Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tour de Flatirons: Stage 3 - Alpine Climbing on the Slab

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.