Mixed Feelings

Lately, I’ve not been taking advantage of the playground in my backyard enough, Rocky Mountain National Park. When Tyler Kempney asked if I wanted to climb Mixed Emotions, M5- WI4 (or Mixed Feelings – the name seems to be a bit interchangeable) I said yes. Although I prefer sticking my tools in ice, I haven’t mixed climb in a while.

After an hour and a half detour (we took the wrong trail), we made it to the Loch Vale cragging area. There was a guided group on Mixed Feelings, so we each got a lap on Crystal Meth, a dirty looking WI4. The guided group didn’t do the mixed line, so the hanging dagger looked untouched.

Tyler led through the dry traverse, climbing on the rock with his gloved hands and placing cams in the horizontal crack. There’s a fixed pin with an old sling right below the curtain that he tried to back up with a marginal #1 cam. The ice didn’t inspire confidence, looking quite dry and in need of refreshing, and Tyler tested a couple of different entry points.

Once established on the ice above the dagger we all relaxed a bit. I was unsure of whether the dagger would hold. I kept telling myself, “If the dagger breaks, keep shooting!”

It’s a fun classic. Great job Alex Lowe!

I need to get out on some more adventures. Hit me up with ideas!

Yosemite: an Introduction

Last month I took a job rigging ropes for a video shoot in Yosemite. I took the job knowing nothing about the details of the shoot, other than I would be rigging for another video guy (unnamed at the time, ending up being Andrew Peterson). The video we were shooting for followed a Danish TV investigative reporter, Morten Spiegelhauer, along a year long journey into rock climbing, seeing how dealing with fear on the rock changed his decision making process in everyday life. Morten had come to Yosemite a year ago to start the journey with Hans Florine, who holds the speed record for climbing the Nose of El Capitan (31 pitches in 2 hours and 23 minutes). Through mental and physical training, Morten culminated the experience by leading several trad pitches on El Capitan. It was awesome seeing his cool headed approach to leading, with only 4 trad leads under his belt previously.

I flew into Salt Lake City at 1am, arriving late because a woman with a carry-on dog refused to make her dog sit under the seat in front of her. After taxiing to the runway, we had to return to the gate so she could be escorted off the plane, screaming profanities, and the other passengers clapped once she was gone.

Andrew met me outside the airport with his Diesel Jeep Liberty, having slept for 3 hours in preparation for our 12 hour all night haul to The Valley. We made it somewhere into Nevada, but even with switching off driving we had to stop and sleep. Google was telling me we’d arrive 3 hours before we had to be there, so I reasoned we could sleep for two hours. We pulled off onto some gravel country road and made a quick bivvy.

photo by Andrew Peterson

After a mandatory In-n-Out stop outside of Sacramento, we started the drive back east towards Yosemite. We knew we were in a hurry (unnecessarily so, we beat the rest of the crew), but we stopped to take photos.

This being both of our first times in Yosemite, driving in was pretty magical. There are 3,000 foot cliffs towering over you with waterfalls dumping huge amounts of water on every side. The sun filters through the thick trees as slowly drive the one way road. Around every corner you catch sight of the sites you’ve heard of before: Horestail Falls, Bridalveil falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.

El Capitan towering over Southside Drive

Yosemite Falls, taken through the sunroof

We met up with Hans Florine and the Danish crew in the meadow below El Capitan, discussing our plans for the shoot. Morten, the subject of the video, wanted a warmup climb to get used to the rock, so Hans took us to climb Pine Line (thin 5.7) and the first pitch of Salathe (5.10c, dual crack fingers!!). We had limited time, so I top roped Salathe, with Hans telling me I only had 8 minutes to climb the 120′ route. It was a fun exercise in speed crack climbing, with Hans yelling, “30 seconds!”, “10, 9, 8…”

We reconvened with the rest of the crew, who were scouting locations and doing timelapses, and jet off to Hans’s Basecamp. We ate well for the week, having grilled steaks and pork pretty much every night (except on the wall).

The last light bouncing off of El Capitan

Dusk scene from Tunnel View

The next morning we do another warmup climb, with the full crew out taking video. I take Andrew up some variation of After Six so he can shoot down on Morten and Hans.

At the top of Manure Pile Buttress, waiting for Morten to finish the climb

Hans Florine in his natural environment

After we got down, Andrew and I went into full tourist mode. We drove around the loop, 1 mile, taking us an hour and half (mostly because of construction). We stopped at Yosemite Falls to get a closer look. There’s really not a great viewpoint of the falls that doesn’t include being sprayed with ice cold water and high winds, so we left the path and found some cool boulders.

These rocks are constantly wet with the spray from Yosemite Falls. It amazes me that it doesn’t look even more rainforesty

This couple has the right idea

We then drive the 45 minutes up to Glacier Point, overlooking Half Dome. It’s pretty incredible. Click on the image to see bigger

Andrew wanted to get a timelapse of the last light on El Capitan and climbers’ headlamps from Tunnel View. I wandered off, following random trails on the side of the mountain over the Tunnel chasing the sun.

I never got to the point where I could see around the other side of the mountain, but looking back, I found these amazing wild flowers with the entire Yosemite Valley behind them. To get this photo, I was precariously perched on loose soil, holding onto a tree above a couple hundred foot cliff. I wished I had had my climbing equipment.

I made my way back to Tunnel View, where Andrew was still working on his timelapses. These guys were too cute not to get a photo of.

Looking up at the El Capitan headwall from pitch 4 anchors

This was my first time in Yosemite. This was my first time on a big wall. The most pitches I’ve done in one push is eleven, I think. I’ve never ascended (climbed a rope fixed to anchors rather than climbing the rock) more than one pitch (100-ish feet) at a time. I typically do not have problems with heights or fear while climbing.

