dry weather, as wet or muddy conditions can render it nearly impassible in spots. I like to hike the full ten-mile loop, but if pressed for time, you can eliminate more than three miles by using a shuttle car and skipping the relatively flat, but lovely, Wilson River Trail segment. Heading counterclockwise from the Kings Mountain trailhead, prepare to get dirty as you leave the Wilson River Trail and scramble up a steep, sometimes rocky, trail to the Elk Mountain summit. Sign the register and enjoy the views then continue down an even steeper trail—roped in one particularly tricky spot—before climbing again to the Kings Mountain summit and possibly better views. For an extra treat, time your outing to coincide with the spring or summer wildflowers.


Injured During Climbing Season

by Jonathan Barrett
The author attempts some therapeutic yoga
while being supervised by his unimpressed
“downward dog” mentor and family pet, Dino.

This is not medical advice. If you are looking for the top ten ways to overcome shoulder pain, A2 pulley tears, or knee aches, these words are not for you. I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or even a legitimate quack. Actually, I am not even a great climber. My top ticks are the easy and accessible routes compiled by Beckey, Nelson, or Steck and Roper. What I am skilled at is being injured.
In August of 2008, I lay on my couch doped up on percocet. Maybe it was vicodin, possibly oxycodone. The Olympic opening ceremonies were on the tube, and the fireworks being shot from the Birdsnest meshed nicely with my semi-hallucinogenic state. 

Several days earlier, I had my second surgery to repair a torn labrum in my left shoulder; the result of a climbing injury. Multiple pins were inserted to replace and reinforce similar hardware that had been implanted for the same purpose four years prior. My body was as broken as my spirit. The doctors and physical therapists said that the road to recovery was at least eighteen months, possibly longer. Eighteen months. The first trip through physical therapy had only been six months, but it had failed. The joint was not made stable. I was depressed despite the painkillers with which my wife dosed me. Perhaps they just aggravated the issue. Who knows.
The author exploring potential mixed ground on Illumination Rock.

As everyone is aware, August is prime alpine rock season. The days are still long enough, and the last patches of snow are gone from the ledges and shoulders of high ridge lines. The bivy at the base of the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart is almost pleasant with a down jacket and legs stuffed into a pack. And September. Oh, September is such a stellar month for rock climbs in Oregon and Washington. Beacon catches the cooling breezes through the Gorge, and the intensity of the sun on the south facing routes mellows. Then of course Send-tober follows right behind. Cooler temps means finally red-pointing that project that has bedeviled you for months. Then November brings the first ice lines into some regions of the Rockies, while December means mixed lines on the backside of Illumination Rock. Not to be outdone, January and February follow where we start to get some ice in the Northwest; maybe even long cold snaps freeze the Gorge like last winter. And on and on and on.

I lay on the couch watching the Olympic performers pounding their drums and hear the driving rhythms. All I could think about was how once again I would miss the tiny window for the Northeast Buttress of Slesse. Da-da-dum! Da-da-dum! Dumb indeed that I am busted up on purpose.

Weeks later, I was up and mobile. Occasionally I might wander around the base of Ozone and pretend to be one of the people who discovered the trail on the side of highway 14 and wondered why the tiny lot was packed with Subarus on a Saturday morning. Once I even pretended to know nothing about climbing at all. “How do you get the ropes up there?,” I asked. “What happens if you fall? Do you die?” It was easier to feign ignorance with my arm in a sling and climbing out of reach.

There are a myriad ways to end up being busted as a climber. It isn’t hard to wind up with a shoulder injury (dynamic gym moves), knee pain (descending Ulrich’s Couloir), or a finger strain (mono pockets). Just this last fall, I was feeling really healthy for the first time in ages. My most recent plague, plantar fasciitis, had finally subsided, and the off-camber lilt that I thought would become a permanent part of my movement patterns had indeed actually vanished. Feeling normal had never felt so foreign.

I returned to the gym hoping to ascend that sick red V5 on the back wall. You know the route. It’s one of the few crimpy problems there because setters know that tiny holds lead to injuries. I didn’t experience the common “pop” sound that many other climbers report when their A2 pulley tears. Perhaps this is why it was easy to live in a state of denial. I did not tape the joint like so many people do to provide support. After all, I was not really injured. It was just sore. If you have ever tried to lift your ring finger while gripping with your other four digits, you understand my problem. I floundered up a V1. Too hard. The V0 was almost right.

For the next few days I rolled my thumb across the thick flesh below my knuckle. It felt like gristle and almost crunched. Did it hurt? Yes minorly, so I took some vitamin i. Extending the finger was impossible; tucking the tip tight against my palm was unattainable. The joint felt best when formed into a half-moon-shaped claw. About ten days later, I went back to the gym, not because the tendon was better but because force of habit said that I had to go climbing. Staying home was like holding my breath. Eventually I would gasp for air. Almost a month went by like this. I would go, feel pain, try to persevere, give up, and return home reluctantly. If this had been a relationship, I would have been John Cusack outside the Circuit with a boombox over my head pumping out Peter Gabriel.

