Monday, April 29, 2019

We Came, We Saw, We Got Conquered…Again and Again

Photos - coming

Nowadays, whenever someone asks if I’m training for something, my answer is: Fitz Roy! Depending upon who’s asking, they might not recognize that name. Climbers know it. At least alpine climbers. Sport climbers might not have heard about it. Exclusive gym climbers almost certainly haven’t heard of it. But I only know one person who is exclusively a gym climber: Steph Ehret - Peter Bakwin’s wife. I’ve been asked about my training goal twice on trail runs, most recently on the Skyline. I caught up to a group of ultra-runners, which is remarkable in itself, as I don’t catch up to many people these days, no matter what I’m doing, but especially not running. Anyway, I asked him what the group was training for and he responded with a list of ultramarathons. When he queried me I gave my usual response. He’d heard of the mountain. Whenever that happens I expect the person to be confused how scooting along a local trail is going to help me get up the monster that is Fitz Roy. He didn’t though. Maybe he realized it was just one aspect of my training. All I’d been doing lately was trail running and gym climbing. That should do it, right? On the off chance it wasn’t sufficient, we planned this trip to Zion to see if desert trad/aid climbing was significantly different from gym climbing. Turns out, it is different.


We met my buddy Mark in Zion. He was training with us as well, though he wasn’t planning on Fitz Roy. We had plans for him to join us on another of our training adventures. I say “training”, but all of these, save the gym and the trails, are full-on adventures on their own. Mark secured us an early-drive-in permit for the next day and brought lunch to our campsite. Derek and I had set up our tent and organized our gear. Our plan was to take the shuttle bus into the Big Bend stop and do the first two pitches of the Touchstone Wall to warm-up our aid skills. Mark was new to jugging and had only done it three times before; first in a gym and then a couple of times at crags near his house in Provo. Derek and I hadn't stood in slings since we climbed Lurking Fear on El Cap two years ago.

It was after two p.m. by the time we arrived at the base of the wall so we weren’t surprised to find no one there. In fact, during this whole trip we only saw one party that wasn’t climbing Moonlight Buttress or Shune’s Buttress and this party (Spencer and Spencer’s partner) arrived at Touchstone just twenty minutes after we got there. They were there to fix the first couple of pitches before finishing the route the next day. It was overly warm for this time of year, though, with temperatures hitting 85 or hotter in the afternoon,

Derek led the first pitch, just like he’d done two years ago, but this time he was more confident and a lot faster. This isn’t due to a lot more aid practice, but just general confidence in his climbing ability and more trad leading experience. He set up the belay and expertly flaked both of the ropes he had trailed. Mark was jugging the lead line, which trended strongly to the right, giving him some practice with jumping the jugs around pieces and learning how to lower himself out using his lower jug and pulling on the rope beneath it. Derek made one lead mistake when he back cleaned some bolts on the hard traverse to the right. Mark had to lower out from the last sling and was then too far to the right to clean it. In this case we were saved by Spencer and his partner cleaning it for us. All the while Mark was jugging I was to his right jugging the free line and offering advice and instruction.
Once Mark was directly under the belay, I headed to to Derek’s hanging belay to take the next lead. The second pitch of the Touchstone Wall is the crux C2 pitch. I’d been up the route twice before and both times led this pitch, which turns a 3-foot roof via a thin flared crack. The first time I did this route, probably twenty years ago, there was a pin over the lip of the roof and I was able to do one semi-free move and clip it. Two years ago this pin wasn’t there any longer and I found it quite challenging to get a solid placement, taking one fall when a piece pulled. Despite that, I was confident I’d zip up the pitch.

I made quick work of the bolts leading up to the roof and then traversing sideways to the left beneath it. I backcleaned the traverse because the top bolt had a lower-out sling on it and this would allow Derek to skip the horizontal jugging and just lower out. Of course, then he’d be faced with a twenty-foot free-climbing jug up to the lip of the roof. This is quite strenuous jugging when you don’t have a wall on which to brace your feet.

I had lots of trouble getting a placement over the roof, trying three or four different pieces before using the third smallest RP. In the course of trying things I pulled off a #2 Camalot and then, unknown to me, failed to secure it back onto my rack. It was on there somehow but eventually dislodged and fell. I only knew this when Derek yelled down to the others “Rock!” Dang. That’s sloppy and scary for your partners. They rightfully wondered what was going on with me. Unfortunately it got worse.

I gingerly stepped up on the RP, expecting it to pop at any moment. I didn’t want to Fifi into it for fear of putting any outward force on it. I strenuously balanced in my aiders, which hung free of the wall just below the roof, while struggling to get the next placement. Eventually I got another marginal placement, an offset cam in a sandy flare. From there I could get in a solid piece and when I pulled up my aiders, it hit the RP placement, which I stupidly hadn’t clipped to the rope after getting off it, and it fell out and plummeted toward the ground. Derek yelled “Rock” again and I felt like a complete Gumby. And a frazzled one at that. Between the dicey placements, my dropped gear, and my glacial pace, I elected to use the intermediate belay that was just thirty feet above the roof. This was just supposed to be a gentle warm-up and I was turning it into an ordeal.

I clipped into the belay, pulled up the lead line and fixed it for Derek. This was a pure hanging belay with no hint of a foothold. I stood in my aiders and fixed my end of the lead rope to the belay. Instead of having three of us in such cramped quarters, I’d rappel a single line to the ground once Derek arrived. Then Mark would jug up and they’d both rappel down on the doubled line.

Derek quickly remembered the technique for lowering out and then fought with the overhanging jug a bit because they were adjusted for the vertical terrain of the first pitch and not a free-hanging ascent. Mark had an even more strenuous jug because he ascended the free line that hung clear of the wall all the way to the belay. By the time he got down he was glad that our goal climbs were generally a bit less than vertical.

Back on the ground I found both of the pieces I dropped, but my confidence was shaken and I worried a bit of what my partners thought. I assured them I’d do better the next day.

We then walked the banks of the Virgin River, trying to find a safe place in which to wade across, as we’d hoped to climb Moonlight Buttress the next day. We later learned that the river was flowing at 940 cps (cubic feet per second) and rising each day. To put that in perspective, the Narrows hike doesn’t open until the flow drops below 150 cps. We didn’t find anything that looked safe, as least while carrying a heavy climbing pack. I feared if you fell in the river, you might have to ditch the pack to survive and lose a thousand dollars worth of gear and ending the trip. We’d later talked to two climbers who also didn’t think it was safe and their solution was to go to the top of the route and rappel in. That didn’t appeal to us. It was possible to cross the river at the Angels Landing trail and then bushwhack all the way around the Organ, and Angels Landing and then along the bank to Moonlight, but that didn’t seem appealing to us either. We decided to try a different route on the other side of the canyon, one that didn’t involve a river crossing. We settled on Space Shot. I’d done this route about fifteen years ago with Mark Hudon. I led every pitch on the route that day, as Mark was content to just belay and shoot photos. My confidence was high, despite my troubles on this day and some ominous comments on

After a birthday dinner (my birthday) in town (thanks, Mark!), we hit the bags with our alarms set for 5 a.m.

Space Shot

“Pitch 5 is now harder than the crux on the Shield (on El Cap).”
“Bring hooks and be prepared to bust a move on the last pitch.”

Why didn’t I pay more heed to these comments on Why didn’t I bring the essential offset nuts? I’m supposed to be experienced. I might not be that strong of a climber, but I’ve been climbing a long time. Too long to be making dumb mistakes like this. I’m headed to Fitz Roy at the end of this year because I wanted to give it a shot before my skills deteriorated too much to put this climb out of reach. I wonder now if I’ve waited too long…

We drove into the canyon, to the turnout for Space Shot and then started organizing our gear. We didn’t do it last night because it was late and we were tired. It wasn’t an issue because it was still dark. After a bathroom stop, we headed up in the light. After five minutes we were at the base of the route. I led the first pitch, 5.5, and Derek followed dragging the second rope. While Derek led the second pitch, a fun 5.7 chimney/corner pitch, Mark jugged the first pitch. I then followed and led the third pitch up to the start of the hard climbing.