This time I was legitimately terrified, more so than I can remember in recent history. Climbing someone else’s old climbing rope they retired and donated as a fixed rope that has been hanging for an unknown amount of time in unknown weather conditions and is in an unknown state of health, attached to unknown anchors did not inspire confidence in me. I was attached with two Petzl ascenders that lock in one direction, which allows me to move up but will not slide down the rope unless I remove them from the rope. Both ends of the ropes were attached to anchors, but if for some reason the rope above me snapped, my ascenders would fly off the loose end instead of allowing me to stay attached to the anchor below. All of this is pretty irrational fear as these ropes are used quite often by climbers descending from Freeblast or by Jimmy Chin and other filmmakers to get to different vantage points.

Also, adding to my fear was the 50lb haul bag riding below my feet. Every step that I took into my stirrup attached to my ascender pulling on the frayed rope, I was adding 50 more pounds. I think if it had just been my weight, the fear would have been a lot less.

Every time I attached myself to an anchor, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Every time I had pulled out all the stretch in the old dynamic ropes and I had to transfer all of my hopes and dreams onto that rope, I had to overpower my fear…”F*$& F*$& F*$& F*$&”…”Guh, just go, the only way out of this is up!”. Six pitches up, I reach the Heart Ledge, and I finally am able to breathe normal again. There was a fixed line on the 5.10 up to the Mammoth Terraces, which I was happy I wouldn’t have to lead on the one static line we brought up.

Andrew jugging up the fixed line to the Pitch 4 Anchors

Andrew topping out pitch 5

After a final struggle to get my haul bag unstuck in the corner roof of the 5.10 I made it to the Mammoth Terraces and traverse the wide ledge to the anchors above Pitch 10 of Freeblast. Hans, Eric (Han’s employee), and Morten are just starting into pitch 6. I quickly rigged our static line to the anchor so Andrew could rappel down and shoot them on the exposed face before they were hidden by the Ear of Pitch 8 (or Half-Dollar). Andrew rappelled down to pitch 9, to shoot Hans coming over the edge of the “Half Dollar”.

Eric Griffith leading pitch 9, Hans Florine belaying, and Andrew Peterson jugging the static line

While Andrew was shooting them below where I could have a decent shot from the top, I took the opportunity to change. But I couldn’t resist getting naked and taking photos from ~ halfway up El Capitan.

Morten led the final pitch, and I captured video of him topping out. Andrew and I continued shooting video with the little remaining light before setting up our bivvies on the ledges. I took some opportunity to take photos in the fading light.

The weather on the ledges was perfect, good temps and very little wind. The stars came out in full force. I balanced my camera on the ledge to get this long exposure.


My sleeping quarters for the night

While on the ledges, we tried to stay connected to the rope via ferrata setup by Hans from the bolts on Mammoth Terraces. While sleeping, I remained attached to the via ferrata and clipped my sleeping bag to the fixed line to Heart Ledge, since it was conveniently located. I did not consider that someone might be climbing up from Heart Ledge early in the morning. I woke up to my sleeping bag getting tugged towards the ledge and a very sweaty Jimmy Chin, National Geographic photographer and film maker, popped up onto the ledge. “Oh, hey Jimmy,” I said super casually. “Go back to sleep! Go back to sleep,” he said as he stepped over me. It was like a weird Santa Claus moment.

We saw Alex Honnold climbing up pitch 6 on Freeblast (Freerider), and figured Jimmy was filming him on some unknown project. Little did we know that Alex was training for his now famous free solo a week and half later.

On the ground again, looking back up at where we spent the night

The majesty of El Capitan. Alex Honnold and crew are the little specs in the shaded area

Andrew really wanted to get his timelapse from Tunnel view and was electing to stay up all night working on it. I went with him, getting a few shots I really wanted.

El Cap and Half Dome from the other side of the Tunnel

Moving the tripod, happy little accidents

Sunrise over the Dome

Andrew getting one last shot before we left Yosemite

Yosemite was amazing! I definitely want to go back and climb more, though I haven’t made up my mind whether I want to do big walls or not. There is tons of climbing away from the crowds to be done. We had bluebird weather all week, which is amazing for climbing, but not ideal for photography. I wished that we’d had a bit of inclimate weather to give the valley a bit more drama.

Till next time…

The Stars from Escalante

Colorado has some incredible and unique landscapes. Many are slammed with tourists, but there are some that are much less known. Escalante Canyon is one of those. Similar rock to the Westgate Sandstone Cracks of Indian Creek, this canyon attracts trad climbers, hikers, and ATV-ers.

I didn’t shoot any climbing because I was too busy climbing! Can’t wait to get back there!

Climbing the East Face of Notch Top with Skis

I was supposed to be in Indian Creek, but scheduling got a bit messed up. So I was unexpectedly in Boulder for the weekend. My buddy Eric Poore hit me up and asked if I wanted to ski the East Face of Notch Top in Rocky Mountain National Park. I didn’t really know what that entailed, but I said sure.

The East Face of Notch Top

The trail to the base of Notchtop is relatively flat, but skinning over the iced over bootpacks was less than enjoyable. I decided I didn’t really want to do the traverse back.

Eric gearing up to lead a short rock pitch before gaining the snow climb

Eric races skimo, meaning he skis uphill really fast, skis down really fast, and repeats. He’s fit. He absolutely destroyed me on the bootpack. I asked him to stop so I’d have something to take photos of.

