I met Dave Mackey at the Cragmoor Trailhead at 5 p.m. and we headed up the very muddy trail towards the Slab. The stage was officially cancelled but we hoped to scramble the Slab if conditions allowed. To this end I wore my sticky rubber scrambling shoes. Dave did not. We both wore long sleeves, a hat, and gloves. The temperature was probably in the 40's and the Slab above was shrouded in the clouds.
Dave was going at a "social conversational" pace and I was pegged trying to keep up with both the running and the conversation. When we got to the Slab I went to my usual start and Dave to his, which is fifty feet right of where I start. Our shoes were wet and muddy and we did a perfunctory scraping of the soles on the rock before starting up.
With little shoe friction I had to crimp hard on a couple of tiny edges before gaining the much more featured lighter-colored rock. Dave painstakingly inched his way up tiny holds with no help from his shoes. He lamented not wearing his scrambling shoes....for the scramble. He had them in his car but thought...I don't know what. Maybe that the Slab was too easy to require speciality scrambling shoes? That is probably true for Dave under warm, dry conditions. In these conditions, with the rock a bit damp on the lower section, scramblers would have made things a lot easier for me.
I waited fifty feet up as Dave backed down from his start and then tried my start. He rejected that and moved back to his start and failed again. Finally, I downclimbed nearly to the ground to show him exactly where I go and then he followed me up.
We moved easily for a bit but could see ice above and even some ice tumbled down the face to us. We continued since it looked like we could climb by all the ice. We got to the first tree near a bulge and had to be extremely careful not to steep on any ice. On the ledge above, all the rocks were covered in verglas and from here on up about half the rock was verglased. It was slow, stressful going, but we made the ridge. Here we could walk, but this was even more dangerous since then you couldn't tell if the rock was verglased by looking at it. While scrambling we'd touch each hold with our hands first. After slipping a couple of times, I reverted to squatting so that I constantly had my hands on the rock.
I flashed back to the storm that trapped Tony on the First Flatiron. It was going to be dark soon and there was no way I could downclimb the face safely before it got dark. We had nothing with us besides our shoes and clothes. No rope, no phone.
We picked our way along the ridge very carefully and eventually got very near the backside downclimb. Unfortunately the ridge I usually hand traverse was encased in ice. I backed up, knowing I could not make the traverse. I contemplated downclimbing the tree and went down one branch. The last branch was probably fifteen feet off the ground and I was then hoping to bear hug the trunk and slide down to the ground. I didn't though.
Dave does the traverse to the downclimb ten feet below the ridge and we barely found a passage here, stepping onto the only footholds without ice and searching out any tiny holds that were ice free. Dave was in the lead now and paused long to consider the lower-off down to the flag. The top edge was nearly completely covered in ice and the spike below, where our feet would land, appeared to be verglased. After much deliberation, he found some ice-free holds and we both were safely on the ground.
The hike down the backside to the Fern Canyon trail was treacherous. Every single rock back there was completely coated in verglas. If you stepped on a rock and didn't have both hands braced on something, you were going down. We carefully stepped over every rock that we could and squatted and bear walked when we were forced to step on the rocks.
We hit the Fern Canyon Trail with very little light left but got back to our cars without the single headlamp that Dave carried. I was very glad to be back at the car safely. I felt very good about my decision to call off the stage... If we had raced tonight, I think the chances of a horrible accident were...unacceptably high. If had known the full extent of the conditions before I left the ground, there is no way I would have done that climb.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Saturday, September 28, 2013
“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
-- Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein
Adventures involve the unknown. There must be the element of uncertain. You must wonder, “Can I do this? Is this possible? Will I get lost? Will I suffer beyond what I expect?”
Many of the big adventures I’ve done have been motivated by my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I do my share of dreaming up crazy goals, but this one was conceived of by my good friend Mark Oveson. His vision was to hike through all three areas (Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze) in one unsupported 75-mile jaunt. That’s a sizeable backpacking trip, maybe taking a week or so, right? Two days, for Mark. To cover this much ground in such a short time period, you need to go light and doing so in the desert requires some creativity and some suffering. Oh, and this involves crossing the Green and Colorado rivers sans bridges.
The schedule of the adventure centered around the river crossings. People have died trying to cross these rivers, cramping up or becoming numb and then drowning. This was the key factor in choosing to go in September. We wanted the river flow to be as low as possible and the river temperature to be as high as possible. We didn’t hit things ideally in either respect. We couldn’t go in the summer as it would be too hot. We couldn’t go too late in the year as we feared freezing at night.
Our plan was use bring very light sleeping pads and put them to double duty as a river-crossing raft. We tested this theory in a local pond and it worked great. We hoped that would carry over to the big, cold, fast moving rivers in Canyonlands...
After the river crossings, the next biggest factor to surviving was water. This is desert and water sources are few, far between, and even then just a trickle. Mark scouted out the tiny springs that would sustain us. Our one and only campsite was located at one of these springs. Speaking of camping, one might wonder why we just didn’t hike continuously until we were done. Two reasons. First, we had to be at the river crossings at the hottest point in each day so that we wouldn’t freeze. Second, hiking 72 miles in one go is hard. I need my beauty sleep.
In the end, we made it. Some navigation issues and overall fatigue had us cut the trip short by twenty miles. We did 32 miles the first day over 12 hours, crossing the Green River. I was whipped, my knees were complaining, loudly, and had to stop. The next day we did 20 miles, crossing the Colorado River. Both crossings went just as planned. The night passed comfortably with our Mylex emergency bivy bags and our down jackets. We found water in springs and even potholes. We had a great time pushing the limits of what we thought we could do and it was adventure because we didn’t know if we could...
Friday, September 20, 2013
|On the summit of Mt. Whitney|
The last time Danny visited Yosemite National Park he was 5 months go. Now it is 18 years later and Sheri and I are driving through Yosemite with Danny once again. This time we are headed for Stanford University where Danny will start as a freshman later today.
The day before we hiked up Mt. Whitney (14,495 feet), the highest point in the lower 48 states. Along the way we tagged Mt. Muir (14,076? feet), which involved some exposed 4th class climbing. We camped the night before and Danny and I climbed up some rather large boulders in the campground, one of which we used a rope, since the boulder was thirty feet high.
We started the hike at 6 a.m. the next morning. The roundtrip for this hike involves 7000 feet of elevation gain and 22 miles. We neglected to bring any water filtration or treatment on the trip, so we’d have to carry all our water. I took 80 ounces, Danny took 84 and Sheri only 60. We had tiny ultrarunning packs and very limited capacity. This would prove sufficient, but just barely.
The Mt. Whitny Trail compares very nicely with the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak, though a bit shorter with a bit less vertical gain. Generally very smooth and not very steep, this is an ideal trail for running. Dressed as we were in shorts, short-sleeves, and running shoes, more than a few hikers asked if we were runners. We hiked along easily, flowing up to the many switchbacks on the steep east side of the Sierra Crest.