While Mark jugged the third pitch, Derek headed up the fourth pitch. This pitch starts with a very reach-y bolt ladder. In fact, off the first bolt Derek had to stand in his hero loop and grab some holds above to reach the second bolt, and he’s six feet tall. We saw a duct-taped stick at the base of this wall, clearly made as a cheater stick. If you are less than six feet, you’d either need one of these or have to pull up out of your aiders completely, lock off on one hand, and clip the second bolt.

Once by this move, he moved steadily up the bolts with other high steps moves until they ran out where an incipient, flared, sandy, horrible crack started. The rest of the pitch, seventy feet of it, was dicey, scary aid climbing. We could hear Derek above semi-talking to us. He wasn’t really, as we couldn’t hear him, but he was just talking aloud about how nervous he was or how  bad the placements were. I knew he was scared and it was still a new experience for me: having Derek above me and in some distress. I can’t help him at this point. He’s so far away and out of sight that I can’t even give suggestions or advice. He’s totally on his own and all I can do it belay and keep him safe if he falls. I knew he hadn’t pulled out half the rope yet and hence could be lowered down, provided he had a piece good enough to lower off of. I heard such stress in the timbre of his voice that I expected this, yet the rope kept moving out, slowly, very slowly, but he wasn’t coming down. At one point he yelled “Watch me!” A couple of times the rope was jerked upwards hard, a couple of times in a row. If it was three times, that would mean he’s off belay. Each time that happened I prayed for a third tug, but it didn’t come. He passed the halfway mark on our 70-meter rope. The guidebook said it was a 40-meter pitch. The rope kept inching out and eventually, blessedly, finally the call came down: “Off belay!”

I got on my jugs and moved upwards at a quick pace, at first. Then the steepness of the wall got to me, especially my already hurting right elbow. Mark was complaining a bit about that and certainly jugging a vertical line puts a lot of stress on your elbows. I cleaned the bolt ladder and then the angled eased a bit and I started cleaning gear from the crack. The climbing looked hard and scary. The placements were technical and marginal. One was our smallest offset cam and the two bigger lobes were barely in contact with the rock. Yikes! I wouldn’t have wanted to get on that cam. Few of the placements looked bomber. I wonder how many could have held a fall. Further up was a sizable gap where Derek had to free climb above marginal gear. I’d have been very frightened and I wondered if I’d have been able to complete the pitch. I forced those thoughts out of my mind because the next pitch was even harder and it was my lead.

When I got up to Derek, at another pure hanging belay, he said, “I hated that. It was horrible.” I understood exactly those emotions. I’d been there before. Something like that you don’t want to repeat, but you’re glad to have pushed through and got the rope up for the team.

We re-racked and I was soon leading the next pitch, which goes pretty smoothly, though very steep, up to an intermediate belay. After clipping the belay I made a huge reach to my right and clipped a bolt and then up and a bit further right was a drilled angle. This got to a thin seam that only occasionally opened up enough for any gear options. I placed a bomber stopper at the start of this crack and got on it. Above the wall was slightly less than vertical, which allowed very tenuous top-stepping in the aiders. What I saw above me looked grim: flared pockets, flared openings, and nothing looking remotely solid.

I stepped high and tried my small Ball-nut into one-inch long, one-eighth of an inch wide crack. When I pulled on it, the ball pulled nearly past the nut, but it held. It looked like a time bomb, but I jerked on it and it held so I clipped in my aider and I eased onto it. It took my weight for a few seconds before ripping off and I fell onto my daisy, still clipped to the stopper below. This is an unpleasant fall because daisies do not stretch. At all. This also put such force onto the nut as to make it irretrievable without a hammer, which we did’t have and wouldn’t have used anyway.

I righted myself and went back up to my topstep and struggled to find a placement. This was strenuous and stressful work, as the balance was tenuous and held myself to the wall via a Gaston with my left hand while searching my rack, mostly to no avail. I eventually got a larger offset cam to stick on our of the flared holds. The outer cams weren’t touching the rock, though. It looked terrible, but tugs didn’t dislodge it, so I clipped in an aider and once again eased onto the placement. This time I climbed up the ladder a step or two before it blew and once again I fell onto my daisy.

This was just the start of this crux crack, which went for forty feet to the belay anchors. I decided that I’d had enough. It did look like there would eventually be better placements but until then I feared I’d rip everything I’d be able to put in. I called down to my partners that I was out and asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. By anyone, I meant Derek, as Mark really had no business on the sharp end here. In all of our climbing together I think I’ve only been turned around once with Derek, on Galactic Hitchhiker in Yosemite last year. Then it never occurred to me to ask Derek if he wanted to try it. That would have been silly. If it was too scary and hard for me then there is no way I’d let Derek try it. To my surprise, Derek responded, “I’ll come up and take a fall or two.” What?! After his mind-stretching lead on the first pitch, the lead he hated, he now wanted more? Already? After I couldn’t do it? With my vast experience over his meager experience? Okay. I fully expected him to take one look at this crack and say, “Ah, I see the problem. Yup, let’s go down.” This was a similar crack to the one he had climbed on the first pitch, only thinner and steeper.

I fixed the line and Derek jugged up to me and took over the lead. Mark remained at the hanging belay below. I’m at the hanging intermediate belay with my feet fast going asleep as my harness cuts off my circulation. Derek makes the big reach right and repeats my earlier moves over to the stopper to check out the crack. After getting a good look, he didn’t retreat, but instead headed up! He stood high in his aiders and probably placed the same large offset cam that I did. He got it to stick and then he got on it. It held, so he unclipped his lower aider from the stopper and just as he started to move up, it pulled and down he came, but he was caught by the rope, a softer, albeit a bit longer fall. Yikes. Yet Derek immediately laughed. A genuine laugh. He just fell ten feet on a blank wall, five hundred feet above the ground. When I fell I didn’t yell and I remained calm an outwardly unflustered, but I did not laugh. I feared trying again.

So, down we go, right? Nope. He’s soon on the stopper again and this time placing a smaller offset cam in a lower pod, something either I didn’t consider or rejected or maybe it would have been my third choice had I the mental toughness to risk a third fall. Derek got it to stick and eased onto it. He hung on it for a bit. Then he pulled the aider from the stopper and moved up a step. He put in a two-cam 0.3 and eased onto that. It held and he pulled up and clipped a fixed stopper that was hidden behind a tiny plant in the crack. Cool. He was now three placements above where I’d been.

I knew right then, this was a change in our climbing partnership. Maybe not a permanent one just yet, but soon he’d be the go-to guy to put up the rope. I knew that was coming on harder, easier to protect climbing and that we were probably already there when it came to sport climbing, since he climbed so much harder than me in the gym, but I didn’t think we were even close to him taking the reigns on aid climbing, especially scary aid climbing. I struggled with this then and still do now. On the one hand I was glad to have someone to share the stress of leading, as it opens up harder climbing to us as a team because leading everything is stressful and weighs on me. On the other hand, the only thing I had to contribute to the partnership was my experience, my expertise with gear, and my cool head leading scary pitches. I didn’t have his finger strength, his endurance, or his power. Maybe this was the first step to losing him as a partner. He’ll seek out other climbers who could take him to the next level. I knew this was the endgame all along, I just hoped it was still years away. It was supposed to start with him taking leads that I could do, not by taking leads I couldn’t do. But it wasn’t just that. I was once again in the position of just belaying him as he entered the danger zone. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t bail him out. Watching a scary lead can be more scary than actually leading it, especially if it is your son.

He put in another dicey placement, another offset cam, I think. He got on it and it held and up he went. He called down that he wished he could turn the lead over to me at that point since it looked like only nuts were going to work above and he has very little experience placing them. He put in a marginal two-cam unit and considered it. He yanked on it and it held. He knew it looked bad. He thought he should find something better, but his previous two-cam placement held, so it got on it. It held and he moved to step up when it ripped out. Down he fell onto the offset below, ping! The next piece down pulled and he picked up speed and started to tumble backwards. This time he had time for a yell of fear to escape his mouth. The rope came tight on the next piece down, the fixed nut, and it held. I stopped Derek’s fall as he came about even with the belay, in fact a few feet below it. He’d fallen more than twenty feet.

Before I could even ask him if he was okay, Mark yelled up from below, “What’s the plan, guys?” I could tell he was getting stressed watching us take whippers up here. I was too. I sure wanted to go down and was thankful when Derek responded, “I’m done.” He didn’t seemed too rattled, but he didn’t want to go back up. It was still twenty more feet to the belay and the climbing didn’t appear to get appreciably easier.

