Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Photo Special: The Channel of Idaho!

This fall, Kyle and I spent two days bouldering at The Channel (aka Black Magic Canyon) in central Idaho. The area is certainly unique; when you walk through the canyon you are essentially walking along a river bed that is submerged by several meters of water for half the year.  In the winter, the water that ordinarily flows through The Channel is diverted for agriculture, and so climbers have a seasonal window of opportunity (mid-October to mid-April) to enjoy the fantastically eroded shapes of the area.

Visiting the area early in the season is a bit surreal, as the walls of the canyon (and all the holds) are draped with drying algae and snails, and periodically one walks by a pile of dead fish lying among the gravels.  Despite the fact that we had to sweep off all the problems we tried, we had a fantastic time.  If you are a climber, you will be blown away; if you are a route-setter or hold-shaper you will enjoy the climbing on an even deeper level.  The Channel is all about climbing on shapes, rather than holds, and as such the bouldering is athletic without being painful, and tends to be simultaneously aesthetic and intellectual. (So yes, in terms of quality of lines and the quality of the rock, it's pretty much the best area I've ever been to; the only downside is that you are in a little canyon, so you are fairly limited in terms of view.)

At any rate, I took hundreds of photos of some of the shapes we saw in The Channel, so I thought I would share a few more with you.  Cheers!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Frankin' Time!

The weather this fall has been absolutely amazing!  I doubt there are many bouldering areas in Canada - other than Frank Slide - where climbers are out climbing in November with sunny 16C weather.  The longer I climb in southern Alberta, the more I am convinced that Frank Slide has a longer season that almost any other bouldering area in the country, with the exception of the low-altitude areas in the Okanagan like the Winter Pig Hotel.  In 2016, we've been lucky so far, and I hope the mild 'winter' weather continues for a few more months. (Fingers crossed!)

Me trying to muster the bravery for the second-last-move crux of one of the highballs on the Shield Boulder.

This fall, The Slide has seen an increase in the number of 'non-local' climbers (there really aren't any 'locals' at the Slide; all the regular climbers (the 'locals') have to drive at least an hour to get there). As the number of problems in the Slide increases (almost 1,200 now!) and the landings improve, more climbers are starting to head down (or up) to The Slide to enjoy the climbing there.  Having visitors to the Slide is fantastic, but it really drives home the need for a guidebook; navigating the Slide without one is problematic, primarily because there are few landmarks.  I've been writing and releasing mini-guides for the area (I think there are now three miniguides, which include about 400 problems), but the time is coming for me to get serious about writing a full guide for the Slide.

Josh B working the Sunny Corner Project on the Shield Boulder! Will likely be the hardest problem in Alberta if it ever goes...

New problems continue to go up every weekend in the Slide.  Josh B. has been on a rampage this fall, putting up a stack of new lines (including the impressive and dangerous Superbeast (V8) and Slippery Pete Right (V10)) while working on the Sunny Corner Project which will clock in around V13 when (if?) it goes.  Kyle, Dan, and I excavated a new landing for the Fingersmasher boulder, which produced a host of really great lines, including The Omen (V2/3) and Shallow Grave (V5ish).  Mark D added a aesthetic (but hard!) line to the boulder as well, though he has yet to cough up a name or grade (V7? V8?).

Tyler Parenteau getting serious on the Zelda Boulder in the City of Giants.

Due to the deluge of rain plaguing the west coast this fall, a strong posse of Kelowna climbers opted to visit Frank Slide instead of heading down to an uncharacteristically soggy Leavenworth.  Though a bit of the rain did manage to slip across the Rockies, Braden McCrea, David Briault, and Tyler Parenteau nonetheless had a productive trip sampling the limestone bouldering here. Braden came incredibly close to walking away with a rare send of Cognitive Dissonance (V10), but popped off the good edge at the end of the crux.  It was great to have these guys visit the area, they're a lot of fun!