Photo Credit: Eric Poore. Fully loaded, climbing styrafoam ice with non-existent gear. The nut on my left was just good enough to stay in un-weighted.

Eric just below the 3rd pitch of ice. Most of the bottom section disintegrated as I kicked in.

Photo Credit: Eric Poore. Me slogging my way up the last pitch of snow to the ridgeline where we dropped into Notchtop Spire Couloir.
The giant cornice over the East Face. We tried to stay out from under it as much as possible.
View down Notchtop Spire Couloir and across to Flattop and Flattop Gully, which we climbed to get out of Odessa Gorge
The sun had been hitting the east and south faces pretty hard, and the conditions were pretty soft. We elected not to ski the East Face, but down the Spire Couloir, which skied pretty fantastically.

Eric looking back at what we just skied
Getting out of Odessa Gorge we decided to not climb the easy way out, the slope above us, but the “S” couloir of Flattop Gully. It was a bit longer, definitely steeper, but maybe more entertaining?
View from Flattop Gully of Notchtop.

The last climb out spent the last of my energy. The snow wasn’t being cooperative, and I kept sinking back with every step. Within 100 feet of the summit I decided to try mix climbing the rocks instead. I got stumped by a featureless bulge and was about to head back to the snow when I found a small crack seam that took me in the direction I wanted to go. Laying back on the seam, yarding on my ice tools, I got myself probably 30 or 40 feet above my starting point. The crack petered out and I had to do some balancy slab climbing moves, scary in crampons. Getting locked into another crack system I made my way to the summit, glad that scaring myself drytooling didn’t turn out badly. As soon as I reached the summit I found out that I barely had control of my legs on flat ground. They were exhausted. Apparently I need to train for Skimo races with Eric.

The walk across the snowless summit of Flattop took me far too long. We decided to drop into Tyndall Gorge via the Tyndall Headwall, which was incredibly steep. It skied pretty well, but soon all of Tyndall Gorge was in shadow and the sun softened snow hardened immediately.

Without full control of my legs and wretched snow conditions, I felt like I’d never skied before. Thankfully, Eric was waiting patiently for me at Emerald Lake. I’d asked for a big day, and he had delivered. I haven’t been that tired in a while.

Cuba Part III

The taxi came right at 9, I was quite surprised by its timeliness. A classic maroon 4×4 that spewed black exhaust every time it accelerated, the model I couldn’t figure out. I was directed to sit in the rear, on a small bench facing the opposite side. I was in with the luggage, just like it always was on family vacations when I was a kid. Five other foreigners joined us, filling the luggage compartment. A young lawyer from Switzerland and Portugal joined me in the back, separated from the rest by the wall of luggage. We struggled to find a comfortable way to sit on the tiny seats.

In general, most travelers you meet in places like this are agreeable, easy to get along with. But every once in awhile I come across a westerner that conflicts with something inside my inner being, I despise their presence before they even open their mouths. I met such a man in the collectivo. The 4×4 taxi sat parked in the narrow street of Chinatown for 30 minutes waiting for the skinny, hunched, no neck man in his late 30s with shifty eyes partially obscured by aviator sunglasses. I feel like it’s rare to come across a face more in want of being punched. I’m not a violent man, but my fists clenched unintentionally when his image was burned into my brain. Then he opened his mouth, every word spoken with an angry self-importance which just intensified my desire to hit him. I don’t know what causes such a animalistic response to someone’s mere presence. I wish I did.

Cuba seems to be mostly flat farmland, but towards the end of the two and half hour journey we left the highway and got on a narrow, winding mountain road, mountains that are very reminiscent of Thailand, Laos and China.

Viñales is a small, colorful town where every house seems to have a room for rent. Lots of tourists come here to explore the coffee plantations and take horseback rides. Everyone seems to be surprised I’m staying for eight days. Most are here for only a day or two.

The driver dropped me off in the central park. I asked a local if they could call my AirBnB host, when soon enough a man comes by asking if I’m Scott. We walked further than I would have liked from the main strip into a quiet neighborhood and are greeted by a lovely, girl-next-door sort of brunette white young woman. Marisex (Marisay?) is the owner of the Casa Particular, and is expanding. Her mother is the cook and her boyfriend, a lawyer, seems to run all her errands.

I settled into my small but nice room and ask for a suggestion for lunch. The boyfriend led me to a restaurant filled with tour bus patrons, but with an awesome view of the mountains and limestone cliffs. The menu didn’t have any prices, so I asked. $10 for any item which included the “buffet style appetizers”. I don’t know what they meant by buffet style, but they just kept dropping off more and more food on my table. There was no way one person could eat even close to all of that.

I’d been communicating with Raul via Facebook before my trip, and he found me at my table. He announced he was taking some friends climbing and described how to find them at the cliff. After I finished what I could of the meal, I changed and went looking for Raul.

The road gets progressively worse as you walk further from town, and digresses to a dirt path. I reached a metal gate with the sign, “la cueva de la Vaca,” (the cave of the cow), and followed the arrow to a group of small houses. The path continues through the patio of one small hut, which offers fruit and drinks to the hikers and climbers who pass through. From there you can see the cave where Raul told me to meet him. There are a hundred broken concrete steps that lead straight up the mountain to the entrance of the cave.

George and Imarta were preparing to climb a 5.10c. It was their last day in Viñales, and they were trying to make the most of their five days here. The next morning they were returning to Havana where they are professional dancers. George let me climb the route with the condition that I cleaned it.