Derek asked what to do next and I told him to climb back up to the pieces below the stopper and pull them. We’d leave the quickdraw on the fixed nut. He did so and I lowered him back down and he had to down-aid a move so that he could clean the draws off the bolt on the traverse. Once back at the belay, he clipped in, untied, pulled the rope from above and re-tied in. I lowered him back down to Mark, as the pitch moved right to left and I was worried he’d be dangling in space, if we just rappelled down. This way Mark could pull him into the belay with the line Derek was trailing.

Mark and Derek set up a single-rope rappel down the fourth pitch while I set up the rappel from the intermediate belay. As Mark was rappelling down to the top of the third pitch, I rappelled down to Derek at the top of the fourth pitch. Derek made sure I could get back to the belay by holding onto the ends of my rappel line and then he took off down the single line as well. I then tied the ropes together, cleaned the extra gear and rappelled down to join my companions. On the way down I noticed that there was a least some do-able climbing on the free variation (13a R) to the fourth pitch. This is the crux free climbing pitch of Space Shot. Since we were retreating, I was hoping to get a bit more done that day. I proposed that we try to toprope some of this pitch. I know that sounds crazy to toprope a 5.13 pitch when I’d have trouble toproping a 5.11 pitch, but some of the climbing looked do-able.

Derek went first. The pitch starts to the right of the aid pitch with some cool stemming/chimney moves between the main wall and the Rebozo Pinnacle — a six-foot in diameter tower that appears to be anchored via mud. We half joked that you stemmed with too much force, you’d push over the tower. Derek moved nicely up to the top of the tower where he had to gain the face at a bolt. The lower half of this pitch is protected by widely spaced bolts and the other half of this pitch joins the aid line and hence is marginally protected at best.

Mike and Mark Anderson were the first to free climb Space Shot in 200? It doesn’t seem to have seen many repeats though. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell freed it as part of a four-wall free linkup and Chris Weidner, again with Honnold, freed it and Monkeyfinger in a day. Quinn Brett did the first (and only?) female free ascent in 2017, after putting in about ten days of effort.

Derek moved up the face a bit and then had to make a hard traverse to the left via a tiny finger rail and no feet except a tiny nothing way off to the left. After one fall, he got it on his second try. This wasn’t the crux of the pitch, but sure felt like 5.12 to me when I couldn’t touch this move on my attempt. Derek moved up on the holds that enticed me to try this baby, probably 5.10 climbing for fifteen feet before another 5.12 section. He got through that after a couple more falls and then, at the supposed 5.13 crux, he came down. My turn.

I got up the pillar okay and onto the face, but couldn’t do the 5.12 move. Thankfully I had Mark down there giving me an industrial-strength power belay and any movement I could make upwards was immediately captured and magnified and I inched upwards between swings back and forth across the wall as I’d come off and pendulum across to the fall line. Seeing Derek’s issues, I brought a sling with me and once I got to the 5.13 section I clipped into the bolt and yanked on it to get by. I felt the holds and tried to pull on them, but they were so tiny and with only vertical smears for the feet, it was way beyond me. Once by that section I was faced with the only part of the route that looked truly impossible: a ten foot traverse to the aid crack with no holds — for hands or feet. It wasn’t vertical here, but it was close to it. I was standing on a four-inch ledge at the start of this traverse with one tiny hold for my right hand and I could barely stand there. The next ten feet there was nothing at all. In Quinn’s description of this pitch her only mention of this section is “a technical step down.” I did not see any way to do this. I plan to call Quinn (I know her) and quiz her about this.

I swung across the traverse and continued clear up to the top of the pitch via the crack that Derek aided. I needed all Mark’s power belaying to make it. It seemed like some of this was 5.12. It isn’t that steep, but the crack is so bad, so shallow, so flared, so sandy. Quinn called it 5.11 R. Mike Anderson called it “easy”, but time consuming because of how difficult it was to place any solid gear.

We did three more rappels back to the ground and then toproped Alpine Start, a sandbag 5.9 lieback. None of us were too excited about doing it because it was full-on in the 85-degree sunshine, but I wanted to get more things done, even if it was just a toprope. Derek zipped up it first, but said it was pumpy. I went next and concurred. It was quality climbing, though and pretty much a pure lieback the entire way. A few hand jams down low and two rests eased the difficulty a bit, but there was a sting in the tail when the crack closed down completely at the top, requiring a big reach from a fingerlock.

We hiked down to the car and collapsed onto the shaded pavement to drink and rest. Then we walked the Virgin River banks once again. Mark tested a couple of crossings, going in to past knee-deep and making it to an intermediate island, but it still didn’t look safe enough for Derek and I. We wouldn’t try Moonlight Buttress on this trip.

We got back to camp around 7 p.m. and hung out a bit before Mark took off for home. Derek and I heated up some canned pasta for dinner and turned in before 10 p.m.

More Flailing

My alarm went off at 5 a.m., as usual, but I didn’t get out of my bag for another 30 minutes. I wasn’t motivated after my ass kicking the day before and I was going to let Derek drive the team today. Apparently he wasn’t that motivated either because he didn’t get out of the tent until three hours later. Then we sat around reading. I’m not sure what was going through Derek’s head because he did so well the day before, but for the first time in our partnership, I was waiting for him to get us going. Maybe he sensed my reluctance...?

The longer we waited, the hotter it became. We’d move periodically to stay in the shade, each reading out books. We didn’t make a move until after 3 p.m. Zion had beat me down in only a few pitches.

Our plan was to just go do the first three pitches of Iron Messiah. Since they were pretty short, we figured we could rap them with a single 60-meter rope and that was all we brought. We selected this route because it was in the shade. Conditions were not pleasant in the direct sun.
Upon getting off the bus at the Grotto, we soon found that our approach trail was closed, due to rock fall. Zion has experienced a lot of rockfall this year and the Observation Point trail was closed indefinitely because of it. The park is using a geologist to evaluate the terrain above the trail to determine if it is stable to warrant the repair and re-opening of the trail. Also the tunnel to the eastern side of Zion was closed when we got there, though it opened before we left.

Climbers don’t use established trails to get to their routes, so I briefly thought about just going over the barrier and continuing upwards, but the barrier is very prominent, right on the other side of the bridge, so we didn’t try it. As we turned around to retreat we looked directly up at Shune’s Buttress, an 11+ route I climbed with Stefan years ago, with him doing the heavy lifting. The route was in the shade and we contemplated doing the first pitch, but at 11+ and us with no aiders, it had the potential to turn into quite a mess. I pulled up mountain on my phone and found a 5.10 route called Booked Out that was near the base of Shune’s. It didn’t mention how long the pitch was, but said to use singles to #4 and it has a 2-bolt anchor. Cool.

We hiked up there, marveled at the sustained nature of the first pitch of Shune’s and then backtracked a bit to an “offset finger crack” with a clear wide section above. The guidebook mentioned that no offwidth moves are necessary as you can use compression moves instead. Whatever compression moves are… It had chalk on it and though I couldn’t see any anchors, I saw a small tree above on what looked like a small ledge. This must be it, I thought, and geared up. Despite the rack recommendations, I brought doubles. It would be my sole good decision of this entire trip.

I started up a ramp with a crack in it, but it soon ended at a vertical crack in a small inset on a little arete. I placed gear here and was able to lieback and crimp my way up the arete that formed the left side of this inset. Nice crack climbing above led to a chimney/flare section that was the crux of the route. It looked very intimidating as these things often do. This was a V-shaped slot that was initially maybe six feet deep. The crack in the back was really wide at the start, but five feet up I was able to place my #4 Camalot. The whole section was about twenty feet long. The walls were nearly featureless and I used my knees a lot in a desperate fight to stick to the sides. The entire weekend I climbed in long pants, but today I was in shorts. I didn’t even bring long pants in my pack. This is just dumb. I need the protection and my knees will be a glaring reminder of that fact for at least a week.

I grunted upwards and the flare became tighter and tighter. The crack had closed down to allow my #3 Camalot, but I had it pinned between myself and the wall and couldn’t free it. I was able to slide down to the lone foothold and ready the #3, something I should have done on the first time up. I went back up, got in the #3 and then, thrashed mightily until I was too tired and had Derek take me on the rope. Ugh. After resting I worked it out and exited to easier crack climbing.

