Matthes – Moments, Mistakes, and Mileage

Saturday, 16 September 2016. 5:31 AM.
Siting in my car at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead in Tuolumne waiting for the sun to rise and begin to warm everything, I watch hiking groups and climbers come and go. I had driven into the area late the previous night and struggled to find an available campsite. The season in Tuolumne was coming to an end, campgrounds would be closed in a week or so and I would be embarking on a two month roadtrip across the U.S. within that same margin. If Alwin and I hoped to climb the Matthes Crest Traverse before next summer, it had to happen this weekend. The original plan was to meet Friday night in Tuolumne. I arrived later than I’d hoped and Alwin was running even further behind. His last message said he would be sleeping in Oakhurst and would meet me at the trailhead between 5:30 and 6:00 AM. My phone buzzes. I raise it to read Alwin’s text, “I slept here in the valley just woke up I’m on my way please wait for me.” I chuckle because I have no intention to solo the route, waiting for him is my only option. The Sun rises. More groups come and go. I take various photos. I read a magazine. I contemplate napping, but think it could be a bad idea as it may make me more groggy. I use the porta-potty. I sort my rack. His mini-van arrives. 7:30 AM. I didn’t suspect I was two hours into a 21-hour day.

Tuolumne Meadows is the Eastern portion of Yosemite National Park—the high country. Accessible from the meadows is the Cathedral Range where you’ll find many higher altitide climbs including Matthes Crest, a nearly mile long fin of granite rising at its highest point 900ish feet above the valley below (nearly 11,000 feet above sea level). Many hike the 4-5 miles to its base to climb its face and traverse its thin—occasionally knife-edged—and featured ridge line.The most common route is to traverse from its South face two-thirds of its length to the North Summit where the climbing gets harder, rappel off, and hike back the 4-5 miles to the trailhead. This was our plan.

As we sorted the remaining gear in Alwin’s van, the full story of his tardiness was revealed. He had been battling a bout of food poisoning the night before and crashed in his van near a restroom. The night alternated between attempts to sleep and emergency sprints to the toilet. He was finally able to relax in the early morning and slept through his alarm. His stomach had settled, but he was operating on very little sleep. We collectively did not have a full night’s rest  between us and we were now 2 hours behind schedule. We shouldered our bags, stashed Gatorade and snacks in a nearby bear box, and began the hike into the backcountry.

Cathedral Peak is a beautiful 700 foot granite triangle protruding from the Earth and demarcating the boundary of the Cathedral Range. We hiked past it reminiscing about when we had each climbed it in the past. The valley dropped below us and we hiked down towards the Cathedral Lakes where we briefly joined the JMT (John Muir Trail) and were greeted by campers and a family of deer.  We had missed an earlier side trail skirting Budd Lake leading to Matthes more quickly. The views we were absorbing, the deer, and the perfect weather were worth the added mileage. At this point. We began heading uphill towards a long ridge partially obscured by trees. The contours didn’t seem quite right and it appeared less imposing than I expected. We forced our way up the slabs and the closer we grew, the more I doubted the formation. I stopped to remove the guidebook from my pack. As I turned, I saw an unmistakable ridge line—beautiful and intimidating—directly across from us. On. The. Other. Side. Of. The. Valley. We were near the foot of Tresidder Peak, a mile away from Matthes  and with 3,000 or so feet of elevation change to navigate between the two points. Neither of us would be applauding our navigation skills for the day. With a collective sigh, we began our descent.

Saturday, 16 September 2016. After 2:00 PM.
After 6 hours of hiking, a laborious scenic detour, and never-ending ascending slabs, we found ourselves triumphant at the base of Matthes. I snacked, Alwin took the world’s shortest power nap, and we tied in. Matthes is notoriously crowded. Not if you start after 2:00. The only other group we would see was already transitioning from the climb into the long traverse.  9 hours in and I was finally ascending rock. The climb of the Southwest Face was straightforward and uneventful. We each lead a pitch and were on the summit in a reasonable time. 2 pitches with a 70 meter (230 feet) rope, our only rope—a decision we would regret.

