GirlVentures at Touchstone Climbing Gyms

gwpcgroup2Every Spring and Fall, Great Western Power Company, our Oakland location, hosts  “Girlz Climb On”, a climbing adventure program for young women, administered and organized by GirlVentures. Since they have another session coming up this Fall, we decided to check in with the GirlVentures Team to learn more about this amazing program!

Can you describe your program (Girlz Climb On) to someone who isn't already familiar with it?
GirlVentures’ signature after-school program provides meaningful one-on-one mentorships and rock climbing experience for girls in grades 6-9. Trained female volunteer mentors and girls meet after school for 2.5 hours a week for twelve consecutive weeks at two Touchstone ClimbingGyms, GWPC in Oakland and Mission Cliffs in San Francisco. These mentors coach girls on both climbing skills and the transference of character-building experiences of climbing into girls’ broader lives. Girls learn trust, perseverance, self-confidence, communication/self-express and team collaboration. They enjoy improved self-esteem and gain access to a nontraditional, male dominated sport that is financially inaccessible to many families.

How many kids do you service in this program?  Are there any requirements/qualifications to participate?
We serve 20 girls from 6th-9th grade (10 at GWPC, 10 at Mission Cliffs) twice a year during our fall and spring sessions. There are no requirements for participants except for an eagerness to learn!

groupgwpcAre there scholarships available for families who cannot afford the program fees?
Yes! To ensure that ALL girls have the opportunity to participate in our programs, we award financial aid to two-thirds of all participants.

What types of skills do the girls typically learn?  Is it just a climbing program, or are there other elements to it?
Each week we work on developing technical climbing skills: everything from tying a figure-8 follow-thru knot and belaying to techniques like smearing and edging. We also focus on issues that connect rock climbing with a strength a girl already has or would like to improve on like building relationships with friends, trust, leadership, self-expression, working as a group, communication and resolving conflicts. We begin with a one-day ropes course at Fort Miley, practice indoors for 10-12 weeks, and conclude with a weekend outdoor climb at Castle Rock State Park.

Where do your program mentors come from?  Is there a way for interested members to get involved with this program?
GirlVentures mentors are a diverse group of women from all walks of life and climbing experience. Generally, we seek mentors who have the following qualifications, though they are not required:
Coaching, teaching or mentoring experience with adolescents 
(informal experience with friends & family counts...) Diversity/anti-oppression training or experience 
(women of color strongly encouraged to apply) Passion for empowering young women 
(i.e.: a desire to share your belief that girls can do anything) Climbing/belaying experiencing 
(if you have belayed and/or can climb a 5.8 or higher we are already impressed)
Strong candidates without climbing experience are considered IF they are able to commit to taking a belay class AND practice climbing at the gym a few times prior to the start of the program.

outdoorclimbTouchstone members can certainly get involved! Interested members can learn more about the mentorship role and commitments here. Girlz Climb On for mentors begins on September 16, 2013 and for girls on September 21, 2013. The program runs for 10 weeks from 4-7 p.m. on Mondays at Mission Cliffs and Wednesdays at GWPC.

Fear on the West Face

1010923 10151669125446550_27899207_nRecently Chris Ahlgren, who works at Berkeley Ironworks, climbed the West Face of Leaning Tower. After a eventful and successful climb, Chris submitted this report to the Touchstone Blog to talk a little bit about something we all face in climbing; fear. 

Fear on the West Face of Yosemite’s Leaning Tower (V 5.7 C2F)

There was something profoundly terrifying about watching my climbing partner’s left shoe float away from his twisting body and fall a thousand feet onto the boulder field below us. The nut Will Skinner was standing on had just pinged out of the crack and Will was falling backwards in what seemed like slow motion. After having just back-cleaned the last two placements, he was going for a ride. Presumably tripped by the rope, which had ripped his off shoe, Will was in the middle of a back dive that may have been beautiful had he been headed for a pool.
Instead, it was horrifying! Perhaps the scariest fall I had ever witnessed. Due in part to the steep overhanging nature of the Leaning Tower and due in part to a dynamic catch, Will’s back contacted the wall with no more force than a hearty slap. Besides being a bit shaken and wearing only one shoe, he was fine. I sent him up one of my shoes on our tag line and he finished the pitch in proud fashion.

IMG 0642This was not the first fall of the day. Earlier that morning at the outset of the third pitch and my first lead, I too had taken a whipper. The pitch began steep and technical, too hard for me to free-climb, but I was looking for my opportunity. You see, one reason Will and I chose this route was to dial in our aid climbing skills in an attempt to speed up our sluggish pace. One way to speed up aid climbing is to get out of your aiders whenever possible and climb free, even if only to make a few moves.

