This year Derek and I have another major climbing goal: El Capitan. Last year we were mountaineers and climbed Denali. This year we're going to be rock climbers and climb El Cap. Next year we'll be astronauts and climb Olympus Mons. But back to this year...
Just like last year, Derek has a lot of learning to do before he climbs El Cap. Most climbers apprentice for many years before tackling such a wall, but Derek has always been a fast learner, especially when he's motivated. We started by training at our local gym - Movement in Boulder. We worked our way up the grades to climb a few 5.12's and Derek surpassed me and led a 5.12b and even had to run things out at the crux because of the difficulty of clipping. So, he was not only strong, but had a good head for leading.
The gym is a great place to get strong and practice some leading, but it is a very long way from climbing El Cap. So, our next step was climbing outside. Yeah, yeah, Derek's climbed outside before and been up some things, like the Grand Teton, Devil's Tower, and various Eldo routes. He has been to Yosemite, though. Two years ago we took a trip there to whet his appetite and climbed Royal Arches, Snake Dike on Half Dome, and My Favorite Things on Cloud's Rest. But he hasn't taken the sharp end outside.
Saturday, March 25th: Lower Spire - photos
Hence, we took this trip to Mexico to climb on some really long routes. Sure, it was all sport climbing, but one step at a time. The goal here was to get Derek on lead, swinging pitches with the Imperial Grand Poobah (that's me). We booked our tickets, collected our 23 quickdraws, and unwrapped our new 70-meter duodess rope. We started from home with a 3 a.m. alpine start so that we could catch the bus in time to make our 6 a.m. flight. After changing planes in Dallas we arrived in Monterrey around noon. I had booked an airport pickup, but didn't understand that we were supposed to get in a certain cab and our motel would pay for the cab when they dropped us off.
|We climbed the tower on the left (higher) via the shaded face. We'd later climb the other tower.|
When I finally got someone on the phone at La Posada I was told about the cap and after waiting around the airport for nearly 90 minutes, we finally got in a cab. Seventy minutes later we were at La Posada and into some serious heat. It would be 90+ degrees every day we were there. After the early wake-up, the rigors of traveling, and the heat, we decided to rest up a bit and wait for cooler temperatures before heading into the park.
|Derek following the first pitch of Crack Test Dummies|
We rested for a bit too long and didn't head into the park until after 5 p.m. We were to soon learn that it gets dark at 7 p.m. We headed for the Spires, hoping to back the higher, easier summit via a 3-pitch 5.9 route called Crack Test Dummies. Walking into the park was a complete sensory overload. First, we were daunted by the tremendous vertical relief of the steep, limestone walls. Steep ridges, walls, towers lined both sides of the roads. Most of the walls, though, were peppered liberally, and sometimes nearly covered completely, in vegetation, mostly cactus, yuccas, and, get this, palm trees! This is no Yosemite. There are steep, blank sections of pure rock, but they are the exception here and rock like that usually signals extreme difficulty -- too difficult for us.
But it wasn't just the geography that had our attention. The place was packed with the Mexican version of "white trash." Oh, and trash as well. Everyone seemed to have music absolutely blasting from their car stereos. The volume of some of these stereos would make a thrash metal concert seem like a church hymnal. And most of the speakers were massively overdriven, distorting painfully. But it got even worse. I used to think that Mariachi music was a quaint, traditional Mexican music, played mostly for tourists. Wrong! This is a deep cultural love with absolutely everyone playing it. And oh how horrible this music is. How these people can stand it I don't know, but each one has to have their music so amazingly loud to drown out their neighbors' music because, while everyone is playing Mariachi music, they are all playing their own Mariachi music. It's so loud and so pervasive that is detracts from the climbing. It is no wilderness experience. It's difficult to hear commands from your partner low on a climb.
|Derek on his first lead outside.|
We geared up and I took the lead on the first pitch, a 5.8 that followed a blocky, ledgy crack system. Despite lots of opportunity for natural gear, all the routes we did were completely bolt protected and I happily clipped bolts for a hundred feet up to a belay ledge. Derek followed and was game to immediately take over the lead and head up the crux 5.9 pitch. He did well, moving confidently and quickly at first. He paused a couple of times at the crux sections, but handle them with aplomb, even one crux that was well above his last bolt.
Out of sight of me and more than a hundred feet above me, the rope stopped playing out through my hands. It moved haltingly and then stopped for a long time. Finally I heard "Off belay." I waited. And I waited. I yelled up, "How's it going, Derek?" I didn't hear much of his response. I waited some more and then the roped got pulled up, mostly. I waited to be put on belay. I waited some more. I called up, "How's it going, Derek?" Nothing. I was concerned. Our light was rapidly fading. It would be dark soon and our descent was down the other side of the tower - a way we were obviously not familiar with. I didn't want to overly rush Derek and I knew I couldn't call up with any frustration in my voice, but it was difficult for me. I felt for Derek, as I knew he must be going through some difficulties up there, but we needed to make progress. I called up again, "Derek, we've got to get moving." I contemplated climbing up without a belay. The climbing didn't look that hard. What if he needed my help? But I was sure the rope wasn't fixed and I'd be onsight soloing 5.9 200 feet above the ground. I pushed those thoughts aside for a few more minutes. Finally, the rope came tight and, with great relief, I started to climb.