To attempt to belay all of the half-mile traverse would be ludicrous. Most simul-climb or solo the traverse. We were unsure when we could comfortably stop belaying and start simul-climbing. The answer was almost immediately. Alwin belayed me as I began the traverse and ascent up a short slabby crack section. I placed one piece, stepped above it and yelled back that it was much easier than it appeared. “Let’s simul.” Simul-climbing is precisely what it sounds like: simultaneous climbing. There is no belayer. The leader places occasional protection, the follower stays a safe distance behind cleaning the gear as he also climbs. It is far less safe, but the right call in certain situations such as this one. To be fair, most of our “climbing” was careful walking and scrambling with periodic technical moves. The rock face did fall several hundred feet straight down on either side of us so the “walking and scrambling with periodic technical moves” could be intimidating and the consequences were severe. The wind blew constantly, the view was spectacular, we took turns leading, enjoyed the featured climbing, and moved at a steady pace past the halfway point steadily working in the direction of the South Summit and towards our worst decision of the day.

I was carrying two cameras: an old Panasonic GX7 in my pack and a small GoPro Session on my helmet. Each was fairly new (to me). The GX7 was purchased on ebay and this was its maiden voyage. I would often pull it from my pack to grab photos and videos (such as the one embedded above). The GoPro Session was on its second adventure, the first having been a route called Fingertrip on Tahquitz in Idyllwild a week prior (also with Alwin). I have been using GoPro cameras for seven years in all sorts of environments. The only time I had ever lost one was years ago when I stupidly told a friend to throw it to me while I treaded water in a frigid dark pothole in Eaton Canyon. Otherwise, I had abused the shit out of these cameras with minimal consequences. A small latch on the Session would be my undoing. I was leading again and moving into a tricky section with an awkward downclimb into a thin backwards traveling traverse. I hugged the rock, shimmied along, and turned my head to check my surroundings. Scrape. Pop. Whoosh. A small latch on the Session had popped open, the camera shot off the back of my head and bounced down the slabby face below. I completed the traverse and settled onto a much roomier ledge. I built an anchor around a small bush and squinted searching the ledges below where small flecks of rock twinkled as if from a tiny camera lens while awaiting Alwin’s arrival.

We reviewed the situation. All of the most interesting footage of the day (feet walking knife-edges, thin traverses, expansive vistas surrounding intense exposure) was on that camera plus the camera was practically brand new. If we finished the route and descended at the North Summit, we’d never make it to the base where the camera may lay before dark. Besides, it was probably on one of the many ledges directly beneath us. As I struggled with a decision, Alwin’s words surprised me, “We have to find your camera.” It is said you can retreat at many places on the West face and there was evidence someone had done so before—tat decorated the shrub I had slung. To get off the North Summit only required two or three raps with a 70 meter rope and we expected this section to be similar. We’d be down before dark and we could search each ledge along the way. Logic had left us. And so we descended.

Two raps down. No sign of the camera. We continued expecting each rappel to be the last. The Sun was rapidly disappearing. The rope sometimes wouldn’t quite reach the next ledge and so we found ourselves at dusk down-soloing a 40 foot crack. If only we had carried a second rope. Anchor options grew less ideal with each ledge and I was always concerned the rope would snag on the pull. Alwin had forgotten his headlamp in the van during the tumultuous morning. We continued in the dark sharing my headlamp or using the flashlight on Alwin’s phone. 6 raps in lead to another down-solo through choss and dirt piles, our supply of quicklinks and emergency webbing dwindling. As we sacrificed my cordelette and one of Alwin’s carabiners on rap 8, we hoped once again to be embarking on our final rappel. The fates smiled upon us. The ground flattened, the rope pulled, and we scrambled down into the dark woods, the Session visible nowhere. I estimate we had been rappelling for over three hours.

We bushwhacked through the wooded area and emerged into the open valley. We could see headlamps high on the North side of Matthes. Others were sharing a similar fate. We wished them luck and continued into the night. Discussing our options we agreed on a sound plan of action, perhaps our first of the day. We didn’t dare try to take the shorter route back to the trailhead. We had missed it by day, our chances would not be better in the dark. Yet, we knew where to find the JMT, and although a longer route, we knew it would lead back to the trailhead without a doubt. We shuffled for hours and I often fantasized about the Gatorade awaiting me in the bear box. We had both run through our water and were finishing our meager snacks. Tuolumne is still beautiful under moonlight, but we were exhausted and the trail never seemed to end. Our breaks grew more frequent and progressively longer.