About 25 feet from the belay, I reached a decent enough looking bolt near a shallow dihedral that allowed me the stance I needed to bunch up my aiders. From there I could attack an otherwise tricky section of C2 aid using good ol’ fashion pull power. The free-climbing felt great even in the absence of protection. After about 15 ft., I reached a roof that began a mean section of overhanging 5.12d. I opted to get back on aid. Balancing precariously on thin edges in my clumsy approach shoes I plugged a small offset cam in what looked to be a tight but flaring pod.

Now came the tricky part-- transitioning from aid to free and back to aid which is more awkward than it sounds. It became apparent that this was an aspect of my big wall game that needed some work. As I fumbled the twisted mass of aid ladder and daisy chain, I hung one-handed, a la French free, from the offset cam in the roof above my head. CRUNCH! I was airborne. The rope pulled taunt and I swung towards the wall. As the rope steched, Will was hoisted from his meager stance, and I contacted the wall lightly with both feet. Safe. Looking down at my left hand I had a white-knuckle death grip still wrapped around the webbing of my failed cam. I was scared, but managed to force the fear to the back of my mind. I re-worked the free moves, got a better placement in the roof and finished the pitch.

IMG 0911By early afternoon, Will reached the top of the sixth pitch which was to be our high point for the day, and rapped back to meet me on Guano Ledge. The sun was on us now and besides the occasional cover from scattered clouds, we were cookin’. Instead of cleaning the pitch then, I suggested laying low to conserve water during the heat of the day. I suggested cleaning the pitch nearer to sunset. I’ve never slept well on the walls I’ve climbed and until we laid down to nap I’d successfully suppress the fear that was building through the course of the day. Closing my eyes brought horrible images of Will in free fall, his shoe drifting above his body then disappearing to a dot below, and the sound and feel of my cam ripping from the wall. Sleeplessly, I writhed, baking in the afternoon sun.

By the time I was ready to clean, ascenders locked into place, fear had thoroughly permeated my body. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating, and my mind would only let my feet shuffle along the ledge, .The first move off of the ledge involved a pendulum that required me to swing into space leaving me dangling with nothing but air and the boulder field far below my feet. I moved slow and shaky but managed to make it back to the ledge before dark.

Did I mention a thunderstorm was in the forecast? As if I wasn’t rattled enough already, clouds full of electric potential began to flash to the west just as we slid into our sleeping bags. As I “slept”, my nightmares included being soaked in a downpour and struck by lightning in addition to the usual dreams of rock avalanches and free falls.

The next morning I spilled the beans. “I’m feeling rattled dude,” I confessed to Will. “I slept like s**t. I don’t know, my head’s not in it.” Much to my relief he admitted to feeling the same way. Simply talking about the fear and knowing that I wasn’t alone really helped take the edge off. I jugged to our high point and set out on my first lead. I planned to link pitches 7 & 8 and by the time I reached the top of the the 7th I was feeling much better. Before me ran a series of beautiful cracks that seemed climbable. I was so psyched to get out of my aiders that I free climbed the entirety of pitch 8. When I reached the belay I felt refreshed. I could relax knowing that was my last lead. Will led pitches 9 & 10 , I cleaned, and we hugged it out on top feeling the way that only finishing a big wall can make you feel-- like an f-ing champion!

IMG 0942When people asked me how the climb went, I’ve taken to this one line response: “It was the most psychologically demanding route I’ve ever done.” Since coming home I’ve thought a lot about what caused such a visceral fear response. I’ve certainly taken and caught my share of falls in the past, so that alone couldn’t have been it. The overnight lightning show certainly added a thrill, but naw, that wasn’t it either. It must have been the exposure. For so much of the route the very base of the wall was in plain view, pulling on my psyche. Watching Will’s shoe plummet let me imagine my own long freefall. Honestly, this is a safety paradox since it was the steepness of the wall that kept my and Will’s fall so clean. Clearly the effect was psychological.

Ultimately, climbing Leaning Tower was a lesson in fear management. Lying down on the ledge and replaying the falls in my mind that afternoon had allowed the fear to take hold. That began a snowball effect that culminated in my secret wishes to be home with my girlfriend and beautiful baby girl. On the flipside, climbing free and focusing on the logistics of big wall belay management allowed me to regain my focus and enjoy the climb.

Coincidentally the week before our climb I began reading a book called The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis. In the early chapters, Yogis delves into the neurobiology of fear. Does it help to know that fear emanates from the amygdala? I don’t know. Perhaps more importantly Yogis goes on to describe modern experimentation in overcoming fear. Specifically the research indicates that exposure to the object of fear in a safe and reassuring setting can help the brain overcome the fear response. On the other hand, simply thinking about the object of fear, without action, will only reaffirm and further cement the fear response. More exactly, it seems possible to train our advanced human neocortex to dull the fear impulse that emanates from our primitive reptilian brain. Unwittingly I had made things much worse by lying on that ledge when I thought I was simply taking a break. Conversely, by continuing to climb I was reliving my fearful experience but overriding the experience of fear with the more familiar experience of the joy of climbing.

