Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lone Eagle Peak, North Face

Sometimes my running shoes are left behind and are replaced with sticky rubber. There was a time when I used to run to keep fit for rock climbing before it became an end in itself, but it has been difficult finding a consistent climbing partner in the US and running has dominated my outdoor pursuits. But an annual "boys vacation" has developed and this enabled a trip to the high country, and on this occasion it was for an overnight excursion to the remote Lone Eagle Peak.

Iconic mountain images conjure precipitous slopes and sharp peak summits. Just think of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. The very first time I saw a picture of Mount Everest and became aware of what it represented as a challenge, I recall how disappointed I was that it seemed to lack the dramatic profile I hoped for. While impressed with so much of the great climbing on Mount Blanc in France, its rounded snow dome seemed to take the edge off the Brenva Face and the Pear Rouge. Only on the more minor summits and ridges - such as the Peuterey Arete, Les Drus (not so minor) and the Tour Ronde - does the classic profile match expectation. The Pyramid du Tacul and the Dent du Geant also make the case. So when I first saw Lone Eagle Peak on the cover of Gerry Roache's Indian Peaks guide I was taken by the dramatic image. It encapsulated so much excitement and apprehension - was it really a sharp pinnacle summit? Were those summit cliffs really as vertiginous as they appeared? It simply demanded to be climbed.
Lone Eagle Peak with brooding thunder clouds as backdrop
The classic North Face was well within capability and undaunted by the 8 mile approach from Monarch Lake along Cascade Creek Trail, the plans were laid. It could be climbed in a single day trip but it seemed better to overnight at Crater Lake. The long walk in was surprisingly easy with only 2000 feet elevation gain. There were no persistently long steep climbs and a steady pace saw us at the overnight camp around 5.30pm. During the last 2 miles we were welcomed by heavy thunder but very little precipitation - so typical of afternoons in the high mountains. My freeze-dried Katmandhu curry failed to inspire the aroma of Tibet and a fitful night on hard ground brought the welcome dawn.
Closer view from our camp at Crater Lake
It's a short, steep pull to the start of the climbing - a short, water-streaked wall that ends on a grassy terrace. We followed this terrace up to the south for about 4 pitches of simulclimbing. It ended beneath a nasty, wet chimney that was really awkward to ascend with a pack. A nice crack towards the back of the right chimney wall encouraged my efforts and the wet rock posed few problems. It was just a strenuous thrutch and I got to the top with a feeling that effort triumphed over style. What followed was more grassy scrambling interspersed with short sections of proper rock climbing and I began to wonder what this climb was all about. I knew the crux pitch was just around the corner and it couldn't come soon enough.
Looking down the long pitch above the wet chimney

And there it was. A rising traverse onto the north wall ended in a steep drop. Across this drop a sling was strung around a flat spike signaling the belay at the foot of the pitch. It looked stupendous. A series of disconnected cracks and bulges rising vertically for about 150 feet. This looked the business and I hurried across the steep gully and brought up my partner.
At the top of the rising traverse about to cross the gully to the steep crux pitch

The guidebook (and various online websites, such as Mountain Projects) goes to great lengths to poorly describe the start of this pitch. It warns against choosing an earlier set of cracks to the left, yet omits the most important feature of all - the gully. "Climb the rising traverse to the right until you can cross a steep gully and belay at the foot of the crack system to the right" is the only description you need. It is that simple. The Roach guide writes five sentences and still gets this wrong. Maybe it was just too obvious to me? Anyway, stories of climbers getting off route on this section raise more questions about their competence and general judgment than they do about the descriptive quality of guide books...but the book descriptions could be better.
Looking at the belay below the crux pitch from the position of the previous photo
All concerns about this route disappeared once I left the belay and started up the wall. The climbing was exceptional. It was also quite easy...in fact, I found the chimney pitch mentioned earlier to be much more difficult. Yes, the climbing is at altitude, and it is steep, but the holds are huge and there are plenty of them. But these are minor quibbles. It was a feeling of kinesthetic and aesthetic joy that pulsed through my body as I cruised up the wall. The exposure was wonderful; the protection was excellent. There were supposed to be 4 metal pegs but I could only find 3 and none were really necessary. The movement was natural and composed. It was a disappointment when the pitch ended.
Topping out on the crux pitch