After I cleaned the route George asked if I wanted to do one more. He pointed out a line of bolts that skirted the entrance to the cave I later realized passed all the way through the mountain. I jumped on, unsure of the grade, but it looked easy enough. I clipped the first two bolts with no problem. As I reached toward an undercling I felt a sharp pain in my right arm. I looked to see a swarm of wasps coming out of the undercling. Another stung my arm as I swatted them away and simultaneously moved up the rock to the left, away from the bolt line. The wasps gave up as I moved a satisfactory distance from their nest. I had officially met the Avispo de Viñales. I finished the route, moving around their nest to the left and extending a draw from the route to the left. I think I missed the crux because the route I did didn’t seem to have a crux besides the wasps.

Raul, Henry, and Tito were trying a hard route with an extension out the roof of the cave, which they thought was 5.13. I watched them climb the first part before the extension and thought it looked fun. Raul told me it went at 5.12b. The draws were already up, so I might as well try it. Raul shouted Beta as he belayed me, not expecting me to get far since I told him I generally climb 6c/6c+ (5.11c/d). The route was powerful and gymnastic, just my style, and with Raul’s beta I ended up flashing the route which went through a series of toufas and stalagtites! I hadn’t sent 12b before, so that is very exciting!

Raul cleaned the route on top rope, flying up with no problems. It was getting a bit dark, but he recommended I try a 6c+ before I left for the night. I got into the crux and fell several times in a row, getting my right hand stuck in the sharp pocket. The light was low and Raul recommended I try again later. He finished the route easily and cleaned it.

I was still full from the massive lunch, so I skipped dinner and took a short nap before going back to the parque central to meet all the climbers at 10pm. I was finally a bit hungry and went to grab a sandwich for dinner.

Three fat, older Israeli men (who easily could have been mistaken for cubano) sauntered down the street and into the small restaurant. “I want a cola,” said one. “I want orange juice. Oraannge Juice,” said another to the server who looked lost. “orange juice. Orange Juice!!” he said again. I spoke up. “Jugo de Naranja.” The server understood and left. “Why doesn’t anyone here speak English,” said one of the men in a heavy Israeli accent. I laughed. “You’re in Cuba!” I thought to myself. I chatted with the men from my table, and they continuously conferred amongst themselves for the correct translation in English. They barely spoke English; I laughed more to myself.

I stayed in the plaza with Raul and the other climbers, as they were wishing the prohibition of Fidel would be lifted. Finally I said my goodbyes just before midnight.

The breakfast Marisé made for me was far too much for one person to eat: an omelet; 3 pancakes (the flat, dense, sweet kind, more similar to a crepe, that most places outside of the US make); a plate full of sweet bananas, pineapple, and papaya (which for some reason is always terribly disagreeable to me, the smell and taste are nauseating); bread with butter and chunks of ham and cheese; and some sort of pie, maybe coconut, with flan?? I think. I made a dent and definitely didn’t eat lunch.

Raul greeted me in the street outside of a casa particular where he was waiting for two guys he was guiding for climbing. I was joining and helping put up easy routes for the two. Andrew from Seattle and Johannes from Austria had both climbed a little before. Raul took us to another area, further south than the Cueva de la Vaca, a narrow slot between two tall cliffs, maybe 15 feet apart. We climbed three 5.8s for the two, and I tried an 5.11c. I fell at the powerful crux, not seeing a jug on the top of a toufa nor the feet in the low light of the cave. Raul put up and Andrew attempted a 5.10c. For me this climb was pure type 1 fun. Big moves through a long overhang on amazing holds. I kept shouting, “wow! The perfect hold!”

After collecting the gear from his clients, Raul wanted to go to the cave and climb with his friends, but when we got close, all of them were on their way out. It was maybe 3:30 and just getting to the right time for climbing in the cave, but at 4pm the prohibition ended and everyone wanted to drink.

We climbed onto the roof of Henry’s bare bones house still under construction while Raul went to find rum. Raul’s best friend, Fidel, described for me how close knit their friend-group is. I’m always jealous when I find friends like this because it’s something I’ve never really had, being the social butterfly jumping between too many friend-groups. (Also, how Cuban – Raul and Fidel).

By 4:30 I was drunk on Havana Club (I quite like their spiced rum). I understood very little of what was actually said between friends, but they were hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was thankful that such a tight knit group allowed a stranger into their circle.

We separated to get food and then met at 10 in the plaza, like every night. More rum flowed and kept finding a full glass in my hands. Thankfully, I remembered to drink water before I passed out, and I woke up with no hangover.

Marisé had set up a touristy horse ride for me, and a man with a bicycle walked me to a tobacco plantation where the tour began. A man with character and decent English pulled a group of foreigners into a barn and described how tobacco plants are selected and grown, and why Cuba makes the best tobacco. He then showed us how they roll the cigars and gave us each one to smoke. For the best cigars they take out the stem of the leaf which apparently contains the nicotine, so the cigars had a very neutral odor and flavor, far less harsh than anything I’ve smoked. They used honey as the glue to keep the cigar together, and dip the mouth end in honey, so you get a sweet flavor through the smoke.

The horse I got really liked to trot, the bounciest thing to ride. Walking is somewhat smooth, and when a horse breaks into a canter or gallop it’s easy for your body to move with the horse’s. Trotting jars your body with every step, but I finally figured out why English Style makes sense, standing in the stirrups and sitting in the saddle in a rhythm that matches the trotting, making it a far less jarring experience. It would have been easier if I didn’t have a backpack full of photo gear bouncing with every step.

My guide took me solo along the established tourist route, stopping at a coffee plantation and a beautiful vista. I tried to take portraits of as many of the farmers that caught my eye, but I had yet to capture a portrait I really loved.