IMG 0948Rock climbing is always going to be scary. Fear of heights is what experts call a primitive fear (versus an acquired fear), but that doesn’t mean we have to allow that fear to control us. Go climbing. Be sure to build a solid foundation of positive, safe-feeling experiences so that the fearful moments are fleeting and never allowed to take root. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

See ya on the cliffs.

Big thanks to Chris for sharing his story with us! When not on a wall, Chris can be found behind the desk at BIW, or teaching an awesome Crack Climbing or Anchors 101 clinic. Remember to submit your trip reports to the This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

Touchstone Climbing Series

The 2014 Touchstone Climbing Series is winding down.. with a triumphant roar! Here is everything you need to know to prepare for the Rope Climbing Finale at Mission Cliffs on October 25th.

What it is:

TCS2014 is a 9 month comp series that has visited each and every Touchstone Climbing gym. Over 2,000 climbers from across the state have participated in the event, making it the largest climbing comp in the world! Each comp has featured climbing for beginner, intermediate and advanced climbers, along with all the beer, soda, and pizza you can stand. We throw these comps, which are FREE to members and only $10 for guests, so that we can thank them for being a part of out community. 

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Schedule: Ropes Finale at Mission Cliffs on Saturday, October 25th

11:30am- 5pm: Registration. Open Climbing. All levels.

4:30pm: Advanced Climbers turn in scorecards

5pm: All climbers turn in score cards

5pm: Beer, Pizza, Raffle Prizes 

6pm: On-sight finals 

8pm: Closed. Don't care where you go, but you can't stay here! 


To expedite your registration the day of the comp, please have your Competition Code and a paper waiver in hand when you arrive.

You can print a paper waiver

Get your comp code.

If you arrive with these two things, you'll be greeted with the highest of fives. 


• All climbers and belayers must have a valid belay card.

• Competitors may attempt any route.

• Competitors have a maximum of 3 attempts per route.

• When starting a route, your hands must remain in the start box until both feet leave the ground.

• Competitors may watch other climbers, but may not give advice while that climber is climbing.

• Points will be given when a competitor controls the boxed hold.

• Please have your belayer initial your score per attempt.

• You may not work a route. Once you have weighted the rope you must lower to the ground.

• Your final placing in the competition is determined by your three highest scores.

• It is the competitor’s responsibility to turn in their scorecard.

• Lead climbing is only permitted for advanced competitors. Any lead climbing will automatically bump you into the advanced category.

• Climb your hardest! If final score puts you into the higher category, you may be bumped. Congrats!

• Only 1 score from each grade will count towards your final score. Example: You can climb every 5.11a in the gym, but you'll only be able to count one. Why not go for that 5.11b?


At the end of the day, we will take the top 3 advanced climbers of the day, and the top 3 climbers of the series to compete in on-sight finals. The top three men and women from on-sight finals will receive a cash prize of $1,000, $600, and $350.

Overall Rope Series winners and overall Touchstone Climbing Series winners will also be announced.


Baking with Barnes: A Climber's Diet

Natasha Barnes, a Mission Cliffs climber, and bona fide rock crusher has been climbing for the past 13 years. In between sending 5.13d sport routes, bouldering problems like Thriller and Midnight Lightning in Yosemite, and going full tilt on the Yosemite offwidth circuit, Natasha works as a chiropactor in San Francisco.

For the past five years, Natasha has followed a strict vegan diet. "I only eat Vegans," she jokes. Natasha abstains from animal products, processed food, and operates her body on nutrient dense food. She took a moment to talk about what great food helps her send.

Read more: Baking with Barnes: A Climber's Diet

Late Night Climbing

For San Jose residents, Late Night Climbing offers a perfect chance to have a fun and healthy evening. Hundreds of South Bay climbers have skipped the clubs and bars for the excitement of The Studio Climbing. The Stuido has held a few Late Night Climbing sessions on May 17th, March 29th and February 15th.  The next one is coming up on July 26th.

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“Its a good time for people to sucker their friends into coming to the gym and even if they don't love it or climb that much it doesn't really matter to them because it was $5 bucks and they are in a rad environment where everyone is nice, sober and having a good time,” said The Studio manager Diane Ortega.

Read more: Late Night Climbing

Educate Ethiopia Climb-A-Thon

On September 7th, Diablo Rock Gym will be hosting the Educate Ethiopia Climb-A-Thon. Patagonian ambassador Majka Burhardt, a well-known climber and dynamic inspirational speaker, will be presenting a speaker/slide show in the evening. Along with a raffle and silent auction with gear from The North Face, Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, and the AAC, there will be Ethiopian food and an awesome presentation.


