Sunday, April 19, 2015

Red Rocks Trip - Day 2: Rainbow Wall

The Rainbow Wall start exactly up the sun/shadow line at the base of the wall and then continuing, roughly, straight up from there.

I awoke at 5 a.m. dressed and found Chris already drinking coffee at the table. We readied our packs the night before, but took our time to drink and eat before heading for the gate on the Loop Road, which doesn't open until 6 a.m. We were the first in the lot at the Pine Creek Canyon Trailhead and hiked west until bearing south towards Juniper Canyon and then up into it. There are steep slabs leaving the floor of this canyon to head up towards the wall and usually a fixed line is there to aid in the approach. It was gone, though. I had no trouble with my newly resoled sticky-rubber approach shoes (thanks Rock and Resole!), but Chris was wearing a pair of LaSportiva running shoes with the misleading Frixion soles. These are not dot rubber. He had to switch to his climbing shoes in order to be solid and safe. Further up on the slabs, we watched a Desert Bighorn bound down the cliffs with ease.

We got to the base of the way in an hour and fifty minutes and started to gear up. The night before, based on my poor performance on Saturday, I had insisted on bringing the ascenders and I clipped them to my harness. I'd wear our Camelback pack with two liters of Gatorade, some food, hats, headlamps, and our wind shells. We both wore long sleeves and long pants and Chris wore a vest and carried a small jacket in stuff sack clipped to his harness. A few minutes before we left the ground two climbers from Michigan showed up. John-Mark, with the lumberjack beard and Snidely Whiplash mustache, and Patrick, the bespectacled, young, powerful pharmacist, exuded positive energy. They were not, in the slightest, intimidated by this wall, which made me the odd man out. 
Chris heading up the steep, burly 11d second pitch

It didn't take long to figure out these guys were very good and here to send this wall, free. I didn't want them to discover they were following a Gumby up the wall and decided to just come clean and tell them off the bat. "I'm here to mainly belay my buddy Chris and I'll be jugging anything that's too hard for me." The Michiganies didn't seemed bothered in the least. They didn't seemed worried that we'd hold them up or interfere with their climbing in any way. I was, though. 

After Chris styled the first 11d pitch, which follows a variation left of the original two pitches, bypassing the 12a second pitch, I yelled up to Chris that I was thinking of taking my approach shoes with me. He thought that was fine, but gave no indication of understanding why I'd do this. My reasoning was that I didn't want to hold up this other party and possibly blow their chances of freeing the wall. I didn't want to hang all over these pitches and take forever to follow them and if I was just going to be jugging these pitches, I might as well be more comfortable in my approach shoes than having my toes crammed in my Muiras. 

As I prepared to follow the first pitch, intending to climb until it was too hard and then switch over to jugging, Patrick says to me, "Do not let our presence influence what you try to free climb in any way. We are here to have a great time climbing and we'll climb until 7 p.m. and then we'll turn around and it's going to be great whether we make the top or not." This was just what I needed to hear to relax me. What a great thing to say. These guys were out for three days of climbing, from busy lives in Michigan, but they weren't so set on sending this route that it would change them into guys who would pressure another. I've run into so many great people climbing, of late. My buddy Opie seems to run into the opposite type of climber when cragging out in Joshua Tree. I'm lucky, I guess.

I got up the first half of the pitch fine, as it didn't seem harder than 10-. The first real difficulties were at two closely-spaced bolts where the holds were remarkably small. You don't get holds like that in the gym. I didn't finger them long before yarding past this section, pulling on both draws. Further up, the pitch is broken down into short, powerful, sometimes cryptic, boulder problems, punctuated with decent rests. Surprisingly, I climbed the rest of the pitch clean. Granted I had a nice tight toprope by Chris, but it was encouraging.

The belay was only a tiny stance, room for one and a half people to stand. We quickly re-racked and Chris flipped the rope over to me and then he was off, cruising up the dead vertical lieback above me. When it was my turn to climb this section I'd discover that there were quite a few hidden holds up here. Alas, the crux wasn't far above. Overall this pitch seemed way more difficult than the first one, probably because it was much steeper, though given the same 11d rating. Before the crux section, Chris had to move right, out onto the face, away from the crack/seam. There were big holds out there, but they were hard to reach. Here Chris did what was to become his signature move, as far as I was concerned, as he did it at the end of the first pitch, on the third pitch, and also on the tenth pitch. Once he was able to stretch and get both hands on the holds out right, or at least close enough, he cut his feet loose and swung, Tarzan like, unto the holds. It was a bit unnerving watching this each time. I mean, I do that stuff in the gym, but we were way up a big wall. And that's the point, I guess. Chris is able to climb so hard on this wall, because he is relaxed and at home here. I'm not there yet.