There was still no sign of any 2-bolt belay and I seemed pretty high off the ground. I yelled down to Derek asking how much rope I had left and he confirmed the awful truth: I was more than halfway out with no anchor in sight. I was also running out of gear. I placed my second, and last, #1 Camalot forty feet below the tree above. I gained a ledge twenty feet below the tree and thought I had no gear left that would fit the climbing above. It was a hand crack and my largest piece left was a 0.5 Camalot. I looked twenty feet down at my #1 Camalot and then up at the 20-foot hand crack above me. It looked like a 5.9 hand crack. Maybe easier, but I’d be risking an 80-foot fall before it was over. Ugh. I thought about unroping so that I could lower down my rope and pull up some extra gear, but that would put me 120 feet off the ground, unroped, on a tiny stance. Then Derek would use the other end in order for my end to get to the bottom and I’d probably have to flip it around and throw it down multiple times. Nope, that was way too dangerous. Before I launched into the last bit I discovered that one section of the crack pinched down quickly. I was able to place my 0.5 Camalot deep in the crack. This gave me the confidence I needed to finish off the pitch, which was probably more like 5.8.

I got to the small tree and found no fixed anchor. Derek measured the remaining rope: sixty feet. So, I was 140 feet up. Bummer. I yelled down to Derek that I’d have to fix the line and rappel down, cleaning the gear and we’d have to come back tomorrow to retrieve the rope. He didn’t want to come back the next day, as he wanted to get home sooner. Plus, we were later to learn that rain was forecasted. Derek packed up and headed for the shuttle bus. I cleaned the pitch, packed the gear and hiked down to the shuttle bus stop to await Derek’s return. Derek had to get back to the camp, get our second rope and return without enough time for us to hike back up to the route, jug the fixed line with the extra rope, rap back down, pack up, and get back to the shuttle stop by the last bus, at 8:25 p.m.

My phone was dead so I had nothing to occupy my time. I talked to everyone waiting for the bus. I anxiously sat up and scanned all the passengers on each incoming bus. Then, at 7:38 Derek got off the bus with a big grin on his face and the second rope on his back. We booked it up the hill. I dropped my pack down low and put on my harness while Derek raced up to the ropes and setup the jugs on them I arrived clipped into the daisies and jugged the line in five minutes. I then got my daisies a bit tangled my rappel line so I slowed down and made sure I was safe. Soon I was back on the ground and stripping off my gear while Derek pulled down the ropes. We each coiled one and then ran down the hill to catch the second-to-last shuttle. Easy peasy. Unfortunately the two teams still descending Shune’s Buttress would have to walk the seven miles out of the Canyon.

We got off the shuttle at the Visitor Center and did the half-mile walk back to our site. As we approached out campsite something wasn’t right. That looked like our car, but there was a big truck there as well and two people around our picnic table with tons of gear spread out. Our site must be further down, I thought. Then one of the guys at the site got up and started walking toward us. What was up? He said, “Hey, Bill, it’s Connor.”

I had forgot that I gave him our site information a couple of days ago. Connor and his buddy Johnny offered us beers and we swapped climbing stories for a couple of hours. It was a nice end to our trip. We left the next morning at 5:20 a.m. Only ten pitches in two and a half days. Each day I was humbled in a different manner. My confidence has been shaken, but the only way to get it back is to keep trying.

Postscript: So, what pitch did I climb? From my Supertopo guidebook it looks like I did a variation start to Shune's Buttress. The topo rates this pitch 11-. Thank goodness. I was afraid the rating was going to be 5.9. Besides the flare, the climbing was great fun, protected well, and seemed pretty reasonable. Maybe even 5.9. Or maybe, as unlikely as this seems to me, I was climbing well enough where it really was harder...

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Itinerary Not Recommended

Angels Gate are the white summits to the right of the tallest mesa in the background, which is Wotan's Throne

I’m on a year-long quest to toughen myself up for long adventure days. Each month I planned to do an adventure that took at least 18 hours. Eventually, such an adventure will be the Third 
Flatiron, but I’m still reasonably fit and not ready for a walker, so my sights are set higher. Plus, I need to be a worthy partner for my 21-year-old son Derek. Luckily I’m friends with a lot of really tough people willing to bring me along.

In December I did the Top Ten Flatirons climbs in a single, winter day with the Modern Major General (Danny Gilbert). That was 16 hours, but I’m counting it, since the level of suffering was extreme. In January I climbed Mt. Harvard with Danny and Homie. It was less than 12 hours, but the winds were positively Patagonian, so I’m counting that too. Yes, I’m aware my standards are slipping. Perhaps in response to this I did the Running Up For Air in Salt Lake City - 9 laps up and down Mt. IcantRemember in February. Yes, it was a fully supported hike-athon with hot food every 2 or 3 hours, but I stayed in the game for more than 23 hours. Nothing like a continuous 23-hour adventure, but good enough to count.

Which brings us to March and the Grand Canyon. This is a good place for ultra runners to train vert when the mountains are too snowy. When Homie got into Hard Rock, I knew he’d be the ideal partner for something long in the Big Ditch. Most people think of the Grand Canyon as just…well, a huge canyon, but it is so huge that it has over 200 summits located in it. Some of them higher than the canyon rims. These summits are called temples. I’ve been slowly climbing the summits in the Grand Canyon and it was time for another.
Brahma (left) and Zoroaster (right)
My first temple was Zoroaster, which I climbed with the desert sage Opediah over three days. This temple, like so many I’m interested in, is located north of the Colorado River, yet the only access, in the spring anyway, is from the South Rim. Which makes for large adventures. I later went back and did Zoroaster and Brahma in a single 18-hour day with Homie, Stefan, and Buzz. The most photographed summit is Mt. Hayden, which is close to the North Rim. I climbed that with Homie and Loobster many years ago. We climbed it in the fall from the North Rim. The Loobster has been my partner on most of the temples, I’ve done, including the three toughest I’ve done: Buddha, Isis, and Vishnu, the latter with Homie as well.

The amount of suffering required to stand atop some of the temples is so extreme that it takes years for me to be interested in trying one again. They look so appealing, but the amount of just brutal, horrible, off-trail hiking is staggering. What better way to toughen up? To Homie, I proposed climbing Angels Gate. This is a twin-submitted temple with one called the Doghouse and the other Snoopy. The latter looks exactly like Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse. A summit that cool deserves some effort and this one required it: 50 miles roundtrip with maybe 13,000 feet of vertical gain, rim-to-rim. Of course it was on the north side of the Colorado River.
Pausing to admire Angels Gate while Hiking the Clear Creek Trail
I’m not sure if Homie used a full second to sign on, but it certainly wasn’t more than that. Derek was in as well and we scheduled it for the start of his spring break. Derek had previously done two temples: O’Neill Butte when he was ten years old and which he doesn’t really remember and Isis, which he’ll never forget. Isis was a super cool temple for me because my teammates were my 16-year-old son and my long-time partner - the 70-year-old, eternally youthful Looby Dooby Doo.

For this trip, Homie had an ace in the hole. He had met a New York ultra runner named Steve Hawkins on Bear Peak one day and ran with him for all of 15 minutes. He found out that Steve accepted a job at the Grand Canyon. He now lives a 5-minute walk from Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. This is a guy with which I was determined to form a lasting relationship.

Steve and Homie crossing the Black Ridge at Khazad Dum
With Steve in as our fourth, he lined up an overnight permit to camp at Clear Creek. This site is 17 miles from the South Rim (ten miles up river from Phantom Ranch) and the logical basecamp for an attempt on Angels Gate. Our plan was to leave Superior after work on Friday and arrive at the South Rim at noon on Saturday. But, Steve really does work at the Grand Canyon and he needed to be in the office Monday morning. So, when he signed up for a permit that said we’d go 17 miles on Saturday afternoon and then 32 miles and 9000 vertical feet on Sunday, the rangers made him sign a form that said “Itinerary Not Recommended.”

Our 2-pound Big Agnes tent at Clear Creek camp.
Our drive went smoothly and with the hour time change (Arizona abstains from Daylight Saving Time) we got to Steve’s house around 11 a.m. We ate some lunch, packed our gear, and hopped on the shuttle bus. Our plan was to hike down the shorter Kaibab Trail via the shuttle, since you couldn’t park there, and then come out the Bright Angel Trail and hike directly to Steve’s house. We started down from Yaki Point at 12:45 p.m. Six hours later we arrived at the Clear Creek  camp. Two other tents were here, but we found a nice spot between the two and out of sight of both. Steve brought a stove and we all cooked up some hot food. Homie scoped the half-mile descent of Clear Creek before we’d turn up a tributary and head for Angels Gate.