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Read more: Educate Ethiopia Climb-A-Thon

How To Make A Stick Clip

Traveling to different crags across the country, climbs have different levels of safety. Some routes begin above boulders with heinous drop offs below. Other routes have a crux at the very start. Either way, blowing the moves on these routes can be disastrous.

stick clip 3


In places like Smith Rocks in Oregon, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, Maple Canyon in Utah, Rifle in Colorado, and even some of the routes at Pinnacles National Monument, clipping the first bolt can be quite useful. Not only does stick clipping the first bolt allow for a pyschological jump into the hard climbing, having the first bolt clipped also provides a significant amount of safety from hitting the ground. The best way to do that is with a stick clip.

Read more: How To Make A Stick Clip

Throwing Grades in the Trash

zachpadRecently Zach, a desk staffer at The Studio Climbing in San Jose, filed this report for the Touchstone Blog on how we treat grading in the gym. 

It's 9 o'clock on an unremarkable Tuesday night at The Studio. The influx of eager climbers has slowed, creating somewhat of a lull for us at the front desk. I take advantage of our brief reprieve and address some of the closing chores, namely taking out the trash. 
I've learned from unpleasant experience not to look too closely at the contents of the garbage; I usually try to enter a state of dissociative amnesia while I'm running trash. If I'm lucky, I don't even remember doing it once I'm done. On this night, however, I was pulled back into reality when I inspected the bottom of a trash can and found, crumpled and reduced to refuse, all of the grades from the routes that had been stripped the day before. 
I blinked. Stripped less than a day ago, the shiny duct tape had already begun to lose its luster. Numbers corresponding to the Yosemite Decimal System were decimated, wadded up and discarded like a piece of gum that's lost its flavor. The 5.12+ that had looked so imposing adhered to the lead wall now lay in a puddle of coffee, drowning sorrowfully next to a 5.11 that I had called soft. The routes which had supposedly been the measure of our climbing abilities were now little more than a piece of yesterday's trash.

Maybe you're starting to see where I'm going with this. Grades have become an inexorable aspect of the climbing gym experience, and for many, they have become the main reason to go to the gym or to climb at all. 

It's not hard to see why this happens. Climbing media spotlights elite climbers sending the world's hardest, most exciting climbs, leaving us drooling over the send footage and devising plans to be that strong some day. When your hero is some dude doing one-finger pull-ups and climbing V15, the value judgement you make is about measurable criteria: what grade he climbs and how many one-arms he can do, not something vague like how much fun he is having.
Maybe you come to the gym and train so you can be that guy, or so you can be the girl on the cover of the next climbing magazine, and that's fine.
No, really, that's awesome, I want to be that guy too.
However, I don't think achieving that success should come at the price of losing perspective of why we go to the climbing gym.
 I think many of us (including myself) could use a critical reevaluation of what a grade in the gym means, or at least what it should mean. A grade in the gym is a suggestion, a tentative guideline based on a general consensus to help you find something that you want to climb. A grade is little more than an instrument for helping you select a route to train on; in the gym, grades are stripped of whatever intrinsic value they might have outdoors. Here's what a 5.10a in a gym really means:

5.10a: If you climb 5.10, you should try this, and it will be moderately challenging. If you climb 5.12, you could use this as a warm up, or to run laps. If you climb 5.9, you should project this, if you feel like trying hard. 

We recently hosted a youth SCS competition at The Studio where the comp climbs weren't labelled with YDS grades. Instead, they were numbered from 1-40, with 1 being the easiest and 40 being the hardest. For a brief, magical period after the competition (before the routes got YDS grades), people had the opportunity to get on a climb without any preconceived notion of how hard it “should be.” And while some people took this opportunity, others couldn't stand the idea of not knowing the “real grade” of the climb, i.e. what that climb was worth to them, and others, in terms of bragging rights and send-points.

If you want to know what those climbs, or any climb in the gym is really worth, I'll tell you: They're worth whatever training you got out of trying them, and whatever fun you had while climbing them.

photoI'm not suggesting that we do away with the entire concept of grading in the gym, far from it. We all use grades to determine what to warm-up on, what to project, and to get an idea of what we could (ideally) climb outside. However, we should all notice that the girl on the front of the climbing magazine isn't pictured inside a climbing gym, she's outside doing what she spent all those hours in the gym training to do: real climbing. World-ranked climbers aren't logging their gym climbs on their, and neither are you, so don't beat yourself up when you don't send your gym project. 

By no means am I trying to diminish the joy we experience when we send a project in the gym, rather, I hope we can all realize that the pleasure we derive from our time in the gym is not contained in the number at the bottom of the route. Whatever your project in the gym may be, you can rest assured that it won't be there for long. What will last, however, is the enjoyment you derive from it, and the positive effect it has on your climbing. Six months from now when you're climbing outside and reaping the benefits of the training you're doing now, you will benefit from the overall work you put in, not the V-points you earned in the gym. As for the ratings of your training routes? You won't remember them any more than you remember the contents of yesterday's trash. 