At least when my shoulder was jacked up, I looked the part. People opened doors for me, pulled back my chair, helped me slice my sympathy steak. Trying to escape from the bathroom while babying my ring finger just left me looking like a germ-o-phobe. But I persevered in quitting climbing long enough to get healthy again. I did a lot of push-ups. And squats. And core work. When my finger was better, I was going to come back as a total stud. John Gill was going to envy my one armed front levers. Kenyan runners would marvel at my blistering pace.

And I did, at least for a while, until I tore my hamstring trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I figured that if I couldn’t climb, I could run. If I was just going to run, I was going to run really fast and really far. I did manage to stagger over the finish line with a time that allowed me the privilege of registering for the marathon, but I was left with literal pain in my butt. The diagnosis was a proximal hamstring tear. However, by that time climbing was possible again. I threw myself at training because I hoped to drown my anxiety about not being able to participate in the Boston Marathon on account of my hamstring.

At the gym, I started working V7’s and adding heavier weights to my lifting sessions. Driving home at night, I stank like aspirations drenched in perspiration. Pseudo-experts on YouTube educated me on ways to wring the last bits of power and endurance from my uninspiring musculature. Then one day in early March, I felt a distinct weakness in my right bicep. That night, I had to shimmy out of my shirt. Lifting my arm perpendicular to my body was almost impossible. Something had snapped again. Whether it had its locus in my arm or shoulder or back was impossible to tell. My status was frighteningly similar to that of August of 2008: depressed with only one good arm.

I do yoga now. Not since college when I took it as a throw-away elective have I engaged in the practice which was profoundly exasperating for me. Folding myself up like some sort of spiritual pretzel seemed insane. I have few choices in my current injured state. I can’t run because my butt is busted. Climbing or lifting weights of any sort is also out unless I want to end up like a fiddler crab. My downward facing dog is appalling, but my warrior pose is improving, if you ignore my right arm. At the end of it all, as I lay on the floor focusing on my breathing in shavasana, I am thankful that this one pose simply could not possibly lead to further pain. In goes the good air. Out goes the bad. The oxygen causes me to have the following hallucination: I am injury free.


Vacation Cragging

by Radek Chalupa
Photos by Radek Chalupa

So you have a bit of time off and are looking for a climbing trip that’s easy to plan and to pull off: no lengthy approaches, no pre-arranged visas, no on-the-ground fixers, no travel advisories to worry about. You want to throw the gear together and drive; or perhaps you’re willing to go that extra mile (and can spend those extra dollars) and book airfare and pre-arrange some ground transport. Either way, you’re looking for an easy rock climbing fix.

The climbs that follow are not exactly off the beaten path but may get overlooked by many Northwest climbers; often taking a backseat to a more popular destination nearby—say doing your twelfth trip to Red Rocks instead of sampling Cochise. The choices below are roughly broken down by available vacation time and season.
Steins Pillar

A quick climbing fix that allows you to sleep in your own bed and yet still provides a satisfying outing does not need to involve Beacon Rock, Smith, Index, or Trout Creek. Washington and Oregon are chock-full of interesting formations scattered throughout the foothills of the Cascades. Many involve only a couple hours of driving and a few have a decent quality rock. The two formations mentioned here have seen some recent route development and so they should each be good for a few outings.

Steins Pillar is an approximately 350 ft. volcanic plug located about a 30-minute drive east of Prineville, Oregon. It is like a sibling of Monkey Face with slightly worse rock but in a more dramatic setting. The original summit route, the 5-pitch Northeast Face, is a fun aid climb for most and a good step up in difficulty from the Pioneer Route. Additionally, the 5-pitch 5.10+ Southwest Face offers good free (or free-ish) climbing with some dramatic exposure and only a touch of chossy stone. The route has updated hardware and traverses a mix of traditional and bolted terrain. Lastly, the Tammy Joe Memorial route, a modern 5.11+ sport affair reportedly located on the proud arĂȘte just left of the Southwest Face offers the hard wo/men something to get excited about as well. The best season for Steins is probably fall when the larch trees in the valley below turn gold.
Wolf Rock

The sunny southeast face of Wolf Rock (45 minute drive NE of Blue River, Oregon) offers some of the longer crag routes in Oregon. From rarely repeated aid climbs to modern, mostly bolted pitches, and the in-between, classic Barad-Dur route, an 8-pitch 5.11- (or 5.10 A0) that features a mix of updated and original fixed gear as well as some trad protected pitches. An easier (modernized) option is a route called Morgul Vale—similar in length and about 5.9-5.10- in difficulty depending on the variations taken. Both routes reach the summit (neither would be any fun to rappel) and feature a somewhat adventurous descent. In addition to a section in the Climbing Guide to Northwest Oregon book by Tim Olson (which also includes descriptions for the multitude of single pitch routes along the base of the wall), good information can be found online. The best season for Wolf is likely spring to early summer or fall.