The remainder of the climb was easy - a short traverse to the left and a longish pitch to the summit and wonderful exposure on the narrow summit crest. At about 1 meter wide the summit ridge is really exposed and at its tip the precipitous cliffs seem to drop right to the ground about 2000 feet below. A beautiful calm summer day rendered the situation harmless and enjoyable, but high winds, cold and rain would dramatically alter this feeling.
On the summit

Descent route from the top of the climb. There are two gully options - we took the right hand one, but the left hand (yellow) option looked better. Either way you have to end up on the promontory at the top of the gullies.
Much has been written about the descent from Lone Eagle along the route of Solo Flight. The Roach guide isn't much good as it is written from the "ground up", but there are many detailed online descriptions and photos of where to go. They all seemed to make a bit of a meal of it to me. As I stood on the summit and pondered the options it all looked very obvious, and it was. Did climbers really try to descend that horrible gully? All anyone really need know is to climb up the horrible gully rather than descend. Far from being "tricky"the navigation across the descent was easy. Arriving on the shoulder overlooking the Lone Eagle summit we unroped and packed away our gear for the slog back to the campsite and the even longer walk back to the car.

An exhausting day, but truly memorable. I might even do it again just for that one pitch of perfection.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hoka One One Stinson EVO B Review


I am naturally skeptical and resistant to hype that sounds contrived. With so much focus over recent years being directed (with good effect) towards minimalist running, the appearance of a great big clod-hopping "clown" shoe like the Hoka One One seemed one misdirected fad too far. Even the testimony of highly reputable ultra runners was easy to discount as I rationalized product endorsements, sponsorship and back-handers. At the most fundamental level I didn't like to entertain the thought that every premise of my running shoe choice and practice for over 35 years had potentially been wrong. Even my more recent serious injuries and knee and joint pains couldn't provide the evidence for me to challenge my own bias. But over recent weeks my mind was "tipped".

4 months ago I had a long discussion in Boulder Running Company with one of the sales associates. "Just try them," he said. And I did. And they were weird. I jogged around the pavement outside the store. I am sure I was more concerned about how they looked ("clownish") than how they felt and I didn't want to pursue the issue any further. How could I, in all honesty, wear these monstrosities in public? I had a certain style to maintain...standards to uphold...there were issues of public decency. There are reasons why few men wear yellow and purple striped suits. And although in the "style vs. function" balance I trend heavily towards function, this doesn't make style irrelevant. And Hoka's have no style...well, they have style, but in the purple striped suit variety. Wear these, so I reasoned, and I become a clown. So I didn't.

Another store, another discussion. This time in Vertical Runner in Breckenridge. Another sales associate hooked on the Hoka. Was I the only one immune from the hype? Was everyone getting back-handers? But if I explore my psyche, I went into the store to look at the Hokas. It was as irresistible as a boogie on a stranger's nose.  I wanted another drooling experience of sheer horror, disbelief, petulance and disregard. I wanted confirmation about just how stupid these things looked...about how, despite many claims to the contrary, these things just wouldn't work on technical trails...how my ankle would roll...how I would be unable to "feel" the trail beneath my feet...that I would lose touch with my feet wallowing in these great marshmallows. I desperately wanted to be right.

Then two things happened in quick succession. First, I tweaked my calf muscle injury again last week and this was a major blow to my recovery. It happened on a straight forward trail after about 8 miles and I was shocked because I had felt nothing for weeks to even begin to hint that this was possible. Was it my shoes? Second, I had three or four days of serious knee pain during the day that made it difficult to ignore. I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes without getting up and stretching and walking around. It was distracting and annoying and I worried what my body was telling me about my physical well-being. Would my running days be coming to an end? Was it my shoes?

What stuck in my mind was the testimony of older runners, just like me, extolling the virtues of the Hokas. How they provided protection against the knees. How they nullified the effects of joint pain. How they...well, prolonged the running lives of keen runners like me. So I tipped. And I went straight out and bought a pair. Not the unisex version, but the full bloodied "men only" version. The Stinson Evo B...whatever that means. Not only were the shoes an obvious joke, but the joke of the name was too subtle even for me to understand. I asked the cashier for a bag in order to conceal my embarrassment and hurried back to the car glancing around incase anyone should point at me and laugh. "Another idiot in clown shoes."

