The Original Women-At-Work Line, VI 5.12 R

A dance party commenced, and walls surrounded me. The dark sky let stars shine through, and I jived with my ipod, laughing at my interaction with this amazing place. We’d achieved our goal, and now joy and relief were lifting me to higher, lichen-covered platforms to dance on. I probably should have invited Lorna and Emily to the dance party, but aware that this revelatory moment would pass, I couldn’t stop bopping.

Three evenings earlier, I’d attempted to lead the crux pitch of our route. Doubt clouded my mind, yet a familiar stubbornness dictated my actions. When I left our hanging belay, Lorna smiled at me.

“I think you got it,” she said.

“Hmm,” I’d replied.

It was late in the day, and Emily toiled on a rope above me with her camera in hand. The rock was cold. I picked my way deliberately up the broken sections, readjusted my feet as grains of granite crumbled and placed gear with exaction. My feet were numb blocks. I had done little to remedy the pain in my feet except ignore it, the same as I’d done to deal with the bellyache I’d felt throughout day. If I could just get these two pitches over with, I thought, we’d be done with the route. We could stop jugging our 1000 feet of fixed lines.

I stood up into the start of the hollow flake traverse. Emily now dangled on a fixed line 30 feet up to my left. She asked how I was feeling.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m cold.” I stared glumly across the face, then I pressed on for a few moves: I clipped a bolt we’d placed, then got a cam, and one of Royal Robbins’ remaining pins. After the traverse I looked up at the distant bolt – above the crux. I gave up. I asked Emily to clip my rope through the third and final bolt, so I could work out the next 20 feet. With numb feet, I searched for a different way to execute the crux. “Okay, it’s time to go down,” I said.

We began the rappel home: passing knots and managing our stress at sections of worn ropes. At the base I sat with Emily, processing. “It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment,” I said when she asked why no one seemed to listen to her suggestions that day. “I just want to do things my way.”

“Well, then admit where you’re at, and move on,” she offered.

So practical was her advice to my practiced obstinacy. Eventually I agreed I was glad I’d tried leading, even if I hadn’t sent the pitch first try. I now knew what leading the pitch was like and would be more prepared next go.

The following day we chose to rest after some group deliberation. Moments of blue sky through fog tortured my restless mind, yet I had no trouble taking a four-hour nap. Tom and Scotty’s weather forecasts to our sat phone predicted that the following day would also be high pressure. A large system of cold, wet weather, however, was on the way.

I wrote in my journal: ‘Well, tomorrow might be our last good weather for a long time. I can no longer deny that I am challenged by this climb. I thought the crux was going to be easier, and I wanted to be able to do it without a lot of pressure and hooplah. But by not acknowledging the difficulties that I and we are facing, the challenge just becomes harder. So, I’ve come back to the ground with respect gained and doubt cast. My spirit is intact though. And it speaks of patience and songs unsung, openness and courage with whatever outcome tomorrow brings.’

Questions about the next day prodded at my equanimity. I was conscious of acknowledging thoughts and emotions as they arose. I managed them as I might the tantrum of a child, and managed not to get pulled down the rabbit hole of fixation.

The next morning we woke to drizzle and light fog. By mid-morning, we were at the base in the warming sun. Large clouds filled the valley and passed by us. We jugged our lines. The day was beautiful. I racked up for the first difficult pitch following my written instructions of every piece of gear in sequential order. I’d top roped the pitch, but this was my first time leading it. I opened myself to the moment, the rock and all perceived shortcomings: climbing its friable spots with delicacy and trusting myself through the run-outs. The second bolt had been drilled in a good spot and I was protected through the more difficult section above. At the end of the pitch, I missed a foothold and my finger got stuck in a lock when a loose pebble fell down the crack. I wiggled my fingers out of this wedge and shuddered.

After some deliberation, I decided to lead the 5.12 pitch instead of trying to learn more through top roping. Emily hung a double-length sling from the bolt at the crux. Due to rock quality, we had had to place the bolt high, and after the hollow flake traverse, we agreed that without this long draw the climb would be risky (hence the ‘R’ rating we are giving the route). As I began to climb the 40-meter pitch, I knew I had a chance. I traversed and star-fished through the crux. The route kept at me from there, and I responded with as much precision and sustained effort as I could muster. I let out a joyful whoop as the angle eased. We were done. And damn, that was a good pitch!

I am so thankful for the experiences we shared last month. We picked an appropriate objective for ourselves, including the challenges. We worked our butts off jugging 1000 feet of fixed lines many times, doing various manual chores, and figuring out our individual and overlapping roles within the group. We stayed open and communicative with one another through the continual challenges. We didn’t even have much drama on our trip. I’m still enjoying a simple contentment that can come from hard work and the completion of an ambition. Moreover, I’m filled by what only can be surmised as an adventure with good friends.