Chris started up the third pitch (11a)
The crux move on this pitch is moving back to the left. Chris went up and down at least three times. That hold sucks. So does that one. That holds too far away. Eventually he committed and seemed very solid doing it. Following that section I solved it my usual way: grabbing the quickdraw. It wasn't nearly as far of a reach that way. This pitch beat me down pretty good and I hung multiple times and pulled on a few pieces of gear, but I still made the belay with my ascenders still clipped on my harness.

The third pitch is rated 11a and it was the first one I followed cleanly. Chris cruised it easily and  the holds were better than I expected. Ah, but following is different. Still, I could do the moves. I was greatly helped by the short pitch length. Besides the first pitch and the 5.7/8 pitches, no pitch was longer than 80 feet. Almost every one ended at a pretty good belay stance as well.

The fourth pitch is 11b and it goes by the "death pillar" that seems to be just sitting in the corner. You have to get on and climb up this disconcerting, booming block. Higher up you have to pass a roof by underclinging out the right side of it. It looked a lot like the 11c fourth pitch of Monkeyfinger in Zion, but it turned out to be way easier - there were actually some footholds turning this roof. Chris did a masterful job of protecting this pitch, as he did with all the pitches. He's a pro, really. Nothing fazes him and every problem is climbable, every pitch protectable. I climbed this pitch cleanly as well and I was beginning to think I might not need the ascenders after all. Before I even came down to climb with Chris, he told me not to bring ascenders. He said that we'd both be trying to free the Rainbow Wall. Freeing this wall for me, on this day, turned out to be way over my head, but the fact that Chris felt it wasn't ridiculous and that he wanted me to try, despite the probability that it would hamper his efforts, says a lot about him as a partner and a friend. Friends always see the best in you, even when you don't.
Chris leading past the "death pillar" and up to that big roof above on pitch number four (11b)
The belay above the roof was the worst on the route, nearly a pure hanging belay, but even then it wasn't too bad. Heck, I was climbing the Rainbow Wall! In fact, I'd climbed this wall more than a decade ago. I did it as an aid climb with my buddies Opie Taylor and Tim "the Toolman" Taylor, AKA "The Taylor Boys" (also known to some as Greg Opland and Tim Schneider). We hiked in, fixed a pitch or two and slept at the base. Then we climbed all the next day and bivied again on Over The Rainbow Ledge. On our third day, we took the Swainbow Wall exit, avoiding the crux upper dihedral. The latest guidebook by Jerry Handren (a stellar guidebook with excellent, inspiring photos, by the way) doesn't even describe this exit! Nor does it even indicate it can be done as an aid climb. I guess this route is only for the 5.12 climbers now... Or the ones guided by 5.12 climbers in my case.
Leading the 5.8 traverse on the ninth pitch
Chris linked pitches five (10c, 50 feet) and six (10a, 70 feet) to avoid a sub-par belay. These were both fun pitches and I felt pretty solid on the 10c pitch, which was steep, but with reasonable holds. The 10a pitch has a dicey little slab section where it felt great to be on a toprope. This put us into a ramp system that led up and right to the Over The Rainbow Ledge. Despite having done this route fifteen years ago, Chris had never been to that ledge. That's because he took the direct variation that avoided it called Rainbow Country. Instead of climbing two 5.7 pitches and a 5.8 traverse pitch, Chris climbed pitches of 11b, 11b, 12d, and 12a, though he admitted that he didn't free either 5.12 pitch back then. I would have definitely needed my ascenders had we gone that way.

Instead, I got to take the lead for the first time on the route. I led up two easy pitches to Over The Rainbow Ledge. We took a short break here, but moved on after less than fifteen minutes. I led the airy and mostly unprotected, but mostly easy, 5.8 traverse back to the left and up into the bottom of the upper dihedral.
Chris at the start of the "circus trick" boulder problem on the tenth pitch (11d+++)

The next pitch would prove to be the most baffling of the route. After a powerful start, Chris established himself on a tiny foothold where he could suss out the boulder problem above him. At first, second, and third glances it looked unclimbable to Chris. He tried numerous options and rejected them. He was probably there for twenty minutes, maybe thirty. He had a bolt nearby but a thousand feet up the wall, it was still intimidating. I figured he'd have to try something, fall, and then keep trying until he figured it out. Obviously I don't think like a pro. Chris worked out a dicey solution that suited him and then gave it everything he had. It went like this. First he got a one finger, one pad hold with his left hand in the seam in the corner. He stemmed his left foot ridiculously high out left onto a minuscule nubbin. Then he palmed and mantled a heavily chalked, severely sloping ramp-type feature on the right face. Then, with extreme body tension he lifted his right foot and smeared / jammed / torqued it into the seam in the corner. He then just had to believe, keep extreme tension and stretch his right hand for what looked like a good hold. He barely got his fingers over it and then, confidently and dynamically, matched his left hand while both feet cut loose and swung over - once again, his signature move. Yikes! But he had the move clean. The pitch clean. The route clean. No falls. So far...
Me at the top of the bouldery 10th pitch, wondering how the heck Chris is going to climb the next pitch
The rest of the corner was easier, but still felt like it had some 5.11 to me. I was able to get by this move by pulling on the draw on the bolt for so long that I could reach the good hold. The crux for me was to then unclip the draw, not drop it, and match on the hold. I think I climbed the rest of the pitch clean.

