Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Silk Road

Strava (not interesting)

It is pretty rare when you can ice climbing on the Flatirons above Boulder. The weather is generally not conducive to it, as the great faces are all East Faces and bask in the sun. It is this great early morning sun that makes them such fun scrambles before work. But it also makes solid, continuous ice an extreme rarity. One route that comes in regularly enough to be named is the Silk Road on the First Flatiron, which follows the rock route known on the East Gully, which is on the East Face and a bit north (climber's right) of the Standard East Face Route. When dry, it is a 5.5 slab route. The difficulty of the Silk Route is variable, as are most ice climbs. I'm no expert on these things, but I think some years this climb never comes into condition and most years probably not for many days each year.

The route had been getting some good press lately due the audacious skiing of the route, but Austin Porzak and Alex Krull. Conditions for skiing the route are vastly more rare than ice climbing the route, but it came into condition and the bold pair did it. They skied it on belay, except for the lower part, but I'm not sure where they started. I don't think they could have started at the top of the Silk Road route, which, I think, ends on the North Ridge above the Route Junction Knob, but this involved climbing a 20-foot vertical waterfall. Whatever they did, though, it was ballsy and awesome. I love it.

Chris Weidner, all-around local badass climber and writer, invited me to climb this with him. I assured him I was no ice climber. I do have some rudimentary skills with an ice axe, but they are only for alpine climbing. I don't do steep ice. Why? Because I suck at it. I'm dangerous on it. As Dirty Harry says, "A man's got to know his limitations." I do.

Of course the Flatirons, at least the east faces, aren't known for being steep. In fact, they known for being not steep. Just my cup of tea. Except that the ice was bound to super thin and the Flatirons aren't known for copious protection opportunities. Chris wasn't deterred and happily agreed to take the sharp end and basically guide me up this route.

We met at 6 a.m. and proceeded with, by far, my slowest roundtrip time for climbing the First Flatiron. In shorts and scrambling shoes, I've done the roundtrip in under forty minutes. We took about nine hours. Why? Well, I can honestly blame it entirely on my partner, the leader. Because I'd have been leading, we'd have bailed at least three separate times. Chris is a great climber and even though he's linked three monster walls (mostly free, up to 5.13) in Zion in a day, he's not a very fast climber. He's completely solid and super good with protection and likes to be as safe as possible. All great qualities in a climbing partner.  As we geared up at the base, slowly, Chris pulls out a thermos of tea, some brie, I think a little Grey Poupon, and some cookies. He offered me some of everything and says, "I'm sort of boutique climber." While that did seem true, I'm trying to reconcile that with a guy who has just come back from an alpine blitz of Fitzroy in Patagonia!

He also doesn't have a day job. I do. I thought we'd cruise up this baby and I'd be at work by 10 a.m. That was the time we pretty much got done with the Silk Road, which was all ice and snow climbing, albeit quite thin in spots and that vertical pillar I mentioned. Chris was determined to climb clear to the summit of the First Flatiron, mainly because it isn't done very often. This makes sense if you want to do an ice climb, as the upper part has no ice!

We climbed the route in eight 200-foot pitches. The first two were up the Gully on snow and low-angled, but thin ice. I wasn't able to tell where the thickest ice was and frequently would swing a tool, even though I was swinging pretty gently, into the rock underneath. Chris placed one cam and one ice screw on the first pitch. On the second pitch he placed a fair amount of rock gear, 7 or 8 placements maybe, and one or two screws. This pitch ended at a small tree and we had a stance in snow thick enough to form a mini-platform.

The third pitch was the pillar pitch. Low-angled ice and snow led up to the vertical section and Chris placed a cam at the base, I think, then a solid screw about halfway up it and then slung the small tree at the top of the pillar. More thick ice was above and Chris was even able to sink to the hilt one really long screw. This pitched ended at the Route Junction Knob and we took a leisurely Second Breakfast, as all good hobbits do.

The fourth pitch, and the last of the Silk Road, proceeded directly up the slab above, on ground that is 5.0 scrambling when dry, but here the ice was desperately thin - a quarter to half an inch thick. Chris was able to place one cam and then had to run things out fifty feet or so before getting another piece. The really scary climbing was maybe just thirty feet long, but it was a bold lead, made more so because the ice felt like it was going to delaminate from the rock slab and slide off!

Chris climbed up the right to the North Ridge, but eschewed the rappel anchors here that marked the end of the Silk Road. Instead he proceeded upwards along the ridge in desperate fashion. For the rest of the way we climbed snow covered slabs. The only ice we'd see from here to the summit would be verglas. We won't swing another tool that day, though we did do a far amount of mixed hooking.

We did four more pitches to the top. The first conquered the overhang that marks the crux of Baker's Way. The climbing was slow because Chris had to clear away all the snow on top of the rock before he could find a hold to grasp or an edge to hook. The snow here wasn't adhered to the slab in any way, so just concealed any passage and didn't provide one.

The climbing was continually challenging and a bit freaky. Being perched on just a few micrometers of steel with long runouts between gear would have terrified me, but Chris was completely nonplussed. It was like he was just walking out to his mailbox. That is, if each step was about two inches long and he took a couple of minutes to make each step.

The next pitches have blurred a bit for me now. I should have written this sooner. There were three more difficult sections, once per pitch. The first was the move across the slab to the Gaston-hold. I remember this section well from all the times I've raced this route. It was buried under six inches or more of snow, but I told Chris exactly where it would be and he uncovered it. It's a bit scary how well I know this rock...

The other two crux sections are the steep pinnacles you have to climb directly. I thought they were both unprotected slabs, but Chris found gear on both. I guess I don't know the rock that well, as I never climb it with a rope and protection, so I not only don't have the gear wired, I don't really know where any gear goes. The pinnacle with famous Gerry-Roach crystal went easier than expected and even had a couple of gear placements. The last steep slab proved too tough directly, but I told Chris that when racing this, I frequently climb directly across the slab on a sloping ledge (now buried in snow so that is looks like part of the slab) and up the far side. This proved to be key, though it allowed only one gear placement and Chris had to climb twenty-five unprotected feet above the piece. He did that by mostly climbing on snow that just barely adhered to the rock. Following this section was unnerving.

We took some summit photos, and indeed photos the entire way, as we figured this wouldn't be a common occurrence for either of us, and then rappelled to the ground. The hike out was easy, as the path was well packed and completely covered in snow. Despite taking most of the day (we didn't get back down until around 3 p.m.) it was a complete blast! Climbing with Chris is fun and too easy to give up all the leading. I'll endeavor to do better if I get a chance to climb with him again. In fact, with a bit fatter ice conditions, I'd climb the Silk Road again. I won't be rushing back to continue to the summit, though. The climbing above the Silk Road was by far the hardest, scariest, and most time-consuming climbing of the route. It's a grand adventure alright, but once is perhaps enough for me.


George said...

That is cool you went all the way to the summit. Was this perhaps the first time Silk Road was climbed all the way to the summit?

Buzz said...

Excellent report with photos! Now I know where the 9 hours went.

Chris said...

Definitely not the first. I swung leads on a summit trip a few years ago. The ridge was easier than Chris/Bill found it but the gully was heinous. Took me 90 minutes to lead the 100 foot crux pitch and I would have ripped every piece out for the first half of the pitch if I fell. My partners also faced mega runouts :) haha, so fun. Took 12 hours round trip as a party of 3.

Chris Weidner said...

Fun trip report Bill, thanks!
Chris is right, many people have climbed to the summit via Silk Road over the years. I'm excited for more adventures with you Bill :)