Heading up through the first cliff band out of the wash, before traversing into the Red Wall gully.
We got up at 5:00 a.m. and were moving around 5:30 a.m. Homie led us down to the confluence and we turned up the almost-entirely-dry wash. A mile or so up the wash it looked like it would dead end into a 200-foot cliff band. We found a cairn leading up the slope on the right and then followed our nose up to a bay with a big overhang. We hiked out left of this on steep terrain and onto the sloping, prickly-pear-encrusted strata above. We made a tedious traverse across this slope and eventually into the wash that led up to the Red Wall break below the Wotan’s Throne/Angels Gate saddle. Getting through the Red Wall was steep 4th class scrambling, though not long or sustained. We arrived at the saddle in less than two hours. Elated with our progress, Steve uttered the words that would doom us: “Heck, we’ll be back in camp by 9 a.m.!” We were not.
Steve starting up the 4th class climbing through the Red Wall break.
We take full responsibility for the flailing that ensued. It was our job to find the route on our own or do enough homework to help us find the route. We failed. Detailed information on how to climb this temple is non-existent. Or at least we couldn’t find it. I own the latest version of the Grand Canyon Summits guidebook (out of print) and while I highly recommend this book and very much appreciate the effort that went in to compile this information, the info on Angel’s Gate is confusing and a bit frustrating. The black-and-white photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai cliff bands is of extremely poor quality. A key bit of missing information is the aspect from which the photo was taken. I had mistakenly assumed it was taken from the saddle. This was a dumb assumption on my part. Also, the text description in the guidebook does not match the track on the photo. The terrain from the saddle through the Supai bands is complicated to say the least. A climber must negotiate three smaller bands before reaching the impressive 150-foot final barrier, which just leads to the temple itself.

At the Wotan/Angels Gate saddle. The summit above us but the red Supai bars the way.
We got through two of the bands via a continually rightward traverse to the base of the third band. Here we made our first mistake. The photo showed the route traversing right underneath the fourth and largest band. Instead, we traversed under the third band, way around to the north and then to the west, without finding any break in the wall above us. The difficulties here were only supposed to be fourth class, but we found nothing easier than 5.10 or 5.11 or worse, which we were not prepared to do with our 100-foot, 7.8mm rope and rack of four cams. The route on Angels Gate, which we wouldn’t get to, is supposedly 2-pitches: 5.7 and 4th class. Hence, the minimal gear.

At the corner at the base of the third Supai band - the wrong place.
At one point Homie found a possibility and wanted me to check it out, as I traversed back towards him, I moved around a mini cliff and the top of it broke off. As I started to fall down the slope I immediately thought of my buddy Dave Mackey, who had rocks collapse on him and follow him down the slope to land on him and crush his leg. I pushed aggressively with my legs to avoid the rock coming with me and hit awkwardly and then tumbled once down the slope, bashing into a multitude of nasty rocks, but miraculously no cacti or yucca. I stopped, battered, bruised, and bleeding, and Steve was on me in seconds. He got my pack off and I got my breathing under control. I had cuts on my legs and shoulders, but what hurt the most was my right index finger, though it showed no sign of trauma. It felt like it had been partially crushed. After a few minutes I was able to continue, though a bit shaken and definitely more respectable of the suspect nature of the Supai.

Derek climbing through the third Supai band.
We finally figured out our mistake and traversed all the way back around and then had to traverse even further to our left to find a scramble through the third band. We then proceeded to the imposing fourth band and traversed right again. Sure we had it right this time, we scanned the wall above as we moved right. We went around the corner and saw nothing climbable. Disappointing to be sure, but the next corner wasn’t far away. Surely it was around the corner. Nope. The next corner was a substantial traverse. Dejected, we stopped to re-read what we had and to look at the photo again. Homie continued more than halfway across to the next corner and found nothing climbable, nor did he find any tracks of previous passage. Even on our mistake on the lower tier, we followed some footprints for most of it. Assuming it was wrong, he retreated back to us. We now think that going around that next corner was the key. The photo was taken from a position more around towards the north than we had assumed.
Exploring a dead end passage at the base of the fourth Supai band.
Now we traversed all the way to the left, thinking that maybe the photo was reversed. The text said to head southwest and south was definitely to the left. Southwest seemed to be directly up from the saddle but the photo showed a continuous, rising traverse to the right. Maybe the author got the directions wrong. We went clear around that first corner and again found nothing climbable and nothing that looked feasible all the way to the next corner, which was at least 15 minutes of traversing. This time Steve went out to scope it. No go. We took a bit of a siesta here. It was frustrating. We couldn’t find any way up, yet we weren’t ready to give up. We ate some and rested and re-read everything. Finally, we started down in retreat. We had to get back to the rim that night and we had a long way to go. I had a hard time quitting and kept thinking about it. Shortly into our descent I had the others convinced that the only thing left to do was to go back to the upper traverse right. They were convinced it was the only thing left to try, but none of them wanted to do it. I didn’t push it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. If I had pushed it, I’m sure I would have got Homie and Derek to try it. Steve had to go down, though. If we went up again, we’d be spending a second night at Clear Creek, which Steve couldn’t have done. We wouldn’t have anything hot to eat, but we’d have been fine, though a bit hungry by the time we emerged on Monday. Alas, the fight had been driven from us. Down we went. Snubbed by the Supai.
This was the photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai bands. Pretty hard to see details...
It was not trivial finding the path back through the Supai bands to the saddle and we searched around a bit. When Loobster, Derek, and I did Isis we couldn’t find our way back through the Supai bands in the dark and had to do an unplanned bivy, sans any sleeping gear. But we had the light and figured things out before long. The rest of the descent back to camp was familiar, but my feet were blistered and I fell behind my companions, limping a bit with my left leg in an attempt to limit the blister discomfort.

Derek finds the way through the first Supai band
Back at camp it took us nearly an hour to pack up, eat, and take care of our feet (Homie was having some issues as well). We left Clear Creek at 4 p.m. Steve took the lead here and pushed a steady pace. He’s a veteran of many 100-mile races and is even faster than Homie. I knew who the anchor was on this trip: me. My only contribution was supposed to be leading the technical climbing and I couldn’t even get us to the start of it. That was certainly disappointing to me.

We started with a 750-foot climb out of Clear Creek and up onto the Tonto tier. Once there the terrain rolled and we’d do 1500 feet of climbing before descending steeply, in the last vestiges of light, to Phantom Range. I just barely maintained a 3 mph pace on the 10 miles to here. It was full-on dark when I arrived but the moon gave me just enough light where I didn’t have to stop to pull out my headlamp. I was the last to arrive and when I got there Steve had already told the others of his plan to blast for the rim in the hopes of getting a reasonable night sleep before work the next day. We bid goodbye and good luck. Steve took off, then Homie, Derek and I ate, drank, and filled our water containers for the stretch to Indian Gardens, five miles away.
This is an agave (I think). Best not to run into these.

The hike out was long and dark and slow. Derek and I listened to our audio books a lot, when no one had the energy to chat. We spread out a bit, with Derek mostly in the lead, Homie next, and me bringing up the rear. Probably never more than a couple of minutes between each of us, I could keep track of the other two by the glow of their headlamps. We got to Indian Gardens at 10:15 p.m. Here we found a couple that were in rough shape. They asked for and received some Motrin from Homie. While we took a break to re-fill our water, eat and put on long pants, they continued on. We would pass them not that far up the trail and the woman was lying down to rest. I didn’t know if they had sleeping gear. I doubt it. If they did I would have strongly pushed them to sleep at Indian Gardens. I hope they got out okay.

I predicted a 1a.m. rim time, based on the 3200 feet of climbing still to do and pace I thought I could maintain. I seriously thought about sleeping here, at a nice shelter. I had no permit to do that, but wasn’t very concerned about it. I’d be up early and knew no one would even know I was there. But Homie and Derek were set on finishing this baby off. I was out there to have long, hard days, so I shouldn’t have been looking to shorten it. The three of us headed for the top.

