It’s All Fun and Rains: Bled, Slovenia September 5 – 8, 2019

It was time to kick off part two of the Raff’s Still Moonin’ adventure… Europe!  Our starting place was a trip through the Western Balkans.  Croatia was top of the list, but after some research (Thanks, Rick Steves!) we decided to add on Slovenia.  It was described as a small mountainous country known for its hospitality, farm to table food, and love of the outdoors (58% of the country is covered in trees).  Plus, they had wine and hut-to-hut mountain climbing with easy access.  We were sold!

After a non-eventful, even pleasurable flight on Air France, we arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  We quickly got our rental car and headed out towards Lake Bled.  It had been a few years since I have driven in Europe in a manual car, so the drive was a good reminder of all the different road signs, roundabouts, and narrow roads.  I was happy to arrive at our hotel and find a nice parking lot to drop the car!  I was even happier to celebrate our safe arrival with a glass of wine overlooking the lake.

Lake Bled is a gorgeous emerald green alpine lake with a picturesque island.  We enjoyed the 3.5Km walk around the lake with a few side trips to different viewpoints of the lake including a trek up to the castle.  The view was beautiful, and it was cool to climb up the walls and imagine defending the castle by looking through the arrow slots.

The real highlight of the lake is taking a Pletna boat ride to the island.  According to Uncle Ricky (our nickname for Rick Steves), the Plenta boats started in the 1700’s as a way for the families in a neighboring town to make a living as they had minimal farmland.  Today, there are 14 families that have boats, and they are in a union.  Each boat charges the same price per person and all the money is evenly split between each family.  There are several boat launches around the lake. They give the older oarsmen the short side and the younger the long side. 

We opted for the longer ride to maximize our time on the water with the views.  We got the first 2 spots in the boat for great views.  However, about halfway into our crossing, it started to downpour and we got soaked!  Once at the island, we had 40 minutes to explore.  We rang the bell in the church 3 times in hopes that our dreams would come true according to tradition.  The clock tower was newly restored, so we enjoyed observing the pendulum clock in action including ringing the bells at 45 after.  The views were disappointing as it was still downpouring, but it was a fun adventure. 

The splurge of the day was dinner at Fine Foods Berc which offered a 4-course tasting menu with wine pairings.  It was a great time and fun to sample Slovenian foods and wine.  They pride themselves on local, fresh foods and this was a great introduction.

Course 1: Trout prepared in many ways… Smoked (really fishy), eggs (weird!), cooked (pretty okay), and pate (actually my favorite!).  This was paired with a Slovenian white wine from the Karst region which was minerally and crisp.

Course 2: Traditional Slovenian ravioli stuff with potatoes and bacon served with lamb ragu.  It was basically like a pierogi with lamb sauce and was by far my favorite dish!  This was paired with a red wine called Teran which is bright, fruit-forward and known for its minerals.

Course 3: Boar medallions with buckwheat dumplings paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Great pairing, and the boar was excellent.

Course 4: A fancy take on the famous cream cake of Bled.  I don’t really like custardy desserts, but this was amazing!  We skipped the dessert wine as it isn’t our cup of tea.

The next day, we enjoyed a driving tour of the Julian Alps.  This was our best weather window for the few days in Bled, so we left early in hopes to get some views.  The first highlight of the day was driving Vrsic road.  This road had 50 hairpin turns: 24 up and 26 down.  The road was built by 10,000 Russian POWs in WWI to carry supplies to the Austrian troops defending the Soca Valley from the Italians.  Many died from exhaustion, starvation and avalanches.  The POWs built a tiny Russian Orthodox church in their camp in remembrance of those that died.

The road is so steep that at each turn they laid cobblestones to increase traction.  I was happy we had an early start and didn’t run into many other cars or busses.  According to Uncle Ricky, this is a big objective for cyclists and they can beat the cars up (35 minutes)!  We only saw one coming down, which might be scarier than going up!

As we went up, we had glimpses of the mountains that were surrounding us.  The clouds would drift in and out but no amazing views.  However, when we got to the pass, the west side was perfectly clear!  Wow!  We soaked in the views of the big craggy, limestone mountains towering over the green valleys.  The Soca river was perfectly clear and a beautiful blue.  Some sections were very narrow through the limestone, and we enjoyed a few suspension bridges to get better views.

The Soca Valley saw heavy fighting in WWI with over 1M dead by the end of the war.  We stopped at an outdoor museum to walk through an Italian front with barbed-wire fences, trenches, pillboxes, and caves.  As I walked through, I got chills.  I can’t even imagine what it was like especially in the winter. 

In the small town of Kobarid, we stopped to walk through a WWI museum that provided us with more background of the fighting.  This was also the town where Ernest Hemmingway volunteered driving an ambulance and inspired A Farewell to Arms.

To wrap up the day, we opted to take the Car Train back to Bled instead of driving 2 more hours.  The Car Train was only 45 minutes as it went directly through the mountains (literally through tunnels).  We drove onto the flatbed railcar, put on the emergency break and held on for the ride.  It was an adventure, especially the tunnels as they were long and dark.  The last tunnel was over 10 minutes long with the only light from the train engine.  It was an adventure, and definitely not up to the safety standards of the US!

The weather forecast for our last day in the Bled area was terrible – 3” of rain, cold and thunderstorms.  We actually were supposed to start our 3-day attempt of Mount Triglav today, but postponed it due to this storm!  So, we opted for a morning tour of Radovljica instead.  Radovljica, or as we lovingly called it “The R town”, is a medieval market town located on a hilltop.  The town center is filled with colorful, historic homes and cobblestone streets.  We had the place to ourselves as it was downpouring, so good photo ops! 

The highlight, strangely enough, was the beekeeping museum.  Beekeeping is a big thing in Slovenia, and they are very proud that their native bee is still thriving while most of the European bees have died out.  I really enjoyed peeking into a live beehive trying to find the queen bee!  The highlight of the museum was the historical front panels from the beehives which were painted with different scenes.  They ranged from religious scenes to cultural scenes.  They were beautifully painted, and it was interesting to learn about this aspect of their culture.

Our first few days in Slovenia were fun with a warm introduction to their hospitality and a glimpse of their craggy mountains!  We were looking forward to getting more acquainted with them during our 3-day climbing trip!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Slovenia | 4 Comments

Tahoe to Indiana, or Where the Hell Have We Been? Aug. 17-Sept. 3

As Sarah mentioned in the last blog, Mt. Whitney was sort of the final big item on our list of stuff to do this summer. We’d actually scored one more set of permits in the Sierra, but they had been sort of a backup plan in case Whitney hadn’t panned out. As it was, however, we’d had so many good days of climbing, that we really didn’t feel too excited to turn around and do another long pack-in, plus there was a forest fire in our next region that was creating smoky skies. Instead, we decided it would be a great time to find a place to swim and chill out for a few days before making the long drive from California to Indiana to see our family and make final preparations for our trip across the pond.

Before leaving the Whitney area, though, we made an important stop at Manzanar, the former Japanese Internment Camp. Most of us probably know about this unfortunate part of our country’s history, in which we relocated and imprisoned (let’s not mince words…our government admitted its mistake years ago) Japanese American citizens living on the coast in desolate middle-of-nowhere internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Stuck in the middle of the desert, 10,000 people were forced to call Manzanar their home from 1942-45, a few months after the end of the war. Keep in mind, that’s 10,000 people sharing one square mile of desert. Although moved in response to irrational fears of collaborating with the enemy, not a single Japanese American intern was ever convicted of conspiring with Japan. The people gave up their possessions, homes, businesses, and communities—most never returning—in exchange for tar paper and plank barracks (often housing multiple families) that offered minimal protection from dust or cold.  After the war (and a Supreme Court order), prisoners left with $25 and one-way bus tickets. The visitor’s center does a great job of focusing on the people who lived in Manzanar through videos, photos, and written accounts. In today’s culture of fear-based argument and dehumanizing people for nearly any perceived difference, I wish everyone could spend an hour at Manzanar.

Lake Tahoe was our locale of choice for some R and R after a summer of pushing our bodies.  I’d never actually been there, except to drive through on the way to climb at Lover’s Leap a couple of years ago, so I wasn’t sure what to expect but was really ready for a swim! We were a little shocked, though, at just how crowded it was when we got into town—luckily, it was Sunday, and the week was much quieter. The City Campground is quite a dump—they planned to build new bathrooms next month, which was absolutely irrelevant to us. So it was that I managed to poop everywhere in Tahoe (Les Schwab, a State Park bathroom, Safeway, and a Ford dealership in Nevada) except the place we called home! Anyway, we spent the next few days sun-bathing and reading beside the crystal blue water, taking brief but refreshing swims in the cold water, and generally living a blissfully slothful existence. We had planned to move to Lover’s Leap at the end of the week, but Craggin’s battery officially kicked the bucket on the morning we wanted to leave (thus, the pooping in Nevada), so we ended up just moving to that side of the lake and learning to stand-up paddleboard (super fun!) before heading east on the long road to Indiana.