And they do look ridiculous.
They are a big shoe, but surprisingly light, despite their bulk. The size 9's fit me perfectly. I deployed the single pull lacing system after remembering to tighten the front eyelets, and they were very snug and tight. I don't wear socks and need a close fit. These shoes fit better than nearly all my other pairs...and I have a lot of pairs. Of course, fit is only one issue - how did they perform?

I was tentative departing the Button Rock trailhead. It was raining a little and the rock was wet. Puddles were forming and this was going to be a decent test. I had bought the new Brooks Cascadia a month ago and was extremely disappointed with their poor performance on wet trails - they had horrible traction on wet rocks and consequently I couldn't trust my placements. As underwhelmed as I was with the Brooks, I was pleasantly surprised with the Hokas. They just worked.

I worried about the spongy ride and then realized that once I started to focus on running the trail this disappeared as an issue. I just got used to it. In fact they felt quite pleasant. I discovered that I didn't have to worry about smaller rocks because...well...I didn't feel them. I cruised across the edges of hardened mud ruts caused by vehicle tires without the usual ankle tweak. I began to enjoy them.

There is one point that needs to be made - it is important to pick your feet up and not drag low on the stride pattern. I sometimes do this when I am tired and going downhill and it has caused a few falls. These shoes would be more prone to that and I was very conscious to keep reminding myself to pick up my follow-through on my trailing leg. Thankfully no falls so far, but I wonder what they will be like when I get really tired?

The tread holds well ascending steep, loose, rocky trails. They stuck to the surface and I didn't feel any scrambling or slipping. But these shoes come into their own going downhill. They were exceptional. I could attack the descent and ignore the usual imperfections in the running surface. They also enabled a fuller downhill stride. Typically, in low profile shoes like my Walshes or Salomon Speedcross, I would be very careful to avoid golfball-size rocks or uneven rocky outcrops - in the Hokas I quickly learned to ignore them. The deep cushioning on the sole simply absorbed them. With the rounded sole I was also able to strike my heel more fully and confidently and this meant a much faster and safer descent. With low profile shoes the heel takes significant punishment on steep descents and my stride pattern shortens to compensate resulting in a slower pace. It is the exact opposite in the Hokas - full stride, confident placement, more even feel and much faster pace. It was just how I remember running when my joints and ligaments were younger and more supple. It was fun.

But the "clown" feeling is still there. It's strange, because I've never had the remotest concern about what other people might think, it's just that these shoes look completely ridiculous. However, I am going to clock up some mileage in them especially on the high level technical trails. I am actually looking forward to it, not only because I think they will be great, but because I rarely encounter anyone. My "clowning" will be relatively private.

UPDATE - August 10th 2013

The Devil's backbone trail near Loveland, CO was a perfect test for my new shoes. Although the trail has no steep ascents or descents there are long sections of nasty terrain with sloped rocks and loose choss. If these shoes were going to fail they would fail here. And because the trail is fairly level that meant the test would be at speed.

Two things are now really clear to me. These shoes are really good on rough, loose, stony ground. You really can ignore most of the loose rocks and undulations that would cause careful foot placement when wearing low profile shoes. Second, they are great for running quickly downhill. I find that I can take a fuller stride and not have to worry as much about an uneven landing. Because the sole is so soft the pain of striking hard surfaces is diminished and my original fear of twisting my ankle has so far proved illusory.

There are some things I don't like...but are unavoidable. First, the lace holder is very poor and I find that the lace pull bounces around across the top of the shoe - it is distracting and it is annoying. I don't know why Hoka couldn't build a lace holder like Salomon on the Speedcross 3. Second, it is hard to accelerate up steep climbs without the cushioned sole absorbing some energy. This is noticeable. Push hard on the ball of the foot and quite a bit of energy is just absorbed by the sole and this makes it hard going up long climbs. It's a trade-off between overall comfort (which I like) and loss of impact (which I don't).

Overall, these are quickly becoming my running shoes of choice for longer distances on rough trail surfaces - particularly those involving nasty, technical descents.