Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring Break, Day 1: Independence Monument

After I got back from Longs Peak, I took just a couple of hours to pack for this trip. Whenever I pack fast, two things happen:

1. I take way too much stuff
2. I forget stuff

We were packed to the gills, but thankfully Arthur doesn’t take up much room and never complained though he was sandwiched in the back seat by a wall of gear that threatened to bury him in an avalanche if I took a turn too fast. Despite all this I forgot a cap, the charger for my laptop, a summit pack, and any water source that could be clipped to my harness.

I did all the driving on the way out and the boys handled it all on the way back. Since I had arisen at 3:45 a.m. that day, I was fading by the time we got to Rifle. I pulled off at a rest stop to see if it met our high standards for camping. It did and we bivied on flat grass, nestled in the shade of the visitor center/bathroom (from the light posts). Nevertheless, the camping proved difficult for my companions.

First, Arthur kept sliding off this pad. Later he would complain about the pronounced slope. Derek was in his 0.5-pound sleeping bag, good down to about 60 degrees if it isn’t windy and the temperature dropped into the 20’s. He had a rough night and didn’t sleep much. I found this out when we both got up to pee around 4 a.m. I felt only a little guilty in my -40-degree bag. This trip was about teaching the boys how to take care of themselves on long, multi-pitch trad climbs, but also on a climbing trip in general. I wanted them to pack for themselves, select the gear they needed, plan ahead, know what jobs needed to be done, etc. I gave them both a list of gear to bring and both of them pretty much ignored it. I discovered Arthur’s deficiencies before we left my house and gave him hat, gloves, headlamp, etc. But I didn’t know that Derek only packed the smallest bag and he didn’t even bring a shell. Both would be mistakes. Clearly, there were still some things for these boys to learn.

When I realized that Derek was hurting in the cold, I set an early wake-up time: 5:45 a.m. Homie had joined us a couple of hours after we threw down the bags, but we were asleep. He thought about inviting us into his van to sleep and Derek would have appreciated that, but decided against waking us. I went over and tapped on his van door, telling him the plan, which was to drive to the McDonald’s in Fruita for breakfast. Upon arrival there, Derek was still semi-comatose from lack of sleep and overall misery. Arthur and I went inside and got ourselves a coffee and I got a sandwich. Homie joined us and, eventually, Derek, too. After eating, we packed up for the climb. Five minutes down the road, we pulled into the parking lot, just in time to see a party of three heading out with climbing packs. We weren’t concerned and I quelled my desire to blast past this team. We were a team of four with only one leader and these three could be bad-asses for all I knew. In Boulder I’d just assume that, but, as we’d find out, Grand Junction is not Boulder.

We hiked the beautiful trail into Monument Canyon. When the massive Independence Monument appeared over the horizon I couldn’t help, once again, envisioning it as a giant, rock beast, kept captive in this canyon. We’d only be successful on our climb if we tread lightly and crept up on it. Then, like mites on humans, we’d tiptoe up the skin of the great beast and it would be none the wiser. 

At the base of Otto’s Route we found quite the traffic jam. Already at the top of pitch one were two people with their third still on the ground. Queued up behind them was a party of two and behind them the party of three that hiked in just ahead of us. I’m not well-suited to wait for so many parties, so I marched the group around to the sunny south side and over to the base of the Scorpion Crack route. I’d done this route once before with the Loobster. The first pitch has some aid climbing on it, but I remembered it as a pretty short section and, from the base, it appeared that way. 

We dropped the packs and geared up. I didn’t have any specific aid gear, but felt I could manage well enough by just stepping in some slings. Derek gave me an expert belay and between the two of us, we got the rope up to the top of the first pitch. Only the first half of the short pitch was aid climbing and it seems well within reach of today’s top climbers to free it. But it was well out of my reach. The upper section was probably 5.8 climbing, but pretty sandy and it definitely had my attention.

I had left a lot of gear and slings behind for the other three to use, since we didn’t have any ascenders either. Everyone would have to repeat the aid moves that I did. Arthur climbed second and did an excellent job, using his gym power to make good progress yanking on gear, though he seemed to spend half his time chalking up. 

Homie came up next and had a bit more trouble. He was the only one in the group that hadn’t been climbing regularly in the gym. Hiking up a 14er, he could have carried us all, but climbing up an overhanging rock wall, he had some trouble hoisting just himself. He knew how to conserve his energy, though, and didn’t flail and didn’t get frustrated. He slapped a prussic on the other rope, the one, heading down to Derek, still on the ground, and methodically made his way up the pitch.