Here are the greatest hits and observations…also known as just enough to keep us sane through 30 hours of straight, 4-lane nothing:

  1. Detouring to Ft. Collins, CO to see our great friends, Ryan and Leslie Morrison, their adorable daughter Clara, and our old 4-legged pal Wylie. The mark of good friends is being able to pick up right where you left off as if it hadn’t been way too long, and we were so lucky to share a ton of laughs with them last week.
  2. Summitting our 6th state high point (2nd via car) at Panorama Point, Nebraska (5,429 ft.) Unlike the highpoint of Iowa that we summitted a few years ago, you can see over the corn at this one.
  3. Nebraska sucks…in fact it might be the one thing Meat Loaf would not do for love.
  4. If Nebraska is not that one thing, then McDonald’s chicken tenders are.
  5. Stumbling onto (not into…or out of) a wonderful lunch at a winery in Kickapoo, IL.
  6. Pulling into the Mathews’ driveway way too long after leaving Nebraska.

The past week, we’ve had a great time with our family in Indiana (including a fun barbecue, impromptu chin-up competition spanning 3 generations, baking pasties, tennis matches, and a memorable Scattergories contest), trying to figure out how our niece and nephew seem to grow up when we can’t seem to do the same, and transitioning from van life to backpacker life as we make final preparations to fly out on Wednesday—next stop Slovenia! If you are really tired of reading about climbing, stick with us because we’re about to go Rick Steves on y’all…

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Uncategorized, USA - Summer 2019 | 1 Comment

Mt. Whitney: August 12 – 16, 2019

The culmination of our summer climbing plans was Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.  All summer, we had this climb in mind. We would need high-altitude fitness, good route-finding and efficient climbing to make it successful.  After our successful time in Tuolumne, we felt prepared to give it a go.

The crux of climbing Mt. Whitney is getting the elusive permits. Only 10 individuals each day can enter the area that we needed to camp in to attempt the technical East Buttress route.  Six of these are available to reserve 6 months in advance.  Rewinding to February of 2019, Mike and I were trying our luck to obtain 2 of these permits during the peak climbing season.  Mike scored and got the permits on Valentine’s Day – a great present!

We spent 2 days prepping for our climb in Lone Pine, CA at a nice B&B.  Lone Pine is a small, hot, dusty town catering to Mt. Whitney climbers.  Back in the day, Western movies were filmed at Alabama Hills just outside of town.  We didn’t do much in town besides rent bear canisters and eat a few meals.  We were too busy trying to pack.

As usual, we had an ambitious plan to maximize our permit time by camping for 5 nights.  As we starting to organize our gear, we realized that our packs couldn’t fit 5 nights of food, so we dropped it down to 4 nights – exactly what we could fit into the 2 bear canisters.  Bear canisters are bulky, heavy and just do not pack well.  We each had to carry one, plus our camping and climbing gear.  Our packs were heavy – 42 lbs for me and 46 lbs for Mike, but everything fit without looking too much like a yard sale!  We were ready to give it a go.

As we were making our final preparations at the trailhead, we saw familiar faces from Portland – Pat Cook and Rhonda Ramirez.  These two ladies helped with our Advanced Rock class with the Mazamas where Mike and I learned how to climb trad!  It was fun to see them and tell them that we were using our skills to climb Mt. Whitney!

I was nervous for the approach due to heavy packs and the steep grade of the climber’s trail (4000’ in 4 miles).  We decided to take the same mindset as we did on the Grand and just take it step by step.  The first challenge was the 2 lower creek crossings.  The creeks were rushing with snowmelt, and the rocks to cross were slick as snot!  It was a bit scary, but we managed without getting wet.  The next challenge was making our way through the Ebersbacher ledges.  We had to walk along a narrow ledge with a steep drop off.  A fall would have been very bad, so we took our time and tried to stay as balanced as you can with a very heavy pack on!  This was my least favorite part of the hike!

From here, the hike eased up in terms of bad consequences, but ramped up in terms of steepness and slowness due to the altitude.  We moved at a steady pace and enjoyed the views of the lakes and eventually the imposing East Face of Whitney.  As I was staring at the face, I had moments of doubt that there was actually a climbing route up it that we could climb! 

After 6 hours of hard work, we arrived at Iceberg Lake (12,600’).  The lake was still partially frozen, so it was well named.  We were pooped.  The approach with the heavy packs was really hard work!  We found a great rock shelter to call home and set up camp where we could scout our route.  We spent the afternoon relaxing and watching other climbers descend the Mountaineer’s route.  Based on their feedback, we happily found out we could leave the crampons behind!  The original plan was to take the next day as a rest day, however, the morning’s weather forecast showed it was the best day to climb.  We also found out that no other groups were planning to climb our route, so we would have it to ourselves!

The route that we chose to climb was called the East Buttress, 2000’ of technical 5.7 rock climbing.  We got an early start, as the route is in the sun from 6am to 2pm and then gets cold.  After 45 minutes of scrambling/hiking, we arrived at the base of the first pitch.  Since the climbing was fairly sustained for the entire 2000’, we planned to pitch it out (no simul-climbing).  The first several pitches were fun, varied climbing – stemming, jamming, slabs, and pure joy.  We had a little route-finding issue about 600’ up, but we managed to get back on route quickly.  Never a good sign when you start climbing rock with lichen!  Surprisingly, the follower—not the leader–encountered the hardest aspect as we wanted to climb fast, but we would get out of breath as we were so high.  So even as a follower, we had to pace ourselves.    

After 7.5 hours of climbing and 13 pitches, we summited!  We were happy, but tired.  The summit was very large, and there is even a hut on top to be used as an emergency shelter.  We shared the summit with 2 other teams that came up the neighboring route.  The views were incredible.  We could look east and see our entire route up from the car.  Every other direction was filled with mountains and lakes. 

We enjoyed our first real break of the day and enjoyed eating snacks including my favorite… Snickers bar!  Then it was time to descend.  I was very happy that it was a non-technical descent via the Mountaineer’s route.  It had a little 4th class scrambling and then mostly scree/trail down.  We were back at camp 1.5 hours later! 

Back at camp, we feasted on Raman Noodles and Mountain House!  Then early to bed as we were tired from the full day.  That night was a full moon.  When I got up to pee, it was so light outside that I didn’t need my headlamp.  The moon was high over Whitney and was so incredible! 

The next day, we slept in until it was too hot to stay in the tent any longer as it felt like a sauna.  We debated over breakfast what we should do next.  Our options were to hike out or rest a day and climb something the following day.  We were beat.  I think our active summer caught up with us in addition to the exhausting pack in with the heavy load.  We just didn’t have much left in the tank.  Plus, resting in the hot sun all day didn’t sound appealing, so we opted to hike out and shorten the trip.

Truthfully, I was not excited about the hike out; I guess who is?  I kept thinking of how slick the rocks in the creek were, how steep it would be on tired knees, and the exposed ledges.  However, the hike out was easier than expected and felt like 4 miles.  We made good time and arrived at the parking lot in 4 hours.  The Yeti did a good job, and we enjoyed cold Peroni to celebrate.

I had an incredible time on our 3-day trip.  The rock climbing was some of the best of the whole trip.  Good granite, good gear, and long varied pitches.  The scenery was awesome – granite everywhere and crystal, clear, blue lakes!  I was extremely proud of how well we did the whole time – good route-finding, teamwork, and efficient climbing.  I was thankful for the time we spent at altitude as neither one of us had any issues, which was huge!  Overall, I’m just so happy that Mike and I were able to climb Mt. Whitney.  We were teasing each other that this was our Machu Pichu of this summer.  Our last big thing before the next segment of our trip.  It sure did not disappoint!  What an epic summer of climbing – we are so very lucky!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | 2 Comments

The Magic of the Meadows: Tuolumne, Jul. 31-Aug. 12

Sarah and I have just finished 12 days in Tuolumne Meadows—the prettier, less crowded, more temperate portion of Yosemite National Park. As usual, we came with a giant tick list of peaks to climb, but we’ve also been going hard for a long time. We’re probably in the best shape of our lives, but it’s also taking us longer to recover from things. We found ourselves having to choose between long alpine climbs and pushing our grade on harder climbs with short approaches; in the end, alpine won out, especially with the amazing weather we had. Sometimes it was frustrating to have to rest; both Sarah and I have the benefit and drawback of pushing for the next big thing. Luckily, Tuolumne Meadows is about the easiest place to chill out that I can imagine. Twelve days is darn near a permanent residence for us after nearly a full summer on the road, but Tuolumne is certainly a spectacular place to call home! Rather than bore everyone with a full blow-by-blow of our time, I will instead stick to the highlight reel!