That put us at the base of the crux pitch - the 5.12a corner. The pitch is only sixty feet long and the corner itself is probably forty feet. Scanning that corner I was able to identify one, count them - one, foothold. It was the size of a pimple and so far out on the left face that when I got up that high, I just laughed. I was afraid of trying to kick my foot over there for fear I'd kick off the one foothold on the entire pitch!
Chris freeing the crux 11th pitch (12a)
As it turns out, Chris has much better vision for footholds. He sees them on nearly blank walls. Not only does he envision them, but he believes in their existence so strongly that he actually stands on these invisible, imaginary things. I guess this is the essence of mind over matter. He believes there is a foothold there because he needs to have a foothold there and hence there is a foothold there. Watching Chris lead this pitch was inspiring. The confident, powerful, graceful movement that got him up that corner and allowed him to protect it was beautiful to watch. Following this pitch I grabbed everything in sight and hung many times. I couldn't see myself doing a single move in this corner. The rating says it wasn't a lot harder than some of the other pitches, but it was above a wall in my ability that I not only couldn't do, but couldn't see how to do it.

Above the corner the climbing was "just" 5.11-, according to Chris, but it seemed over my head. I did some moves, pulled on gear for others. The end of the pitch involved some difficult and thin climbing out of the corner onto the left face to a belay stance. I was drained and I didn't even free climb it. What I did wasn't much different from climbing the rope via ascenders, but I didn't get them out and would not use them on the climb.
Chris leading the 12th and penultimate pitch (11b)
The next 11b pitch was really the last pitch that Chris had any chance of falling on and it proved to be quite hard. It started with a very tough, reachy traverse to the left, which he solved with the signature move once again. I also used my signature move: grab the draw and make a huge stretch to reach...another long sling, placed strategically for just this purpose. Chris was really getting to know me as a partner! This 11b pitch seemed quite a bit harder than the one lower down. I've blocked out exactly how much I cheated following it.

The last pitch was up flaring crack out of the cave/alcove belay and turning a bulge. It was rated 10b and the protection looked good, so I volunteered to lead it, hoping that the difficulties would be over once I turned the bulge. This indeed was the case and I then rambled up moderate terrain for a hundred feet or to a tree, nearly on the summit. Chris soon joined me and we unroped and scrambled the last few feet to the very summit of Rainbow Mountain. We soaked up the views and slapped high fives for Chris' great achievement of climbing the Rainbow Wall, all free, no falls. There was even a summit register on top and we signed in.
On the summit of Rainbow Mountain
We waited for John-Mark and Patrick to top out before descending. John-Mark had freed the entire route as well. He's a route setter back in Michigan and climbs mid 5.13, so he had the power to onsight such a challenging route. Chris and I simul-rapped the wall using our Gri-Gri's. This was the plan from the start and neither of us even had a regular rappel device. This was a bit unnerving for me, as I had never done that before, but Chris is a pro and very safe. We tied knots in both ends of the rope for each rappel. On the way down Chris told me how terrifying it was to simul-rappel with Alex Honnold. Years ago they had climbed that 2000-foot, 12d route down in Mexico together and Alex insisted on no knots in the rope ends. Chris stood his ground though and forced the knots, much to Alex's annoyance. He then told me about how Alex had free soloed this route. That blew my mind. I knew he had done harder solos, but having just climbed this route, it seemed so far beyond anything rational that I just couldn't grasp it. When Alex did it, he had only climbed the route once before, five years before the solo. Chris urged him to climb it at least once more to make sure it was all solid, but Alex didn't want to take the "adventure" out of the solo. Afterwards he'd admit to Chris that the boulder problem on the tenth pitch was perhaps the most afraid he'd ever been soloing.
Chris, Patrick, and John-Mark
We made it back to the base about twenty minutes before darkness. We had just enough time to pack up, eat and drink something, and start down the upper slabs before turning on the headlamps. After thirty minutes or so, John-Mark and Patrick caught up to us and we all hiked out together, chatting away and bonding over the climb. Chris did a masterful job leading us all back to the car by the meager light of his headlamp. We did the roundtrip from the car in just under fifteen hours. It wasn't super fast, but it was all free. At least for one of us.

1 comment:

tims said...

Loved reading this report.. brought back some memories. Wish I still weighed and climbed as hard as I did back then. If I recall correctly, our haul bag was close to 100lbs and my weight at the time was 147!