I was surprised by the steep west side. I expected it to be very gentle and mostly that is true along the Crest and much more so two miles north at Mt. Whitney, but not here, where we crossed to the west side for the long traverse to the summit. A short ways along the traverse, we climbed steeply up loose talus to the steep final walls guarding the summit of Mt. Muir. Muir is rated 3rd class, but, as is typical of California 14er routes, it is more like 4th class to Colorado climbers. In fact, there are a couple of short sections that are 5th class in difficulty. Danny balked at the hardest section, fearing that it might get worse above and he didn’t want to climb the section if he was only going to be thwarted above. The summit was only fifty feet higher, so I scrambled to the summit to ensure the route would go, before descending and spotting both Danny and Sheri to the summit. This summit is in stark contrast to Whitney, as it is a very exposed point that is only six feet by six feet.
We carefully climbed back down to the trail and continued to Whitney’s summit, where we found twenty or thirty other people. The weather for the entire day was perfect. We had clear skies and relatively little wind. While climbing Mt. Whitney is, rightfully, very popular, it seemed that no one else was interested in Mt. Muir or even knew of its existence. People walking below us on the trail while we climbed Muir would stop and stay up at us as if they were wondering, “What the heck are they doing?!”
We spent thirty minutes on top, eating our lunch. It had taken us just under six hours to get there, arriving just before noon. Danny was starting to develop an altitude headache and this would plague him for hours to come. Climbing Whitney via the Whitney Trail involves being above 13,000 feet for a very long time. You do six miles above this altitude and we were above it for hours.
The gradual nature of the trail, which allowed us to easily gain elevation, seemed to make the descent endlessly long on the descent. Our light running shoes felt insufficient to protect our quickly tiring feet from the rocks. My knees started to hurt and our legs ached. We took a lot of short breaks on the way down. I’d get out ahead of Sheri and Danny lower down and would stop regularly to regroup. Finally, I just wanted the hike over and marched the last two miles out to the trailhead.
We hit McDonalds for some much needed sustenance (careful not to say “nutrition” so that I don’t enrage the Boulder crowd) and then drop to Big Pine where we splurged on a motel room to shower, power our electronics, and sleep in a bed.
The next morning we drove to Stanford, arriving just as the welcoming upperclassmen were packing up. Danny went up to them and then next thing I heard was an RA (Resident Advisor) throw up her hands and yell, “Danny Wright from Superior, Colorado! Woohoo!” I walked up and introduced myself and soon four of five of them were at our car asking to carry loads to Danny’s room. Our welcome could not have been more friendly or more enthusiastic.
Danny’s room is in the Florence Moore dorms. Flo Mo, as it is known, consists of four houses and Danny is in Alondra, on the first floor, which is quite a bit shorter than the second and third floors. On his floor are seven guys, divided into four rooms and five girls, divided into three rooms. The single-room girl is an RA. The dorm is a typical college dorm, meaning it is not very fancy, but one entire wall of his room is windows. Danny’s roommate wasn’t there and we wouldn’t meet him until much later. The bathrooms and eating area were recently re-done this summer and they were very nice. The lounge area in the dorm is also nice with whiteboards that you can print out and project computer screens onto. I can see Danny talking over wave equations on that board already. The dining areas are broken up into their houses and have big, round, wooden tables. There is also a patio with tables and chairs for eating outside. There is a very large kitchen serving area where they will select their food for each meal. Some things of note here were the always available ice cream dispenser and the waffle irons. Just down the hall from Danny’s room is the “free” laundry, with four new washers and four new dryers.
|Ryan and Danny in their dorm room|
We toured a few buildings on the way over to the quad for the convocation, stopping by the Dave Packard Electrical Engineering building, the Bil Hewlett Teaching Center, and the William Gates Computer Science building. The convocation was an hour-long welcome to the university with great talks by the Dean of Admissions (38,000+ applied to Stanford and 1,600 were accepted!), the Vice Provost of Undergraduates (really good speaker), a student representative and an address by the Stanford President. We then all learned and sang the Stanford school song, which Sheri loved and has been singing nonstop since. Not! Sheri thought Stanford was the best at everything and while their singers might be the best, she was disappointed with their songwriting. I’ve kept the lyrics and will be quizzing Danny when he returns for Christmas break. I suspect most of this first week is spent practicing this song.
We stopped by the bookstore to pick up some things we forgot before heading back to the dorm, where there was a welcome planned. It started and ended with performances from two different acapella groups and each urged the students to audition. I’d love to see Danny do that, but there is no way.
We went back to his room to say goodbye and there we finally met his roommate - Ryan Lee, from Irvine, California, near Los Angeles. He seems to be a great guy and I feel very good about him as a roommate for Danny. I suspect they will get along well. Ryan is a tennis player as well and they both will try out for the club team. Ryan’s parents seem great as well. We said goodbye and with Ryan there, we held it together. Danny looked maybe a touch apphrensive. I certainly was when I went to college and I was only 45 minutes from home. Danny is a thousand miles away. I’m really glad he got to meet his roomate before we left, as he now has a friend to go to dinner with and that reduces his stress, if only for a few minutes. I know he will make lots of friends this week and get very comfortable in his new home at Stanford.
|Relaxing on the summit of Mt. Russell, looking at Mt. Whitney|
Sheri and I ate some dinner at the Treehouse, a campus restaurant only a couple minutes walk from Danny’s dorm. I’m sure he will be frequenting this place when he needs some supplemental pizza. Or visiting the Starbucks next door for a venti latte. We drove past the tennis courts and track on the way out of town. It was dark now but both were lit up and people will playing tennis and running on the track. The main tennis court has stadium seating for probably a thousand people. I think all these courts are open to Danny, he just needs to reserve them. Ryan has already reserved a court and I suspect they will be playing often. I’m anxious to find out how Ryan plays and if he is a good match for Danny.
The last thing we passed on the way out of Stanford was the 50,000-seat stadium. This was redone in 2006 to the tune of $100 million and is supposedly one of the best in the country. Danny plans to be at each home football game as admittance is free for students. It doesn’t hurt that Stanford is currently ranked #5 in that nation. Not bad for a school of eggheads...
The next day Sheri and I retraced out steps back through Yosemite and then down to Lone Pine, for Thursday we had a permit to go climb Mt. Russell our penultimate California 14er. The easiest route up this mountain is the “3rd class” East Ridge, which I’ve heard is more like 5.2 from none other than Alex Honnold. One of the descriptions I read said the climbers "should get ready to embrace the exposure." While I read this to Sheri, what she heard was "get ready to be scared." This turned out to be accurate, but Sheri handled things well.