I know my Canon system inside and out, but I brought my Sony camera and Flashpoint strobes. With my Canon I can set my camera to aperture priority ⅔ stops underexposed and set the off camera flash to plus ⅓ automatic exposure, and the mix of overall exposure and added light is beautiful and just a bit past natural looking. Most viewers wouldn’t notice that it’s artificially lit. The results on the Sony and Flashpoint with the same settings are completely unpredictable, but the strobe is typically the key element of the exposure, making the appear very artificial. I can find the right mixture with manual, but it takes experimentation and time that my subjects don’t always give me.

I had worn shorts, which was a mistake, my legs rubbing on the leather saddle. My butt was also quite sore by the end of the 4 hour tour.

I found Raul guide two girls from Bulgaria in another area of the climbing. The girls were beginners and already tired by the time I arrived. Raul was going to set up a rope swing in the cave and invited me to come. We climbed the steps to the cave and Henry and Fidel were waiting for us. Raul climbed a long, severely overhung 7b+ twice to prepare rope, once leading and again to clean. The other end of the rope is walked/climbed to a comfortable stance between a stalactite and the wall. The swing takes you far out into space beyond the cave and pendulums you back toward the rock. It was definitely a freeing feeling.

A house I passed everyday walking to the climbing at Cueva de la Vaca

The two girls invite us to join them and several more friends from Bulgaria for a family style dinner at the cafeteria next to the climbing area. I arrived after dark and Raul, an older farmer that runs the farm, was waiting expectantly. No one else was there yet and he had prepared an impressive table of food. He asked where the others were, but I had no idea. I had had no contact with them. We waited till 8:30 and Pablo got increasingly more anxious. Finally they showed up, the two girls and two couples. We had quite interesting discussions on politics, traditions, families, relationships, and the state of North Korea.

The food was served family style with plantain and banana chips as starters. We had some sort of meaty, salty blackened fish, and goat with the bones just chopped into it making it hard to eat with any real style. There were green beans, a pear/potato like fruit called choyote with a nice subtle flavor and a similar starch called chuma/Yuma? Both were quite nice.

I was just glad not to be eating another meal alone. I expressed thanks that six Bulgarians were speaking English so one American could be a part of the conversation. They said something to the effect of, “we can barely understand each other in Bulgarian, so why not English?”

I met Fidel and Raul in the plaza and went into the bar next door with a live band playing pretty amazing regatone and salsa.

I woke up late and rushed to meet Raul in the plaza. He was helping me find subjects to shoot and working as my assistant. We went back to old Raul’s farm and took portraits of several of the workers and an older woman in a house a bit further away. After, Raulito found some La Sportiva Solutions that were the perfect fit so I didn’t have to walk all the way back to my casa, and we went up to the cave.

I climbed an overhanging 11a, scaring up wasps every several feet. I did not want to get stung again and tried to stay at a safe distance from them, the crux of the send. Raul cleaned the route, stopping to swing his chalk bag at the wasps, destroying the nests and scaring away the wasps he didn’t kill. He came down upset, two wasps had stung him.

After I jumped on the severely overhanging 12b(7b) that Raul had climbed to set up the rope swing. The first part was maybe 11b, and you skip some anchors, back clean a couple bolts while moving between stalactites in the roof and get a no – hands rest, straddling a stalactite, before attacking 20 feet or so of 35 – 40 degree roof. I fell making the last move, a mono for your right hand, an undercling for the left. I moved my feet up, and my finger in the mono was stuck and quite painful. After taking and changing the finger in the mono, I made the throw to the last jug before clipping the anchors.\

I was absolutely wiped after. Raul cleaned again, stopping to swat some more wasps and getting a couple more stings.

While we were shooting, my legs suddenly became very itchy. Raul said maybe it was ticks, which I thought he was misinterpreting chiggers. When I got back to my room I used the flashlight on my phone and started seeing barely visible objects moving on my legs. Looking closer, they were in fact tiny tiny ticks looking to bury their tiny tiny heads in my skin. I pulled off probably close to 50. I must have crouched in a nest in a field while I was shooting. I’m hoping they are all gone.

I received several emails in a row about job requests, all for the week I was supposed to get back in Boulder. I’m thinking of cutting my trip short and buying a new ticket home Sunday night, skipping 2 days in Cuba and a day in Miami. I would have to forfeit my original ticket, but it could be worth it.

I found a last minute ticket on Delta for $180 from Havana to Denver on Sunday, which simplified my return by quite a bit. I was going to have to get to Santa Cruz from Havana, then I had a 24hr layover in Miami before finally returning to Denver on Tuesday. I bought my original tickets from Miami round trip for $205, then used Southwest points to get to Miami. But it ended up being a pretty big hassle since Southwest flies into Ft Lauderdale and I flew out of Miami. On the way in, I ended up having to pay for a hotel room in Miami which pretty much negated any savings I made by this schedule. So, by just missing my original return flight (net loss $102.50) I didn’t have to take a taxi to Santa Cruz ($25), find two more Casa Particulars ($40), pay for a hotel in Miami ($80) and Uber to Ft Lauderdale ($45). I guess I saved $90….oh and I got my Southwest points back to use again later.

I was planning on going to the beach with Raul today. I woke up early to try and rent a scooter, but I could not find one available in all of Viñales. So, I thought I could quickly buy an Internet card. I stood in line behind maybe 5 people waiting for the telecommunications company to open its doors. I was in line for over an hour. It’s amazing how slow some people can move. An Israeli man came in line after me and we talked for a bit, the usual things travellers talk about. But then I realized that they might ask for my passport, which I don’t carry. The Israeli man asked if they would take Euros. He told me they will definitely want my passport and I told him they definitely won’t take euros. So we ended up combining forces. He provided identification and I paid for his card as well as mine. He then paid me back in US dollars.