Our first major endeavor was Tenaya Peak, which towers above the road and picturesque Tenaya Lake—site of many a hippy bath during warmer weather. Summitting requires about 1,500 feet of climbing up to 5.6 with an hour-ish approach and longer hike down a trail to the lake, so we got an early start. Reaching it is supposedly a bushwhack, but we had a good trail almost the whole way—definitely no bushwhacking of North Cascades standards! The worst part was crossing wet slabs under a small waterfall, but that took about 5 steps. From there, we pondered a “sea of slabs” with probably 2,498,172 ¼ ways to ascend!

 We free-soloed the first 500 feet of low angle, 4th and easy 5th class before roping up and simul-climbing (at the same time, keeping pieces of protection between us) another 600 feet in 2 long pitches. When it looked like the climbing might be a bit more serious, we pitched out the rest of the climb—basically, we did 13 pitches in 6! Looking out from the summit at Tenaya Lake, Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and Half Dome, we felt pretty pleased with the world—a couple of hikers were at the summit, but we’d even had the route to ourselves! It’s also not every day we get to climb 2,000 feet from car to summit and get back to camp in time for lunch and ice cream from the store! The person who’d signed the summit register the day before noted that he’d lost count of how many times he’d climbed Tenaya, but it gave him a sense of what he wants from his world; I think both Sarah and I could relate to the freedom, peacefulness, and adventure this climb offers.

After a couple of days of resting and cragging, we tackled the 1st half of Matthes Crest—which would mean climbing a ½ mile of a very narrow, exposed ridge 500 feet off the ground. We made short work of the first portion of the trail—if not for the sake of time than to avoid being skeeter breakfast. One guidebook suggests a very convoluted approach that notoriously messes people up, so we chose the simpler option to hike easy trail to the base of Cathedral Peak (probably the most climbed in Tuolumne) before going cross-country on easy to navigate terrain toward our objective. It was a good decision, and we had no problem navigating, but man, it was a haul!

We pitched out the first 3 pitches of vertical climbing to gain the ridge. It felt really windy and cold, but the climb starts from a sort of notch which probably caused that; most of the day felt much better! Sarah led the 1st pitch, and I immediately broke off a knob—the first 3 pitches are all knobs, which made for a pretty shaky start for me! That changed, though, when we hit the ridge and began simul-climbing on mostly easy, super fun slabs and big flakes. Every once in a while, a more vertical hump or tower required harder moves, but the exposure was the real challenge. I’d move around a corner or peek over the side before going, “I don’t wanna’ climb that!” and move up the face instead. Sarah got a few heady downclimb moves, and I was very grateful for the good protection she left me in those spots. Other than that, there weren’t too many memorable moves, but there were a couple of spots with 2 hands on a rock fin and feet basically on the edge—neither of us spent any significant time pondering the sheer 500 foot drop below us!

We stood on top of the South Summit after about 5 hours of climbing; we’d lost some time on the first 3 pitches, and I was a little slow to start the morning. Still, we’d moved very efficiently on the ridge, and a ½ mile of rock climbing is a really cool thing! We took a few minutes to ponder the North Summit, which is a little higher and requires two ropes to rappel, thinking maybe another time. I managed to make the downclimb a little harder than it needed to be, but I protected it well, and Sarah kept the cussing inside her head (I think) before joining me at the notch between summits for two pleasantly low-key rappels took us to solid ground. I don’t think either of us had ever climbed something that exposed for the entirety of the climb, and it was definitely Type-2 fun. That being said, we both found ourselves eyeing the second half of Matthes Crest—after all, isn’t a mile better than half?

If you’ve ever used Recreation.gov, you know that it is basically a piece of poo. Well, it turns out the Park Service probably feels the same because the website managed to sell a bunch of the walk-up sites for about 2 weeks in peak season! They didn’t really know the full scale of the problem when we’d arrived and waited half the night to get a campsite, but they’d figured it out by the time I went to renew…overbooked…no renewals! Thus, I found myself first in line at 3 AM in the middle of our trip because I was going to be damned if we didn’t get our campsite (really, the best site I’ve ever had anywhere). I was glad to see Sarah walking up the way at around 7:00 with coffee and cinnamon cake, and we got our spot.

When we’d come here a couple of years ago, thunderstorms had shut us down nearly afternoon, but we’d been lucky enough to have a long streak of mellow weather with moderate temperatures—even in the valley. Sarah suggested climbing Snake Dike Route on Half-Dome, so we watched the forecast and were very surprised to get a weather window with highs well below the oven one would usually expect down there in August. Snake Dike is named for long, windy streaks of raised features on the otherwise slabby granite; these make for relatively easy climbing but also greatly diminish the opportunities for gear placements. Yosemite is known for very long runouts for bolted climbs, and Snake Dike certainly lives up to that reputation. On the other hand, packing was really easy since you don’t have to take much gear!

Rather than bumble around a dark campsite at 3:30 AM, we moved from the bed to the front seat and drove down in our pajamas, sipping cold coffee drinks and saving breakfast for the trail. Only a handful of cars and a fox shared the roads with us, and we were happy to find a parking spot in the lot—meaning we were only ½ mile from the trailhead instead of a whole mile (what’s up with these weird distances in California?). The approach was about 6 miles and very scenic—passing pretty Vernal Falls and rushing Nevada Falls. I found myself leering at other people’s packs but could discern no other ropes, which boded well for our chance to avoid crowds on the route. The first half of the hike climbed steeply up endless rocky steps before mellowing out for a couple of miles; from there, the climbing trail ends and you have to ascend a gully of rockfall from a couple of years ago, cross a couple of really exposed slabs, and then wind up and around to the start of the climb. We had a very long day to go, but we did stop long enough to take account of these giant forearm-sized cones!

It was a little breezy when we got there, but only one other party was above us (and they were already 3 pitches up!). Our climb was 8 pitches and about 800’ of roped climbing, followed by another 1,000 feet of calf-burning easy 3rd class slabs to the top. The hardest climbing is 5.7 and occurs in the first 3 pitches, which are sort of a series of traverses on slick rock to reach the long dike. With only a bolt or two and maybe a cam on each pitch, we found ourselves climbing very quickly! The 4th-6th pitches are all really long, really easy, and REALLY runout—like 160’ feet with 2 bolts! On the 6th pitch, I climbed 120’ before slinging two knobs (one terrible and one okay) because I wanted something, promptly missing the bolt above me, and reaching the anchor at 130’…only to discover it was a hanging belay on spinning bolts (climbers, keep donating to ASCA)! Despite the lack of protection, the climbing was really fun and not overly scary…you just never got to the point where the runout wasn’t at the back of your mind (wait, isn’t that the part of your brain in charge of survival?). Two short, easy pitches of trad climbing on slabs, finger cracks, and a mini-roof got us to the 3rd class stuff, although we roped up for one more while the climbing stayed more vertical. We tried our best to pace ourselves up that last 1,000 feet, but slab running burns your calves and lungs anyway.  I finally spotted three sets of long legs reclining in the sun above us, and we happily topped out to join the masses about 100 feet beyond the legs. We’d climbed from the base in 3 hours on a day that, aside from a few cold gusts, turned out to be gorgeous!

The summit is actually pretty awesome—huge with nothing around it to block the surrounding views into the valley and up at the peaks of Tuolumne. We took some photos, including the famous “diving board” shots and enjoyed our first summit of a Yosemite classic climb. It was a little bit of culture shock, though, with all the people—one group beside us that had climbed up the cables on the dog route was even frying steaks on an MSR stove! Our rope was a novelty to many (they thought we were like Alex Honnold), but we’ve climbed plenty of peaks without ever seeing a steak knife at the summit before!