Squeeze Play with Mark and Chris

On Thursday, June 20th, Touchstone Founder Mark Melvin and big wall ace Chris McNamara headed to Yosemite to climb El Capitan in a day. The pair set a speed record on The Lost World via the Squeeze Play Variation, climbing the entire granite cliff in 15 hours 33 minutes. Chris wrote a bit about their ascent.

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Read more: Squeeze Play with Mark and Chris

The Bouldering World Cup with Jaime Quintana

Recently, Touchstone staff member and climber Jaime Quintana headed to the Bouldering World Cup. Quintana has participated in a number of other international competitions. Last year, he traveled to Paris for the World Cup, where he competed in lead climbing and speed climbing. He also traveled to Venezuela to compete in the IFSC PanAmerican comp. The strong competition climber wrote a bit about his experience climbing with some of the best climbers in the world.

On June 5th, I headed to the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado to represent Peru in my very first IFSC Bouldering Word Cup. Many of world’s best competitive boulders were also participating – Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson, Sean McColl, and Kilian Fischhuber to name a few. I knew from experience that I needed to be in great shape to compete with these guys, but a mistake by any one of them could allow me to have a shot at making the semi-finals.

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Read more: The Bouldering World Cup with Jaime Quintana

Nose In A Day: The Next Generation

Imagine climbing El Capitan at 14. For many climbers, scaling one of the world's largest granite cliffs is a dream. For Kara Herson it became a reality because of her incredibly psyched father, Jim Herson. Jim, who has been a Touchstone member for years, wrote a great trip report about climbing with his kids this past year. 

Cliche but no less true, they grow up in a flash. One moment you're lining the John Muir Trail with M&M's coaxing her along on her first backpacking trip at age 4. The next, you're watching in slack-jawed awe as she yards through the final overhanging bolt ladder of the Nose having just climbed her first El Capitan route in a huge, grueling day without jumars! Visually that looks like this:


When you find yourself taking your 14 year old up her first El Cap route, in a day, without jumars as a margin of safety for taking the 12 year old up his first El Cap route, in a day, without jumars, it is probably time to ask yourself what life choices have brought you here? Because when your partners' combined age is half yours, you might want to revisit those choices.


 Kara's been itching to climb El Cap, or more precisely to do a Bandaloop on the King Swing, for a while now. Mirko is a local 12 year old climbing wunderkind who also wants to climb the Nose. Mirko's a huge talent who had recently returned from Smith Rock with a tick list that would have made the tackiest lycra clad hardman of my generation blush. However, he had no multi-pitch or Valley crack experience. Not a problem. He could be trained up for that. Rather, the challenge was to make it daunting enough to keep the kids' Valley interest piqued and itching for more. And so to mitigate the distinct possibility that they might grow bored of the Valley and move on, I took away their jumars.

To non-El Cap climbers, going jugless on their first wall might seem like a detail not more significant than color coordinating chalk bags. But it's a bit more than that. Not that pulling together stylish climbing attire isn't a biggie. We've certainly witnessed the problem of palette neglect:


 Truth is, I had a few reservations about going jugless, an exiting new promising level of introspection which gave Anne, ever the optimist, hope. The problem was I have never actually gone team jugless on the Captain! I've climbed without jumars but only by having my partner jumar with the pack. The other twist was that the kids would carry their own weight. It was their climb, they'd earn it!

I had to confide in Kara that while I'm sure others have gone jugless on the Nose, they might not have been middle schoolers on their first El Cap route. So she'd have to climb it first to see if the scheme was feasible.

"Uh dad, shouldn't Mirko be the guinea pig for your daughter. You know, gene selection and all?"

Darn that Mrs Taylor! Mrs Taylor was Kara's beloved and totally feared 7th grade biology teacher. She demanded and received high school AP level biology out of the bright, hardworking, terrified adolescents. Unfortunately that included a solid grasp of gene propagation. Kara had a point about the guinea pig. But I still needed her to go first. Kara has had long Sierra granite routes coursing through her veins since she was a tot. While she works hard in the gym, it is in the mountains that she truly hits her stride. Having been climbing alpine rock routes her entire life, she has that big wall hone dialed. She's fast, efficient, astonishingly competent, and has endless stamina. She'd have to be the guinea pig. Sorry kid.

But first there was some pre-NiaD [Nose In A Day] fun to be had.

Life's realities might have done damage to the quantity of Valley outings this year but certainly not the quality. Starting with an early winter attempt on Freestone (8 pitches, 11c). Despite being a clear, distinct, obvious feature that I had climbed before, Kara and I took an "alternative". Eventually we bailed but not before a good vegetated, grimy, wide trashing. A super fun day!