The eternally-energetic Braden McCrea on Cognitive Dissonance (V10) and the classic compression line Sunspot (V5).  The Kelownians didn't have ideal weather, but still managed to get a lot done!

Huge thanks to Davin Simmons for sending along the photos!  Hopefully we'll get several more weeks of warm weather, there is always a lot to do at Frank Slide.  Also, I'll get a Photo Special blog post online with a ton of photos of The Channel (so many crazy shapes, so many photos...).  Until then, I hope everyone's fall is going well!  Happy Climbing!

David Briault on the funky and fun Eclipse (V5), just uphill from the Railway Boulder.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Days of Legend! (Part 3)

Idaho's City of Rocks looms large in America's climbing mythology.  Twenty-something years ago when I started climbing, the City's legendary status was on the wane, but stories of the granite spires rising architecturally from the rolling desert hills of southern Idaho still figured prominently in Climbing Magazine and in the collective consciousness of the climbing community.  Though I was never presented with an opportunity to travel to the City of Rocks, I often wondered about the bouldering potential of the area.  How could an area with so much granite not feature vast numbers of boulders?

During discussions of potential destinations, a visit to the City of Rocks has always been high on my list of priorities.  So when Kyle and I began to plan a trip to the desert, an opportunity finally rose (after decades!) to visit the City of Rocks.

The famous City of Rocks!  At last!  It only took me 20 years to get there...

Driving southeast from The Channel, Kyle and I wound our way up into the hills in the corner of Idaho. After an hour of watching autumnal hills and sagebrush pass by, I was excited when one last bend in the road finally afforded us a view of the granite spires of the City of Rocks.  After a brief stop at the interpretive center (a uniquely American institution, the interpretive centers in parks in the USA often feature a park ranger (or two) and a lot of information), we drove up into the park to find campsite.  We hadn't reserved a campsite, but given the fact that it was midweek and late in the season, we assumed that we'd be able to find a site.  We got lucky, and ended up in site 29, which featured a perfect bouldering wall that stretched for dozens of meters behind our tents, replete with pockets, edges, and huecos.

"Finding Huecos" and "Knob Problem!" were running jokes on our trip.  We finally found them in abundance at the City of Rocks.

For two days, we tramped, scrambled, hiked, and (occasionally) bouldered our way through both the City of Rocks and Castle Rocks State Park (just a few miles away).  The City is an amazing place, with unbelievable scenery and more multipitch climbing than you could do in several years.  However, it soon became apparent why City of Rocks is not a bouldering mecca.  While there are literally hundreds of boulders, most of the rock near the ground is loose and exfoliating.  Where the rock is varnished (desert varnish, not the hardware-store stuff) it can be very solid, but most of the amazing-looking patina plates and huecos are high above the ground.  In short, the higher you go, the better the climbing is, and the first 4 m or so are often rubbish.  On popular problems, the rock can be reasonably solid, but even on the most traveled problems crystals often pop off under your feet.

(top) More wildlife! Its always a treat to see lizards when in the desert. (bottom) The funky V4ish slab we did, despite the heat and exfoliating rock.

On our first day, we had a great time hiking around the City, but didn't really find any lines that looked appealing.  We knew that Castle Rocks had more established bouldering, so we spent our second day there.  Kyle had downloaded a guide to some of the problems at Castle Rocks, and we weren't disappointed.  We found a stack of V0 - V3 highballs to warm up on (some really brilliant and sometimes slightly spooky), including a very funky (but exfoliating) slab with blunt knobs and shallow scoops.  After we had warmed up, we hiked among the clusters of boulders, eventually settling down to climb a very cool compression line (once again, just high enough to be spicy) with great movement and some unnervingly thin patina edges.  After working out a sequence that worked, we both sent the problem.  Moving around to the backside of the boulder, Kyle managed to send a techy V7 dyno (though he didn't do the topout, mostly because of the height), and then we moved on to sample more of the problems in the area.

Kyle getting a little high in the desert as he navigates his way though patina edges in Castle Rocks Park. 