We once again camped at Whitney Portal and once again set our alarm for 5 a.m. with a plan to be hiking at 6 a.m. I was snoozing away enjoying one of the most comfortable nights I've ever had in the tent when I noticed it was really light out! I bolted upright, worried that we might have slept too late to even attempt the climb. It is still mostly dark at 6 a.m. and certainly not this bright by 7 a.m. It could be 8 a.m. or later. How could I have possibly slept so long!? I thought. I cried to Sheri to wake up, as I reached for my watch in the gear hammock above. I looked at the watch and called out the time to Sheri, "3:45." I was very confused at this point. 3:45? PM? That was impossible, I almost immediately realized, but it seemed more possible than 3:45 a.m. because it was so bright. Alas, it was the moon shining directly onto our tent. I got up to pee and the moon shadows were so prominent, the ground so brightly lit. I could have probably read a book at table.
|Weaving our way up slabs and cliffs en route to Mt. Russell|
When the alarm did go off at 5 a.m. I was still so comfortable that I didn't want to get up, despite being in this tent since about 8 p.m. the night before. I've probably gone at least a decade since I've last been in a bed for nine hours straight, yet I rolled over and procrastinated for 15 more minutes. Not surprisingly, this had us hiking up the trail around 6:15 a.m. It was exactly a mile to the junction with the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, where we left the Whitney Trail for the climber's trail up towards the Boy Scout Lakes. This is not only the route to Mt. Russell, but the approach taken for all the east facing climbing routes on Mt. Muir, Keeler Needle, and Mt. Whitney. The only other time I'd been up this trail was 25 years ago when I did a one-day ascent of the East Face of Mt. Whitney, a "Fifty Classic Climb." Back then it was a challenge to find the route and a serious bushwhack. Today, it is a maintained, constructed trail, though with no sign at the junction. A hundred yards up the trail there is a sign saying, "This is NOT the Whitney Trail and that the Mountaineer's Route is only for experienced climbers."
We followed the trail up to the point where a cairned route led us up ledges on a steep wall of rock. We headed east and then switchbacked to the west before we were deposited back into the gully. This route was the same as 25 years ago and avoids nearly impassable alders that choke the narrow cwm. The trail continued nicely to Lower Boy Scout Lake, where we saw our first persons of the morning. One was a solo camper and the other was hiking up the talus above the lake. We followed the route up the talus, but made a mistake here. Even though a trail with occasional cairns go up the talus to the left (east) of a massive boulder, the best route heads right and passes just under this massive rock (really too big to be called a boulder, as it bigger than an apartment building). I know this because it is the way we came down. Going the other way gets you too high and the descent from there and through the willows is a bushwhack. It it was just that, it wouldn't have been so bad, but it was also along a same creek that had all the nearby rocks coated in ice. It was too treacherous and we had to descend a 5th class friction slab instead. Thankfully we both wore our Exum Ridge scrambling shoes, but it still involved some butt scooting down glassy rock.
We soon arrived at Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point almost all of the foot traffic heads left and continues up to Iceberg Lake at the base of the east face of Mt. Whitney. We saw two other hikers heading that way. At the lake we saw just one tent. We'd see the residents later in the day, high on Russell, making for a total of six people spotted (only four within talking range) in the 5.5 miles and 6000 vertical feet to gain the summit. There is a good reason for this.
The next 2000 vertical feet, from Upper Boy Scout Lake to the Russell-Carillion col, ranks among the least enjoyable stretches I've ever covered in the mountains and most likely the all-time worst. This slope most closely resembles a road-cut, with dirt and boulders interspersed, except that it is much uglier. A couple of backhoes on the slope would improve the view, for at least then it would be a useful ugliness. The "dirt" is more like sand, but is finely crushed granite gravel. And it continues for 2000 vertical feet. I know of nothing like this in the Colorado Rockies. While the East Ridge that I'm about to describe was indeed fun scrambling, it wasn't that great and not nearly good enough to justify this approach. There are just too many other routes, ridges, mountains. to experience than to suffer your way up this crap for an average scramble. For us the overriding reason was the 14,000-foot summit.
I must once again put in a rant against “Climbing California’s Fourteeners” by Porcella and Burns. This book is a complete waste of money and is astoundingly awful. I know the effort it takes to write a book and why someone would go to such effort to produce such unbelievable crap is beyond me. Comparing this book to Gerry Roach’s Colorado 14ers guidebook is like comparing a child’s fingerpainting with the Mona Lisa. Perhaps if this book was titled “Some History on California 14ers” it wouldn’t be so awful, maybe it would even be good, but to be labeled a climbing guide is almost fraud.
We took a short break at the col and I was surprised to notice that we were not at the lowpoint of the Russell-Carillion saddle, but bit up Russell’s East Ridge already. I cached two bottles of Gatorade, our long pants, and my rain shell here. The weather was once again stellar and would remain so all day long.
The East Ridge started off gentle and we weaved among boulders on a steepening slope. Then we scrambled up boulders as the ridge narrowed. Soon it was just a fin of rock directly on the ridge, but easier passage was found on the north side. The face to the south dropped away almost vertically. To the north, it was a very steep slab and then rolled over to steeper terrain. The exposure grew as we ascended.
With us we had 100 feet of 7.8mm rope, two harnesses, climbing shoes and a helmet for Sheri, and a handful of gear. I had heard from more than just Alex that the difficulties were 5th class and we expected to gear up at some point, but my careful route finding we were able to get up and down without using any of our climbing gear. A couple of short sections were probably at least 4th class, but they were short and I spent a lot of time just below Sheri, offering her a spot, giving her confidence, and shielding her from the exposure. I’d frequently just grab her wrist or her leg, more for my benefit than for hers. Despite not being a rock climber, she does quite well with the exposure and difficulties. This wasn’t her first rodeo and she’s climbed a lot tougher peaks.
We moved along nicely to the first summit of Russell. My watch read our elevation as 14,080 feet, just eight feet short of the real summit, so I was pretty sure this was the actual summit and that a lower gendarme we had passed was the eastern summit. I was disavowed of that notion immediately upon stepping onto the lower summit. Yet the traverse to the real summit wasn’t that long and didn’t look any more difficult than what we’d already done. Fifteen minutes later, we climbed onto the very summit, our 14th California 14er.
|Sheri solos up a steep section on the East Ridge of Mt. Russell|
We relaxed on top for just 15-20 minutes, as it was a long way back to the car and Sheri couldn’t completely relax until she had reversed all the technical difficulties back to the col. It had taken us a little more than an hour to climb the ridge from the col and the way back down was probably a little under an hour. We took another short break at the col and then headed down the horrible slope.
Descending this slope was even easier than I thought it would be. It was mostly just dirt/gravel surfing all the way down to the bouldery dry creekbed that then led to Upper Boy Scout Lake. From there we found and followed the cairns that led us directly and easily down to Lower Boy Scout Lake. We took our last break here and then hiked the rest of the way down to the car. We finished in just under 12 hours for the roundtrip. The total ascent was 6300 vertical feet, nearly our Muir/Whitney day, but our total mileage was just 11.4 miles - about half of the Muir/Whitney day. That difference in mileage made all the difference for me and I felt completely fine at the trailhead. Sheri was quite a bit more tired and was probably because all the boulder hopping and scrambling requires a lot more effort for her than it does for me, as I do that stuff all the time.