Sunday, 17 September 2016. 2:30 AM.
Finally the bear box mirages I kept imagining formed into a tangible solid form—a real bear box. I swung open the door and was greeted by a fresh Gatorade. It was not long for the world. We emptied our contents into our vehicles and caravanned to the campsite where we promptly collapsed and slept until noon. Our plans to climb more on Sunday now seemed ludicrous. We grabbed lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli and discussed how we need to return this year and properly finish the route. 19 hours seems like an easy time to beat. And that camera is probably still waiting for us. Right?

Finally Reflecting on 2016

If the number of 2016 posts in this journal were representative of productivity, it would appear to have been a mostly uneventful year. That certainly wasn’t the case. January felt like a continuation of December and only now is it beginning to feel like the new year has begun. And so, the time to grade myself on goal completion for the previous year and to set goals for the current year has finally arrived. I am a proponent of annual goal setting. When I make a solid list, refer to it regularly, and hold myself accountable I tend to meet many of them. Oddly, last year I didn’t make a solid list. Apparently I forgot to or lost it on my perpetually chaotic desk. Despite that oversight, several non-specified goals came to fruition and a number of pleasing events occurred.

  • I have been wanting to travel for work more frequently. I had three opportunities. 1) A producing/shooting gig in Costa Rica (mentioned in my last post to this blog nearly a year ago). 2) A Facebook live-stream overnight trip near Joshua Tree for AirBNB. 3) A 2 month roadtrip around the U.S.with Erika (55 days—42 states—13,510 miles) creating a web-series for TYLT that will be releasing very soon.
  • We at Butcher Bird funded and shot our first feature film. It is now running through the final stages of post.
  • I convinced my mother to try a tandem sky-dive
  • I lead some great climbing routes including the 1500ish foot Solar Slab, the unique Tunnel Vision, and the imposing Matthes Crest (which turned into a bit of an all-night epic because of a foolish attempt to retrieve a fallen camera).
  • I descended a few undocumented canyons (some with the ever beloved Scott Swaney).
  • I finally got to shoot video of a snow covered San Antonio Falls canyoneering descent (something I had been trying to do for quite some time and posted about here on this blog) and put together a 360 VR video of the Seven Teacups.
  • Erika and I finally made it to Alaska and toured a glacier. We also made it to several National Parks we hadn’t visited before and attended Halloween in Salem, MA. We have now been to 45 of the 50 states.
  • I got to do some great social things with friends like multiple game nights, an awesome bachelor party weekend in Zion for the Merrill wedding, visit my family multiple times, and introduce multiple people to their first ever multi-pitch climbs.
  • The podcast continued (currently 46 episodes) and featured guests from all over the country recorded in their respective locales.
  • Erika and I celebrated 10 years together touring the treetops of Wrightwood.

It was a rewarding year, but there are certainly places I fell short:

  • Happy Canyoneering (my puppet talkshow short) did not move forward.
  • Scuba Climbers (my Class C canyoneering documentary) did not move forward.
  • I slacked on a proper physical fitness routine in the last half of the year.
  • I didn’t make the strides towards big wall climbing I’d hoped to and climbing El Cap for my 40th birthday is seeming increasingly less likely.
  • I still haven’t started work on a Death Valley Mars short I want to do.
  • My office is still a disorganized mess.
  • I didn’t try cross country skiing, dogsledding, or solo backpacking.
  • I haven’t gotten back into a regular illustrating routine in years.
  • And various other projects, responsibilities, etc. languished while my pile of books to read increased faster than it depleted.

And so now I sit compiling my list of goals for 2017. I look at where I succeeded and failed in 2016 and attempt to course correct. Where do I want to be in a year and how do I get there? Life is too damn short to squander.

3 Bags and an Ultrasound

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On 4 Feb. 2016 at 4:35 PM, I received a text from Steven, “R u avail for paid shoot in Hawaii feb 15-20?”
I replied, “Sure. What is the shoot?”
“fast changing project. are you okay to go to Amazon instead?”
And thus it began.