A very cool compression line, again in Castle Rocks Park.  The top was... committing.

There is a lot of bouldering at Castle Rocks, but much of it seemed a little too loose to be really amazing.  We goggled at some HUGE hueco-ridden boulders as we hiked around, but eventually dropped the mats to try a VERY cool 'comp problem'; a scooping slab rose up to a huge knob that was just out of reach.  We could see that if you gained the knob, you could mantle it to reach some better holds high on the face, but as we tried the line it became apparent that 'just out reach' would be a bigger obstacle than we thought.  Eventually we both sent the line, having a memorable (and hilarious!) time working what would prove to be one of the funkiest lines we did on our trip.

Getting funky in the Castle!  (top) Kyle on his way to nailing a V7 dyno (makes it look very easy), and (bottom) Who says all the "comp" problems are in gyms?  We both sent... after a while.

Satisfied  (but not blown away) by our time in the City of Rocks, we spent one more night at our (perfect!) campsite then headed north into Montana.  We were keen to make it to the Butte Bouldering Bash (the BBB, an outdoor 'festival' similar to the Tour de Frank),  and I was excited to climb at yet another new area.  After several hours of driving we finally rolled into Butte, Montana.  After digging up directions to the Trailer Park Boulders (and after realizing that Butte doesn't have a climbing shop), we headed up Homestake Pass to check out the boulders.

Years ago, Kyle had bouldered at Whiskey Gulch, an area at the southern edge of the Boulder Batholith, the huge expanse of granite that stretches between the town of Boulder and the city of Butte.  He hadn't been too impressed, having found that many of the boulders were too small, and the holds generally crimpy.  The Butte Boulder Bash was being held at the Trailer Park Boulders, so we headed up into the Batholith to see what the boulders looked like.  After wandering around in the forest on ATV trails (and dodging people on dirt bikes and quads) for some time, we finally found a a band of boulders that looked as though they had been climbed upon.  With dusk approaching, we hiked among the boulders, feeling holds and discussing the lines we saw.  Not wanting to get lost, we eventually headed back to the parking lot.  We were fortunate enough to meet Tom and Patrick, the two organizers of the BBB, who were kind (and enthusiastic!) enough to fill us in on development in the area. Satisfied with our explorations, we thought briefly about pitching our tents, but then decided to head back into Butte to find a cheap hotel.

Morning at the Butte Bouldering Bash!  Bozeman Climbing Club's van in the background...

The hotel turned out to be a great idea.  The morning of the comp dawned wet and overcast, though not terribly cold.  After breakfast, we headed back up into the Batholith.  We were excited to see that the parking lot was filling up with climbers from across the state (I think we were the only Canadians, though), with 70 - 80 climbers in attendance despite the inclement weather.  I was surprised (amused? impressed?) to see that the Bozeman Climbing Team had a van (a VAN! With a big decal!).  After Tom and Patrick went over the rules of the event with the eager crowd, the horn went off and everyone headed out.

We walked out into the boulders with Tom and Patrick, who toured us around some of the classics in the area. Exploration of the Batholith is ongoing, with new clusters of boulders being developed every year.  The Batholith must be one of the biggest areas of boulders in the United States, with hundreds of square kilometers of boulder-covered hills.  Most of the Batholith isn't terribly accessible (there are few roads that cross the Batholith), but that hasn't stopped development.  So far, well over a thousand problems have been developed, with potential for literally tens of thousands more.

Chasing Windmills (V7), a fantastic line on perfect rock!

After warming up on some very easy (but wet!) slabs, we walked over to sample the problems on the Superbia Boulder, one of the best in the area (perfect landing, perfect height, great rock).  We both did Supreme Perfection (V2 or V3?), and then turned our attention to Chasing Windmills (V7). Chasing Windmills involves climbing a short funky slab up to a crimpy sidepull just below a roof; from here, a tricky and mostly blind dyno to a perfect rail above the roof guards easier moves above to a fun topout.  Kyle is great at dynos, and as such I wasn't too surprised to see him send the line in only a handful of tries.  Everyone watching was psyched, and for the next 45 minutes a half-dozen climbers attempted the line.  The only other successful ascent was by a local who had done the line previously; I came close (by highstepping and reaching through the crux without jumping), but the move was simply too blind and too awkward to do statically.

