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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You don't know Jack!

The NW face of M.t Kennedy, "A pair of Jacks"  Jack Roberts and Jack Tackle 1996

OK, Pete Takeda has been telling me he was going to write that line, "you don't know Jack!" for half a decade now about Jack.   I'm still waiting but no story?    So I finally stole the line..  (my apologies Pete but I'll make it up to you and your blaster some how;-)

 "So You don't know Jack!"

As in Jack Roberts. and "The Timeless Face" on Mt. Huntington or the epic new route on the SW face of Denali.

1978 North Face of Huntington, Jack Roberts and Simon McCartney, summit reached on July 6, 1978.

"Timeless Face VI 5.9 WI5, McCartney-Roberts). Simon McCartney and Jack Roberts climbed and hid from objective dangers and avalanches for five epic days to gain the summit.   Taking  five more to get down  and reach their base camp.   Pounds lighter for the experience.  It remains unrepeated as of 2010.  And apparently no known suitors in tow.  Alpinist 20 has a good write up on the history of Huntington,

Jack collected a few good second ascents early on in Yosemite including the Shield, Cosmos, Tis-sa-ack, The Zodiac and many FAs in the High Sierras.

But ice and alpine has been his real forte over the years. In Canada the second free ascent and third overall of Polar Circus, first winter ascents of Robson's North Face and Kitchener's Grand Central Couloir. In Alaska he has made four FAs in the Kichatna Spires, Huntington's NW Face, the SW face of Denali and on the NW face of Mt. Kennedy to the NW Ridge.  And a fist full of good routes in  the Alps as well.

So Jack has been around some and likely does know something of big walls, alpine and ice cliimbing.

From the La Sportiva web site.
"Do you have a claim to fame?"

"Jack sez: The reputation of the shape and condition of my toes and feet have made me infamous. Even Reinhold Messner wanted to see them! Also, I'm the only male Sportiva athlete to appear in a dress in any ad.

"What really scares you about climbing?"

It's very easy to mistake the sensation of feeling omnipresence for omnipotence and get severely hurt trying to understand the difference.

"Do you wish you had sexier feet?"

No one has sexier feet than I have. Didn't we have this discussion earlier?"

I've seen Jack's feet..and understand why Messner would ask.  Trust don't want to ask.

  The Timeless Face- Huntington

The Roberts/McCartney line is pretty much a plumb line from the right hand summit knob to the rock buttress below the lowest hanger just right of center.

Jack's recently drawn topo of the line.  Be sure to dbl clik this one.

Some speculation on this climb in the community over the last 30 years.  It hasn't been repeated.  Few have tried.  From what I know,  most of the speculation came from one source. Simon McCarthney virtually disappeared after the new route on Denali and final rescue, which hasn't helped.  Does any one know Simon's where abouts today?   A party that summitted shortly after Roberts and McCartney wrote of being surprised at seeing their foot prints coming up the North Face.   More recently a set of stuck and chopped ropes suspected to be from Roberts and McCartney were found melted out, near the Nose, on the Harvard route, long buried under the snow and ice there.   I have no reason to doubt the ascent.

Jack is always in it.  Guiding full time, writing on occasion and still climbing hard.  March of 2011, underneath le Droites, N. Face, Chamonix.

What does Jack think are 10 winter climbing tips that are worth writing down?



When you are climbing in the mountains you want to be able to move swiftly and efficiently if you want to increase your margin of safety and increase your chances of success. Moving quickly though also usually increases your enjoyment as you feel yourself becoming more adept and sucked into what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. Moving fast doesn't necessarily mean climbing harder. It isn't about getting stronger or becoming more supple. Speed climbing is all about becoming a more cerebral climber and therefore the skills necessary can be learned by anyone. I have listed ten tips that I feel are important and that will help anyone become faster.


Moving fast in the mountains isn't so much about sprinting from the tent like an Olympic champion but more like being a ultra-marathoner where you find your rhythm and learn how to stick to it. You have to learn and to teach your body the art of maintaining a cadence and pace that suits your body best and that allows you to always move forward hour after hour. This cannot be learned if you are always at your limit both technically and physically. You can however, learn your own personal cadence by practicing on long routes that are a grade or two below your limit and by building upon that. If your limit on single pitch traditional rock routes is 5.10, then try longer routes of up to 5.8. Concentrate on moving with intent. Placing protection. Setting up belay anchors etc. All these factors practiced on longer , less difficult routes will increase your speed and without realizing it you will find yourself being much faster and having more energy.