We decided that an even longer day on Polemonium wasn’t in the cards for Friday. We could have done it over two days, but we’d need a permit to camp. We decided to put the final 14er off for another year and headed back home the next day. We got home at noon on Saturday. We learned that Derek had won the high school tennis tournament he played the day before, winning three matches while only dropping a single game. As the only child at home now I hope he can handle all the attention...
Update: Danny made the Stanford Club Tennis Team and traveled to Berkeley for his first match today. Cool that he has something to balance out the academics, give him some exercise and make some new friends.
Monday, September 02, 2013
My original thought was to try to link all of Gerry Roach's 53 Flatiron Classics in a push. I was inspired my Homie's 14er speed-record attempt over seven days and Mark's Pfast Pfiffner over 36 hours. But then reality set in. While I am inspired by the feats of the great endurance athletes, I'm not one of them. I needed to tone down my ambitions to get them more in line with my physical and mental reality. I calculated it would take me about 53 hours to complete all the climbs, curiously averaging an hour per classic. I wasn't sure of the vertical feet, but it would be huge, as this entails about 250 guidebook pitches of climbing. If I tried to link them continuously, I'd fail. I'll leave that for a better endurance athlete.
Instead I broke up the challenge into days, so that I could sleep. I mapped out a plan starting the Friday of Labor Day weekend. The plan was to go roughly from north to south, following the chapters of Roach's book. I'd start after work and climb until past darkness. Then I'd start climbing at 6 a.m. on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday and climb until darkness again. The only day that seemed ridiculous was Saturday, where my plan called for me to climb from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. and then start again at 6 a.m. on Sunday. That was going to be tough. I hoped that my time estimates were generous, but at an hour a route, with some of them 11 pitches long, there wasn't a lot of fat in the plan. Even with sleeping each night, I wondered if I could maintain the pace required to finish by the end of the weekend. But, of course, that's why it was interesting. I didn't know if I could do this. Since I'd be soloing most of the routes, it was imperative that I remained strong and kept my wits about me. I vowed to stop whenever I felt I wasn't completely ready to solo the next climb.
Throughout the year and even a bit last year, I'd been going back to each of the classics, refreshing my memory about the location of each and climbing difficulty. Some of them, like the East Face of the First and Third Flatirons, I'd climbed a hundred times, but others I'd only done once before. On a couple of my recons, I cached food and water. The weather report, unfortunately, called for hot weather on Friday (91) and Saturday (86), but cooler on Sunday (79) and Monday (82). Of course, with a schedule this packed, any rain could kill the project. I hoped to have the fortitude to see it through to the end, even if I had to finish on Tuesday or Wednesday.
As of Thursday, I hadn't told anyone except Mark Oveson and Sheri because I was so afraid I'd bail after half a day and didn't want such a horrible failure to be public... But in the end, at the last minute, I decided to announce it on the Minions group and ask for help in the areas where I needed a partner... but then it will be public and it will be harder to quit...but by the same token, easier to finish. There is a saying "Dance like no one is watching." I love that and wish I follow this spirit more often. There is another phrase: "Behave like everyone is watching." With people watching me, or at least aware of what I was trying to do, I hoped I'd behave better. I hoped I wouldn't quit.
Friday - 7.5 miles, 5000 vertical feet, 12 classics, 54 pitches, 4h41m
Homie at the start of the North Ridge of the First Flatiron
I left work a bit before 4 p.m. My plan was to start at 5 p.m. but I was excited and wanted to take advantage of the extra daylight, so I started at 4:43 p.m. I texted Mark and Sheri: "Game on!" Sheri responded with the inspiring, "Do hard things." That pumped me up and in 28 minutes I had climbed up and down nine pitches in the Amphitheater, doing four Classics, and the hardest, most exposed climbing of the day.
On my way down the climber’s trail to the Amphitheater Trail, I ran into my friend Corey Kline. He accompanied me back down to my car where I picked up the SPOT that I forgot. Then we headed for the First Flationette and scrambled up it together. I was using this as an approach to the Spy, my next classic, but Corey eschewed that climb. He met me again when I climbed off and then said goodbye.
I hiked up the hill a bit and found Homie sitting atop the ridge at the start of the North Ridge of the First Flatiron, classic number six. I climbed on by him, pausing to take a photo of him, and then continued to the summit of the First Flatiron. Mark Oveson had hoped to meet me on the summit and fix a rappel rope for me, but my early start and quick dispatching of the initial classics had me ahead of his schedule. I downclimbed the Southwest Face to the ground where Homie met me again and we trotted down to the base of the First Flatiron. On our way down we said hi to Mark who was climbing up Fandango to Baker’s Way.
I scrambled up the Direct East Face of the First Flatiron while Homie hiked back up the trail to the backside of the First. I met Mark on top and he gave me a harness. I put this on while he fixed the rappel rope. I then slid down the rope to the ground and Homie and I trotted down the trail to the start of Baker’s Way. I zipped up that route to top the First Flatiron for the third time and once again rappelled to the ground. I stripped off my harness and, while Mark and Homie packed up the rope and gear, I descended to the bottom of the Sunset Flatironettte and climbed up Chasing the Sun.
I scrambled off the top and met Homie and Mark. We trotted down the trail and where Mark and I broke off for the base of the Second Flatiron, we bid goodbye to Homie. When Mark and I got to the base of the Second Flatiron it was raining. I took some shelter under a boulder, thinking we might be done for the day, but the rain slowed to an intermittent drizzle in just a few minutes and then stopped altogether. I had to do two routes on the Second Flatiron: the straightforward Free For All and the somewhat more complicated Dodge Block. Here I made a slight mistake in choosing to do Free For All first. This route would have been much easier to climb in the dark.
We started up together, but Mark was carrying a much greater load and was only doing one lap, so I moved on ahead, trying to get as much done before it got dark. I topped out and scooted back down to the base of the Second Flatiron and then up along the south side to the start of Dodge Block. It was dark now and I switched on my headlamp. I’d done this route earlier in the year, but, in my haste, I climbed too high on the first piece of rock and got confused. I knew I had to move to my right, but could not downclimb off. I tried once and reversed back. I tried higher and that was worse. Eventually, I corrected course and downclimbed to the proper traverse. The rest of the ascent went fine, albeit quite a bit slower via headlamp than daylight.
Mark was waiting for me at the trail and we trotted down the trail once again and followed it clear to the Mesa Trail. With some energy left and still only 8:30 p.m. we turned south and headed for Tomato Rock. Originally I had planned to do this the next day, but it made more sense to do it now, since it was a bit out of the way for either day, and because Saturday was already a monster day.
It took us just a bit of looking through the guidebook before we located the climber’s trail leading to the 15-foot tall boulder. This was by far the shortest classic, with the second being T-Zero. Mark dispatched the problem first and then I did it with some effort. I think this problem is rated 5.8 and it sure felt that hard to me. We then hiked back to the car in Gregory Parking lot and I drove home for the night.