Traversing below the third Supai band, which was incorrect.
I surprised myself and did better than expected on the rest of the way. I was still the caboose and still slow, but I was steady. We regrouped at the 3-miles-to-go Rest House and the 1.5-miles-to-go Rest House. On the final stretch to the rim I was surprised to be keeping up with Homie. He was fading fast. Despite being a super strong hiker and ultra runner, Homie had a history of trouble on the climb out the Grand. Mostly because by the time he heads out he’s done quite a lot. He made the rim with me right behind him, but had to sit down and dig out some food before he was able to hike the 10 minutes to Steve’s house. Derek had been waiting a bit and had his shell on to keep warm. Once Homie ate, we navigated through parking lots and the railroad tracks to Steve’s neighborhood and his fully enclosed front porch. Once there we just inflated out pads and crawled into our sleeping bags. I was so thankful to take off my boots and let my blistered feet breathe. I was so thankful to lie down and stop moving. I was so thankful to sleep. It ended up being a 19.5-hour day. This will definitely count.

No way up these cliffs...
The next morning I was up before 6:30 because I knew Steve left for work then. I wanted to ask him for a towel. I spent a sticky night in my sleeping bag and now craved a shower above all else. Once showered, we all craved food and headed to the cafeteria. Here Homie and Derek both had two breakfasts, like a couple of hobbits. I limited myself to one.
Crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado River and starting the 10-mile, 4500-foot climb to the South Rim
We lingered and then returned and packed up for our next objective: Coronado Butte. This was another GC temple, one Homie had tried before with Jeff V. They tried to onsight this climb in the late afternoon after driving all the way from Superior. This temple is only rated fourth class, so they didn’t bring a rope. Homie made a strong attempt, but didn’t ascend the correct gully and had no time for mistakes. They retreated summit-less.

Coronado Butte, an "Easy" temple, from the New Hance trail.
We headed in to right this wrong at 11:45 a.m. Yes, crack-o-noon start, but the previous day had been taxing. We packed our tiny rope, light harnesses, and a small rack, just in case. We were very determined to stand on top of at least one temple before leaving the Grand Canyon. We hiked a quarter mile along the highway to the New Hance Trailhead (no parking at all here). This is a very steep, rugged trail and drops clear to the Colorado River. We descended 1100 feet before leaving the trail and heading up to the saddle and ridge that we’d follow to the base of the butte.

Lots of loose sandy blocks, camouflaged gray prickly pear and vibrant agave led to a traverse to the right around the steep cliffs above us. The guidebook said to go up the third gully. We looked up and saw a weakness and wondered if that counted as a gully. One deep, chimney system seemed to qualify, but we didn’t see any others until we got around to the north and found the first real gully. The third gully matched the route description and we headed up it.
Scrambling the ridge up to the base of the temple.
Loose slopes led to some solid scrambling and then more loose slopes to a headwall above a ledge. I traversed way to the right along this roofed ledge, crouching low to avoid bumping my head. I had spotted a weakness over there, but once below it, ruled it out. It was climbable, but probably not easier than 5.9+. I came back and climbed up a steep crack for just a hard move or two to another ledge. Some easy scrambling got me to the exit move. A steep mantle leading directly to a steep dirt slope. I tried a few different options before committing to the move and made it up onto the slope and up to a tree. I pulled out the rope, tossed it down to Derek and Homie and belayed both of them up. It was just too dangerous for everyone to do this move, especially when we carried a rope.
We traverse around to the right until finding the third gully on the north side.
Above this section, Homie led us to the right and up a short squeeze chimney of very sharp limestone. I thought it felt at least 5.5, but we didn’t rope it, as it was pretty short and above a pretty good ledge. Then Derek took the lead and led us left and then up a steep 15-foot limestone wall with a tricky finishing move. Then we went left again, up, back right, up, and finally back to the left and the summit. We found a nice summit register up here and Homie perused it. We languished like lizards in the sun, eating our Oreos and chips and hydrating. It took us over 2.5 hours to make the summit.

Looking back at tree below the correct ascent route.
After 40 minutes on top, we reluctantly started the descent. I didn’t want to leave, not only because it was so relaxing, but the view were tremendous and these would be our last, at least for this trip. We carefully reversed the limestone wall and then I set up a rappel for Derek and Homie on the limestone chimney section. I then pulled the anchor and downclimbed. Above the dangerous-mantle wall, we left a sling and a carabiner around a tree and rappelled down. We then reversed our route back to the car. The 1100-foot climb out of there was arduous. This trail is extremely steep, and we had to use our hands in a couple of sections. It is nothing like the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, which are highways in comparison.

On the summit of Coronado Butte.
Back at the car, we drove to Tuba City for dinner. Derek had two dinners. Kids. We slept below the bizarre Mexican Hat formation. Years ago, Homie and I climbed that en route to climbing Shiprock. We awoke to a heavy frost on our bags. Motivation was waning this morning, but I really wanted to climb South Sixshooter Peak. This was supposedly one of the easiest desert towers with some rating it 5.6 (this is incorrect). It had been on my list for at least a couple of decades (obviously not very close to the top of that list), but I hadn’t done it mostly because it involved driving an hour past Moab, past countless other towers. But now we were already south of Moab. The detour was only 30 minutes to the dirt road leading to the trailhead. Neither Homie or Derek seemed very excited, but they weren’t calling to skip. When we got the junction, Homie turned toward the tower.

Hiking back out on the New Hance trail.
After a brief bathroom stop at Newspaper Rock, we found the dirt road and using the good directions in the comments from Mountain Project, we drove to the trailhead. We were the only car there and we spread out our tarps to organize our gear. Despite the easy rating, we brought a double rack of cams to #2 Camalot and one #3 Camalot. I wanted Derek to handle most of the leading and didn’t want to handicap him with a spartan rack. The trail to the base of the route is steep but well marked and it was a joy to approach a climb completely on a trail.

We geared at the base and Derek scampered up the first pitch easily. Homie and I followed with Homie tied into the middle of our 70-meter rope and me on the other end. This worked out great as no pitch was longer than half a rope length. The first pitch went up a crack with lots of footholds and handholds and then traversed left to what would be a hard squeeze chimney if not for the three handy chockstones.
South Sixshooter Peak
On the second pitch we sent Derek up the wrong way, though a path traveled by many others given the deep rope grooves cut into the soft sandstone. Derek climbed up steepish, blocky cracks and then downclimbed to the rappel anchors in the middle of the pitch. Not sure how to proceed, he brought us over to him. We figured out which crack to climb next and Derek polished it off quickly, placing a single #3 Camalot near the top of it. Following this crack both Homie and I found it pretty stiff climbing at the top. It felt like 5.8 to me, at least for the last two moves.

Atop the second pitch.

By this time Brian had caught up to us. He popped through on the same second pitch Derek did. He wore fancy man-pri tights and…nothing else. Not even shoes. He was climbing barefoot. His partner, Millie, wore a bit more clothes. At least she had a top and shoes on. Derek was belaying at the rappel chains with the final pitch above him. When I got there he asked, “Do you want to just continue?” I did because it would be slightly faster. I was feeling a tiny bit of pressure only because I don’t like holding other climbers up. Brian was super nice, though, and any pressure I felt was purely self-imposed. As it turned out we didn’t hold them up at all.

The last pitch of this tower is interesting and certainly had my attention. Easy climbing leads up to the much-talked about “hard for 5.6 mantle.” Indeed, this pitch seems to be 5.8 also, though not very sustained. The tricky climbing amounts to about three total moves. Doing the mantle is easy. The problem is standing up on the one foot you get up there. The wall is quite steep here and there is hardly anything to grasp. I used the arete on the right, but it was marginal. The bulk of the work is doing a one-legged press. Once I stood on the ledge, I could clip the bolt, which protects the final moves which are positive face holds with very marginal feet. I thought this move was at least 5.8. In the gym it would surely be 5.9, but Derek gave it a grade of 5.8. Anyway, the 5.6 rating is complete bullshit and a 5.6 leader would probably have a hard time leading this route.
Homie starting up the crux pitch.
Homie and Derek soon joined me on top, both confirming the dicey step up after the mantle and burly moves at the top. Homie had previously told us that the summit of this route wasn’t the true summit of the tower, which was the southern summit, only thirty feet across a gap. Sure enough that summit looked a foot or two higher. We rapped to the notch and I set up a belay below the 20-foot pitch. Derek led it with a few cams for protection and Homie could feel good claiming this summit.