Sprinting across the snow/ice field under the dry upper Yosemite Falls on a biting November night was particularly memorable. More so after having enjoyed witnessing the thundering crashing of huge ice blocks caving off the Falls all day.

Not surprisingly, Connor's sophisticated nine year old sense of humor latched onto a video he unfortunately stumbled upon of a nut slacklining across Lost Arrow Tip naked. Running with his new found Lost Arrow Tip obsession, we headed up for a winter ascent of this storied Spire.


It was actually a stunning, sunny, gorgeous day and, had we started hiking before 11am, it would have been a stunning, sunny, gorgeous descent too. I will only add without comment that the 11am winter start did mitigate the crowd issue. And that it was a total blast!


I probably shouldn't cop to having to figure out my first Tyrolean at dusk in winter with two tots in tow. But I just can't resist boasting that I did indeed pack a working headlamp!


Rounded out the weekend by playing in the Arctic winds on the Freeblast.


Connor [or maybe just little kids in general?] is a stunningly awesome slab master! He sprints up that stuff. I'd stick him on the fierce Lurking Fear lower slabs but I'm worried he'd just downrate them.

With flag football about to commandeer Connor's spring weekends, we snuck in one last trip. I totally styled, after years of flailing, the Serenity+Sons of Yesterday crowds! (9 pitches, 5.10). But it wasn't my 12 step Yosemite-is-crowded-get-over-it therapy that got me through it. It was the gripping horror of watching Connor(9) lead his first gear route! More precisely, it was the gripping horror of watching Connor carry a rack of gear but forgetting to place it.



Connor was itching for his own El Cap ascent so the following day we attempted the East Buttress.


It was a stunning early spring morning. Just hiking along the base, scouting out all the classic El Cap lines, and marveling at the gorgeous Horse Tails Falls raging over the lip was a highlight. Not a highlight though was when the wind shifted and that rotten Horse Tails Falls drenched us! Connor arrived at the pitch 7 anchor soaked. The little guy's chattering purple lips and pitiful "Dad, I'm really wet and really cold!" got me thinking that perhaps it was time to revisit my No Partner Empathy policy. We bailed.

Catching a glimpse from Lost Arrow Tip and Freestone of the gaping maw that is the famed Lost Arrow Chimney (LAC) (10 pitches, "5.10a"), bumped this fierce classic to the top of the kiddie climb must-do list. The only downside to being married to a climber is that Anne is perfectly aware of LAC's fierce reputation. Not a problem. I would just check it out first without the kids and Anne would be assured by my sound paternal judgement in pronouncing it kid friendly. Unfortunately, I ran into a minor, temporary LAC partner glitch. Not a biggie although honestly if it wasn't for climbing with me would Christine have anything to sing about?

With the arrival of spring and Mirko itching for the Big Stone, it was time for some Valley funk wide training. With Christine being a LAC party pooper, Kara, Mirko, and I headed up to the Valley wide standard bearer, the Steck Salathe (15 pitches, "5.9"). Selling Mirko on this new, unruly, wide thrashing technique would not be easy. He sorted it out though and, while not (yet) a wide crack enthusiast, he got through it while grunting out some all time classic:

"I don't know what this is but this is definitely not climbing!"

"Why couldn't I have played basketball?"

"My entire body is pumped except my arms?!"

"Climbing is supposed to be elegant!"

Notwithstanding the above uttered in moments of severe distress, we had a blast:


Mirko's foot was raw after the Steck-Salathe so he headed back while Kara and I climbed Beggars Buttress (9 pitches, 11b). A sleeper of a route, I had forgotten how wonderful and varied the climbing is. The sting in the tail exit move adds an excellent touch.


SPOT is a nice satillate based technology for sending pre-record emergency text messages such as "Need Rescue" or "Safe on Summit" to loved ones. I'd get one but it lacks the one pre-recorded text message that I need, "Honey, I parched the kids again."

Continuing our tour of Valley classics, it was time for the Valley trademark -- Astroman (11 pitches, 11c)! Figuring they'd be so lost in the intoxicating granite of Astroman they wouldn't notice a bit of thirst, I went "somewhat" light on water (1/2 lt each). That it turned out to be a scorcher was unfortunate. Instead of arriving at each belay in excited giddiness at having just climbed yet another life affirming Astroman pitch, Mirko would crawl to the anchor, staring blankly with sullen eyes and a dirt dry tongue at the gushing Illilouette falls painfully out of reach across the Valley and dejectedly mutter "I've never been so thirsty." Kara wasn't helping things with her cheerful "Oh, this is nothing! You should have seen the time my dad forgot the water on the West Face! My goodness, that was dry."