Each night my routine was the same. On the drive home I’d call Sheri and tell her I was on my way and what were my food options. I’d either head straight home or swing by Wendy’s for some supplemental food. Upon entering the house I’d go straight to the shower as each day would have me picking my way through hundreds of yards of poison ivy. I tried to be very careful, but inevitably mistakes would be made. I scrubbed myself thoroughly from the top down to make sure any poison ivy on my lower legs wasn’t spread northwards. I’d then gorge myself while watching US Open tennis with my family before heading to bed.
Saturday - 10.6 miles, 8200 vertical feet, 17 Classics, 90 pitches, 12h37m
Downclimbing Stairway to Heaven in Skunk Canyon
Stefan Griebel holds the unsupported speed record for the Third Flatiron and also the record for just climbing the 8-pitch East Face route (5m59s!). So...he was a pretty good partner to help me out on the Third Flatiron. He could carry all the gear and still climb faster than me.
I met Stefan at Chautauqua Park at 5 a.m., getting about five hours of sleep before having to rise, eat, and drive back into Boulder. Stefan carried my 60-meter 7.8mm rope and a handful of gear, along with a water and food. I carried four bottles of water/Gatorade in my pack, as well. We hiked towards the Third Flatiron, aiming to start with the 10-pitch East Face South Side route. In the dark we headed up off the trail too early and mistakenly started up the Third Flatironette. I knew we were in the wrong place, though, as the start of the route has a distinctive roof near the bottom. We downclimbed off, heaved our way through some poison ivy and started up the route.
We chatted easily while scrambling up stellar, well-featured rock. I hugged the left side of the formation, looking down into the 1911 Gully, site of one of our most unique adventures. We skied this gully back in 2007. As we approached the top, Stefan sped ahead to set up the rappel line. Rapping 200-feet of free-hanging air on a single line less than 8mm thick was the least pleasant part of the day. I had to wrap the rope around my back and my leg to get enough friction to control my descent. Once on the ground I immediately descended and started up the 8-pitch East Face Route. When Stefan caught up to me the first thing he said was, “That rappel was scary!” Indeed it was and I had more of those in my future, but it was just rappelling and as long as I paid attention, I would be safe.
I rappelled the single line once again, though this time I descended down the normal descent route, instead of straight west like we did the first time. We wanted the rope down this way for two reasons. First, it put it right above Friday’s Folly (5.7), another Classic. Second it put me further down the south side and gave me a jump on descending down to the Winky Woo (5.4), my next classic. While I soloed up Winky Woo, a gentle overhanging 200-foot climb with gigantic holds, Stefan rappelled on a doubled rope, pulled the rope and was set to belay me at the top of Friday’s Folly. When I topped out the Winky Woo, I continued climbing up Slipslide Ledge and then down and over to Stefan’s perch at the top of Friday’s Folly. I then rappelled to the ground and climbed back up with a toprope belay from Stefan.
Done with the Third Flatiron’s four classics, we rappelled to the ground and headed south down the gully and contoured around to the east to the base of the W.C. Fields Pinnacle and the location of one of the hardest classics, the runout 5.8 A Very Ament Slab. Here I switched to climbing shoes for the first and only time of the day. I led the 2-pitch route in one pitch, taking care to work out the tricky moves between the widely spaced bolts and the few cams I placed.
One rappel got us off and we traversed and descended south again and contoured back to the east to the 5.4 East Face of Queen Anne’s Head. We simul-soloed this four-pitch route to the top and then rappelled and downclimbed off to the west. We descended south again to the Royal Arch Trail and it was here that we parted ways. Stefan was headed to the mountains for the weekend, camping with his family. He was to leave town by 10 a.m. and with all he had to do he still got up at 4:30 a.m. to help with my project. What great friends I have...
Stefan took the empty water containers, my shoes, and some of the rack back with him. I took the rope, a few pieces of gear and the remaining water and food and headed up towards the Morning After (5.7). I had done this route a couple of times recently. It had a pretty tricky crux move over a roof and ideally I didn’t want to solo it. I was supposed to have Dan Mottinger meet me for this climb, but I was ahead of schedule and he wasn’t here yet. I figured I could just place a piece and clip to it via a sling, do the move, and hopefully reach back down and pull the piece.
I bushwhacked up to the base of the route and got organized, refueling with food and water. I had heard from Mark Oveson, my support coordinator, that Dan was on his way, but I didn’t want to waste time just sitting around. With the rope coiled on my back for the rappel off, I was just about to start up the climb when I heard a yell from below. “Bill!” It was Dan, letting me know that he was close. I took off the rope and flaked it out on the ground. Dan arrived, breathing hard from the effort. He carried more than a gallon of water and had motored up the steep terrain. His face was a welcome site and soon he had me on belay and I led upwards.
With the confidence induced by his belay, I easily turned the roof. I belayed Dan over it as well and then we coiled the rope and soloed the rest of the route. From the top, I rappelled off, took off my harness, left it there and descended alone. I would meet Dan at Yodeling Moves.
While I descended over to Sentinel Pass and then down the trail to the base of Yodeling Moves, Dan packed up the gear and headed towards the summit of this route. He met me as I topped out the East Face route and we climbed the juggy, airy backside to the summit together. After caching most of the water, we descended to Sentinel Pass again and then over to the base of the Fourth Flatiron, at 12 pitches, is one of the longest classics. It is broken into three long sections and involves some heads up 5.6 climbing in a few spots, including some wide stemming, delicate friction, and a tricky bulge to get onto the last piece. We simul-soloed the entire thing, thoroughly enjoying the movement and talking about the UTMB ultra race that had just completed in Chamonix, France.
We jumped off the top and did the horrible bushwhack descent over to the base of Challenger and Green Mountain Pinnacle. While I soloed the East Face of Challenger, Danny organized the gear over by the West Chimney (5.6) of GMP. I dispatched Challenger quickly and was soon stemming up the mostly unprotected chimney, placing a couple of pieces near the top. I fixed the rope here, so that Danny could self-belay on his ascent and rappelled the free line to the ground. Once again I ditched my harness and left Dan behind. I had to descend all the way down to the base of the Regency, way below the Royal Arch trail and climb the 4-pitch route up to the Royal Arch. Out of water, I was to stop at the cache to replenish myself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it and continued to the Regency, quickly getting more and more parched.
I descended back to the Royal Arch Trail and then dropped down the trail to the Woods Quarry until I could contour south and further downhill to the base of the Regency. I’d never approached the rock via this route before and was just dead reckoning. I had to pick my way through a massive patch of poison ivy and then I was on the familiar rock of the Regency. This route along with the Royal Arch itself and the East Face South of the Fifth Flatiron, also a classic, form one of the stages in the Tour de Flatirons. I knew it well and it truly has some fun, engaging scrambling.
