Andromeda Strain


Will Mayo is a climbing hero to most winter style wankers like me, so I’ve always wanted to get out with him. He happened to be hankering for some alpinization when he heard that I was heading to the CanRockies, so he invited me to try a route with him.

The Andromeda Strain is one of those routes that everyone should try at least once if they have the chance because it’s so iconic. According to the Dougherty guidebook, “it is now the most popular of the hard routes”, which makes sense because the approach is short and the climbing has character.

We left Jasper at around 4am, which is an hr later than I would shoot for if were to do it again in the same condition. The approach went quickly and the schrund was easily crossed via a snow bridge to the left of the gully that makes up the lower part of the route.




Will led as we simul-climbed to the base of a traverse, where one can choose to take the direct line straight up the corner or to follow the original route by traversing right, then back left to skirt some saucy climbing that Mark Westman mentioned involves “a 6 meter section of dime-edge hooks above a single knife blade, with a ledge landing if you blow it”. I traversed horizontally, then got suckered into climbing up too early because of some tattered anchors in a corner. The climbing was hard so I lowered from an old fixed anchor then continued traversing.  The Dougherty description says that you should climb “a short corner up to a ledge”, but the line of least resistance is more like a big broad ridge than a corner. It’s something like ~110m from the base of the direct variation.


Is this getting too specific? You’re probably bored if you are reading this for story substance rather than for beta. Well, you’re boring too.


The traverse back left is pretty safe for the leader but sparse gear after a section where falling is possible makes it scary to follow. There’s a fixed knife blade with tat where it looks like someone lowered out, but it was pretty ugly so I didn’t want to weight it. I just climbed slowly and breathed heavily instead.


Once we re-gained the main runnel, Will floated up the A1 corner above. Snow started falling, which caused some torrential spindrift. I took a long time to climb the “decrepit bulge” that bypasses a death mushroom in the corner because visibility was so difficult with the pounding spindrift. I was incredibly grateful to find a good belay under a roof that kept me out of the garbage chute for a while. I was soaked to the bone, so I began the drying dance while Will followed.


Will blasted up the remaining rock that brought us into the long ice gully that we simuled up, then he continued to lead up the classic exit pitch which is the cover photo of the Dougherty guide. Some easy ice, exhausting snow wallowing, and scary choss balancing with no pro brought us to the summit.



At this point the mountain was in a whiteout. With no visibility of the AA col where we planned to descend, we trudged way too far down the southwest face. The clouds opened up for a moment revealing the unfamiliar glacier below, so we slogged back up, being careful to stay close to the edge so that we might spot any sign of the descent ridge. In the last glimmer of daylight, the clouds opened up one more time, showing us that we were right on top of the descent col. There are very few times where I’ve felt that kind of relief in the mountains. We just barely avoided a heinous open bivi. We zipped down to the Col, made a a few threads, and flew back to the trail in no time. That was close. We could have had really uncomfortable night.


Supercommuting // Boulder ➙ Grand Traverse

I woke up shivering, as one usually does during unplanned bivouacs in the mountains. My thorax was damp with sweat while my legs froze. You’d think that I would have at least vaguely figured out how to balance my insulation layers by this point in my climbing life, but apparently I still have a lot of basics to learn. In my tired state I didn’t put much care into the spot where I stopped to bivi, so I was laying in kind of an ‘S’ position to avoid rocky projections on each of my sides. My little static rope served as a surprisingly agreeable sleeping pad, while my head rested on my backpack. After about 25hrs on the go, my standards for a suitable place to sleep had been lowered to this. No tempurpedic mattress for this guy; I’m a fucking alpinist.

The climbing was kind of just a bookend: an excuse to explore a new sport culture and learn some unfamiliar skills. Getting to the Tetons was a lot more scary and intimidating than the climb itself; I rode, walked, dragged, and cursed my bike from my house in Boulder, CO. I jumped headfirst into a daily cycling routine that made my muscles more sore than climbing ever has. I chafed my ass through lonely gravel forestry roads and broken highway shoulders where unforgiving cars & trucks would zoom past with a modus operandi that I could only understand as being annoyed and hostile. I don’t usually use phrases like modus operandi, but I want you to think that I’m smart. It’s Latin, obviously. You probably didn’t even know that.