Another new, and not entirely enjoyable, phenomenon was our descent via 500 feet of 2-way traffic between the wire cables. They are only attached in a few places through giant bomb-proof eye bolts drilled into the rock; intermediate poles (that lift out when people pull up on the cables!) are dropped into drilled brackets, creating questionable anchor points if someone falls, and wooden slats offer footing at these poles—about every 10-12 feet apart. We wore belay gloves and chose to walk down between the cables like everyone else, but that plan was bad…years of thousands of boots have made that steep path as polished and slick as chicken grease on a KFC floor! I wanted my harness on with my personal safety leash clipped onto the wire, which would have allowed me to walk outside the cables—a mere 6 inches away from the KFC floor lay lovely grainy, textured rock that nobody uses! It wasn’t altogether terrifying but to stuck on this ant hill with people who’ve never climbed, but I must agree with Sarah’s assessment that it was, at best, “sort of fun in a sick way.”

When we’d been on the summit, I looked around and saw the excitement most people felt after what for some was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement—even if you hike up and do the cable thing, Half Dome is a big frigging rock! I mentioned this to Sarah before adding that we get to do this stuff almost every day this year, and we get to do it together. We’ve worked really hard to earn our opportunities and been lucky to have much support along the way, but we also know and appreciate that we live a pretty charmed life. Tuolumne Meadows is one of my favorite places to climb, and maybe even my favorite place to be, and I can’t wait to come back here again and again.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | Leave a comment

Cobble, Cobble: Maple Canyon July 27 – 30, 2019

Maple Canyon was not on the original Raff’s Summer 2019 itinerary. After lots of discussion over happy hour wine in Jackson Hole, we decided to head there next as a stopover on our way to Tuolumne.  We were originally planning to spend a week alpine climbing in The Winds in Wyoming, but we were feeling too rushed and decided to add the extra time to Tuolumne instead. 

Our travel day brought on a little feeling of sadness for both of us, almost like our trip was over.  I am not sure if it was because we were heading west, or if we were just tired.  We weren’t going home, and our epic vacation is still in its early stages, but we were both feeling a little down.  Nothing that a few days of cragging couldn’t fix.

We decided to splurge and stay in an Air B&B for the 3 days.  We got a great deal on a room in a Victorian mansion built in 1894 in Spring City, UT.  Spring City is a National Historic City with lots of old homes and a cute little downtown.  It was also only a 20-minute drive to the crag!  The place was great, and we were the only guests, so we had the whole house to ourselves. The only downside, there was no shower, only a giant tub!  I felt very olden times, rinsing my hair with the pitcher!

Spring City and Maple Canyon are in rural Utah.  There isn’t much around except for farming.  As luck would hold it, we encountered our second animal drive… this time it was 200 sheep!  We saw them headed toward us and just stopped the car to let them pass.  This time, I was able to document the evidence!

Maple Canyon is famous for its cobblestone.  The walls are basically different size stones all held together with sandstone. The stones range from golf ball size to beachball size.  When you climb, you use the stones and/or the depressions where the stones used to be as handholds and footholds.  It is a weird feeling to grab onto this stone and hope that it stays in place.  I only had one small one break off, and I was luckily balanced enough not to fall!

We spent 3 days climbing in different areas within the canyon.  We didn’t push our grades here as we were both worried about falling and hitting our ankles on the strange stones.  Instead, we just enjoyed the many moderate climbs in the shade.  The climbing was fun, a little like gym climbing.  A good place to spend a few days, but not at the top of our list to visit again. 

I’m glad we flexed our schedule to include Maple Canyon as a stop over and saved The Winds for another year.  Tuolumne Meadows is calling our name and having a place to call “home” for 2 weeks sounds lovely.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | Leave a comment

A Grand Time in the Tetons: July 21 – 26, 2019

Teton National Park was the next stop on the Raff’s summer road trip itinerary.  We had a quick preview of the park at the end of June during our drive to Ten Sleep.  Based on that view of the mountains, we were under the impression that there was way too much snow, so the likelihood of climbing was quite low.  We thought we would at least enjoy some hiking and maybe even go rafting, so we headed south to the Tetons.

Upon arrival at the park, the first order of business was to secure a campsite.  We knew the drill… wait in line, hope lots of campers decide to checkout, and be nice to the rangers in hopes of getting a good spot.  A good spot in my mind is shady, somewhat private, has a view, and is close but not too close to the bathrooms.  We lucked into a spot that checked 3 of the 4 boxes.

Next order of business, head to Jenny Lake to talk to the climbing rangers.  Jenny Lake is a very popular area, and the parking lot was a zoo!  Lots of things to do here, and everyone arrived at the same time.  Luckily, not too many people were waiting to talk to the rangers.  Much to our surprise, the climbing route on Grand Teton was almost in summer conditions, and there was a perfect weather window if we left the next day.  After getting beta on the route from the ranger, we decided to go for it!

At this point, it was early afternoon.  We had minimal time to prepare for a 3 day climb – our first alpine climb of the year!  The packing ended up not being difficult, as the only options for gear were in the van.  So, no thinking about which tent to bring or which pack, etc.  After packing, we madly researched the route as much as possible.  Normally, we would research an alpine climb for a few days, print beta and pictures.  This was a quick job, but we felt like we had enough to be safe.

The next day was go time.  It was going to be hot, so we got an early start for our 7.5 mile hike with 5000’ of elevation gain.  My pack was 36 lbs. and Mike’s was 38 lbs.  With camping gear, rope, rock climbing gear, ice axe and crampons, it was not an outrageous weight, but being the first overnight climb of the year, it felt heavy!  As we started hiking, I had my doubts… How would I do with the altitude (base camp was at 11,600’), would my legs hold up with the weight, would we have any energy to actually climb after the approach, etc…  We decided after discussing our worries, that no matter what we would have fun, be safe and consider this a training climb for Mt. Whitney. 

The first 4.3 miles to gain 2500’ were on a good trail traveling through lupine meadows with a few sections of switchbacks and then a boulder hopping section at the end.   At this point, we were at the meadows camping area at 9300’, and we got our first good view: South, Middle and Grand Teton.  Middle Teton was imposing directly above the meadow.  It had a vertical black dike on the face that was impressive! 

We talked to several parties that were descending and everyone had a good climb.  They also all told us that we didn’t need ice axe or crampons!  Good for tomorrow, but bummer that we were carrying the extra weight to base camp.

From here, we traveled up steep switch backs, boulders and a moraine trail to just below the lower saddle where we would camp.  From here we had 2 options: traverse a steep snow field or climb up a short cliff on a fixed line.  We opted for the snow as there looked to be good steps and we wanted to use our ice axes!

We made it to camp in 6 hours.  I was surprised by how good I felt at altitude as I usually have a bad headache and nausea.  We really haven’t been below 5000’ in the 6 weeks we have been on the road, so I think it paid off!  We also both felt pretty good.  A little tired, but not exhausted.  We set up camp in a sheltered spot – huge boulder on one-side and rock wall on the other.  Our camping spot hit 3 of the 4 boxes.  The only one that was short was the bathroom.  Per instructions from the rangers, we had to pee into Idaho which meant we had to climb 10 minutes uphill to the true saddle to pee.  Not too bad during the day, but in the middle of the night – not awesome!

As we spent the afternoon relaxing, we scoped our route and talked to a few other groups.  We had 2000’ to climb to the summit from here.  Based on how we felt, we began to be optimistic about our chances!

For an alpine climb day, we had a reasonable start time of 6:30.  The first objective on our route was to pass the black dike and find the “eye of the needle.”  This is basically a tunnel to gain the ridgeline in the easiest way.  We quickly figured out the black dike and after a few minutes found the tunnel.  We thought this would be the biggest route-finding challenge, but we were wrong.  The next objective was to find a notch in the ridge that we could cross to gain Wall St. (a ramp to gain the Exum Ridge – our route).  After a quick look, I thought we had farther to climb before our traverse.  So up we went.  At our next view, we were 300’ too high.  So, back down we went.  We wasted about an hour trying to figure this section out.

Eventually, we made it to Wall St. where we geared up to start the technical climbing.  We had 1500’ vertical to go.  The first pitch is a short traverse, but boy did it get our attention.  You must make an airy hand traverse around a boulder to gain the ledge.  The next pitch (Golden Staircase) was a golden granite ramp with knobs. It was fun and easy. 

From here, the climbing gets easier, so we simul-climbed.  This means that we were both climbing at the same time, but had protection attached to the rope.  This allows us to move fast, but it is a little riskier as if one falls, they have the potential to pull the other.  But the protection will keep us both attached to the mountain.  We only do this when it is easy and low risk.

As we continued to get higher, we came across some more harder sections that we pitched out (went back to normal climbing methods).  The Friction pitch (way easier than any Fred Beckey slab in the NW) and the V-pitch.  Both were fun!