As I approached the top I was surprised to see Dan above me. Finding the top of this rock from above is definitely the mark of someone who really knows the Flatirons. 99% of the climbers in the Flatirons, let alone hikers, don’t even know this rock. This is one of the appeals of linking up Roach’s classics: solitude and small sense of wilderness while amidst a highly used recreational area. Despite his obvious effort to get people to explore more of the multitudes of rocks sprinkled liberally from Chautauqua Park to Eldorado Canyon, almost all of the climbing traffic in the Flatirons is directed at either the east faces of the First and Third Flatirons or the numerous sport climbs on the steeper aspects. The only real exceptions are the spectacular spires of the Matron and the Maiden and even there it is very rare to see another party.
I told Dan about missing the cache and being quite dehydrated. He immediately took off to backtrack to the cache, retrieve all the water and meet me at the Fifth Flatiron. His energy and ability to move around so quickly in such complicated terrain were invaluable to my project. There are very few people who know the Flatirons this well, even among the Minions. I was very grateful for his help.
I had been in contact with Mark Oveson throughout the day via my cell phone. He was planning to bring in a fresh supply of liquids to Royal Arch, but he was now stuck in traffic on highway 36, where an accident had forced things to a dead stop. We could use the reinforcements, but would soldier on with what we had.
I finished off the Regency, downclimbed off the back and through the chimney/slot over to the base of the east face of Royal Arch. I scrambled up that to where I could exit left and go under the arch. Hordes of people were gathered here enjoying the day. Four guys had watched me climb up and I said hello to them and asked if they could spare any water. They obliged me and I downed half a bottle in just a few gulps. I thanked them and moved on to the Fifth Flatiron. I carefully soloed up the East Face South Side of the Fifth Flatiron. I knew this route very well, having raced it many times, as I mentioned before. Dan had already been to the summit, climbing up the tricky descent route. On top I found my harness, a rappel device and the fixed rope which gave me easy access to the ground. I silently thanked Dan once again.
I zipped down the line and scrambled/hiked down the climber’s trail on the south side. Dan was at the base with a bountiful spread of liquids and food. I took a 10-minute break to rest and rehydrate, and then Dan and I descended north to the lowest point on the Fifth Flatiron. We simul-soloed up the East Face North Side route, a 6-pitch route of continuously interesting 5.3 climbing. I’m sure “interesting” and “5.3” are not two phrases that are linked for most climbers, but this is another of the appeals of Flatiron scrambling. Climbing without a rope also makes more trivial climbing a bit more engaging.
My heels were really bothering me, as my Explorer scrambling shoes bit them on climbing at this angle. I had worn them today to give my feet more protection for all the off-trail hiking, but now I craved my re-soled CrossLites. Mark was going to bring them to me, along with the water. He was hiking now and I was looking forward to meeting him at Royal Arch after this route. I was still climbing at a good rate and whenever I got to a ledge, I’d take a short break to turn around, face out, and put my heels down.
At the top, I rappelled off, stripped off my harness and descended to Royal Arch. Dan packed the gear and followed close behind. At Royal Arch I found Mark waiting for me. Miraculously, he pulled a popsicle out of his pack! How the heck did he do that, I wondered. Mark had carried in a soft-sided cooler stuff with ice. He threw down a bag of ice on the ground and I stripped off my shoes and cooled the soles of my feet. Dan soon joined us and I downed another popsicle and two tubes of gloriously cold yogurt. It was 90 degrees out and the cool calories revived me. I downed a liter of liquid and refilled my bottles.
Mark was game to join us for the next scramble, Hillbilly Rock, and the three of us took off cross country on the complicated traverse over to the top of Stairway to Heaven, a classic that arises from Skunk Canyon and where we dropped our packs. We descended east to the base of Hillbilly and started up from the low point of the East Face.
A hundred feet up we encountered some 5th class difficulties. Perhaps we were too close to the edge of the south face or maybe the route really is 5th class. Either way, Mark balked. We tried a couple of passages and I went up on the right. Mark eventually found a solution a bit further left. He was solid and calm the entire time, knowing there was no rush and that no mistakes are allowed when soloing.
The rest of the scramble went easily, but the tricky, dirty, exposed, and much steeper descent down the North Face was another matter. I’d been down it before and it was indeed intimidating. Once again we just went slow and remained solid. It was about seventy feet to the ground and we hiked back up to our packs.
Dan and I bid Mark adieu and climbed up the descent route to the top of Stairway to Heaven. We downclimbed this 1200-foot 5.2 route down into Skunk Canyon. The crux slab moves are near the bottom and I knew them well. Once down in the canyon we picked our way up it to the west, careful to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Dan had never done Angel’s Way and I was excited to show it to him. This 1000-foot route is one of the real gems of the Flatirons, though it is well hidden. This route hosts some of the finest, low-angle cracks in the Flatirons, including one really fun lieback at only 60 degrees steep.
We downclimbed off the summit and here I got turned around. I thought I was heading east, but was heading north instead. A quick call to Mark got me turned in the right direction, the direction Dan wanted to go anyway. That was strange for me and a bit embarrassing, but back on track we descended the gully between Stairway to Heaven and Satan’s Slab. The last classic of the day was to be this very runout 7-pitch, 5.6 friction route. We still had plenty of daylight, as it was only 5 p.m. But it started to rain.
It wasn’t raining that hard and we decided to wait for a bit. It would sort of let up and then start again. With rain still failing, we decided that climbing a route this unprotected and committing wasn’t prudent. We stashed the rope and rack under a rock outcropping and called it a day. We hiked out to NCAR where my wife and son had moved my car. I gave Dan a ride back to Chautauqua Park and then called Mark with the update on the situation. I’d just have to start the next day, Sunday, with Satan’s Slab. This wasn’t a huge inconvenience, as I had planned to return to Skunk Canyon anyway to do two routes on the south side.
Sunday - 11.4 miles, 6,900 vertical feet, 16 Classics, 64 pitches, 13h34m
Climbing the Achaean Pronouncement
Mark was my partner coordinator for this entire project and he had lined up a trio of great partners for me on Sunday. It started with the indefatigable Jason Antin, who was to meet met me at NCAR at 6 a.m. I got up at 5 a.m. and started to get my stuff together when I heard a strange sound. Well, maybe not that strange of a sound, but so expected that I wondered what it could be. A glance outside revealed the ugly the truth: it was raining.
I called Jason to put things off for an hour, but he was already on his way. Instead of meeting at 5:30, we met at 6. The rain had stopped and, in fact, didn’t seemed to have rained much in the Flatirons. It was still a bit dark then and we packed our gear. We didn’t need much because of the stash in the canyon, but Jason carried more than a gallon of water. The hike into Skunk went quickly and soon we were gearing up at the base of Satan’s Slab.
I led the very runout first pitch, placing a single piece of gear and then belaying from two other pieces at the only location I could find for gear. The next pitch had one piece of gear as well and I belayed in a huge pothole. Jason showed his guide colors, getting me back on belay within 20 seconds after arriving at the belay. We simul-climbed the rest of the way to the summit, reversed the tricky last moves to the very top and then downclimbed the easy west ramp to the ground.