Here are a couple of granite climbing options to fill up a winter or summer weekend that involves flying. Cochise Stronghold, about an hour east of Tucson, is a collection of granite domes and spires. It seems that places like Red Rocks or Joshua Tree absorb most of the climbing snowbirds migrating down from the Pacific Northwest in the winter while overlooking Cochise. If you enjoy mid-sized multi-pitch climbing (both trad and bolted), this area is well worth your effort. Pulling this off on a weekend involves flying into Phoenix on Friday night and driving about 2.5 hours. You can camp either on the east side (established) or the west side (primitive) of the Stronghold, with the two being separated by about an hour of driving time. The route options range from slabby, 10-ish pitch affairs on The Sheepshead formation (west) to steeper, more crimpy and with occasional cracks, 4-6 pitch outings on the spectacular Rockfellow Domes (east). Although there’s an outstanding 5.6 (with A0) route called What’s My Line which involves about 3 long pitches of the famous “chicken head” pulling, the options really open up at 5.10- and above. Routes such as Endgame (5 pitch, 5.10-), Days of Future Passed (4 pitch, 5.10), Absinthe of Mallet (8 pitch, 5.9+) and Abracadaver (5 pitch, 5.11-) are not to be missed. Two excellent guidebooks are available: one by Geir Hundal and one (2-volume set) by Tanya Bok. Keep in mind that many of the routes are closed for nesting birds starting in late winter.

A somewhat similar, summer-time option is the famous Needles crag in southern California. Doing this trip on a 2-day weekend involves some caffeine-enhanced driving enthusiasm as the closest airports with good connections are in the LA area. Though the colorful lichen covered granite formations remind one of Cochise, the area is more compact and the climbing routes tend to involve crisp crack systems. There are a handful of camping spots right at the trailhead and the closest town (Kernville) is about an hour’s drive away. Classic routes start at about 5.8 (e.g. White Punks on Dope) and the grades quickly increase. Moderate lines of Igor Unchained (4 pitch, 5.9) and Thin Ice (4 pitch, 5.10-) are outstanding. A new guidebook by Kris Solem is available online.

Devil's Tower


For those 4-5 day “weekends”, two monoliths offer some interesting climbing in somewhat different settings and with vastly different climbing styles.

Devils Tower in the northeastern corner of Wyoming would be a great short weekend option were it not located in the middle of nowhere. There are currently no direct flights to any nearby airports from Portland. As such, you’re looking at some flying and driving (4hrs from Billings, MT) or a ton of driving (18hrs from Portland). The destination justifies the effort, however, soaring crack systems put you on the summit of this stunning geological oddity in about 4-6 pitches. The entry level climb is the North American Classic of Durrance Route—a 6-pitch line originally rated 5.6 but this rating has crept up as a high as 5.8 in some modern descriptions. The harder but equally classic El Matador (5 pitch, 5.10+) is also not to be missed. The crowning jewel of that route is an approximate 140 ft. stem box formed by the columnar basalt that will make your calves scream. The routes are overwhelmingly crack climbs (trad) and there’s much to do in the 5.8 to 5.11 range. The KOA campground at the foot of The Tower offers decent tent sites. Though we’ve once snuck in a day of climbing in mid-February, Devils Tower is a good shoulder-season destination.

Most climbers have heard of the multi-pitch sport climbing mecca of El Potrero Chico outside of Monterrey in Mexico (itself a very reasonable place to go for 4 or 5 days). The place is indeed one of those perfect climbing-holiday destination. For something a little bit off the beaten path, with far fewer routes but equally friendly bolting, Pena de Bernal monolith in central Mexico offers enough multi-pitch climbs to justify a 4-5 day stay. Climbs that reach the summit are in the 5-6 pitch range and vary in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.12. Typically it is crimpy face climbing on some unusual but solid stone. At least two new moderate (5.10-ish) routes have gone up in the last 2 years and so it’s worthwhile to let your fingers do a bit of online exploring before you go. Older routes are described in two guidebooks available at rockclimbing-mexico.com. The logistics involve flying into either Mexico City (probably cheaper and the inner-city airport makes for some interesting driving) or Queretaro. From there you have to drive to the charming town of Bernal (one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos) in the state of Queretaro. Not sure about camping but affordable motel options seemed abundant. Good climbing and excellent gorditas.


Todra Gorge
For those times when you have a full week available, two potential destinations on two different continents should make your list: Todra Gorge in central Morocco, ideal for early to late spring (or fall); and Los Arenales in Argentina whose prime rock climbing season is in the dead of our winter.