Once more section of simul-climbing and we were on the summit!  We had it to ourselves and it was a blue-bird day.  We could see lots of mountains, lakes, and meadows.  It was amazing!  We both felt good too which I couldn’t believe with the altitude at 13,775’!  We celebrated, ate and took pictures before starting our descent.

The descent is down a different route than we climbed, so we were extra cautious on our route-finding after this morning’s mistake.  Also, we were starting to get a little tired, so we took our time.  We found our 2 rappels, and the rope pulled cleanly both times – huge sigh of relief.  We were then on 4th class terrain back down to the “eye of the needle.”  4th class means that you must use your hands and sometimes turn around and down-climb.  We had to be methodical and careful, but also efficient as we started to see dark clouds forming.  Just as we passed the eye of the needle, it started to sprinkle.  We picked up our pace even more.  As we hit the top of the saddle, it started to pour so we ran/walked the last few minutes.  Once at the tent, we hurled ourselves inside and tucked our bags away to wait out the storm.  We just settled in and the hail started, then lighting and thunder that felt like it shook the ground under us.  It stormed for 1.5 hours and at one point, we had 2 inches of hail outside the tent.  Our tent, which was on its maiden voyage, did great and held up to the wind gusts and rain.  We were snug in our tent and so very thankful to be down before the storm.

Eventually it let up and the sun came out.  We laid out all our wet gear, ate dinner and enjoyed the view of the route we just climbed!  6 hours to the summit and 5.5 hours down to camp.  After dinner, the clouds started to roll in again, so we jumped back into the tent for the night.

We woke in the morning to rain.  Ugh, how I hate packing up camp in the rain!  We put on all our rain gear and quickly packed up camp.  We opted to skip the snowfield and instead rapped the cliff.  Once we were back in the meadows, the sun came out, and we ditched our rain gear. We made fairly quick work of the descent, getting out in 4.5 hours.  Our bodies were tired but motivated to get out of our boots and drop the pack!  About 30 minutes from the trailhead, we were surprised to find a young black bear 25’ from the trail.  Mike quickly grabbed his bear spray, but it was too busy eating to even notice us!  We enjoyed a quick view and were surprised at the length of his fur.  His nickname is Mullet.  With a little new energy, we made it to the van.  A cold beer awaited, and I was so happy to drop the pack!

We spent the next 2 days at the Gros Venture Campground recovering and enjoying the town of Jackson.  We finally used our awning – we needed the shade at camp to enjoy the view.  We caught up on journals, dried out gear and relaxed. 

One our best finds on the trip so far was the Jackson Recreation Center.  For $8, we got a towel, hot shower and unlimited day use of their sauna, hot tub and pool.  We went 2 times in 2 days as it was so nice and felt good to our tired bodies!  We also celebrated with a nice dinner out at Bin 22 where we enjoyed 50% off wine pours (awesome happy hour) and a selection of cheese, meatballs and lamb chops!

It was an amazing and exhausting adventure.  The mountain is so iconic and as we looked at it from camp, I still couldn’t believe we climbed it!  I am thankful that our active summer got our bodies ready for the climb and that we were able to safely summit and descend.  We will have to come back someday to sample a few more of the Teton climbs, but for now, I am happy we got our unexpected, successful climb of the Grand Teton!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | Leave a comment

Hold the Phone: Raffs in Yellowstone: July 17-20

We’re back! It’s hard to believe Devil’s Tower was three weeks ago, but we’ve managed to keep ourselves occupied; Sarah contracted a nasty stomach bug the day after climbing the tower, so we spent a few quiet days having a nice visit with her mom and dad before heading to Spearfish, South Dakota for some light cragging (um…we climbed 3 pitches) and convalescing. Then, we headed back to Ten Sleep for two more eventful days; our frenemy status is still intact, as we hiked through moose country, climbed some more awesome routes, and continued to feed Sarah’s ice cream addiction there but also dealt with an unfortunate dead battery situation that required splicing together multiple jumper cables in a serious cowboy mad scientist kind of way! The next big thing, though, was my first trip ever to Yellowstone, and it did not disappoint.

Because we didn’t have a campsite reserved, we stayed just outside of the park and did the prerequisite pre-dawn getup to drive to our preferred campground, Norris, in the center of the park. Our game viewing began just a few minutes into the park, when we came upon a stopped truck flashing its hazards in the middle of the road. In most of America, this means “help me,” but in Yellowstone, it is often code for “big-ass bear”! As the truck drove off, Sarah spotted an adolescent grizzly about 5 feet off the road, digging through a rotten stump to get some bugs for breakfast. We watched it dine, snort, and move on…even standing briefly before moseying. No crowds and a bear…not bad for a start.

After waiting in line for 2 ½ hours, we were proud renters of a great campsite with lots of space, shade, a big ol’ picnic table, and bear box that held all our food. Since our day was half over by the time we made some breakfast, we decided to make the mile long hike to Norris Geyser Basin. We’d seen some bison right by camp, and bears frequent the area, so we saved our “how was your morning” discussion for the trail, along with more than a few “Hey, bear!” calls. Soon, we came out at the busy geyser basin, home to some of the world’s oldest geothermal pools (115 million years); magma runs only about 2 miles below the earth’s surface here, and the hottest recorded temperature underneath the ground here was 429 degrees. We spent the afternoon walking the two boardwalk loops checking out deep blue pools with various collections of colored bacteria on their edges; the world’s largest geyser, Steamboat, was due to go off sometime in the next 36 hours, so we waited about 10 minutes, mostly watching the crowd. We saw many bubbling pools, burping mud pots, and a few small spurts but no big eruptions.

As many of you may know, Sarah and I both love animals; two of our favorite things on our first trip were the African safari and Amazon rain forest tours. So, our first big splurge of the trip was a game viewing tour in the Lamar Canyon, sometimes known as the Serengeti of America. Again, we found ourselves up before dawn driving the super curvy road north through Mammoth to the original entry to the park in Gardiner, Montana; originally a stage coach road, this entrance is also home to the famous Roosevelt Arch…not originally designed to be named for him, but he was visiting around the time it was to be dedicated and agreed to give a speech. On the way out to the Canyon, I noticed a sign for Cooke City and immediately thought of a backpacking trip years ago in the Beartooths, where a certain best friend who shall not be named burned all of our toilet paper, sending me on a 3 mile run with full pack to the nearest outhouse on our way out. I decided to focus on the animals instead.

Some of the highlights of the day included a ton of bison (including watching a male guard the lady he was beginning to court), pronghorns (the 2nd fastest mammal in the world, who evolved and survived its ancient main predator, the American cheetah), and elk (some big ol’ racks and a few gangly young…the freshmen of the school of mother nature). We spent time on the viewing scopes looking for wolves but settled for learning a ton about them instead, including 1) their close relationship with ravens, 2) the positive curb-effect their re-introduction had on other species, and 3) the amazing story of their re-introduction, including a poacher, lost orphans, rescuers making mama wolf noises, a Leatherman tool, and 8 rescued cubs. Probably the most exciting part of the day, though, was coming up on a black bear dining on second breakfast and ignoring two idiots (not us) trying to follow it into the woods.

Oh, we also saw a unicorn! Metaphorically speaking, of course. In our 3rd cross-country road trip, spanning much of the continental U.S., we finally spotted a car from Rhode Island! I had all but accepted they had not actually benefitted from the innovation of the automobile, but apparently they do exist!

We spent the rest of the day tooling around Mammoth—first with a soak in the Boiling River, which isn’t as painful as it sounds. It’s a spot where a boiling hot spring runs into a really cold river, basically creating bathtub temperatures—or rushes of slightly too hot water followed by rushes of slightly too cold; every few minutes, though, we were straight baby bear—juuusst right! After our soak, we checked out the travertines around town; we both enjoyed the Minerva Spring. It was hot and crowded around Mammoth, though, so it wasn’t our favorite part of Yellowstone. We kind of liked it at dawn, when there were more elk than people.

Our 3rd day in Yellowstone began with another early start and some sunrise game viewing—3 elk on a hillside with giant racks—it’s hard to believe they regrow antlers every year. We also stopped to check out some other elk in our binoculars and spotted a grizzly in the distance—it’s humped back was pronounced. Not sure what he was up to, but boy, can those things move. Our reason for getting up so early was to have a nice breakfast (we put on our nicest clothes in the parking lot) in the historic Yellowstone Lodge, where I discovered that cheese blintz rule. Then, we were on to Old Faithful.