While I tried Chasing Windmills, Kyle amused himself by trying La Mancha (V8) immediately to the right.  He was making good progress, but then tweaked his neck. (Yes, neck!)  It had started to rain, however, and while we were hopeful it would stop, it didn't.  The rain fell heavier and heavier, and after a half-hour or so it became apparent that the comp was probably over.  We waited out the worst of the rain with Erik Christensen (author of SW MT Blocs, the guidebook for southern Montana), who is a lot of fun and a font of information about bouldering in the state.

Eventually, we headed back to the parking lot, and enjoyed all the food and drinks provided as the scorecards were tallied.  Neither Kyle or I turned in scorecards, but hung out while prizes were doled out, hamburgers were eaten, and beer was drunk. I won a sweet 'Climbing Bozeman' t-shirt!  We had a great time, and were impressed by the organizing job done by Patrick and Tom.  With the skies finally clearing, we packed the car one more time and began the long drive back to Canada.  I'd love to come back to Butte again soon!

Patrick and Erik hanging out after the rain finally quit, as the Butte Bouldering Bash wound down.

Overall, we had a fantastic trip!  Tons of bouldering at new areas, lots of exploration, wandering the desert, great scenery, and a nice taste of American climbing culture!  Idaho and Montana are great destinations for a fall climbing trip, and we look forward to coming back soon!

PS> The Bouldering the Backwaters blog has a great photo series of the comp (you can even see Kyle and I in one photo!); if you're curious you can check it out HERE.

PPS> Mexican food for the win!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Days of Legend! (Part 2)

As we headed back north into Idaho, we discussed the likelihood that we would be able to find The Channel.  I knew virtually nothing about the area other than it was (1) a seasonally drained river channel, and (2) was basalt.  Kyle knew somewhat more than that, having scoured the internet for information; but despite his efforts we didn't know much more than it was about a half-hour (or so) north of Twin Falls, and it was somehow associated with the Magic Reservoir.

Twin Falls!  My expectations of Idaho were low, but it was actually a very cool place to visit!

We stopped at the climbing shop in Twin Falls to find out more, but the people at the shop had only been there once or twice, and recalled that it was near Ketchum (which is much more than a half-hour drive from Twin Falls!).  Luckily, they also provided us with the number of the climbing shop in Ketchum, and a quick call to them provided us with better directions.  The area was (as we originally thought) south of the Magic Reservoir, and quite close to the highway.  Armed with this information, and a solid breakfast, we headed up to the Channel to check it out.

Initially, we had no intention of spending much time at The Channel.  Indeed, we weren't even sure if we would find it dry.  The Channel is actually a small canyon that was created as the Big Wood River cut down through the basalt that fills much of the Snake River valley.  Every winter, however, the water that usually flows through The Channel is diverted for several months for agricultural purposes.  When we arrived at the Channel, we were excited to see that it wasn't full of water.  It had obviously only been VERY recently dewatered, though - there were piles of dead (but reasonably fresh-looking) fish and snails in many sections of the canyon, and in the deeper pools that still held water there were many living fish as well.

A wet summer makes for a green desert.  Sagebrush and flowers just outside The Channel.

After dropping down into The Channel, we were both simply blown away by both the quality of the rock and the crazily sculptured shapes of the canyon wall. To say that the canyon is filled with 'nature's sculpture' is a gross understatement; everywhere we looked were the most bizarrely sculpted shapes in the most perfectly homogeneous and bombproof rock (it almost looked like bronze in some sections).  We probably hiked through the canyon for two hours, running our hands over shapes that make the best climbing holds look crude and foolish in comparison.  Everywhere were shapes that were reminiscent of the works of Jean Arp, or sometimes Henry Moore, but on a monumental scale.  But the best part?  You could climb on them.