Thanks women. While we may each include men on a next big trip, I’ve learned so much with you.

Thank you friends and family for your continual support and encouragement. It helps us believe in ourselves through challenges. To our grant and gear sponsors, thank you for the extra motivation to tell our story. I had way too much fun with my helmet cam and now have lots of editing to do.


Check out Emily’s climbing photos!

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Topo of the Route

Here is a topographic drawing of the SE Face Original Route/Women at Work (VI 5.12R).  We climbed to the top of Proboscis on August 5th, 2010.  It was a warm, sunny day and we reached the top with large smiles and kind words at 7:30 pm.

We brought a free climbing rack and did not haul any extra gear from pitch 8 upwards.  This was great in that we could climb lighter, but later during our 7-hour descent by rappel, we thought fondly of our bolt kit at pitch 8.  I have noted the old anchors on the topo.

Draft topo for the SE Face Original Route (Women at Work)

If I went to do this route again I would bring a bolt kit and place a bolt anchor at pitch 12.  Madaleine has a souvenir piton she pulled out with her hand from this now 2-pin anchor.  This led to a discussion and a re-lead of the sideways traverse pitch (pitch 12 on my topo).  Emily re-led the pitch as the evening light embraced our world.

One idea is to add a rappel anchor station or two on the face and get back to the route at the top of pitch 9.  This would avoid re-leading the traverse pitch and even with the re-lead rapping off two less-than-ideal anchors.  The route otherwise has bomber anchor stations for rappelling, courtesy of Nancy Feagin and Barry Blanchard in 1997.  We rappelled the original route, but you could also rappel the Costa Brava free variation from pitch 8 to the top of pitch 4.

Our spirits were high from the summit day and we focused for the remainder of our climbing days on setting up the crux pitches (pitches 7 & 8) for a first free ascent.  These two crux pitches were a lot of work, and at times we had all three of us on rappel engaged with the tasks at hand.

Emily and Madaleine at Work

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Emily’s Rock and Ice feature article

Check out Emily’s recent piece on climbing in Montana!  ‘Big Sky: the seasons and faces of Montana climbing’ can be found in the newest issue #189.

I’m dreaming about spacious adventures whilst on the bus to school.



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Dear Mom

Dear Mom(s),

We talked about you many times on our trip. Being away made us think of the people we love. All three of us have a deep connection to our mothers, which was something that brought us together in understanding each other.

Lorna is living in Portland now and will see her mother often. Madaleine is driving south with her sweet mum, who flew into Bozeman for a night. I wanna see my mom, too!

Here are a few more photos.

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love, es

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Just a few shots of our views last month

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Ptarmigans and processing

For twenty-five days we lived in a boulder field.  Shades of grey dominated our view of the world as rock was above and below us, and sometimes in our tea.  The white snow transformation was the exception.  Lichens were on scene with strength, adding green, orange, and brown highlights to the granite.  Upon first arriving at the base of the wall, the echoing crash of tumbling rocks throughout the day from a peak across from Proboscis was alarming.  With time the cacophony became white sound.  We also adapted to the constant boulder hopping to get anywhere: after three weeks it felt natural.

Our only visitors within camp were a white-tailed ptarmigan family of three who alerted us to their presence with high-pitch calls across camp.  They peered at us from orange eyelids and I was happy that they navigated around us with ease.  I was glad to have my Peterson bird song guide on my iPod, not having brought a bird book.

While on the wall, sitting at belays I stared at the lake below our camp, and beyond at the glaciers perched on top and hanging from the granite peaks (and at my climbing partners of course).  We walked down to this lake the day after we climbed to the top of Proboscis.  It was sunny and we marveled in the pockets of lushness beside the snowmelt stream.  The lake called to us and we all submerged: COLD water up north in the NWT.

As we drive south through changing landscapes the return to green dominance has brought us back to life outside the wall, our tents, and discussions exclusively between the three of us.  We are immersed in the wider world where walking on flat ground is not of special notice.  I appreciate the ease of drinking water and sleeping on a level surface.

Our team shared a special time, place, and goal, but each one of us had a unique experience and a range of emotions and difficulties.  Reflecting upon our granite wall climb at “blinding speed” is acting as a stimulus.  Our style evolved as we faced the reality of climbing for multiple days, fixing ropes, and figuring out the puzzles of free moves and tightening bolts without a crescent wrench.  We are all making peace with present and future ideas of who we are.  We have learned tremendously on this trip and I am in the processing stage of my experience, and will share more in the future.  I am keen to go on another trip, so I would say that is a sign of success just as much as accomplishing our team goal.

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Icing on the Cake

It’s 11 am. We are sitting on a boulder we just cleared of two feet of snow, within a boulder field we’ve called home for 25 days. Our wall still looms above, a five-minute walk from camp and now covered in snow and continuing to release little avalanches. We’re cold. Emily reads a book. I start making songs about Warren, the helicopter pilot, flying through the fog and rescuing us. Lorna rummages the bags for breakfast.