We actually got to the parking lot right as Old Faithful went off, which gave us about 90 minutes before the next eruption. I wanted to see it from Observation Point, so we hiked up there after checking out the visitors’ center and touring the 1st part of Geyser Hill. We were right below the point when Old Faithful went off about 17 minutes early; I had expected this grand view, but the wind was blowing our way; we mostly saw steam and the lodge behind it. Not what I had pictured, but we had plenty of time.

The highlight of the geysers actually was seeing Castle Geyser go off—it only goes off 1-2 times a day, and it is one of the coolest looking formations. From most angles, the base really does look like a castle, and when it goes, the water even creates a sort of moat! Anyway, the thing erupted in long spurts for about 25 minutes, sometimes 60 feet or so into the air. This was followed by sort of hissing steam farts for another 20 minutes. It was awesome!

After finishing our loop, we hiked back down to check out Old Faithful from up close and lucked into a couple of good seats opposite of the wind. Then we waited…and waited. This time, it was 17 minutes late! Some people were getting irritated, as if cable TV was interrupted, but in reality, the geyser averaged out to be right on time! When it went, the cool thing was, about 500 people shut up at once! It wasn’t the grandest geyser I’ve seen, but the way it mesmerized people seemed pretty special.

Maybe our favorite thing that we saw, however, was not an explosion at all. The Prismatic Spring is simply gorgeous! Rather than join the hordes on the boardwalk around it, we hiked up from the nearby Fairy Falls trailhead to a magnificent viewpoint above it. This 370 ft. wide, 121 ft. deep pool was the purest blue, and the light coming off it and the colorful bacteria around its edges really did create a prism that basically spanned the colors of the rainbow. Sarah and I spent a good deal of time admiring it before hiking down—sometimes the serene outshines the exciting.

On our final day, we began with a hike of Mt. Washburn, one of only 3 active lookouts in Yellowstone. It is also the most popular: over 10,000 people hike it annually. Its summit is 10, 243 feet, but it is not a difficult hike, and we have slept between 5,000 and 8,000 feet almost the entire time since leaving Portland. We got another early start and actually had the trail and summit all to ourselves! The wildflowers were in—lots of lupine, paint brush, and sunflowers—and the animals were out—a mule deer, marmots, and even a fox. Right below the summit, we spotted either big horn sheep or mountain goats. The light was bad, and they were just too far off…out came the binoculars. We spent a few minutes trying to figure it out when a very loud CRACK went off just behind us. Umm, they were definitely big horn sheep—a big male had snuck up right above us and was watching us peer through the binocs at his cousins. Anyway, we enjoyed seeing this herd, including some babies, up close as we summitted. The lookout was great too…panoramas all around, including all the way to the Tetons. It was worth getting up early; the sheep were gone by the time the 3rd party arrived, and that view was even better with us hogging it.

After Mt. Washburn, we headed down to check out the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Both Sarah and I sort of had low expectations for this (how grand could it be—we’ve seen the real Grand Canyon!), but we were both really impressed by it! We hiked the north rim instead of fighting the traffic jams of drivers between lookouts, and it made for a nice afternoon. The canyon is very sheer, dropping 1,000 feet in places, spanning 4,000 feet across, with the Yellowstone River snaking 20 miles through it. Different shades of yellows, oranges, reds, and browns layer the walls of each side. We hit five different viewpoints to get different aspects of it; all were impressive, but of course, the best part is the falls. Apparently, the Lower Falls are twice as high as Niagara, but the size of the canyon disguises this a bit. From the Brink of the Lower Falls (the upper falls portion is closed, so we didn’t get great views of it), you are basically at the drop-off. They are astonishingly powerful; the spray churns up almost half the height of the falls from the violence of the water dropping! Probably my favorite part, though, was dropping 500 feet below the rim at Lookout Point, but I will let that picture speak for itself.

Yellowstone was not exactly at the top of my bucket list (actually, I don’t have a bucket list…we were asked at work last year what was at the top of our bucket list, and my answer was to buy a bigger bucket), but it was a place I had always hoped to see. It didn’t disappoint me and spending a few days here with Sarah living in a van together was more than just another drop in some bucket. Sometimes, life is pretty stinkin’ great!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | Leave a comment

Devil’s Tower, Wyoming: July 7, 2019

“Dad, I am going to climb to the top of this tower someday.”  I said this as an 8-year-old standing at the base of Devil’s tower watching the climbers.  I had never even seen rock climbers before, but I have always dreamed big, so why not?

My family was on an epic 2-week road trip out west in our silver Ford van.  My parents, Doug and Fay, my 15-year-old brother, Josh, and my 13-year-old sister, Mary.  My family was always into long road trips, but this was our first trip out west!  We did all the highlights: Wall Drug, Corn Palace, Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, and Oregon Trail sites.  On our stop at Devil’s Tower, the rest of my family hung out at the parking lot, but I convinced my Dad to walk around the base of the tower via the 1.3-mile paved walk.  As we were walking, we saw the climbers.  We watched in awe for a while, and that is when I added a new item to my bucket list!

My parents have always been supportive of my dreams and taught me how to achieve huge goals by chunking them up into small attainable goals.  Heck, I got a firsthand lesson from my dad when we were riding our bikes across America when I was 16.  We just need to ride to breakfast, now we need to ride to lunch, then ice cream, then the campground and do it all again tomorrow.  It worked, as we successfully rode, self-sustained, from Seattle to Cape Cod.  I’m so grateful to my parents for teaching me this skill and for always supporting me. 

When I told them that Mike and I were going to take another year to adventure and that Devil’s Tower was an objective, they said just let us know when and we will be there!  My parents have never seen me climb, and here they were coming to witness Mike and I climb 500 feet up my childhood dream!

We met on Saturday at an Air B&B 20 minutes from the Tower in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  Our original plan was to climb on Monday or Tuesday, but the weather was forecasted for rain, so our window was Sunday.  Mike and I scoped the route on Saturday, talked to the rangers, and found a great viewing spot for my parents.  Then back to the B&B to pack, study the route descriptions and catch-up on the family news. 

Our route of choice was the Durrance, the original climbing route from the 1930’s and the most popular route to the summit.  With this in mind, we opted for a 4:30 wake up to be on the rock at 6am.  I’m not sure my parents were fully aware that it was going to be such an early morning, but they were troopers, and we made it out the door on time!

During the 20-minute drive, we were treated to an amazing sunrise, and our first view of the tower had a pink and purple sky behind it.  Wow, we get to try to climb that!  When we got to the park entrance, there was a mist in the valley, so the tower looked like it was rising from the mists.  So beautiful.  I can see why this is a sacred place for the Native Americans.  It felt special to me, and I was hoping for a safe, fun day of climbing.

I was happy to see that there was only one other car in the lot.  It was a quick 15-minute walk to the viewing spot to leave my parents.  Dad, a professional photographer took a few before pictures, and I got a big hug from my mom.  My parents were warned that this might take 8 hours, so they had chairs, water and food.  My dad brought 2 cameras including the super long-range lens.  This was going to be a well-documented climb! 

As Mike and I started up the climber’s trail to the base, I was worried about the climb, my parents being bored, and excited that this was happening!  From the base of the climb, you look up and see the big (the largest columns in the world) beautiful columns which steepen the farther up you look.  It was breathtaking and a little intimidating.

The original route took exposed 4th class ledges to the starting tree.  We opted for the nice looking 5.4 approach crack.  One more pitch of climbing and the guidebook said if we had any trouble on this approach to bail, as we don’t have the skills to climb the route!  So, this felt like the safest, most conservative option to start.

As we geared up, I could hear my parents below chatting away with some other tourists.  My dad was telling my story.  Mike and I wondered how many times that story would be told today! 

Mike took on the approach pitch which starts hand-sized and widens until it gets to off-width at the top.  A 20’ easy traverse to the belay tree finishes the pitch.  Mike got right into the crack and got the first pitch done.  I quickly followed.  No bailing for the Raffs, although it was worlds different from the sport climbing in Tensleep!

We were now at the base of the leaning columns.  The first true pitch of the Durrance route.  The guidebook suggests combining pitch 1 (Leaning Columns) with pitch 2 (Durrance Crack) for an epic 140’ crack pitch.  Mike kindly gave me this pitch as it was the crux and the best pitch of the climb.  What an awesome husband!

The leaning columns are 2 broken columns stacked on top of each other and propped up by the tower itself.  The first half had good stems and hand jams.  Halfway up, you must commit to some off-width moves using the crack created between the leaning column and the tower face.  I had so much gear on me, I couldn’t see my feet!  I eventually figured it out, got to the top of pitch one and heard my parents cheering below.  I checked my remaining gear and yelled down to Mike that I would continue up the Durrance crack as planned. 