On the night of 9. Feb. 2016, the project was greenlit and I finally received a briefing. I had a week to put together a very particular shoot in an undecided Central American country. A producing gig, something I tend to avoid and let my business partners handle, something I am not especially experienced in doing. In a foreign country. To shoot in 10 days. With a limited budget. I’ve always wanted to be paid to travel to foreign countries so I accepted the ludicrous challenge. I scoured the internet for any sort of production companies I could find in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. I sent out a bunch of emails and went to bed hoping for the best.

The next two days were a proverbial whirlwind filled with nonstop emails, international phone calls, and general shoot preparations. Two companies were my international saviors,  Costa Rica Film Support and Belize Film Works. They helped me build packages of photos and promises to quickly sell our client on a location. Costa Rica won out and the night of the 11th I had tickets to fly on the 17th. My crew would meet me on the 20th (after multiple days of back-to-back shooting in Singapore). In 48 hours, we’d gone from a very rough idea to a full-fledged planned international shoot. Much of my thanks goes to Julie Echeverri of Costa Rica Film Support whose fast communication and problem-solving made this unrealistic goal possible. She also organized everything for us on the Costa Rica side from boarding, to transportation, to meals.

Wednesday morning arrived and Erika left me at LAX with 100 lbs. of luggage (2 duffel bags of props and costumes, a backpack of personal and work items, and a portable Ultrasound). Traveling with an Ultrasound is an interesting experience and I have become quite adept at explaining what it is in Spanish to confused TSA personnel. An Ultrasound causes confusion domestically as well and could effectively pass as either a record player, musical instrument, or George Foreman Grill. Not a single person ever asked me, “Hey, is that an Ultrasound?”

I arrived in San Jose that afternoon and was greeted by Zequ, an Argentinian Anthony Kiedis lookalike, and my local producer. The next morning, he drove me 5 hours (largely in the rain) down South to the Bri Bri region. We passed through an amazing rainforest, down coastlines, and over an abundance of rivers of all types. He and I would spend the next few days scouting innumerable rivers as possible shooting locations, preparing our local actors, building a thatched hut (ranchito) from bamboo, navigating Costa Rican permitting laws, weaving through dense traffic and across flooded backroads, traipsing through muddy marshlands, managing a local drunk canoe pilot we called the Shaman, repeatedly crossing a somewhat rickety suspension bridge, struggling to make everything come together and meet approval in 2 days, dealing with changing plans and weather, spying wild sloths in treetops, and amusing each other immensely. We put the finishing touches on our ranchito shortly before the arrival of the cast and crew Saturday morning. Late that night, we were done. Sunday was a day for a little work, a lot of travel, and celebrations.

Monday morning, the crew flew to Los Angeles for two final shoot days. My afternoon flight was cancelled and I was forced to spend another night in San Jose in a complimentary Sheraton room. The week of 3 bags and an Ultrasound refused to end. Pura Vida.

Illuminating Belle Like a Mechanic’s Shop

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A few weeks ago, Erika decided she’d like to take some Belle cosplay photos before chopping off 13 inches of hair. She pulled together a number of props while I figured out what to do with my paltry lighting options. Using a couple of cheap and small Neewer LED lights and a monstrous worklight (something you’d use while repairing your car at night or Dexter might use to illuminate a kill scene), I struggled to find a way to light the scenes that would be pleasing. The worklight was extremely hot so I didn’t dare drape anything over it to diffuse the light and create a softer look. Perhaps, I could have bounced it off of the reflector I left in my closet or off of a wall. In the end, with a fair amount of fidgeting and angling, I was able to get some decent shots.

Dreaming of a White Canyon

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In December of 2014, I rode up to San Antonio Falls off of Mt. Baldy with two friends for a quick morning canyon run. We were surprised by large quantities of snow along the road, the trail, and throughout the canyon. A dream was born that day. A canyon covered in snow could make for a great short video. I did capture some footage on a GoPro that day (shots can be seen in this compilation video), but my hope was to put together a proper shoot. I returned to the area multiple times in the Winter of 2015 hoping for similar conditions. I was welcomed only by paltry or non-existent snow patches. The Winter of 2016 arrived and the disheartening pattern seemed to be continuing into the new year. Then, multiple days of rain hit Los Angeles.