I decided that this might be an interesting multidimensional trip when I looked at a map of the Continental Divide Mountain Bike Route, which a handful of strong legged folk ride or race from Canada to Mexico (or vice versa) each year. I noticed that it goes fairly close to both Boulder & Teton National Park, so like, why not connect them and do some climbing when I get there?  A few friends who are overwhelmingly stoked about bikepacking/touring had made me interested to try, so I figured this might be a good way to test the waters because even if I hate biking I’ll still get to do some climbing, so it wouldn’t be a total loss.

With no beta other than a GPS track of the great divide bike route, I set off. I ignorantly followed google maps to reach the actual divide route, which guided me through the most difficult terrain that I would encounter on the entire trip. I ended up hauling my bike up five miles of extremely difficult walk-only terrain. I slogged through steep & narrow trails of snow, mud, and single log bridges, all the while keeping a death grip on the seat and handlebars of my overloaded bike. It was not a smooth introduction.

That night in Winter Park, I was hosted by a family who I met on this cool bike touring site/app thing called WarmShowers. They were some of the most interesting & generous people who I’ve met. I couldn’t have known then that they were the first of many exceptionally high caliber people who I’d briefly share lives with on this trip. They let me in on secrets of traveling for cheap, and making a life of perpetual travel possible despite raising two young kids. They fed me and gave me some muscle recovery wine before I crashed on their porch.


Over the next couple of days I covered some more of the steepest biking terrain of the trip. Long hill climb, long descent, repeat. I was really starting to hurt, so I took a much wanted rest day in Steamboat Springs, where another WarmShowers host gave my bike a complete tune up and taught me how to keep it feeling fresh. On my way out of there, I met the first person who I’d seen going the same direction as me on the route (Most people roll North to South for the sake of Wyoming’s westerly winds). This sixty-something year old dude looked fitter than most triathletes in their thirties. We ended up riding together for the next two days, and experienced the power of that Wyoming wind firsthand. We would ride while leaning aggressively into the wind. Our wheels would even scoot sideways on the loose gravel when it became especially gusty. I never realized quite how desolate southern Wyoming is. I never want to see fucking sagebrush again in my life.


From Rawlins, my ancient companion hitched west while I opted to jump onto the Trans America route that more pavement-minded cyclists ride/race from coast to coast. The headwind through the following section was nightmarish. Pedal, pedal, gust, pedal, gust. I slept in an old blowing over church that hosts cyclists in Jeffrey “City”, WY that night, which is a town made up of only that church, a bar/cafe, and a pottery shop owned by an alcoholic who shoots every piece of wet pottery with a rifle before heating it in a kiln. From there I redirected to Lander to check out the Climber’s fest. It was nice to ditch my anonymity for a little while and see some familiar faces. I bailed the next morning for a big ride that finally brought me into Grand Teton National Park. The rock spires looked bigger & scarier than I expected, although that may have just been contrast shock after looking at nothing but Wyoming flatland for the past five days.




I posted up at the American Alpine Club Climber’s Ranch, then prepared to finally start climbing. I spent a day pestering the climbing rangers for beta and digging into the guidebooks to ensure that I had at least enough info to bail without having a complete epic. I wasn’t even sure which peaks the Grand Traverse covers when I showed up at the Climber’s Ranch, so I was super grateful to find a library of guidebooks there. …although there’s still no wifi (gasp!).

After a few gulps of coffee, I rode toward the trailhead at 1:30am the next morning. An easy to follow trail, some kick stepping with crampons strapped to my approach shoes, and a couple episodes of RadioLab propelled me to the summit of Teewinot.



Some scree walking, a few rappels, a snowy col, a wet set of cracks, snow patch hopping, and Freakanomics Radio brought me to the summit of Owen.