This pitch had 2 parallel cracks to climb.  The right was a large off-width.  The left was hands, then fingers and then off-width at the top.  I stemmed, jammed and grunted my way up.  I was thankful that I took a crack climbing clinic last fall, as I used every technique, I learned leading this crack!  It was stout and I could hear my parent’s cheering below.  I was stoked!  The last 15 feet are pure off-width.  We brought the #6 to protect it and I was happy to pull the top move and enjoy the nice belay ledge!  It was a beautiful 140’ of physical crack climbing.  Super sweet.  We were now over ½ way up the tower!

Mike climbed the leaning columns quickly.  He slowed down for the Durance crack.  I heard a lot of grunting, but he made it to the top using lots of leg jams (he had the bruises to prove it too)! 

We also combined the next 2 pitches: Cussin’ Crack and Flake Crack for a 70’ pitch which Mike led.  Cussin’ crack is 5.8 off-width.  Mike used the #6, the #5 and #4 x 2!  The flakes crack eased up to 5.6 up a dihedral with nice flakes to climb.  We were cruising.  I couldn’t hear my parents much anymore, but every time I waved, they waved back!

The next pitch was a 40’ chimney filled with 3 chockstones.  The first 2 can be used, but the top one is loose and cannot be touched.  As I squeeze myself into the chimney, I told Mike he better drop the pack on a leash as it was super tight for me!  I’m thankful for the experience of climbing chimneys in the North Cascades, as I quickly got up it, skirted on the slab below the loose chockstone and made the belay.  This was a hard pitch for Mike as he had to deal with the pack and the chimney was a true squeeze for him!  I yelled down “Just get ‘er done”!

At this point, we had a choice.  We could continue straight up 100’ to the summit via Bailey’s Direct or stay on the original route and do the jump traverse pitch!  Looking up was more chimney, so we opted for the iconic jump pitch.  This pitch was a traverse to get you from the column that we were standing on to a few columns over to our right.  There is a 5’ gap between columns which you can jump, no way, or delicately face climb over, yes please.  Mike went first and opted for a reachy hop made possible by his arm-span and long legs.  I opted for a small crimp, and delicate foot work to get me across. I whooped when I made it and heard a faint cheer below!  It did get my heart going as a fall there wouldn’t be pretty.

From here, we walked on a trail through “the meadows” to the final pitch.  100’ of 4th class chimney-like scrambling to the summit!  It was my lead, and I was thankful for the easy climbing!  Finally, I was on the summit!  I couldn’t celebrate yet, as I needed to get Mike safely up as well.  He cruised it.

The views were incredible.  Unlike mountain summits, there are no mountains in sight.  Just green plains with red cliff bands and a river.  360-degree view of gorgeous Wyoming countryside.  The summit had grass and flowering cactus. 

We signed the register, had a snack and sorted gear.  The climb was only half-way done.  Now we had to get down safely.  We had opted to bring only one 70m rope per the rangers’ suggestion, but we had to be very careful to make sure we selected the correct summit anchor, otherwise we wouldn’t have enough rope.  After a thorough review, we found our anchor and started the 4 full 35m raps to the base.  Luckily, we had no rope snags!  As we descended, we witnessed the human traffic jam on our route.  Thank goodness that we got up early.  There was a party on every pitch!

At the base, we kissed, and then I quickly changed shoes and ran down the hill to give my parents a hug.  I left all my gear on for the after pictures!  Little did I know, I would have a hug fan base waiting for me.  My parents were busy making friends and pointing us out, the team in blue.  I had several pictures with little girls – maybe I will inspire them to dream big.  Then big hugs and celebration with my parents!  

Mike joined us and we headed down.  Mom and Dad told us all about their morning.  They had a ball and said that the 7 hours flew by!  I’m glad that they found it fun.  We couldn’t have asked for a better location for them to watch us as they could see us the whole time up and down.  Plus, they had shade and lots of people to talk with.

We wrapped up the day with a giant burger and enjoyed the front deck of our B&B discussing the climb.  It was one of the most physical climbs I have ever done.  Our bodies were pooped, bruised and already sore.  This was no sport climb, and it was old school 5.8!

My dream came true, and it lived up to everything I thought it would be.  It was a beautiful line and fun, physical climbing.  The weather was perfect, and we beat the crowds. 

Thanks Mom and Dad for making the drive to support me and for always believing in me and giving me the confidence to not only dream big but to make your dreams a reality.  Thanks to Mike for being the best partner and for giving me the best pitch!  I look forward to many more adventures.  I owe you one!

My Dad’s amazing photos can be viewed here. Enjoy!https://dougmathews.smugmug.com/Travel-Photography/DevilsTower/

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | 5 Comments

Ten Sleep, Wyoming: Celebrating Independence Like a Limestone Cowboy—June 29-July 6

‘Merica…a land of independence, opportunity, the pursuit of happiness, and currently a place of extremes. It seems appropriate, then, that we found ourselves in a tiny town in a big canyon full of cowboys and dirtbag climbers during a thunderstorm-filled 4th of July week. We neither loved nor hated Ten Sleep, Wyoming, but we certainly grew to appreciate its extremes.

If you will recall, when last we corresponded, the Raffs were hunkered down in Pocatello, Idaho waiting for the locals to park their stock car Buicks, so that we could safely make our exit. The following day, we were treated to a host of beautiful experiences including Targhee Pass (a land of many uses…inspiration for Keen’s bestselling shoe), Jackson Hole and the Tetons, the Continental Divide, and some stunning canyons along the Wind River. We felt a little bittersweet to see all of the snow in the Tetons; it was gorgeous, but it’s looking like the Grand Teton may not be in the cards for us this summer if a dramatic melting isn’t on the way soon.

When we pulled into our campground, it was a humid 90 degrees, and we were tired after a 10-hour day of driving. It looked like rain, Ten Sleep’s reputation for hard climbing intimidated us since neither of us knew much about climbing limestone, and our guidebook was full of pictures of American Flags, Popes, Kittens, and Pamela Anderson in spandex (what’s wrong with a simple star system of ranking?). We decided to celebrate the Sabbath and take an honest-to-goodness rest day on Sunday before trying to figure out how to tackle this canyon.

What’s extreme about a rest day? We’d climbed 13 of 14 days, so it was sort of a big deal to take a day off! I fried up a good breakfast, and then we toured a nearby fish hatchery that helped populate most of the lakes with Cutthroat Trout in that part of the state. Most helpful, though, was a drive up the canyon. It was full of beautiful, stark bands of brown, grey, and red limestone cliffs rising above a snake-like creek. Using our weird-ass guidebook, we were able to at least figure out where to climb. A good afternoon nap in the Craggin’ Wagon left us ready to get on the rocks come Monday.

We started at the innocent sounding Pooh Corner, only to find that we could barely climb 5.6! What the heck was this slick, sharp glob of irregular pockets and nubs? It sure wasn’t anything like the granite we’d been climbing the past 2 weeks! Sarah started to get it after a couple of climbs, but I thought I might be in for a really tough time! It turns out that Pooh’s Corner must be named after the body function and not the cute cuddly bear because we eventually found some better climbing and started to have much more fun!

Basically, we had to either find morning shade and climb hard until the daily afternoon thunderstorm came in, or we had to fart around at camp all day before climbing a few lines after the daily morning thunderstorm finally subsided. Either way, you could have some fun…just not too much. Highlights included a 5.9 steep bolted crack (I think these guys would bolt down their kitchen table if it looked fun to climb) called Ice Station Zebras, a 5.8 super pocketed steep column called Suits and Boots, a slabby red old-school 5.9 that ran about 10 feet from a waterfall (Water into Wine), and then getting good enough to push a bit harder on a new type of rock. The bolts are typically really close, and the climbs are pumpy but short with good jugs; a combination that made for some bold climbing. Sarah led an 5.11A called the Godfather II, which was a really proud moment for her! We then climbed the Godfather I, which I think would be a classic 10C if it were longer—sweet hero holds all the way up the overhung boulder! The signature climb of the week, though, came on Saturday right before we headed out: a full 60 m. 10C called Big Bear Memorial; this steep corner required jug hauling, foot stems, jams, liebacks, and good body turns. Very cool—I’m glad Sarah put it up for us!