Move up a grade when you feel like it and practice the same things.


Do you really know just how long it takes you and your partner to lead and second a pitch? How long does it take for you to sort out the rack and begin the next lead? You and your partner must have a system worked out that takes the minimum of time to complete. Whether it be racking the gear as you follow, setting up the belay, stacking the rope at the belay incorporating speed and still staying safe is critical. As you climb and when you reach the belay NEVER let up on your pace. Set-up the anchors. Stack the rope, keep the rope tight for the second and pass off the gear rack swiftly and immediately. Use the Reverso or an auto-block plate for belaying, thereby allowing you to eat or drink whilst still belaying the second up. While the second is following the pitch he is racking the gear in a prearranged manner so that there is no time wasted when passing the rack between partners. The goal is to move upward at all times. Taking ten minutes at each belay for six pitches is 60 minutes time which can mean getting down in the light or by headlamp.


The only way to avoid wasting time is to eliminate the complexity of your systems. A simple way to begin this is to reduce the number of ropes you climb with. Do you really need double ropes or will a single 60 or 70m rope work. This is usually long enough to link pitches together (eliminating the belay sort-out time) and one rope is easier to stack and handle than two. If you need an additional rope for rappelling consider taking a lightweight 7mm) tagline and carry this in your pack or tied onto your back.

The rack can be simplified by reducing the number of cams and nuts to one set each. Cams go in and out faster plus the are easier to locate. Of course deciding how big the rack will be depends on the difficult nature of the climbing but in general most climbers require less protection than they place on their rack. Take more 60cm slings and fewer quickdraws. In this way you encounter less rope drag which is a must when linking pitches together. Rack onto a should sling rather than your harness gearloops. In this way the rack can be switched over from partner to partner with minimum time wasted. Use two pieces of bombproof gear for the belay anchor rather than three and tie off the pieces with your rope instead of using slings. A cord-de-lette works well but does take practice in order to not waste precious time. Have a repertoire of belay techniques you can incorporate depending on the severity of the pitch. Know how to do a shoulder and hip belay. Belay through the belay anchor using just a overlapping close hitch.


Every thing you wear or carry is weight. Even the lightest equipment adds up and will slow you down, tire you out and will contribute to not getting up your desired route unless you give paramount importance to how much each piece of gear and clothing weighs. Can you substitute your heavy oversized carabiners for smaller wire-gates that weight a few grams less. Do you really need 22cm length screws when 17cm length ones work just as well. Can you get away with a smaller and lighter belay device. Do you ALWAYS drink two or three quarts of liquid or generally do you stay dehydrated and drink less? One quart weights two pounds which is quite a lot of extra weight to carry if you don't use it. Drink it or lose it!! Do you really need that extra pair of gloves or cap?

A good way to force a light pack onto yourself is to carry only a small pack and NOT overstuff it. The old adage of "whatever size pack you have you will fill" is very true. Carry a smaller pack and you will have less weight. Think about what weight you can take away not what you can add. In today's climbing culture we have a gimmick for just about any level of comfort or purpose. Thoreau's adage of "Simplify, simplify, above all simplify" is most important here. Don't carry a piece of gear if it only has one use to it. Bubble wrap insulates, is padding and its weight is practically non-existent. Climbing clothing is fashionable clothing. Critique what you wear. Is an item going to be used as equipment or to make you look sexier in the photos? Do you really need a fork and spoon for a bivouac meal or can you do without.


Having a partner who is able to move at least as fast or faster than you is critical. If you are always waiting for your partner to catch up it quickly becomes tiring and demoralizing. Understanding how your partnership climbs together, communicates, moves, not only speeds things up but also makes your climb much safer and more fun. Having a clearly defined way to communicate that you both understand helps reduce misunderstanding and increase safety.


The single best way to maximize the entire team moving upwards is to move together on moderate terrain. Nobody said that this technique is 100% safe yet when practiced enough by two or three partners who know each other's movements well, this technique (simul-climbing) can be safer than being belaying on ground which may be dangerously exposed to objective dangers. However, this is a technique which must be practiced ahead of time so it is learned and understood well.