More of the same stuff & a few episodes of Reply All placed me on top of the Grandstand, at the base of the technical climbing on the Grand. I confidently started climbing way too far to the right. Even after I realized that I was off-route, I continued to try forcing my line to go so that I wouldn’t have to reverse progress. I pulled a handful of moves that I shouldn’t have, then finally admitted defeat by descending back to a place where I could traverse into the Italian Cracks. On-sighting & route-finding are hard. I certainly didn’t expect to spend so much time and stress. I’d pay for that later. Once I was back on-route, I relaxed into the clean & straightforward climbing that led me to the summit. Although the Owen Spalding route would have been a laid back downclimb, I used my rope since I had it with me. I was glad to have it for the my little off-route mishap, but I probably wouldn’t bring one next time since I know where to go now.



With almost no technical climbing, Middle Teton came and went quickly with the help of some 99% Invisible episodes. I filled my bottle with the last accessible water that I’d find on the ridge as I descended the easy & tracked gully down to the saddle.

At the base of South Teton, I bumped into the only other party I’d seen on the traverse. They were a guided party of three (two guides & one client) who had been on the ridge for two nights, and were settling in for their third bivi. They deemed me unworthy to converse with when they saw me stroll up wearing my bike helmet. I sat next to them expecting to relax and chat for a minute, but they prefered to show their client how big their dicks were by only answering my questions with one word responses before resuming their faff.

At this point I was trying to decide whether or not to continue climbing. I took so much time getting lost on the Grand that continuing would certainly set me up for an uncomfortable night of shivering without bivi gear, but this didn’t seem like reason enough to bail. I had already put up with so much difficult bullshit that a few more summits and a little sit & shiver (different than a sitting shiva) seemed worthwhile to earn my tick.

South teton was nothing but a scree hike. It would have been a boring pain in the ass if I didn’t have a Bill Bryson reading A Brief History of Nearly Everything into my headphones. The sun fell as a full moon rose. My headlamp was dead by that point, but the moonlight enabled me to continue.


Cloudveil Dome and its surrounding spires came and went.

I found myself at the base of Nez Perce (pronounced “nay pursay”?). I didn’t want to take on the more technical climbing of this final peak in the dark, so I splayed my gear onto the ground and fell asleep on it. I knew that taking extra time to sleep would make me even more dehydrated because I still hadn’t seen flowing water since the descent from Middle Teton, but it still seemed like the best option.


After a couple hours of rest, I got my stuff together & started stumbling toward the final peak. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I saw flashes of light on the rocks, but an investigation of their source revealed a peculiar morning thunderstorm to the west. I sat and watched to see what my fate would be: whether or not I would be forced to descend so close to the arbitrary finish of the route.

That was  one of the most beautiful & intimidating scenes that I’ve ever pointed my eyes toward. The warm sun peaked its head over the edge of the earth, mixing with the cool moonlight that was still illuming the range. Everything was more powerful than me. I was just doing what I was told. Eventually the storm passed so I continued. None of the climbing on Nez Perce was particularly difficult, but I was glad to be doing it in the light.


I finished the thing! Woop woop!! …now for the mindless zombie slog back to my bike. All of the chipper, child-toting, cargo short wearing yuppies on the trail seemed to worriedly examine my exhausted eyes. I slept for something like 17hrs when I finally rolled back into the Ranch.


After a rest day I rode south. There happened to be major forest fires going on outside of Jackson. Fire retardant toting helicopters shuttled over my head, and massive pieces of the landscape around me had become ashen and desolate. I could see pockets of flames and clouds of smoke on each side of the highway. I didn’t think that I was gasping too much smoke into my lungs while I rode through the area, but an unrelenting cough as I fell asleep that night indicated otherwise. I rode for one more day to meet i80, where I hitched with a couple dudes driving a U-Haul who were making a pot run to Colorado.


I’m really happy with the experiences & personalities that I found on this little trip close to home. It felt like a big important life event, despite being inexpensive and only taking up a few weeks. My trip planning gears are already turning again. 