As I said at the beginning of this post, though, we were also here during a week to celebrate ‘Merica, and it turns out that Ten Sleep is a great place to celebrate the 4th of July! The local brewery (a really cool place with delicious beer and a real enthusiasm for climbers) hosts fireworks on the 3rd, although that is really not pertinent to us because we did not go. 😊 The 4th begins with a parade with all the bells, sirens, and—more importantly—Walt Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson! Yup, one of my favorite authors lives about an hour away from Ten Sleep and came to read from his upcoming book. Sarah hasn’t read the books but really enjoyed the TV show, so we both had a good time hearing him read, joke about the area, and discuss his characters. Plus, it was only an hour, so Sarah had plenty of time for a Wyoming-sized ice cream cone afterward.

The big event on the 4th, though, is a rodeo! Sarah had never been, and I think I’d only been to a small one years ago. I’d say the whole town came out, but I think several whole counties would be a better description. We saw a little of everything: barrel-racing (Sarah loved), calf-roping (Sarah gasped), bronc-riding (Mikey liked), team roping (Sarah tolerated), and bronc-riding (Sarah closed her eyes). The people-watching was even better—pretty much any stereotype you could imagine. We sat by a sort of jarhead that tried to be funny when people walked by but clearly came off as mean (his wife chewed straight Copenhagen); other highlights included the requisite senior bikers in full ZZ top glory that yelled across the stadium at each other while getting re-beers, and lots of long-legged cowboys and cowgirls dressed in their finest Wranglers and button-downs. We weren’t the only climbers there, either. Really, it was a pretty cool mixture of folks enjoying the same show. Before the rodeo ended, they auctioned off a limited-edition rifle that fetched $8,000. The rodeo emcee went full-on auctioneer, “Ahheara2500—2500—cannagetanittybittyprettykitty—26—26—gottabeatta26—SOOOLD for $8,000!Next up, the bulls!” We may not have experienced a typical 4th for us, but we sure did have a ton of fun!

Ten Sleep may not be for everyone; we’re still not sure it’s for us, but it definitely grew on us as the week went on. Just like the storms and the climbs, though, everything was a series of big highs and lows. One minute we met new friends Kelly and Maria who pushed us to climb harder and got us super-stoked about climbing in Europe this fall; the next minute I was repeatedly ransacking the van trying to find my lost phone (I strip-searched that friggin’ thing 3 times, only to find it 4 days later sitting in plain sight at the bottom of a cup holder!); then, a few moments later, we’d be at an awesome climber’s festival listening to Paige Classen discuss her latest sweet climb in the Fins. Then, just as we started wondering what Ten Sleep might hold next for the two of us, we discovered a nearly perfect weather window at Devil’s Tower. We didn’t have this canyon figured out quite yet, but sometimes you gotta’ change plans. Ten Sleep started as an extreme frenemy, but now I think we just might go back.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | 2 Comments

Craters, Cracks, Ribs, and the Pocatello 500–June 22-28

Greetings from the Super 8 in sunny Pocatello, Idaho: home of the prestigious Pocatello 500 race, also known as Friday night rush hour! Sweet baby Jesus, all of the Earnhardts evidently live here and want to kill us via ill-advised, sudden left turns at unholy speeds in front of the Craggin’ Wagon! I fully expected my father-in-law, a photographer for the Indy 500, to document our demise coming out of turn 3!  Really, I wasn’t even planning on contributing to this blog, but I am in fact terrified to leave this hotel room!

Anyhoo, our week began with a rest day at Craters of the Moon National Monument, a large volcanic area along the Great Rift and above the Snake River Plain. The Shoshone tribe had long explored these lands until Oregon Trail people happened upon it, ironically, in an effort to find a safer passage that avoided skirmishes with, um, the Shoshone tribe. A dude named Limbert, who apparently was also a traveling trick shooter (I swear I am not making this up), did a ton of exploring and documenting of the area. In 1924, Silent Cal designated the area as a monument, and in 2019 the Raffs came to visit.

We spent a few minutes checking out the visitors’ center, which had some neat information on geological history, current wildlife, and different types of lava. According to the exhibit, the craters were formed by an enormous eruption 15,000 years ago and reshaped every few thousand years—the last one coming around 2,000 years ago. A friendly electronic voice assured us that “now is a great time to explore the Craters of the Moon before the next cataclysmic event.” Before leaving, one must stop to get a cave permit, which is a nifty stamp of a bat that grants you entry into the caves because you haven’t worn today’s outfit in any other cave within the past 10 years (apparently, there is some sort of terrible bat-killing disease that can survive on your clothes for a decade). Having procured this nifty stamp (that no one ever checked), we also landed a campsite nestled (wait, nestled?) into the lava. Sarah got a great piece of van porn for your viewing pleasure.

Highlights of the area included, the Devil’s Orchard, the Inferno Cone, a two-mile hike to see tree molds, and the caves. The Devil’s Orchard was interesting because it really captured the disruption that humans can have on something even as barren as lava but also the potential of nature to replenish itself—in one spot, you had ghostly witches’ broom created by misguided park service workers and broken lava tubes courtesy of human boots, but at the same time, Limbert pines (remember that trick shootin’ lava lovin’ explorer?), tiny pink monkeyflowers, and masses of green sage grew right out of the lava. Eventually, almost the entirety of the monument could be green, unless the volcanic cycle repeats.  The orchard ended with a great Shoshone proverb, “The frog does not drink up its own pond.” For me, it was a nice reminder not to love our mountains, trails, and rocks to death.

The Inferno Cone was probably my favorite part of the day—it was a short hike up to a high viewpoint. From the top, we enjoyed a panoramic view of cinder cones along the rift. The most notable, and most beautiful, was the Big Cinder Butte, one of the world’s largest cones (not to be confused with any ice cream cone that Sarah purchases). Balanced by a beautiful blue sky with low-lying fluffy white clouds and green mountains in the background, this view was truly spectacular! The hike and the caves were both fun, but the Inferno Cone was the part I will remember about Craters of the Moon.

Climbers, have patience, I will eventually get back to the rocks. However, Sunday’s breakfast in Rupert, Idaho at a place known as Sophie’s Chatterbox was one for the ages. This diner is a cool little place with signs that really spoke to me…things like “I love you like biscuits and gravy” and “Watch out—I’m about to put on my fat pants!” I ordered the plate-sized garbage burrito for $7.00 and was rewarded with 3 types of breakfast meat, hashbrowns, various other vegetables, and cheese in a giant tortilla—it was everything I needed it to be. Incidentally, Rupert’s town square, featuring the classy Wilson Theater, is on the National Register of Historic Sites. In 1902, the Reclamation Act made way for the Minidoka Dam Project (and later, the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams, I believe), which pretty much made Rupert the place to be. Due to hydroelectricity, in 1913, their school became the first in the nation to be heated entirely by electricity.

So, I realize this is a mostly a climbing blog, and we got a ton of good granite in this week. Everyone knows that Sarah is the real talent in our marriage (I would like to say I was only referring to rock climbing, but some of you may be trying to swallow food while reading this), and I am really not that great. It was pretty cool for me, then, to jump out of the car that Sunday and run right up my first 5.10 lead in the city. Sarah led it after me and said it met the test, which made me happy.

On Monday, after yet another 10 hours sleep (yep, we are averaging double digits of shut-eye), we pulled some classic trad lines at Elephant Rock—really fun stuff—including Wheat Thin, Columbian Crack, and Conceptual Reality. You have to use good crack climbing technique on these, and we got in our share of jams. Sarah wanted to lead Rye Crisp, but the sun was blazing, and the route was crowded. We moved up the road, and she put up a super fun 5.10 sport called New York is Not the City—steep down low with slabby crimps up top…good stuff!

The highlight of the climbing week, though, was the Red Rib, an old-school 5.10 at Castle Rocks State Park that is nearly 200 feet long. The first crux is at the bottom, but there is a place about halfway up that is really steep with really thin edges for feet and fingers—Sarah later noted the route should be called “Gotta’ Have Faith”! Anyway, she led it really, really well, and I was just happy to climb it. She won’t ever say it, so I will say it for her, she friggin’ rocks!

Our good friend Karen joined us for the final two days of our City of Rocks tour, and it was really fun to hang out. We had some fun climbing together, enjoyed some pizza and suds, had a great campfire, and scrambled up above camp for some pretty killer sunsets (for some reason, when Karen showed up, the nightly gales disappeared). Sarah and I often talk about how lucky we are to have so many kind people in our lives, and Karen will be one that we greatly miss this year.

City of Rocks was a great first stop, and somewhere we will definitely return! The ease of cragging and camping, the sweet granite playground everywhere we turned, the novelty of van life, and the super slow nights of downtime melted away the stress. Before joining the Pocatello 500 today, we showered and dressed nice—we both look younger than when we left—the bags are gone from under our eyes. Life is pretty good when we slow down…hopefully, someone will tell the people of Pocatello!

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