 In terms of holds and shapes, there are NO BETTER AREAS than The Channel. Full stop.

 Can you say 'perfectly radiused perfect fin-jug'?  I can, and did, over and over...

Sculpture.  The shape of the rock at The Channel is amazing.

Eventually, we grabbed our mats and started pulling on some of the fantastic-looking lines that we saw.  Smooth scoops, crazy stemming lines, sculpted huecos, too-good-to-be-true jugs - we tried them all.  Many of the problems were very easy, but some were clearly very hard as well.  Climbing in the Channel requires a LOT of body tension, good footwork, and a creative imagination.  Never have I climbed in an area that presented problems as interesting and aesthetic as The Channel.  By the end of the day, we were convinced about one thing; we were coming back the next day.

The rock in The Channel tends to be VERY smooth.  While this can make footwork tricky (even 'good' smears need to be used with focused care), it also means your skin lasts forever.  When we returned the next day, we were excited to try some more difficult lines.  After a seemingly obligatory "run around and look at all the amazing shapes" session, we warmed up on a funky stemming line that ended with a move to a hold that looked like an enormous falcon's head.  Then we turned our attention to a very cool line that featured a long and balancy move to a tunnel-hueco that perforated the lip of the canyon (Tonsillitis V?).  Kyle did the line fairly quickly, and I surprised myself by doing the line quickly as well.  I was excited to find that the hueco wasn't just a smooth tunnel; inside the void was another shape, an elongated blob like a smooth baby's head or short fish.  Crazy!

Kyle, styling his way up the funky Tonsillitis.

One soon runs out of adjectives to describe the holds when climbing at the channel.  'Crimps' and 'jugs' don't cut it.  We used 'shark's fin' a fair bit.  'Scoop' was also common, or 'fat fin', or 'giant fang', but they didn't really capture the shapes we encountered that well. When you start describing holds with phrases like 'torpedo tube with the sarcophagus of an alien baby lying inside it' you know you're really climbing somewhere special.

After doing a handful of moderate lines, we moved up-channel a bit to a long wall that featured what looked like (and indeed were) many amazing lines on perfect undulating rock.  We spend a half-hour or so scrubbing the holds (early season Channel = brushing silt, dried algae, and snail shells off the rock), but when we were done, we were excited to climb!

One line (which I had carefully swept) turned out to unbelievably hard (impossible? I spent five minutes simply trying to get on the rock, which would have been by far the easiest move on the problem), while other adjacent gymnastic/stemmy lines were easier but no less amazing.  We both did a crazy full-body stem / smear powerfully up a polished Buddha-belly line (amazing), and then both sent the 'climb a dinosaur's head' line several feet over (amazing). Have I said how amazing the lines are?

The very cool 'dinosaur-head' problem. I've certainly never climbed a line like that before!

It was starting to get late, so we hurried to climb as many lines as we could.  After a brief 'how do we do this' session, we both sent an improbable-looking line that involved a 'right then left "stepthrough?" kneebar sequence' (hard to describe the weirdness) that finished on a perfect sloping mega-fin.  In the growing darkness, we hurried upstream to try one more problem, a 'slopey fin to huge lipped scoop crossthrough dyno to a sideways-pointing tusk-fin', which Kyle flashed then repeated several times... just because.

I don't think we climbed anything too crazily hard, but I agree with people when they say that grades don't apply well to the Channel.  The movement is often so pure, and the holds so interesting, that assessments of 'that was cool!' are more appropriate than 'I think that was V5'.  Climbing at the Channel is as much art as athleticism, as corny as that sounds.  One thing I am certain of, however - I'll be back!

With sore shoulders (but lots of skin left!), we headed back to Twin Falls to find dinner and a cheap hotel.  The next day we were headed to our next destination... the City of Rocks!

PS> I'll post a much more extensive photo series of the Channel as well; I took hundreds of photos.