I scooted back down to Skunk Canyon while Jason coiled the rope and quickly followed. All my partners helped immensely with all the work of coiling ropes and carrying gear. I frequently felt a bit silly letting them do all these chores that I’d normally be doing, but I knew I needed all the help I could get to keep going.
Right across the canyon was the Achaean Pronouncement (5.7). This route has a short, dicey traverse to start and then goes up a long crack, rare in the Flatirons. I placed a piece far to the left in order to keep the rope out of the poison ivy that grow from one location in the crack and faced climbed around the evil weed. We simul-climbed to the base of the final steep section. I put in a couple of cams and belayed Jason up. The final section is slightly overhanging but large holds make the climbing reasonable. Jason enthused about the quality and uniqueness of this route. I think it is now his favorite Flatiron climb.
I changed out of my climbing shoes on the summit and back into my scramblers. I wouldn’t be needing the shoes the rest of the day. I then rapped off and immediately took off for the Rainbow - a long rib of rock rising out of Skunk Canyon just west of the Achaean Pronouncement. The arete on this rib is called Primal Rib and it is indeed a fun scramble. Gaining access to the arete is key and this is done a few hundred feet up from the bottom of the rock. Since I was descending down to this route, this worked to my advantage and soon I was scrambling along the thin edge. The only other time I’d done this route, I downclimbed the East Face to get off. This time I took the normal descent and ended up on the south side of the Backporch, my next classic. I climbed up to the saddle just west of this rock and then down the north side to the base of the East Face (5.6) route. Jason wasn’t there yet, but that was mostly because he didn’t know where the route started. I called down to him and he hustled up to me.
I combined the 2-pitch route into one with a little simul-climbing by Jason. When he joined me on the summit, I set up another single-rope rappel on my skinny rope and slid down, freehanging, past the overhanging west face. I took off once again and left Jason to clean up the gear. This time I headed for the Front Porch, where I’d meet my next partner, Chris George.
I zipped down the Porch Alley climbers’ route and then up to the Tiptoe Slab (5.3) route on the north end of the east face of the Front Porch. Little did I know that as I soloed up this route past a 2-man party, Chris was downclimbing the Tour de Flatirons route on the south end of the east face, so we missed each other. I downclimbed off the west face and was starting to wonder where was Chris. Jason was supposed to descend to the Front Porch and transfer the climbing gear to Chris and I didn’t know where they were. I headed back down to the base of the Front Porch, calling for both of them. I then heard Chris call back. He was with Jason at the base of the rock. I called down and told him that I was heading crosscountry, over the ridge directly to Dinosaur Rock and they he should meet me at Der Freischutz. This confused Chris and he called up, “Aren’t you going to climb the Front Porch?” “I already did!” I called over my shoulder as I hurried up the hill
The East Face of Dinosaur Rock is high-quality scrambling on bulletproof rock, yet it brought back some bad memories for me. When my boys were pretty young I took the whole family up this route. As I worked out the tricky crux section at the start of the second pitch I remembered placing some slings for them to pull on. I remember all three of them barely staying on the small rounded ledge below it. I should have lowered them all off there, but we went up. Everyone made the summit fine, but neither boy had ever been lowered before and both had some issues. Derek with the first, easy lower and then he was fine on the severely overhanging second one and for the rest of his life apparently. Danny was terrified of the final lower yet I was convinced it was the safest easiest way down. I’m still emotionally scarred for putting my son in a situation that would scare him this badly. These Flatiron classics have become so familiar to me that they conjure up memories like songs or smells, both bad and good.
I descended down the broken west side of Dinosaur Rock and met Chris just arriving - perfect timing. We descended south down a loose gully, below the base of Der Freischutz, through a thick patch of ferns and some poison ivy to the base of the Northern Dinosaur Egg. We stashed some food and water here and continued over to the Southern Dinosaur Egg. I pointed Chris to the downclimb from the top of the first pitch of Hatch (5.6) and told him I’d meet him there after I descended to the base of the route and soloed up the first pitch. Atop that pitch, Chris would find a cache of food and water that I had staged earlier in the week. I did this, carefully negotiating a lot more poison ivy, and scrambled up the familiar first pitch. When I joined Chris at the top of the first pitch, I put on my harness again, grabbed a few pieces, and led the steep thirty feet to the summit. We rapped off and then headed back to our cache at the base of Rehatch (5.6) on the Northern Dinosaur Egg.
We simul-soloed up the first pitch of mostly chimneying and stemming to a platform atop a large chockstone. After looking over the steep start to the second pitch, I started up it, only to quickly back down. The feet were quite technical and the holds were not jugs. We roped up and I led upwards, thinking the climbing was more like 5.7. I led up a hundred feet to a ledge and placed a couple of bomber cams. I belayed Chris up and then I climbed up to the summit and back down to Chris. I then fixed the line and did a single-line rappel back down to the base of the route, which was very close to the base of Der Freischutz. While I climbed up the South Ridge of this rock, Chris cleaned up the rope on the Dinosaur Egg and headed for Fi. I topped out Der Freischutz and then downclimbed Free Shot, another classic.
I headed up the trail and then scrambled up a weakness enroute to the gully to the west, where the rocks Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum lay. There are two classics on these rocks, my last of the Dinosaur Mountain classics. The first was Fi Fun (5.2), which sounds pretty innocuous, but has an extremely exposed knife-edge traverse along the summit ridge. I was pretty inured to this stuff by now and scampered across to the summit only to hear Chris call up to me. “Hey, Bill, think I can get a belay here?” I reversed the ridge and dropped an end to Chris. With the confidence inspired by a belay, Chris hand traversed to the summit and we rappelled to the west.
Next up was Quadratic Equation (5.6) on Fo. This rock was just uphill of Fi. We simul-climbed the 400-foot route and then downclimbed off to the west. Our routes done, Chris and I hiked down the climber’s trail to the Mallory Cave Trail to the junction with the Mesa Trail. We found my good friend Homie waiting for us there. Homie’s pack was already fully loaded with tons of food and water, yet we were planning to give him more gear: a rope, harness, and some gear. I wasn’t concerned. Homie could probably carry a Yugo up the trail at my speed.
We bid farewell and thanks to Chris and headed south on the Mesa Trail. Just before the Fern Canyon Trail we headed up the steep climbers’ trail to Seal Rock. As we approached this rock, Homie saved me from a grave mistake. I almost always climb the North Side of the East Face, but the classic is the more difficult South Side of the East Face and I just forgot this until Homie reminded me. At the base of the rock, Homie gave me the rope and I headed up the slick start to this 5-pitch 5.4 route. I topped out and downclimbed the upper two pitches where I could downclimb off to the north. I then headed west and south up to the saddle behind the Goose. I met Homie here and we descended over complex terrain to the west and the base of the Fiddlehead.
Homie was prepared to climb and belay me on these Fern Canyon classics, but he didn’t need to climb them. He was there purely to help and if I could move faster alone and still be safe, then he was fine with that. So this is what we did. I soloed up the East Face of the Fiddlehead and then did two rappels off the west side into the gully east of the Onoclea and the Pellaea. Homie was there at the base of the Onoclea. It was spitting a bit of rain, but not much. I soloed up the East Face of the Onoclea and did one rappel off of it to the north and hiked back down the same gully to the base of the Pellaea, my last classic for day. This route has a couple of thin, tricky sections, but my frictioning skills were second-nature by now.