Derek was batting clean-up and would for the entire climb. It was his job to pull out all the gear that everyone else has pulled on and stood on. Of course, by removing this gear, he could no longer pull on it. He had to do a bit more real rock climbing, but he managed. A couple of stoppers were wedged very tight and Derek got to learn the technique of using a cam as a hammer on the nut tool. He did a great job removing all the gear on the entire climb.

The next pitch was very easy, up a ramp to a stance with two bolts. The chimney above looked very long, so I opted to belay here, probably only seventy feet higher. Everyone scrambled up this pitch in one time and I set to work on the meat of the route. The chimney pitch started with a vertical offwidth section and it stymied me for a bit. I tried a couple of things and retreated back down to the belay. Then, with a #3.5 Camalot placed high and deep in the crack, I grunted out the offwidth moves, just barely. This felt more like 5.9 to me.

Above this ten-foot crux section the climbing continued up a wide crack, but the angle laid back and it was relatively easy for the next fifty feet, where I found another ledge and two more bolts. The chimney still looked long and I set up another belay. This, as it turns out, was a very good decision. I could have easily combined the ramp pitch with the offwidth pitch, but this belay is mandatory.

All three of my companions pulled on gear for the offwidth section. This is completely understandable. You can’t train for that in the gym and there were no face holds on which to cheat. Derek tried to stem a bit of the upper section and a hold broke on him and he fell onto the rope. I kept a tight rope on everyone and they made the belay with a minimum of fuss. 

This climb was proving to be much harder than what we had planned, yet everyone was taking it in stride and not getting frustrated. The boys didn’t seem to mind in the least that they weren’t able to free all the pitches. They knew this trip was about learning some new techniques. 

The climbing had been slanting up and right across the south face, but now the chimney was straight above us. As I started this pitch, Homie instructed me to “make this one look easy, would you?” The pitch started with another nasty offwidth on the right, but I could just barely stem to a small corner on the left and was able to grunt my way upwards. The climbing was challenging, though and just a few moves off the belay Homie notified me that I had failed.

This pitch was long, steep, and continuous. One memorable section climbed a 0.75-Camalot crack with the help of a squeeze chimney. Both the crack and the chimney were very difficult widths, but together they seemed like 5.9 climbing. Tough, burly, strange 5.9 climbing. Meaning, there was liberal gear tugging by my companions once again.

I also screwed up badly when leading this pitch. I was dragging two ropes so that I could belay two climbers at once and keep the team moving, but I treated Homie’s line like a haul line and failed to clip it into any gear. This would have been fine if the chimney stayed vertical the entire way, but at the top I had to enter deep into the chimney that now slanted hard to the right again. This had the effect of putting Homie in some danger, for if he fell he’d swing into the deep chimney and probably become permanently wedged in there, like a stuck hex. He toughed it out and walked up some of my gear to protect himself. I was thankful he didn’t chew me out when he got to the belay ledge and made sure to start apologizing before he got within swinging distance of me.

We had now joined Otto’s Route and met up with the party of three that we’d have been behind if we’d waited on them. So, we didn’t gain any ground on the other climbers, but we were at least busy climbing instead of just waiting around to climb. Everyone cruised the short 5.8 face pitch up to the last gigantic ledge. The only thing left was the airy summit pitch.

This pitch is supposedly 5.9 and maybe it is, but it’s 5.9++. The crux is short, but overhanging. You climb up the footholds and handholds carved in the rock by Otto, but the footholds are now just sloper scoops. The handholds are solid 3-finger pockets that are very positive, but with little help from your feet the climbing is still burly. I moved quickly and made it over the lip before my arms gave out. Arthur could have hung on down there for an hour, I’m sure, and easily sent the pitch. Homie did some expedient pulling on the draws and was up in no time. Derek cruised as well. He’d done this pitch once before when he was about ten years old. He dangled quite a bit then, but now it was so easy for him.

There actually is seven more feet of climbing above the anchors for this pitch to reach the actual summit and Arthur, Homie, and Derek all topped out ahead of me. We signed the register and ate the only food anyone thought to bring: Homie’s sunflower seeds.

The descent went smoothly. A double-rope rappel to a single-rope rappel to another double-rope rappel. I sent the boys down on their Gri-Gri’s on this tower, since I forgot to bring in regular belay/rappel devices for them. I just fixed one of the lines before then went down.

We traversed back around to the south side of the tower to pick up the gear we left at the base. After a quick snack, we packed up and hiked out. We ate at Dominos Pizza that night and then headed out to the Fisher Towers for the night. For a guy who, granted, is getting quite tall, Arthur is still rail-thin. Yet, he can pack away the pizza. He devoured more than half a large pizza after the climb.

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