On top of the lower summit, which the Regular Route ascends.
We rapped to the chain anchor at the base of the last pitch on the regular route, now vacated by Millie and Brian. From there it was one rappel on our 70-meter rope to the ground. We didn’t have a lot left of our rope at the ground. A 60-meter rope would be quite marginal. I suspect if you were heavy enough it might be fine with rope stretch. On my way down the last rappel I passed a team of two guys. The leader was struggling on the steep crack that Derek led. He would eventually back off and have his partner lead it. He appreciated that I told him I thought it was 5.8.
Derek at the base of the summit pitch of the true summit with Homie about to rap off the Regular Route summit.
Back on the ground we celebrated a safe, successful ascent and ate and drank. On our hike out we passed a family of four and their dog heading up to do the tower. I felt lucky that we had been the first team up there, despite our late start. Despite failing on our main objective, the trip had been a tremendous success, with the most satisfying part being that we made a new friend. We’ve already vowed to return at least every year to join Steve for a Canyon adventure and I’ve invited him up to my house for a Colorado mountain adventure, once the temperature advantage swings in our favor. Adventuring with partners as great as Homie and Derek is the most satisfying. The objective matters a lot, but that is nearly meaningless compared to the camaraderie of my companions.

Homie following Derek's lead to the true summit.
Derek rappels while Homie packs up.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Crooked Arrow Spire and Sister Superior w/Tom

Starting the 4th pitch of Jah Man on Sister Superior

Tom and I headed to the desert this weekend, hoping to link up some towers. We were blindly ambitious. Blind about the weather. Blind about there conditions. Blind about the route difficulty, the hiking difficulty, and our abilities. Oh well, we still had fun. We did a new tower and an old tower and enjoyed the awesome beauty of the desert.

We spent the night at the Rabbit Valley campground near the western border of Colorado.
The night was clear and cold. I was thankful to have my big sleeping bag. We slept out in the open, just on our pads. In the early morning hours I marveled at the stars in the sky and picked out Venus and, I think, Mars. Our sleeping bags were covered in frost and it was in the 20’s. We lingered in our warm bags until past 7 a.m. Though it only took a few minutes to pack things up, my hands were pretty wooden by the time we jumped in the car. Tom made us some coffee and that helped warm us up.
Crooked Arrow Spire

We drove to the parking lot at Ida Gulch Road. The last time I went in here, to climb Sister Superior, we could drive the wash for a mile or so. Not any more. Now you park just off the River Road. We threw down our tarp and organized our gear while eating breakfast. We originally planned to climb the Convent and then maybe link Sister Superior, so we loaded up tons of cams for both routes. It was chilly even in the sun and looking at the shaded west face of the Convent didn’t inspire us to rush. Just about then I noticed the Blackfoot Tower splitting off from the north end of Parriot Mesa. I’d forgotten about that spire, but it had been on my list for awhile. It was three pitches long with two 5.8+ chimney pitches to a long C1 bolt ladder with a few other placements. The Loobster had done it and said it was good. It looked spectacular, but more importantly, it faced east and even though most of the route was shaded, the approach was in the sun and hopefully the rock would be warm when we got there. So, in addition to all our other gear, we tossed in two sets of aiders, but no jugs. We decided that the second would aid up the pitch as well. Might as well do a bit more climbing, we thought.

We started hiking around 9:40 a.m. Very late, I know, but it was still cold. The approach we took wasn’t correct. We found that out while reading the approach description at the base of the route. We should have read that at the trailhead. Stupid. We struggled up mud, sand, very loose slopes, hard, steep slopes, and were thwarted by rock bands, but eventually arrived at the base of the route. Danny and his partners (of which I am sometimes one) always play rock-paper-scissors for the first lead. Tom and I just decide together, based upon desire. Tom was easy, so I took the first lead. After months in the gym, I was dying to climb some cracks.
Crooked Arrow Spire can barely be seen here at the far right of the sunshine on Parriot Mesa.
The climbing was a bit challenging off the deck because it was a complicated jumble of chockstones in a wide crack. I placed a couple of pieces and deciphered it. Twenty feet up, the steep climbing abruptly stopped and I entered a 2-foot wide chimney and hiked up it. Yes, hiked. The angle was probably just forty degrees and hiked up the dirt floor. It was tight, though and one short step did involve some chimney moves. Fifty feet later I had to head vertically upwards, as I hit the wall in the back.
Tom climbing deep in the Longbow Chimney of Crooked Arrow Spire
The next hundred feet of climbing was quite engaging. The cracks before me were mostly wide ones, offwidth, but I was in a tight chimney so I could use a combination of chimney moves, liebacking the wide cracks, jamming when the cracks were small enough, and some face holds turning chockstones. I started the steep climbing by liebacking with my left hand in the left off-width crack and my right hand in the right off-width crack. This worked surprisingly well.

I climbed up about forty feet and found the pitch one anchor (rope wrapped around a giant chockstone), but elected to continue up to the notch between our tower and Parriot Mesa. From there it would be one pitch to the top. Above this belay I ran out a section and then got in a #4 Camalot that was tipped out. There was no other option. A #5 Camalot would have been useful here. I carefully climbed above it and was able to sling a chockstone fifteen feet higher.
Tom leading the bolt-ladder pitch to the summit of Broken Arrow Spire.
I stopped at the notch and called “Off belay” before I noticed the two bolts twenty feet above me. I put in a single cam and slung another chockstone, as they were the only possible anchors. But the ledge was huge and I wasn’t worried. Tom followed and then led the steep 20-foot section (solved with more chimney technique, while using the finger crack for gear and additional holds) up to the 2-bolt belay ledge.

I soon joined Tom on the ledge and then he pulled out his aiders and started to get organized. He brought just three cams with him and some stoppers, along with all 17 (not enough) of our slings. It was all aid climbing from here to the summit, save for a tiny bit of scrambling at the very top. The angle was vertical to gently overhanging. Tom placed a 0.75 Camalot early and then clipped a few drilled angles before getting to a small crack where he placed a couple of stoppers to get to the next bolt. From there on up, it was bolt clipping. He ran out of slings, though. He’d already back cleaned a few of the bolts and used a single biner on others. At the very top he was using the slings on his few cams to clip the rope into the bolts. I was wearing my pile sweater and the jacket that Tom left behind when he started the lead. It was cold belaying, mainly for my hands and feet.
The northwest end of the Convent. The West Chimney climbs the big left-facing dihedral near the left edge.
When it was my turn, I knew it would be a bit more physical, as I didn’t bring my adjustable daisies. I just clipped a sling into each aider so that I wouldn’t drop them and so that I could hang in my harness from them. I figured if I needed to, Tom could take me on tension, but I didn’t any help and thing went relatively smoothly.

On top we snapped some photos, but didn’t linger long. I was glad to be in the sun and happy to have Tom descend first so that I could warm up a bit more. We only brought one 70-meter rope and this just barely works for this top pitch. We tied knots in the end of the rope and those knots jammed into my rappel device just as I hit the ledge below.
An old, aluminum hanger.

The next rappel was interesting because it was down the tight chimney. I couldn’t lean back like you’d normally do because it was too tight. I couldn’t turn 90 degrees to lean back because the chimney wasn’t wide enough. No big deal, but not often I rappel with my entire body upright.

We had to stop at the top of the first pitch on the chockstone because our rope wouldn’t have reached the ground. The last rappel was a pain because the rope just collected on the dirt floor of the lower chimney and I had to laboriously pull that tangled mound of rope down the chimney with me. At the final steep part I had to pause to untangle it and then the ropes just barely reached the ground.

It was 2:30 by the time we got the gear packed up. We knew we wouldn’t be climbing the Convent that day as well. Instead, we followed the correct path down, marked by cairns, and then down the wash to where we thought we’d approach the Convent. We dropped our packs and hiked up a couple hundred feet to find the approach trail and scope things out. We could see our intended route, the West Dihedral. It looked steep and intimidating, but was one of the easiest routes that led to the summit.
Tom rappelling in close quarters.

We hiked back to the truck and decided to head into Moab for some Mexican food at tiny Miguel’s. It was delicious. Afterwards we grabbed a coffee and then drove to the Castleton Tower camping area because it was free. We slept here and had another cold night, but stayed warm in our bags.