I did my final rappel of the day and hiked down to Homie. We packed up all the gear and Homie carried it. It was still light out as we descended to the Cragmoor Trailhead and Homie’s car. He drove me back to my car at NCAR and then I headed for home and my nightly routine.
Monday - 10.1 miles, 5400 vertical feet, 8 Classics, 37 pitches, 9h21m
Self portrait on the Slab, early Monday morning
Monday morning found me back at the Cragmoor Trailhead at 6 a.m. I had only eight classics left to do and I knew I’d make it at this point. I was meeting Mark for the last three classics on the Maiden and the Matron so I had only five routes left to solo, but three of them would be stressful.
The first route was Diagonal on the Slab. I’d been up this route countless times as it is a staple of the Tour de Flatirons. In those races we’d downclimb off the backside at a lower point, but for the complete classic I had to follow it to the very summit of the Slab at the southern terminus. Normally a tedious place to retreat from, this worked out well since it put me very close to the Central Shanahan Crag. After a steep, grubby descent I started up the Southeast Ridge from the very toe of the rock. This route is rated 4th class, but doesn’t seem any easier than the Third Flatiron.
I downclimbed off the back and down a short 5th class corner to allow access to the South Face route. While rated only 5.4 this route is nearly vertical. I’d soloed it twice before. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever climbed it with a rope. Each time it was exciting and this ascent was no different. The climbing is straightforward for the first two thirds, but the last bit is stressful. The climbing straight above becomes much more difficult and one has to traverse a bit to the right. The holds become more slanted. The rock becomes more crumbly. The exposure and commitment becomes more serious. I paused. I had to be sure. I had to be solid. Moving slowly, taking my time to figure out each move, to test each hold, I pulled over the top and onto the familiar and mellow upper section of the Southeast Ridge.
Next up was Tiny Tower. I travelled crosscountry to the south, over a couple of small ridges. I pulled up my GPS track on my phone from a recce of Tiny Tower earlier in the week and used it to guide me to the base. I had another food/water cache at the base of this rock and needed it badly. I had started the morning with just a single 20-ounce bottle of liquid, knowing that I’d be picking this up. I slaked my thirst and then soloed up the first pitch in my approach shoes. On the ledge I changed into my Muiras. The next fifteen feet was the crux of the day. I’d soloed it once before, when I placed the cache. It consists of some awkward climbing to a stance below a steep 10-foot headwall. Getting to the top of this wall required me to stand on a couple of edges only a few millimeters wide. This wouldn’t be too bad if there were positive handholds, but there aren’t. It’s a dicey bit of balancing to step up and then reach over the top for a crappy sidepull. This time for some reason, I lost my confidence just as I stepped up. I didn’t feel I could safely back down. Trying not to panic, I slapped my hand over the top, blindly searching for anything to grab, any edge to use. Fearing my shoe would roll off the edge, I threw both hands over the top and rolled into a mantle. The whole incident, from loss of confidence to safety, lasted just a few seconds. I wondered if I was mentally tiring. I had one solo to go.
More off-trail hiking led me over to the base of the Fatiron. This rock is two huge slabs, one overlapping the other and tilted at a 60-degree angle. The overlap connecting them is a 20-foot overhang that is usually rappelled. I’d done the juggy downclimb before, but not since my buddy Buzz broke his ankle in a fall here, after a hold broke on him. These thoughts had me moving very carefully, despite the strain on my arms. This downclimb isn’t very exposed as it ends on a huge flat area before the second slab. Worst case, I’d probably break an ankle as well. And with a downclimb the further the you go, the safer you are.
The final slab to the top went smoothly and I was faced with another steep downclimb off the southwest corner. This descent is vertical to start with and then slightly overhanging, but the way down is tricky and not obvious. I tried a couple of different routes and got close, but I didn’t feel solid. It was too committing and the holds too small. I backed off, retreated to the summit. Without a rope I couldn’t do the normal rappel, but I knew another way down. A giant rock crevasse splits the second slab a ways down from the summit. I climbed down into it and descended off to the north.
Back on the ground I was relieved. All I had left were three more classics and they’d be roped up, with Mark as my partner. I hiked around to the saddle just west of the Maiden, where the Regular Route (5.7) starts. I’d been in touch with Mark, giving him updates on my progress, so he was already enroute. I didn’t have to wait long before Mark arrived to resupply me with food and liquids.
After a delicious lunch, we headed up the Maiden. This is one bizarre route, as it traverses and descends more than it ascends. The route exemplifies brilliant route finding. Earlier this year I took my brother, son, and nephew up this route. It was a mistake because you cannot adequately protect the second. This wasn’t a problem with Mark. We topped out without any problems and did the overhanging rappels back to the ground.
We hiked down to the bridge trail and followed it over to Shadow Canyon and then up the climber’s trail to the Matron. We belayed just the first pitch of East Face. This route is rated 5.4, but the first pitch seems more like 5.7. Above there we unroped and soloed up to where the North Face route meets the East Ridge. Here we rigged a rappel and I descended to the ground. I then climbed the 53rd classic while Mark belayed me from above.
We continued to the summit and took a photo documenting the completion of the quest. Two raps put us back on the ground and soon we were hiking out to the South Mesa Trailhead. Halfway down Mark asked if I wanted to run. I was fine with running - Mark was carrying most of the weight - so we ran.
At the trailhead I was surprised by a welcoming party. My wife and boys. Jason, Chris, Homie, and their families, along with Mark's wife Patricia and his daughter Jaroldeen. It was really cool. Mark had secretly arranged it. We ate some food and enjoyed some drinks. They made it seem like I had really done something, though I wondered about that...
Conclusion - 39.6 miles, 25,500 vertical feet, 53 Classics, 243 pitches, 65 different routes, 39 different rocks, accumulated trailhead-to-trailhead time of 42h13m, total elapsed time of 71h47m.
Mark and I on the summit of the Matron after completing my 53rd Classic
Was this hard? Ultrarunners and real adventurers will scoff that I returned home to my house each night. I don't blame them. It was hard for me. Maybe not so hard for someone else. There was doubt that I could and that’s what made it an adventure. Now that I know what it takes, I'm sure I could do it in three days and maybe two massive days, but I'm not sure about that. Climbing and hiking off trail at night is a lot slower, but possibly with a good GPS device.
I'd say that this will probably never be done again, but I know such thoughts are foolish. No matter how inconsequential this project was, there are locals, Minions, that are interested and could do a much better job. In fact, I was supported by Minions, all of which are probably better suited to this adventure than I am. It was a team effort getting this project done and the funny part was the slowest member of the team did all the climbing.
In the end, as my wife texted me at the start, this was about "Doing Hard Things," where "hard" means, "hard for me."