Todra (or Todgha) Gorge, some 20 km north of the town of Tinghir, is an about one kilometer long, dramatically narrow cleft with limestone walls. The climbs are up to a few hundred meters long (about 10 pitches) and the vast majority of the classics are essentially bolted (though a few friends might come in handy). The rock is a sharp, golden color limestone and the geometry of the gorge makes it possible to tailor your climbs to sunny vs. shady faces depending on the ambient temperature. Two classic lines that are not to be missed are Tiwira (8 pitches, 6a+) and Voie Abert a.k.a. Classic (9 pitches, 6b). Both easier and harder options are available with just enough multi-pitch climbing to last about a week. The recommended place to stay is at the Tiwira Guest House some 15-20 minute walk from most climbs. Here you’ll not only find a very welcoming family atmosphere (including home-cooked, tagine meals), but you can also get advice and a general area orientation from the local climber Abdul. In addition, cab rides from and to Marrakesh (the closest international airport, some 6–7 scenic driving hours away and, in 2017, about 140 Euros each way) can be pre-arranged through Abdul and his family (brah.fadil_85@hotmail.com). On rest days, you can check out Kasbah, the next-door hike in the surrounding mountains, or take a taxi to the nearby (2 hrs.) Dades Gorge for some sightseeing.

Los Arenales Valley
Los Arenales is an alpine valley in the Argentinian foothills of the Andes some 3-4 hours driving time from the town of Mendoza. It features some excellent granite trad climbing on buttresses and towers up to 500 meters in length (though the vast majority of the routes are a bit shorter). Although there are probably a few weeks’ worth of classic moderate lines here, our favorites included Mejor No Hablar de Ciertas Cosas or MNHCC route on El Cohete (~11 pitches, 6b) and Armonica en Campanille (7 pitches, 6a+). The logistics involve flying into Mendoza, renting a car and stocking up on food supplies (as well as some excellent local Malbec), then driving south, and either car camping or hiking up valley some 20 minutes to a “refugio” that offers an enclosed cooking space. Once established in camp, the majority of the climbs can be done tent-to-tent in a day. We have found the weather here to be more stable than crags further south (e.g. Frey or Cochamo in Chile). All the climbing beta can be found in the new guidebook arenalesclimbing.com.


Really, the only limitations here are the budget and your imagination. Trips longer than a week are usually reserved for those destinations that are either a little bit harder to access and/or have slightly more unstable weather. Two possible locales that fit this bill are the Dolomites in northeastern Italy (great for the height of our summer) and the Australian island of Tasmania (ideal during the depths of our winter). Both involve flying in, renting a car, and driving yourself to the multitude of climbs that each area has to offer. Neither require visas and both can be planned as a mix of camping and hotel or alpine hut stays. Both can have capricious weather: 2 or 3 days of rain followed by a couple days of climbable conditions.

The Dolomites are a range of steep, limestone mountains—picture brightly colored, jagged peaks contrasting with the picturesque verdant valleys below. Many airports would work as access points and we’ve used both Munich (just over the border in Germany) as well as Venice for our trips there. The classic routes span a wide range of difficulties (5.4 and up) and the lengths can be tailored to one’s desires; from a few pitches and up to 15 or more. The classic routes have some in-situ protection, mainly fixed pitons of questionable quality, and most belays are fixed (though almost never with modern bolts). A light to mid-sized trad rack is almost always a necessity. There are simply too many classic routes to list, but the ones we found memorable were the famous Spigolo Giallo on Cima Piccola (13 pitches and 5.9) and the Comici route on the north face of Cima Grande (16 pitches and 5.10)—both are in the Tre Cime di Lavaredo area. We also enjoyed the 18-pitch (5.9ish) Pillar Rib on Tofana di Rozes and the Tissi route on the south face of Torre Venezia (15 pitch, 5.8). Very good climbing information can be found in the book by Kohler and Memmel (English edition available).

The rock climbs in Tasmania cannot match the length of the Dolomite classics but what they lack in scale, they more than make up for in variety: from dramatic sea stacks that often require a swim to access, to the multi-pitch splitter crack routes of the Ben Lomond Plateau (a bit like Devils Tower), to the granite domes of the Freycinet Peninsula. There is even some suburban cragging at Mt. Wellington located high above the island’s principle town of Hobart. Both the west side and the interior of the island feature some multi-pitch mountain routes (Frenchman Cap) but the weather never cooperated sufficiently for us to attempt them during our two week stay. With a longish approach hike, a mandatory swim and two exciting tyroleans to set up, climbing The Candlestick sea stack was likely the highlight of our trip. Good and free climbing data can be found at thesarvo.com/confluence/display/thesarvo/Tasmania. Otherwise, a book of select climbs by Gerry Narkowicz can be purchased online.