The next morning we drove around to the same parking lot, the Ida Gulch Equestrian Trailhead, and had coffee. Then some breakfast. Then organized gear. Then read. Then hiked around down to the river. Our route was west facing and it was cold in the direct sun. We knew we wouldn’t be able to climb until the sun hit the route. Two ladies showed up, headed for Jah Man on Sister Superior. They took their time getting ready as well and they left around 9:45. Finally, we couldn’t stand it any longer and at 10 a.m. we started hiking.

We found the path from the day before and labored up the hill, losing the best track above the one cliff band, but it seems to hardly matter here, as the trail isn’t that defined anyway. We got to the base of the route around 11:30 and found more cold, only now we were in the shade. We snacked and drank. We hiked over to the Choir Boyz (5.12-) to check it out, only because it was our descent route, not for any climbing ambitions. The start of this route is a tiny layback crack with no feet and slick sandstone. We estimated that if this route was in Movement Climbing Gym, it would be rated mid-5.13. Tom onsights 5.12- in the gym and looking at this crack my only thoughts of ascending it were in a pair of aiders. I could maybe see working this baby relentlessly on toprope and maybe in a few years after to get up it. But never in my wildest dreams could I imagine leading it free because placing gear, for me, isn't conceivable. This is why I stress to people that, while I've climbed 5.12 in the gym, I'm really max out at 5.10 in the desert. The problem is that 5.10 is where most desert climbing starts. Which also explains the incredible popularity of anything in the desert easier than 5.10.
The crawl to the start of the West Dihedral route.
We chose our route because it was the easiest route up the Convent that didn't sound like it was also dangerous choss. It is rated 5.10, but looked harder to me - no footholds, no ledges. Getting to the start is super cool, though. We had to crawl along a ledge that is sort of a tunnel, except that it is open on one side. It's a 3-foot tall crack that cuts into the tower. We could access it from the far right side and as we crawled to the north, the ground fell away until it was more than fifty feet down to the steep scree slope. Once through, it was a careful traverse on loose blocks to the base of the route, where I blanched.

Tom was worried about how cold it was and with my poor circulation, that was going to be a serious issue for me, but if the climbing had looked easier, I'd have pushed to start up. I didn't though. And the longer we lingered at the base, indecisiveness ate at us, eroding our psyche and our confidence until there was little left. We discussed options and I even suggested going for a hike in the sun. I turn tail so easily these days. I've got some toughening up to do before I head to Fitz Roy. Around 12:30 p.m. we finally decided to retreat, save this route for better conditions, and go climb Jah Man on Sister Superior, a route we'd both done before.

Tom at the top of the Sister Squeeze flake.
At first we tried to traverse along the base of the tower, hoping to run the ridge all the way over to Sister Superior, but the slope was so steep and so loose, that it didn't seem safe. Two aborts for the price of one. Our ego sufficiently battered, we descended the slope, passing a running stream (from where? bubbling out of the ground!) doing considerable damage to the stability of the slope. Once back in the wash, we headed another half mile or so south before finding the cairn marking the route up to Sister Superior.

We had hoped by getting to the spire so late that no other parties would be clogging up the route. We figured they would all be well up the route, or descending. But there could have been multiple parties queued at the base. The 1500-foot trudge up the slope in the sun was fitting punishment for our whining about the cold. I cursed my black pants and slowed my pace as the angle increased. We got to the base of the route around 2:30 p.m. Gonzo, the two ladies' white Chihuahua, came down the trail a bit to greet us. The good news was that only two parties were up here. The bad news was that one party was just starting up the second pitch. In my younger days I've have been bothered by this and raced up, trying to pass them. Nowadays, I'm more mellow, or more accurately, less of an asshole. It was really nice in the sun, so we relaxed, shot photos, ate our lunch, and played with Gonzo.
The crux of pitch 3 is traversing left at the bolt.
The party above us was a man and woman. The guy led the Sister Squeeze pitch and the woman took over for the next two crack pitches. They clearly hadn't read my Speed Climbing book, because they were like so many teams: just amazingly slow at change-overs. You don't have to rush, in the slightest, to change over leaders in two minutes. That would look very casual if you watched a team doing it. These two took 10-15 minutes even when they didn't switch leaders. Oh well. To each his own. The two women we met in the parking lot were finishing up the fourth pitch. The second was doing a fair amount of dangling on the rope and I got the impression that she was being guided. They arrived at the trailhead in separate vehicles and that added to my impression.

We waited at the base until the leader got through the crux of the third pitch. She took one fall and then aided up on three pieces before continuing. Once she was through it, I started up. I strung the first, short 5.9 pitch (really a boulder problem), into the 5.8 Sister Squeeze chimney pitch and joined the guy, Aaron, at the top of the second pitch. Tom was starting up before Aaron started following the third pitch.
Tom starting up the short, summit pitch.
Before Tom started to lead, he wanted the upper belay cleared of all but one person. Soon after Tom arrived at my belay, the ladies from above hit the third pitch belay on their way down. The other party didn't seem to even prepare for the next pitch until both ladies had rappelled off and pulled their rope. So different from my style. So, we waited another 15 minutes on the giant flake. At least it was comfortable. Tom asked if I was taking a headlamp up the route, but I didn't. I figured if we ran out of time, we'd just rap off, without the summit. Blasphemy, I know.

Tom styled up the 0.75-Camalot crack with good footwork and powerful jamming. He clipped the bolt at the crux and then pinched the flake and powered up to the stance. He cruised the 5.9 crack above and was soon at the belay. I followed, taking advantage of his beta and the toprope. I was glad to have lots of gym training when I got to the face climbing and made it cleanly through.

The fourth pitch is rated 10b and is tight hands - #1 Camalot size - but it has occasional edges for your feet and I took great advantage of these. The pitch is spectacularly steep and has bomber gear, so it seems very safe. Even a longish fall wouldn't have you hit anything, not that I'd want to take a long fall. I felt pretty solid on the first two thirds of the pitch, but the final section doesn't have any good footholds and the crack is very tight hands. I solved the last problem by locking off a marginal jam and making a big reach to a face hold. Above there is a short bit of unprotected, but easy face climbing and I joined Aaron's partner, Thuvia Maid of Mars (or something like that), on the spacious belay ledge.
Looking at the elusive Convent from the summit of Sister Superior. Next time...
Tom led the last pitch, which is about thirty feet long: climb ten easy feet and clip a bolt; climb ten more challenging feet and clip two bolts right next to each other; do a really hard face move to a jug and then scamper ten more feet to the summit. Tom took quite a while before he committed to the move and made it look easy. Following, I had two choices for my left hand and chose the lower, more positive, though tiny, crimp. I stepped up on the one foothold, which is the size of a pencil eraser tip, and then found I couldn't reach the jug. I couldn't reverse the move. I tried in vain to find another foothold. Before falling off I made a lunge for the jug and got it. It was the closest I came to falling on the route and I thought this was the crux move by a long shot, though just a single move.

We took photos on top before doing three single-rope (with a 70-meter line) rappels back to the ground. What a great climb. I highly recommend it. It is a low-commitment, very well-protected, well bolted route with great ledges at the top of each pitch. There is only one caveat. I noticed in the comments on that David Champion (an old friend of mine) mentioned that the Sister Squeeze chimney widened three inches from 2013 to 2017. While I was belaying Tom on the third pitch, I was sitting on this flake and the two ladies were setting up their final rappel on the far end. All three of us heard a rumbling of rocks that scared the crap out of us. We saw no rocks fall anywhere. My guess is that the flake settled again. I suspect, based on this movement and David's comments, that this gigantic flake might not last my lifetime. I just hope I'm not near it when it falls. Along those same lines, though on a much smaller level, there is a comment by Max Schon on this same site about the handhold flake is "going to break off, someday soon." He wrote that January 28, 2004 - 15 years ago. Turns out that little flake might outlast the monstrous Sister Squeeze flake...
Rappelling our route - steep it is.
We packed up and hiked out, getting to the truck at 7:45 p.m. just before it got too dark to hike without turning on our headlamps. After a quick dinner of ravioli, Tom drove us all the way home, arriving at 2:30 a.m. We didn't get done what we had hoped to do, but we did climb two towers and the desert never seems to disappoint us.

The Sister Squeeze flake. How long will it remain upright?