My climbing pack had been quite badly ripped for some time, I had performed ill-advised surgery on it, causing it to rip even more. I walked past a warehouse full of women wearing matching candystriper uniforms working away behind ancient looking industrial sewing machines. Raul had mentioned that one of them women might be able to fix my bag. I ask the man who appeared to be in charge, and he disappears with it into a back room, motioning one of the women to follow him. After 20 minutes or so, the woman comes back out with my bag looking better than it had in years! I ask how much. “No es nada,” she said with a smile. It’s nothing. I insist, but she insisted harder.

I ran into an American climbing guide who had come to check out La Cueva de la Vaca the day before. He had come solo and was looking for someone to climb with, which was perfect. I had neither rope nor draws, and since I wasn’t going to the beach I might as well climb.

I took Pete to the other side of the cave which has morning shade. It was definitely cooler than climbing in the sun, but not by much. The air was perfectly still and the humidity swallowed us. We climbed a 6a, 6a+, 6b, 7a+ (5.12a, but definitely easier than a lot of 11s I’ve climbed). By the time we finished these it was 2:30, perfect time for the sun to be leaving La Cueva de la Vaca. Pete put up the draws on the 7a/7a+ that I’d failed to finish a few days before, struggling at the crux but sending. I led again and felt much better going into the crux, but a foot slipped and I fell. When I tried the move again, right hand in a painful undercling, left hand on a bad pinch, feet awkward, I was able to get my left foot high and reach static with my left hand to the good pocket. Pete said it looked far too easy. He convinced me to leave the draws and try again. He then onsighted Wasp Factory (7b, but more realistically 7a). I tried the 7a+ again, failing again to go static to the pocket. Once again trying the move I was able to go static. I was pretty tired after and told Pete I would belay him, but I was done. He tried La Playa (7b+) at my recommendation, but futzed around on several parts, tiring himself out before he reached the crux, at the top of severe overhang making several hard moves separated by short rests on stalactites. Because it is so overhung it’s pretty much impossible to clean while on lead, so I volunteered to try to follow it. I ended up feeling quite good, floating up the 6c+ first section and through the 7a+ section before the severe overhang. One of the cruxes felt pretty strange, and I don’t remember how I pulled through on my onsight attempt, but the last crux went much better. From a rest on a small stalactite, my right hand was on an undercling of another small stalactite, my left foot pasted on the side of the resting stalactite and my right toe hooked behind it. My left hand went a little far left to a pretty good undercling. With the right toe hook, I could move my right hand to a mono I took with my pointer finger. I bumped my left hand far left to a small but positive flake. Moving my right foot to the smaller stalactite, I set myself up for the dyno to the finish hold, a thin but positive triangle flake. Pete was thankful he didn’t have to climb it again, mentally preparing for the possibility if I was too tired.
We made plans to climb the next day and separated to find dinner. I was going to go back to the plaza after a shower, but… sleep.

I ate breakfast at the casa and walked to meet Pete and two Germans in the plaza. We were taking a taxi to a climbing area a few kilometers north, Cuba Libre, above a cabaret club built into a cave.

The taxi driver promised to come back at 6 to pick us up, and we found our way through the jungle to the steep approach trail, 5.2 scramble up loose rock. Pete had downloaded the guide book on his phone and went to work locating the climbs. We warmed up on the easiest climb that wasn’t in sun, a 6c that was very difficult to spot the bolts from the ground. It was incredibly weird, awkward movement to get through, around, and over several stalactite features. Not my favorite. Pete lead and it was overhanging enough that I needed to follow to clean.

We jumped straight onto a 7b/7b+ we thought was called Moscow Mule, but wound up being a new climb not in the guidebook. It was proper hard and realistically 12a, but very good. Steep climbing out several stalactites brought you to the crux, a bit of an awkward stance on mediocre holds and a deadpoint/dyno cross with the left hand to a progressively better hold the higher up right you go. With 2 inch advantage on me, Pete was able to get it a bit easier. But after you’ve expended your energy on the dyno, the struggle isn’t over. Several big moves left, then right, then left, then right lead you to another crux, a throw to a die shaped hold and cross with the right to a better hold, this being your first rest since before the first crux. To gain the ledge both Pete and I took an extremely painful hand jam with the right and carefully move across a slab to the anchor. We both took at both cruxes the first go. Pete sent his second go and I cleaned, taking again at the first crux.

Pete climbed the route to the right, which was apparently actually Moscow Mule, but he felt the 7b rating was quite the exaggeration, 6b+/11c was more accurate. I elected to spend my limited remaining energy on the 7a+ on the arrete to the right. I got my hands mixed up in the crux and took a big whip out into space. I was able to get back to the wall by a combination of boinking and swinging, which for some reason is becoming more and more worrisome in my head. My trust in ropes and equipment is for some reason diminishing, and I can’t figure out what is going on with my head. I took another short fall at the top when another German told me the holds were left but meant right. I had found a mono crimp inside a scooped sloper and was pulling up, only to find more slopers. I had ignored a large tufa to the right that had several good holds that you couldn’t see from below. Pete climbed and fell at the top in the slopers, and I climbed again to clean, absolutely destroyed and taking my way up after the first crux. I felt my climbing trip coming to an end, my body was tired.