This was unfortunate. If Astroman doesn't hook you on the Valley, you're just not going to be hooked on the Valley. I can respect that. But when Mirko said he didn't think the Enduro pitch was life altering I lost it and snapped "What?! Now look here whippersnapper! The Enduro pitch is the 4th best pitch in the Valley that's not on the Salathe!!!" I was so agitated by this complete lack of aesthetic sensibility that I gave the kids a timeout in the Harding Slot:


Personal hydration not withstanding, Astroman was brilliant as always!

"At both ends of the economic spectrum lies a leisure class" captures nicely the varied climbing characters in our eclectic tribe. But more applicable might be: "At both ends of the age spectrum lies heartwarming inspiration." Visually that looks like this:

Jim Donini and George Lowe, members of the legendary Latok I expedition, with Kara Herson, middle school 1st chair flutist.

Bumping into alpine legends Jim Donini(70) and George Lowe(69) at the base of the El Capitan as we all geared up for Kara, Jim, and George's first Nose-In-A-Day was certainly a huge highlight of my climbing career! That 70 year olds would even entertain such a feat is beyond inspirational. More importantly, it drove home once again the first golden rule of climbing: when in doubt go climbing!

Friday night we had bailed on our Nose plans when Kara's stubbornly presistant cough returned. She's had a series of infuriating sinus infections that left her climbing flat and powerless all spring. Although she had just finished yet another round of antibiotics, I was worried a NiaD would be too much. Kara's a tough little cookie and has certainly thrown down some long days, but the Nose without jumars was bumping it up notch. Weak from the infections and with another one settling in, it didn't seem plausible. Fortunately, even with no snow predicted the weather forecast proved to be irresistible and so, depending on your point of view, common sense prevailed and we gunned it for the Valley!

Previously though, a bigger worry than Kara's lungs had been my torched elbow. I hadn't really climbed for months and was in no condition to drag myself, no less a middle schooler, up El Capitan! Not a problem. A quick email to Tim & Jason's El Cap Towing Service and problem solved!

Tim & Jason are under the radar, Valley masters knocking off mind numbing Valley linkups with astonishing regularity between 80 hour work weeks. (Tim works 80 hours in a high stress, teaching program for at risk kids and Jason gets facials between pilates and yoga class. To be fair, Jason worked hard when he first moved to Boulder ~5 years ago. But he was ostracised by all the beautiful Boulder people for having a job so he retired. Now all the cool Boulder kids will play with him.) A few laps up the Captain with Tim & Jason in early spring to rehab my elbow did nothing for my elbow but it did wonders for my mood! What a blast!

And so with my mood soaring and Kara able to suppress her cough when Anne walked by, it was game on! Tossed the gear in the van and rocketed, ok puttered, to the Valley. As we packed up and ate dinner in El Cap Meadows we talked logistics including the need to take emergency jumars in case she bonked up high. Like all the important father/daughter talks I've outsourced to Anne, I wasn't sure how to broach the awkward subject of how to actually use jumars. I was unable and unwilling to teach my beloved daughter the unseemly, brutish thuggery of jumaring! Just then, like a guardian angel, our long time Tuolumne hero Steve Schneider appeared at the van door. (Although magically appearing at our van door at dinner time has been Steve's trademark from way back.) Steve quickly sprung into action and gave Kara a 10 minute crash course on jumaring. What better way to learn big wall technique than from the master himself!


At the base the next morning with Jim & George, we held the traditional Passing Of The Blue Camalot to the next generation ceremony. George then started up the route while I just sat there with a silly grin marveling at the septuagenarians' audacity. (Admittedly, I was also soaking up not being the oldest guy on El Cap for once.) Kara hadn't a clue who the "old guys" were but figured something was up as she had never seen me "Let someone climb first without twitching." I could have watched their 40 year old friendship in action all day but we had a few of pitches ahead of us.

Jim and George graciously let us climb through. When Kara climbed passed George he pulled out his camera and exclaimed "Oh! I have to get a picture of this!" I explained to Kara that I hoped she would continue to climb now that she had peaked. Because it doesn't get any better than George Lowe stopping to admire your climbing!




For a guy who's allergic to crowds, I probably should have thought through climbing Yosemite's most crowded line (the Nose) on the most crowded weekend (Memorial Day)! Having spent the majority of my El Cap career profusely apologizing to sympathetic parties for Greg's passing behavior, showing up at a crowded belay with a kid in tow was pure delight. Folks were overly accommodating, friendly, and happy to let us climb through. We passed 10 people by 10am (and 14 in total)! Dolt Tower looked like Times Square on New Years Eve.



Having climbed the bottom section previously, it was smooth sailing to Dolt (pitch 12). Continued our momentum to the top of Boot Flake (pitch 16) which Kara threw down in style!