The canyoneering community went crazy as everyone rushed into the wet canyons of the area as they would only be truly wet for a short period of time. The Saturday weather in the Baldy area looked promising. A last minute group was put together and we arrived to find snow levels exceeding my hopes and expectations. Steven manned a quadcopter while Alden, Scott, and I hiked the shortcut approach losing a few Yaktrax along the way (Alden’s crampons fared much better). The canyon was gorgeous and almost entirely blanketed in snow. Shrubs and yucca struggled to peek above the powder, icicles  decorated the granite walls, and anchors were buried underneath inches of snow. The stream often disappeared beneath miniature snow bridges, as did the waterfalls. After a few hours we were through the canyon and had acquired a fair amount of GH4 footage alongside quadcopter footage. A second run was desired, but less accommodating weather was on the way. Hopefully El Niño continues its work and we can return in February to shoot more video in such stellar conditions.

Several screengrabs below.

2015 Recedes


2015 recedes in the rearview mirror. The time to review my goals for last year and prepare those for the new year has arrived. First, why not look back at some of the stuff that happened in 2015? That’s right, time for another GoPro compilation—Year Six. Climbing and canyoneering take center stage and the usual copious jumping shots. Diving, paragliding, tubing, and some ancient ruins found their way into the cut as well. Incorporated is some of the footage shot on my three week roadtrip throughout the West and includes contributions from Alden Anderson, Steven Calcote, and Tommy Day. You can watch it above on Vimeo or on YouTube.

In The Backyard

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T
ujunga, California. When asked where I live, most people—even many born in Los Angeles—stare at me in confusion. Those who do recognize the name rarely know where it is located, but imagine it is “far away.” North of Burbank, East of Sunland, West of La Cañada, and South of the Big Tujunga section of the Angeles National Forest. That is where you will find Tujunga. And, yes, it is inside Los Angeles City limits. Half an hour from the heart of the city, ten minutes from the mountains and forest. Oh, and Elliott’s house from E.T. is found here.

Many canyon routes are located on the other side, the North Side, of the mountains behind my neighborhood. A few blocks away are a couple of trails that head up the South side. The peak of one of those mountains is Mt. Lukens, the highest peak located in Los Angeles city limits. One afternoon while jogging/hiking one of those trails, I got an idea. I should be able to start from a trail in the Big Tujunga Wilderness, ascend to Mt. Lukens, and descend to my neighborhood. Then, walk home. The idea of beginning a hike in the forest and ending it at my doorstep was really appealing to me. One Sunday morning I had Erika drive me into the forest and leave me at the Wildwood Picnic Area and the start of the Stone Canyon Trail. I’ve hiked a portion of this trail a couple of times because it is the approach to the technical canyon route Stone Plus One. This route ascends 3500 feet over a few miles and leads to Mt. Lukens, a peak covered in transmission towers. I popped in some earbuds, turned on a podcast, and made my way up the trail. Two and a half hours later, I stood atop the peak. Behind me were views of never-ending mountains and forest. Ahead of me, Los Angeles spread in all directions terminating at the ocean. I explored the peak and its towers for a bit, then joined the Rim of the Valley Trail heading down into Los Angeles. At 3:00 PM, I walked down my driveway. There was something satisfying and freeing about ending a hike at my door. So much so, that I had Erika drop me off at Wildwood again yesterday.

Take Me To Church

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The Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite) is a climb that has been on my list for a couple of years. At 5.6, it isn’t a particularly difficult climb, but it is further evidence that grades mean a lot more in the world of multi-pitch trad climbing. Route finding is rather straight forward as one can climb all over the face with success, but the climbing begins above 10,000 feet placing this in the realm of alpine climbing (although just barely).

The window to climb Cathedral Peak was shrinking as Tioga Pass is likely to close within a few weeks when the snowstorms begin (unless delayed by further hot temperatures). Regardless, campgrounds in the area are beginning to close and days are shortening. After returning from my road-trip, I began trying to find a good weekend to drive up to Tuolumne and climb this route. Finding available climbing partners was not fruitfull and I had almost given up when a serendipitous Facebook post from my friend John Gray opened up an opportunity. We climbed into my car Saturday morning and made the drive through the Mojave and Sierra to Tuolumne. Electricity was out for every town between Lone Pine and Bishop pushing us near empty on my gas tank, but we made it without incident. We grabbed a spot in Tuolumne Meadows Campground, hung our hammocks, and enjoyed a camp fire ranger program.