Pete wanted to climb a 5 star 6c in the next alcove, which required down climbing and re-approaching another sketchy loose scramble. Pete struggled through most of the climb, muttering about how terrible it is. I followed up to clean with Pete top belaying me, grabbing a couple draws instead of the shitty holds. He was not mistaken, it was an astoundingly terrible route, the 5 star rating a complete mystery.

We waited to well after dark, the taxi failing to show. A couple from Spain offered up one spot in their car, which I said Pete should take, since he spoke the best Spanish, and send back a taxi for us. A worker at the restaurant told us it was unlikely Pete would find a taxi willing to come that direction at this hour. About 20 minutes later another couple from Spain drove up with enough room for myself and the German couple. They dropped us off at a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, Pete did find a taxi and went back to find us about when we left.

The previous day my stomach had been quite unhappy. I woke up with an emergency run to the toilet and 4 or 5 more after. By 10, it had calmed enough I could go out.

I was dedicating my last day in Viñales to taking more portraits, and I figured out a system for my light where I didn’t need an assistant.

I was trying to meet Pete and Raul in the plaza before they left for climbing, but I got distracted taking a couple people’s photos. I arrived 12 minutes late and they were already gone.

I walked around the streets for three hours taking portraits of anyone that allow me. I was surprised at how willing everyone was. I would walk up to a house with everyone out on the porch and ask to take portraits. The parents would smile and send their kids out to have their pictures taken. I don’t think I had any negative responses to my request; lots of smiles and laughter.

I finally found my brain starting to make sense of Spanish, able to comprehend some of what people were saying and formulate a somewhat intelligible response, something resembling a conversation. Of course, the day before I’m leaving I’m starting to be able to effectively communicate. Everyday, Marisé’s mother asked me about my day, and I was happy I could actually respond.

Marisé called a friend who had a collectivo going to Havana and we waited on the street for them to pick me up. A panel wagon full of Europeans drove down the dusty road. A man threw my bags onto a roof rack and I took one of the last remaining seats. The wagon had two from France, two from Spain, two from Greece ( and a couple more, I can’t remember) Most were headed to Trinidad or the National Parks, I was the only one actually heading to Havana.

Listening to the two Spaniards, who were strangers to each other, converse in Spanish, I thought, “It sounds so crisp and clear!” I could understand so much of what they were saying compared to the Cubans, who’s thick accent and use of slang makes it very difficult for a novice to decipher.

The driver pulled off the highway into a rest stop and everyone was confused. The driver told everyone to get out and grab their bags from the roof. He was continuing to Havana, and I was his only passenger. Everyone else was transferred to another collectivo going to Trinidad.

The driver drops me close to the address of the AirBnB my girlfriend had booked for me (the AirBnB website refused to let me book it while currently in Cuba), and I wandered around the block looking for the correct address. I stepped into a coffee shop and asked to use their phone. The madre de casa particular told me which house it was and to ring the buzzer when I got to the door. It was a large brick building and setup much more like a guest house, taking over the entire 3rd floor with five or six separate rooms, shared living room and kitchen.

After settling into my room, I went in search of internet. I walked the several blocks to the Riviera Hotel, but as I got close I watched massive waves crash over the Malecón waterfront promenade. The high tide and an incoming storm were causing larger than normal swells. I tried my best to capture the swells without getting myself and my camera soaked.

The kids getting their internets

I had picked this casa particular because of it’s vicinity to Fabrique de Arte, a club in Vedado that featured art galleries, live music, and interesting culture events. I had been told by many people I had to check it out, including by Cubans. I arrived before the doors were supposed to open, and despite the rain showers there was a line wrapping around the block to get in.

I liked their system of payment. As you walk in you receive a card that gets filled out by the bar staff or food vendors. You hand the card to a cashier as you’re leaving at the end of the night to pay for everything all at once. If you lose your card, you pay something like $30, which depending on how much you drank, might be a deal.

I ran into some friends I made in Viñales and spend the night watching a fashion show, looking at the galleries and listening to some awesome jazz in a room that makes you forget you’re in Cuba, although I’d guess 50% of the patrons of the club are Cuban. Definitely worth going to on your trip!

The madre de casa particular called a taxi driver friend to take me to the airport and a small Russian made car arrived on the curb. I arrived at the airport several hours early, hoping to not have the same holdup I did at the Santa Cruz airport. I was let through security and immigration without issue. With two relatively quick flights I was back in Denver.

I loved my time in Cuba, despite cutting it short by two days. Travel was quite easy, the landscape beautiful, but really the best part was the people. They are so incredibly hospitable and laid back, an amazing combination. I worried going in that the people would (rightfully so) have a negative opinion of America, but everytime I answered the question, “Que pais?” “Estados Unidos” was received with a huge smile and the response “I love America!” There were more American flags worn casually on clothes than anything I’ve seen outside of a NASCAR race. I wondered to myself if they knew the extent to which the American American embargo on Cuba caused much of their country’s poverty. But they remain an beautiful, happy, fun loving people, welcoming strangers into their lives and wanting to share whatever they can. I cannot wait to go back!

Way Rambo

Finally getting some time to get to my backlog of edits. Last November I shot my badass roommate, Kathy Karlo of For the Love of Climbing, climbing the Indian Creek route Way Rambo (5.12a). It’s a stunning and jagged crack with a couple no-feet traverses. The crux is keeping the pump away through a long .75 ringlock section. It was awesome watching Kathy send and her friend, Devin Horgan, work the climb. It was also exciting to figure out how to do ringlocks for the first time! I topped roped, but in editing this post I’m getting more and more psyched to go back and try on lead.