A Rant About Lightweight Alpinism

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Katie Bono on Virtual Reality


The decision of what to wear on your person and in your pack for a big alpine objective can be as consequential as deciding what to wear on a hot date with someone who’s way out of your league. Why did she agree to go out with you anyway? You’re an alpine climber; you have no social skills. She’s probably just doing a favor for your friend who set you up. Wait. Don’t be so hard on yourself. She wouldn’t have agreed to do it if she didn’t see anything that she liked in you. You may as well give it a chance. Like, cast a large net or whatever. What was I saying?

People sometimes make fun of weight-obsessed climbers, but it really is important to cut as much fat off of your gear as is reasonable to do before attempting hard objectives. I’m not sure that breaking your titanium spoon in half and cutting the pockets out of your jackets is going to make the difference between sending or not, but I do think that general weight consciousness is worthwhile for big adventures since the physical consequence of carrying every extra ounce is correlated to the the amount of spacetime you’ll be hauling it through. The simple unfortunate truth is that spending a bit more money to get that 900 fill, carbon, dyneema, helium filled stuff will make you a better climber/hiker/whatever to an extent. C’est la vie.

If you believe that weight doesn’t matter because you only climb for yourself, that’s just great. I bet you have an excellent view from up on that horse, but like every other thing that humans do, climbing is social and competitive. I doubt that you would spend your free time climbing on mountains if you were the only person on earth. You would probably spend more time trying to figure out what happened to everyone else. That would be weird. Do you think that will ever happen to anyone? Like, when the sun is burning out and the human race is on its way to extinction, someone will be the last person alive for at least a little while right?

I would say that there are a few pieces of gear that absolutely must go into your pack for every committing alpine objective, but I’m sure that this has been done plenty of times only to be contradicted by people with bolder visions. The only way to really figure out what’s necessary or extraneous is to climb a lot and experiment, especially since a lot of the weight budget for big routes is occupied by food and fuel, which is a very personal thing. My pack has surely gotten lighter as I’ve learned more about my required calorie & and water intake, but I still try to finish bigger objectives with some food and fuel packed away in case something like unexpectedly poor conditions or a bad fall or were to occur. I usually throw in an extra freeze dried meal and conservatively calculate fuel requirements for multi-day endeavors. Extra food probably isn’t necessary to like… survive in the case of unforeseen circumstances, but my brain works so much better when I have enough calories to burn that I like having enough of this stuff around to ensure that I can problem solve effectively.

Owning nice gear doesn’t hurt, but good planning & critical thinking is even more important. I always try to be conscious of which pieces of hardware I use the most & least, so that I can consider what I really need for each type of objective. For example, the mega-guide Rob Smith will eliminate one carabiner from each sling  that he carries on technically straightforward routes. Crusher Doug Shepherd will carry a smaller water bottle on routes that he knows he’ll be stopped at belays with time to brew. Steve House accredits his successful solo ascent of K7 to the radically light 6 lb pack that he carried after making several heavier attempts. Josh Wharton doesn’t need to carry climbing gear because he’s Josh Wharton.

For shorter routes in the lower 48, cutting the tags off your jackets might not earn you a ticket on the send train, but as objectives get bigger, higher, and more far-out, cutting every superfluous ounce might be the difference between making a summit tag or returning to the real world with no arbitrary accomplishment under your belt.

Mt. Hunter // French Route

I rappelled to the end of our ropes, slammed in a couple of screws, and yelled “I’m off!” up to J.D. While I threaded our next rappel, the rope didn’t move. I screamed a few more times, pulled aggressively on the lines, then gave up. I slumped onto the slings attaching me to the face and dozed off, as I had done at every other moment where my wakefulness couldn’t help move us forward. I was happy for the chance to take weight off my feet. Keeping them sealed in soggy boots for the last few days waterlogged my skin, making them feel blistered all over. After some indeterminate amount of time, J.D. buzzed down the rope and we continued.

“Make sure you yell loudly when you’re off.”


Somehow, after three full days on the go with only a couple hours of rest, we didn’t feel totally out of control. Of course we were extremely tired, but we could still think clearly enough to problem solve our way through the terrain. It’s scary to think about how we would have dealt with a bad storm or messy fall, but pushing ourselves this far didn’t feel reckless in the situation as it was.