 At the top of Boot, Kara finally got to do her long anticipated King Swing! The King Swing is the point where the route shifts left ~50' into the next crack system. You lower down ~80', run wildly back and forth ignoring the 1200' of gut-wrenching exposure, gather sideways momentum, make a gigantic horizontal leap to the edge of the next crack system, miss, ricochet back across the face, ignore the 1200' of exposure made more horrifying as the rope scrapes across the sharp edge of Boot Flake, and repeat. Eventually you latch the edge and feign that it was no big deal. Kara nailed the swing after just a few exploratory runs. Way fun!

Photo Tom Evans


Predictably, we fell a bit off our pace as the culumative toll of our day started settling in. By the Great Roof (pitch 24), though, my elbow was on fire and I slowed to a crawl. Fortunately Kara was patient with her poky partner. The crux of a jumarless NiaD is cleaning the Great Roof which Kara dispatched in no time. I left the aiders on the horizontal part so she could essentially re-aid it.



Kara had been climbing strong and steady all day. But as the sun lowered on the horizon and unseasonably cool temperatures plummeted, we entered unexplored territory. She had never gone this long. For a kid who needs 10+ hours of sleep a night we were on borrowed time. I was terrified Kara would go all Jason on me.

Jason is a modest, strong as an ox free climber but at high altitude he gets a fat head. Literally. His brain fills with fluid and at exactly 21.5hrs he starts hallucinating. It's deadly serious although I've certainly had fun with it. Once at exactly the 21.5hr mark on the Evolution Traverse, Jason started talking to rocks. Nothing unusual there until he then asked Tim to sing to him. While Tim delicately explained that the limits of their bromance stopped at singing, Jason passed out on him! Tim, the man who always gets it done, tapped his inner thespian and belted out some, apparently, way catchy show tunes. Tim's lovely melodic baritone got Jason back on his feet and off the ridge.

With the fear of having to listen to her dad sing weighing heavily on her, Kara once again tapped the tank that should have long since run dry. She had been going all day on two cookies and two bars. Digging deeper yet, she quietly hauled herself up the final bolt ladder.


Totally depleted, she still had the spunk to sprint for the traditional summit tree dive!

I was sure we were in for a cold bivy on top. She would be too spent for the 2.5hr, 3000' hike down the East Ledges. Which shows never underestimate the power of the El Cap Buzz! Kara, totally amped with a sudden flood of relief from the pent up pre-climb worry that she might not have it in her, insisted we hike back down to the van and have a proper dinner which was kind of weird for a kid who doesn't eat?

No, I'm not having a palette relapse here. I lost my puffy and stole Anne's. She doesn't know that so mums the word!


Like the reoccurring theme in Bill Murry's Ground Hog Day, the following weekend I once again found myself at the base of El Capitan with a middle schooler. This time with Mirko. Got off to a strong start but with temperatures heating up, soreness settling in, and general first time jitters, an ascent was not to be had. When Mirko was reduced to making the first untied shoe ascent of Boot Flake due to foot pain, I had to dig deep to once again revisit my No Partner Empathy policy and we bailed.



We turned it around at the top of Boot Flake which, I will note without comment, was 14 pitches higher than where Hans bailed on his first Nose. And it doesn't get any better than bailing 1200' off El Capitan with a single rope!! (Leaving no gear or is that part redundant?)

While Mirko was disappointed, a disappointment handled with a maturity well beyond his year, his determination to train and suffer to attain his goal is stronger than ever. The kids rock! I have a wonderful feeling that El Capitan hasn't seen the last of Mirko or Kara. Or for that matter, Jim and George.

I'm inspired. Inspired by "the old guys" for their raw audacity and determination. Inspired by the quiet grace with which they forever put to bed the age excuse. Inspired by the dignity and maturity of the 12 year old climbing prodigy -- his eagerness to push his comfort zone and risk setbacks to explore and grow. And finally, although I need to recuse myself for extreme bias and unabashed pride, inspired by Kara. Inspired by her tenacity, mental fortitude, and climbing talents. But mostly I am inspired by her spirit to relish the moment and keep smiling through it all. As I sat there in stunned awe watching her pull that last bolt ladder, all I could think of was "Wow, that is one rad guinea pig!"

Thanks so much for allowing us to re-post this great story Jim! It's always a pleasure to see the family climbing at the gym and outside!  

Intro to Aid Climbing- Zion Style

This year, Touchstone Climbing Gyms partnered with the American Alpine Club for the Live Your Dream Grant, which funds unforgettable experiences that give ordinary climbers the skills and confidence to realize their climbing ambitions and allow them to dream even bigger next time. This spring, two Touchstone Climbing staff members, Maura La Riviere and Stephanie Jim, received the grant for their trip to Zion National Park, where they explored the big walls. Here is Maura's trip report from the amazing experience! 

Intro to Aid Climbing, Zion Style


Read more: Intro to Aid Climbing- Zion Style

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