Up before the Sun and off to the trailhead. We began the three mile hike in and my body hadn’t entirely acclimatized to the altitude. I felt weary and had no appetite. Despite that, we arrived at the base of the rock in a reasonable amount of time and began our climb before the brunt of the crowds arrived. Cathedral Peak is notoriously crowded and that Sunday was no different. Be prepared to spend half of your time waiting around. Consider it an opportunity to make new friends, get to know the various soloists you’ll likely meet, soak in the view, snap photos, and entertain yourself with joyous songs (such as Rudolph’s “Jingle Jingle Jingle.”) Otherwise, you may get frustrated. Climbing at 10,000 feet is more difficult and I often found myself out of breath on a pitch. We were probably three pitches up by the time I felt normal again. The granite was great and the climbing styles needed varied. Protection was ample. John led pitches 1 and 5. I took 2 through 4 including the fun chimney with the awkward entrance at the start of pitch 4. Because of weird logistics and excessive crowding, it  became sensible for me to also lead the last 30 feet or so of the final pitch to the modest summit block where parties going up and down are funneled into a small area. I imagine it is the small scale Cathedral Peak equivalent of Everest’s Hillary Step.

Our hope was to continue down the ridge after summiting to ascend Eichorn’s Pinnacle. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to do so without descending in the dark. Walking off Cathedral Peak is a bit tricky and not something we wanted to do under lamplight. As we headed down trail and the Sun began to sink, I had my first bites of food of the day.

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Announcing Scuba Climbers


I have been searching for an intriguing topic for a long-form canyoneering documentary for awhile. Reviewing footage and reflecting back on events from my three-week roadtrip finally  aligned the tumbling Tetris pieces in my mind. The topic became clear: Class C Canyoneering, big water Canyoning. There are lots of intriguing, exciting, funny, and possibly heart-breaking stories all linked by the exploration of the wettest of canyons. My hope is to bring together several groups of canyoneers and filmmakers over the next 2-3 years and record those stories.

Why will it be called Scuba Climbers? As we exited Cascade Creek in Ouray, a woman pulled into the trailhead and stopped before us. “Are you guys climbers or SCUBA divers?” As popular as Canyoneering is becoming, it is still foreign to most people. Whether we call ourselves canyoneers or Scuba Climbers, our image is equally confusing to many people. But the main reason is because I am a smart-ass.

In the meantime, check out the teaser video above featuring some of the footage we acquired in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.

You can keep up with the production at our website and join in the fun on instagram by posting your own Class C canyon photos and using the hashtag  #scubaclimbers.

Tolerate My Voice & Hear My Podcast

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I
t began as a video web-series a year ago. I thought it would be wise to further complicate my life so it has expanded into a podcast. What is it? G.O. Get Outside. And it is live. It is even on iTunes.

Expect a new episode every Thursday beginning September 10th. Season one will clock in at 21 installments (wrapping in early January). Three episodes are up now. What is it about? I’m glad you asked so I won’t feel so awkward telling you. This is what it says in iTunes and on the website:

G.O. Get Outside: The Podcast is a radio-style interview show for people who like to get outdoors or would like to get outdoors. Hell, it may even be a show for people who don’t know they want to get outdoors. Too busy? Think you don’t have time for frivolous outside crap? Poppycock! Each episode of G.O. delves into the outdoor lifestyle of some everyday schmo who probably has more in common with you than you think. Whether you are BASE jumping off a flying unicorn or hiking around your neighborhood in between diaper changes, you have a place here. Pop open your podcast machine and give it a listen. Maybe it will stoke some embers you didn’t know were burning.

Still unclear? Listen to episode one where it is explained in more detail or listen to all of them to really clarify your confusion. While you are there, want to do me a huge favor? You do?! How magnanimous of you! Subscribe, rate, and review it in iTunes. It will help more than you can imagine. Off to your podcast machine. Get. Go. Shoo.