We were descending the West Ridge of Mt. Hunter after climbing the Garison-Tedeschi (A.K.A. French Route) on the North Buttress of the mountain, a route which Mark Westman calls “the proudest and most intimidating line on the wall.” We decided to try the French Route instead of another because we figured it might be more intact than any other line on the face after the long spell of warm temperatures that we’d been having on the Kahiltna. We were also encouraged by the hard-man Slovenians Luka Lindic & Ales Cesen, who had climbed the route to the top of the buttress a couple weeks prior. The only real beta we had on route were the finger-point directions that Luca & Ales sprayed at us in camp.

At 11pm on May 29th, we skied out of camp toward the beautiful and intimidating face. At the top of “ski hill”, J.D. mentioned that “I’m not nervous because I think we can’t do it, but because I think we can.” I agreed. We stashed our ski boots and planks at the base then went into business mode.

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J.D. made short work of the schrund then gave me a quick belay across. We simul-climbed through the traversing ice and snow which lead to the base of the prominent gully that aesthetically defines the route. I lead a shorter simul-block, then we started to pitch things out. Unlike other parties who have climbed the route, we pitched out most of the gully, which didn’t really feel much slower or more strenuous than simul-climbing might have been. We cruised through a handful of easy ice pitches. J.D. put the rope up for a scarcely protected one, and I sewed up an overhung one above that. Some easier climbing brought us to a great rest stop on a snow arette at the top of the gully, which finally allowed us to escape the  grapple-spindrift that had been bombarding us throughout the gully. We sat for about two hours brewing, eating, sharpening, and dozing off as the dim twilight turned into daytime again.

The next stint took us through a couple rope-lengths of thick ice between protruding rock, which foreshadowed what the easier terrain on the upper headwall would be like. A long traverse right brought us to the base of the crux of the lower portion of the route. I placed too many screws on the first half of the pitch, so I was forced to run-out some desperate climbing to the lower angle terrain above, where I could find a rock anchor. We took turns zig-zagging around rock-bands left then back right then left again on ancient bullet-proof ice that required four or five exhausting swings to stick a tool.

The sky dimmed into twilight again as we timidly approached the base of the upper headwall. We were both quite unsure about whether our entry point was the same as previous ascents. I still am. J.D. lead a block of three tricky mixed pitches while I super glued my eyelids open so that I could belay and sleep at the same time. The glazed look on J.D.’s face made it evident that it was my turn to take a block. A well protected but burley off-width lead to the ramp that we probably should have been climbing the whole time. A couple more pitches of involved but easier climbing and a tricky right-facing corner that J.D. crushed into rubble finally lead us to easy ground.

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We found a flat spot under a rock between the top of the headwall and the cornice bivi  where we could finally make a formal bivouac. I oggled J.D.’s extra pair of socks while he changed out of his wet ones. Endless pots of water and some man-spooning made us sharp again. We didn’t sleep for more than a power nap in length, but the short break was transformative. We started moving again sometime in the evening.

The trudge to the summit wasn’t technically difficult, but it was physically draining. It was worrisome to consider the long descent ahead of us. Colin Haley claims that the “crux of any climb on the North Buttress of Begguya (Hunter) is the upper third, from the cornice bivi to the summit.” As we approached the summit pyramid, clouds began to swarm around us, obscuring our vision of the West Ridge descent. We tagged the summit at around 3am on June 1st.

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We had the option to stick to our original plan to descend the West Ridge to the Ramen Couloir, or to go back down to the top of the North Buttress and rappel the Bibler-Klewin route. The latter option was more of a sure thing, but the former one was supposedly quicker and easier. 200 meters before we reached the summit, I had no intention of venturing into unknown terrain with low visibility on the West Ridge, but the sky suddenly cleared as we crested the top so we decided to go for it.

We ran down the ridge, carefully navigated an icefall, made five or six rappels into the top of the couloir, down-slogged for aeons, then finally reached the valley floor where we rested for an hour in the sun. It felt great to let my swamped feet dry in the sun, but hurt my soul to shove them back into my boots to start moving again. I think I would have achieved the same effect by coating them in maple syrup and walking on a bed of fire ants.