Always make sure that when simul-climbing you have one or two points of protection between you. As long as the rope remains relatively taught between each climber everyone is protected. Both climbers should go at a steady pace and treat this technique as if one were soloing. This is especially important when the leader is climbing over the crux and the second is on moderate ground. Another safe option to try is using a Wild Country Ropeman or a Petzl Tiblock to improve safety when climbing.

The leader would place a Ropeman upside down on a very solid anchor and place the rope through it. Placed this way the rope would run easily through it when the leader is climbing. In this manner should the second fall then the Ropeman cam would jam against the rope and stop the fall while not putting any pressure on the leader. A Petzl Tiblock can be used in the same way but is less trustworthy. The Tiblock has teeth which can shear the sheath of a rope. A Ropeman does not have any teeth and therefore will not damage the rope.

It is important to note that when setting up the Ropeman at the anchor it be able to stop and upward AND downward fall, that it be matched to the locking gate carabiner that it is clipped into and that it locks correctly when screwed. This technique seems to work best when using a thin rope. Anywhere from an 8mm to 9.2 works best. Anything bigger and there is too much rope drag. Be sure and play around with this system on something easy so that you understand completely how it works and how to avoid any dangers that might arise.


Pretty much the earlier you leave for your intended ascent the better are your chances of success or survival. I've had to turn back from many summits early because I ran out of time, ran out of light, didn't get there ahead of the party in front of me etc. all these failures could have been avoided if I'd gotten out of the sack just one hour earlier. Alpine climbing is an adventure and adventures always have unexpected twists and turns. You will be better prepared for the unknown if you and your partner get an earlier than planned start to your day.


If you want to move fast then dress lightly so that you don't become too warm and comfortable. Dressing seriously means that you wear a baselayer underneath a windproof top (pants and bottoms) and you use movement as a means to keep warm. Should you slow down enough whereby you get chilled and start to get very cold then ADD an insulating layer on top of what you are already wearing. If you really want to see how light you can go purchase a micro wind/water-resistant nylon shell from Go Lite or Patagonia along with a thin silk balaclava, liner gloves, Petzl Tika headlamp, a few GU packets into a chalk bag and wrap your lightweight insulating jacket around your waist for speed.


Sometimes nothing is more debilitating than becoming thirsty and experiencing low blood sugar. Hitting the wall or bonking is no fun and is easy to do because the all-absorbing attention we give to our movement over rock and ice sometimes distracts us from how dehydrated and hungry we have become. I make a rule to keep some power gel or GU handy in my outside pockets so that I can easily and quickly take a bit of 100-200 calories when I need it without slowing myself down. Done regularly a person should be able to go for hours if they snack along the way in order to keep their glucose level up. Becoming dehydrated is just as tiring as not having enough food. For this reason it is worth looking into having a pack which will hold a water bladder with a tube you can suck on. In this manner you will be able to have continuous little gulps of moisture to keep you motivated and feeling fresh. These days most bladders seem to be pretty leak-proof and the only kink to work out is how to keep them from freezing. I still haven't worked that one out yet so I usually just climb in a state of dehydration which isn't good.


Lastly there is no substitute for being physically and mentally trained for your project. Climb easy rock in poor weather in mountain boots. Climb regardless of weather conditions or how hungover you may be from the excesses of the evening before.

Train, train and train some more.

© 2003-2010 Jack Roberts. All rights reserved. Site / bluetrope.

CLIMBING magazine....BITD.  The story of the first winter ascent of the GCC Direct, Mt. Kitchener,  Jack Roberts and Tobin Sorenson.  It was cold enough the colors froze to shades of gray..


Anonymous said...

Love this!! Great article, brilliant informative blog..

Very inspiring...

Keep it up..

Jon Miller said...

As one of Jack's occational partners when he makes it down to Telluride, let me tell you he is one of the best climbers you will ever see. He has that ability to make it look easy at all times. And to top it off he is a patient partner. Even when putting up with my slow self!

It was nice to meet you at the show Dane.

Jon Miller

Dane said...

You as well Jon. Best thing you hear about Jack in the community? "We all love Jack!"

Having been on the recieving end of that kind of patience myself I hear ya brother :) But like a lot of things on the fringe, just make sure you are ready and willing when you tie on to that cat's tail!

miles said...

RIP, Jack.