My toes are cold; I’m whining often. The simple contentment from freeing a line we worked so hard on is being eclipsed by my desire to now leave camp.

We call on the sat phone. Warren is on his way, the weather making a hard go of it. Then we hear the chopper. It emerges in all its sleek glory. The snow blows hard, and it’s no use speaking anymore. A skid touches down precisely on the edge of the boulder. We load bags in the backside door, and Lorna climbs in the front. She’s off with Warren. Emily and I sit there laughing our way through the change from quiet to jarring noise and back again. Now it seems quieter.

The helicopter is back in 10 minutes. A bag-loading frenzy and now it’s my turn to climb on board with Warren.  Five minutes later I’m taking off my shoes and puff pants at Glacier Lake. Emily is alone below Proboscis, and I wonder how she’s faring.

Fast-forward four hours: The three of us are sitting in a hot tub outside Inconnu Lodge. Four more hours: We’re giving a slideshow and showing videos to curious lodge guests and the supportive staff who maintain this wonderful place beside the lake.

Where am I? A disjointed combination of experiences encouraged me to stumble over myself walking along the flat grass last night: This is not a boulder-field.

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We did It!

This morning the storm broke, and sun shone on the mountains near Mount Proboscis. We waded through 15” of wet, heavy snow, taking down our tents and lugging our haul bags through the paths we’d made over the snow-covered boulders. Warren flew in with the Hughes helicopter and scooped us back to Inconnu Lodge, where the blueberries are out, the hot tub is hot, and the company is fine.

We spent 25 days living in the boulder field at the base of Proboscis, and ten days total climbing on the face (or “the hill,” as the Canadians call it). We climbed to the top on Via Costa Brava, and after five days of work, sent the four independent pitches of the Original Route. We rated it 5.12 R.

It feels surreal to be here. But being in the Cirque was also a little surreal.

We are looking through photos and video already, so we can give our first slide show to the guests here at Inconnu. Then we hit the road south.

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Weather forecast(ers)

We have two weather forecasters helping us. Scotty Savage, who is a badass avalanche forecaster from Big Sky, Montana, and Tom Halicki, who is Madaleine’s surrogate parent from Boulder. We are going to text them our weather observations from the Cirque, and they will do their best to get us info about major trends and changes.

Scotty says:

I’ll forecast temps for 6000′ and you can adjust from there. I’ll forecast ridgetop winds at 9000′ (aviation products are available for that elevation) but that will be “free air” forecasts – you’ll have to get a feel for how this is affected by local terrain where you’re climbing, who knows if that will be worthwhile info or not. I’d hope that I can at least give you a heads up if any really windy days are coming.

Your weather obs will be really important once you get there so I can validate (or more likely invalidate!) my forecasts. Tough to get a grasp on what’s going on in the mountains on the Yukon/NWT border as there isn’t much data there. Changes and trends in the forecast should be pretty doable as there is a lot of information upstream (west, SW) of the Cirque.

Scotty says having two forecasts will help, in that we can correlate the Watson Lake forecast with what’s happening in the Cirque:

The Cirque will be a little wetter during some weather patterns and A LOT wetter during others.  It will always be colder.  Winds will vary a bit, but it will typically be windier in the Cirque.

Tom will be sending us Watson Lake weather from Environment Canada.

Our current forecast from Scotty Savage:

Weather looks really stable for the next 36 hrs or so, sunny to partly cloudy, and generally light variable winds. Should be a great flight in. Some weak systems scheduled to dirty up the large ridge of high pressure starting late Thurs or Fri, stay tuned. No huge system waiting to come on shore at this point but things can change in a big way in the gulf of AK.

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We’re here… almost

After three days of driving, 150 miles of which were on the dirt Robert Campbell highway, we turned off onto a dirt side road marked by a plywood sign spraypainted with “Finlayson float access.” Bob, the pilot, was sleeping in the back seat of the floatplane.

We threw our stuff out of the van and into the back of the De Havilland Beaver, loaded up, and took a gorgeous evening flight over to Inconnu Lodge. The whole lodge crew met us on the dock and helped shuttle our gear up the hill to our cabin.

Warren, the lodge owner, a long time badass Yukon pilot, gave us the grand tour, and showed us his hall of fame of climbing photos from Proboscis and the Cirque. We saw photos of climbing legends and even friends who’d been here.

The next room over was full of taxidermied animals. The grizzly bear scared Madaleine, and Lorna was bug-eyed over the moose heads. Or more like MOOSE. They were huge. Way bigger than Montana moose.

Pretty awesome! Everyone here is super nice, and it is spectacular. The skies are bluebird. The heli is busy today, so we plan to fly out tomorrow. We’re psyched. gonna do some work helping out around the lodge, then pack up.

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