The lion’s share of the very cracked portion of glacier on the Southwest side of the mountain can be avoided by walking up a snow ramp and making a few fixed rappels into a narrow canyon over steep ice. During our late season attempt, we were not enthused to learn that this ice had become a torrential waterfall. Pulling our snagged ropes out of the falling water soaked us to the bone.

The seven mile long zombie-slog that followed was an exceptionally weird experience. After 75 hours on the move, my grey matter was melting. Tribal drums and piano music played in the silence. I could see dozens of faces and figures in the features of the rock face next to us. Whenever I squinted toward the foot of a ridge in the distance, it would turn into a helicopter. Without flotation, we broke into crevasses up to our hips and wastes numerous times. When we finally neared camp, I thought I was imagining the team of guided West Buttress climbers pulling sleds. It was an epic struggle to walk faster than this party, even though they each toted over 100lbs of gear.

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In the two days that we rested before returning to the base of the buttress to retrieve our skis, six feet of snow fell. Once we did go, they were nowhere to be found. They were completely concealed by the powder that had fallen, and possibly slough from the face. We probed the area for two fruitless days before giving up. Ouch. I was originally planning to go up Denali after trying Hunter, but without skis my timeline was truncated. We flew back to Talkeetna to party at the Fairview instead. The route was by far the biggest, most wild, and most memorable route that I’ve ever tried. It was a huge step up for both J.D. and I, requiring every bit of our experience and skill.

An Early Thought

honest I’m not sure I have a complete thought to write down, but I feel like spraying it somewhere anyway. I want to reminisce about a relatively insignificant moment that happened relatively early in my relatively uninteresting existence. I think I was five or six or seven. I don’t think I need to say that I’m not certain about that timescale. By the way, this has absolutely nothing to do with climbing whatsoever. Anyway, I was sitting in the backseat of my mom or dad’s car while one of them drove my family around. No one was talking. I was in the window seat behind the driver’s. That detail isn’t important to this little story, but I think it’s kind of interesting how early memories are almost always tied to some specific location. Pro-esoteric neurologist people might call this phenomenon spatiotemporal recognition, but I’m not that qualified. Anyway, I was sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car, looking out the window or at my feet or something when I had the thought that prompted the creation of this crappy collection of words. I should mention that I remember almost nothing from this period of my life. I think most people are the same way, but I’m not really sure about that. I pretty much only remember moments that were accompanied by big emotions, like really embarrassing, confusing, painful, or happy experiences… those times you can really feel your body-juice working. This process is now called endocrine modulation because someone’s thesis didn’t sound official enough. Anyway, I was sitting in the back seat of this car, my family’s car, when I had a thought that I considered to be abstract at the time, and still do really. In fact, I think it’s about the furthest I’ve gotten down the road of the topic that it concerns. I guess it was more of an experience than a thought because it wasn’t like a linear string of language, but more like a jumble of concepts in no particular order. I was sitting in that seat staring at something, and I thought to myself that my …state of being… I guess you could say, what I might now call my consciousness or existence or something, is a really weird, preposterous, unlikely, and strange thing. I hate when people use synonymous words together as if they have different meanings. Like, just find another word that means something else that you’re trying to say. Anyway, I thought that my being me was just kind of a farcical thing. I had to Google a thesaurus for that one. I thought about how it’s super strange how I’m this thing that controls this body thing among all of these other body things controlled by things. That wasn’t the first time I had this kind of thought, but it’s definitely the first one I can remember. I think the most interesting part of this little instance is that I can only recall the moment because I actively forced myself to store the memory. I thought that my brain would poop out some sort of truth if I were to delve into this dead-end of an idea that I’d had a couple of times before. I explored it, and then forced myself to remember it for later. I willfully shelved the experience, so that I could pick it back up later in life. …I guess it worked. My younger self would be proud to see that my life is now crippled by the smallness that I feel every day. Little Kurt would be ecstatic to learn that all practical pursuits feel futile when I consider the absurdity of my existence. I’m not sure why I felt like writing this down or posting it on the internets, BUT. I. DID.