Fall Trip to Red River Gorge

I’m from the Midwest, and I don’t particularly like leaving Colorado to go back, but I regularly have Red River Gorge, KY on mind. My girlfriend can attest that I compare pretty much every climbing experience to ‘the Red.’ Basically, most complaints fall under “it’s not overhung enough.” I was psyched when she said she needed to use 5 vacation days and wanted to see what climbing in Kentucky was all about.


Melissa getting a sit-down rest on EGBG (5.10a) before 60 feet of overhanging jugs at the Chocolate Factory

She loved it! I love it. And I can’t wait to go back.

I got to explore some new areas and go back to some of my favorites. The first day I accidentally took her to Bruise Brothers at Muir Valley (was aiming for Tectonic Wall, but I went on autopilot and walked almost all the way to BB before I realized it). Rat Stew and The Return of Manimal are superfun routes to really get you in the RRG mood. We then explored Bibliothek, an area I’d somehow never gone to before. Incredibly aesthetic, overhanging jug hauls, a less steep Motherlode. I jumped on a Josh Thurston original with a tag at the base that says 5.12a, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was psyched to get the onsight but felt it was easier than 12a. Turns out most everyone agrees that it’s 5.11c.  I then tried The Fury, which is a beautiful arching overhang that you see from across the amphitheater. My leftover pump from Unbearable was too much, and I ended up taking 2 or 3 times.

Day two we drove down to the Motherlode area by PMRP. I’d spent a lot of time at the PMRP but never stopped at the Motherlode. Cars were parked all over the road leading to the big hill down to the parking lot, which I thought was odd. In the past, this was frowned upon. As I make the turn to go down the hill, spray painted signs warn entrants, “4×4 only!!! Do not drive 2WD Down.” Typically the low flats areas are the problem, mud pits that I used to rally my Mazda Protege5 down with mostly no problem. So in my dad’s 2wd Toyota Tacoma I thought it would be fine. The hill was the worst I’ve ever seen it, enough I worried about getting stuck at the Motherlode parking lot.

“We can deal with that later.” I wanted to check out The Chocolate Factory since it had several highly rated moderates. Wonkaholic 5.10a felt quite a bit harder than the previous day’s Rat Stew. We then did EGBG, which is new and not in the book. Fantastic! Way better than Wonk.

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Melissa after finishing EGBG

I tried the fun Hip to the Jive (11b), which starts with a superfun handcrack at the bottom and moves into shallow pockets in an overhang. I missed a hold at the top while above a clip and took a 30-some foot whip, sending Melissa far into the air. My thought while falling, “Man, I hope I don’t hit that face to the left!”

We climbed the classic 10’s, just to the left of the incredible looking 5.14c, Pure Imagination. The Glass Elevator, Oompa, and Loompa. All felt hard for their grades but are fun routes.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the best part of going to Red River Gorge the first week of November was being in the magical sub-tropical forest with all the beautiful changing leaves.



We met up with an old friend and her boyfriend, and climbed at the Gallery on day 3. I forgot how awesome this place is. The classic five star warmup, 27 Years of Climbing, had a line, so I put up A Brief History of Climb (5.10b). So so very good, and incredibly beautiful arching overhang. I quickly ran up a second time with my camera so I could shoot Melissa on her Onsight attempt.



Melissa concentrating through the overhanging jugs of A Brief History of Climb

Johnny B. Good, Guernica, and Preacher’s Daughter rounded out the climbs in the main area. Preacher’s Daughter is soo soo good! (this is a continuous theme in the Red. Even 2 star routes here would be 4 star classics in most climbing areas)


Another climber on A Brief History of Climb

I tried Gold Rush with our friends, a stellar 5.11d with a stout, overhanging crimpy crux to a dyno finish. It’s exciting! Then after I was pumped out I tried Random Precision and felt rather shut down. I put up the draws again on Johnny B. Good and Melissa one hung her first 5.11a!

Thursday it was supposed to rain, so we went to the area near our cabin, Military Wall. Always a classic with climbs like Fuzzy Undercling and Tissue Tiger, it’s a safe place to climb it does start raining. The start of Fuzzy has been eroded down, and so the climb has been upgraded to 5.11b, purely because of the very powerful, hard boulder problem start, getting to the second bolt. Day four on and my skin was finally tired after pulling on the crimp undercling too many times. once to the second clip you get to enjoy overhung plate goodness to a no-hands knee bar rest and fun jugs to the finish. Our friends put up Tissue Tiger (5.12b), so I gave it a try. I was very surprised how easy the bottom 3/4’s of the climb felt, just good-enough jugs to a couple of rests. But then you hit a series of big moves through powerful crimps and side-pulls. It’s going to take me a few more times of sussing out the crux before I’m able to clip those chains.

My goal for the trip was to send one of my two 5.12a projects, so after 3 climbs on day 4 decided to take it easy, especially after the rain came. Melissa and I went to discover what Natural Bridge State Park had to offer.

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Awesome views on a moody late afternoon.

We woke up on Friday surrounded by a deep fog. I wanted to get on my project early so we could get back to Bloomington at a decent hour to see old friends. Driving to The Zoo I couldn’t help but stop and photograph this scene before sunrise.

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But even after sunrise I couldn’t help but shoot some more.

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Finally, we get to the Zoo and I warm up on my project, Hippocrite (5.12a). I thought I might send, putting up the draws, but messed up what has been my crux, clipping bolt 3. I’ve tried this climb for years, and I was ready to put it to bed.

Melissa wanted to record my attempts, which I’m happy she did. I’ve never had a video of me climbing before.


I love Red River Gorge. No matter where in the world I’m climbing, I don’t think I’ll find a place I love more. I can’t wait to come back!