I found two 5.9 sections that were challenging and I was even more impressed with how Derek climbed them so confidently. When I got to the belay, I made sure not to say anything to discourage him. He knew he had taken awhile and was frustrated with himself. I'd been there before in my early days leading and knew how it felt to be all alone way up on a pitch with no one to help you and having to solve the problem by yourself. He never panicked or shut down, but figured things out. In my early days I'd have angrily asked my partner what was going on.When I think how I have behaved to some of my past partners, when under stress, I cringe. I climb with the greatest partners, the greatest people, and I'm not one of them. I'm much more introspective these days and much more careful with Derek and it's made me think back on previous behavior. I'm pretty disappointed with what I've seen and am all the more thankful that all my past partners are still my partners. It wasn't that I was a pure asshole but that I was scared also. So, I was half asshole, half coward. Having Derek as a partner is helping me become a better person. Kahlil Gibran wrote:
To be able to look back upon one's life in satisfaction, is to live twice.
It isn't all satisfaction for me. At best I can live one and three quarter times.
So when I got the belay, I just told Derek not to worry about it and he could tell me all about it once we were safely back on the ground. I told him I had a much tougher time on my first lead. I went by his belay and climbed the remaining twenty feet to the summit. I downclimbed five feet or so on the other side to the rappel anchors and put Derek on belay. We were racing the light now. The sun had set and it would be dark soon. I didn't want to be searching for rappel anchors in the dark. I quickly threaded our rope and put myself on rappel. I descended carefully, scanning for the next anchor. I found one about fifty feet down and stopped there. I didn't know where the next anchor was and couldn't afford to pass up any station.
Derek joined me and we repeated the process. I had my headlamp in the top of the pack that I was wearing. Derek had his headlamp in his pocket, but we could still see, barely. Eighty feet down I spotted another station to my right and swung over to it. When Derek joined me, we dug out the headlamps and turned them on. It was now dark. I figured we had at most two more rappels and I started down again. I was soon delighted to realize that the ropes reached the ground. I called up the good news to Derek.
On the hike down, which was actually a bit tricky as there wasn't a defined trail and we just descended a long rock chute, Derek told me that he had trouble finding the belay anchors and then couldn't figure out how to use his belay device in guide mode and then couldn't use the Gri-Gri for a climber below him and eventually, just used his belay device like he always had. He was just not sure where to go and what to do. In our enthusiasm, I hadn't given him enough instruction on exactly what to do at the belay stance. We'd rectify this the next day.
Back at La Posada, we dumped the gear and headed to dinner, where we both had chicken enchiladas, which were marginal, though more than ample, calorie-wise. I was hoping for a red enchilada sauce and we got a much thicker green paste. It was taste, but a bit dry. Also, there was no cheese at all. This was quite surprisingly and made the meal seem that much more dry.
Afterwards, we took our showers and then fell asleep watching a movie.
Sunday, March 26th: Space Boyz - photos
I was up first and headed over to the common kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee and nibble on some breakfast. After an hour or so I came back to the room and rousted Derek for some climbing. We headed into the park a little past 8 a.m. Our goal was to climb Space Boyz (11 pitches, 10d), but decided to warm-up on a couple of adjacent 5.8 routes. This was actually a bit strange, since the first pitch of Space Boyz is 5.8 also. We realized this after climbing "CDC and J" and ditched the second climb to start up Space Boyz, a little before 9 a.m.
|Derek at the top of pitch one of Space Boyz. You can see how easy the approach was.|
Derek was leading the even pitches and the crux pitch is the sixth. When we got there, I asked if he wanted to try and it and he said, "Let me look at it." The sixth pitch traverses around a corner at the very start and climbs a dihedral out of sight of the belayer. Derek took a look around the corner and said he'd go it. He kept me informed on what was going on and I paid out rope. He moved steadily and when he got the crux he was tired. He had me give him some tension so that he could rest. After a rest, he continued to the next bolt and rested again. That was it and he was at the belay.
|Derek expertly manages a hanging belay|
Derek led another 5.9 pitch up to a hanging belay and we really started to feel the heat. We'd been in the sun since the fifth pitch but we were managing it. I led up past the belay on my lead and then past another intermediate belay to a ledge, where I slung a bush for a belay. This allowed Derek to string the remainder of the tenth pitch and the eleventh pitch to the summit. We relaxed up there for a bit, drinking the water we had carried clipped to our harnesses but failing to drink since we were concentrating on the climb so much and, apparently, weren't thirsty enough.
|Derek heading around the corner and up the crux pitch. He looks terrified, doesn't he?|
It took us 75 minutes to do the 11 rappels back to the ground, back to the cacophony that was this park on the weekends. Hiking back down to La Posada was like walking through a block party in Manhattan. In fact, climbing here during the weekend days is like climbing the middle of busy city.
|Derek on the summit of Space Boyz|
We cooked up hotdogs for dinner that night and not much else. We met most of the other climbers at La Posada, all American, I think. Everyone was remarkably friendly. The first night we were invited to join four others at their table and we traded climbing stories. On this second night we met Owen and Neal and they gave us lots of beta on our next climb - the big one - for they had climbed it the day before.
Monday, March 27th: Time Wave Zero - photos
Time Wave Zero is one of the longest climbs in El Potrero Chico and our main goal for this trip. It is 23 pitches and the descent involves rappelling back down the route. The pitches are generally half-a-rope-length, still about 100 feet, and could be combined with a 70-meter rope, which we had. Chris Weidner told us to combine pitches and simul-rappel in order to move fast enough to climb this route in the light of a single day. Neal and Owen had started climbing in the dark, but we didn't want to do that. This might have been a mistake, because this route gets a lot of sun, all day long, for it faces south. Neal and Owen brought 3 liters of water each. We went lighter on the water, hoping the lighter weight would help more than the water. This was probably a mistake as well.
We got up at 5 a.m. and didn't move too fast. We had some cereal for breakfast and left around 5:30. We'd never been up to the base, but found the start and were climbing around 6:30 a.m. We were determined to link as many pitches as we good could in order to make it up and down before it got dark.
|Time Wave Zero climbs, roughly except down low, the left skyline to the summit.|
The sun hit us after five pitches and it would be the hottest day of the year so far, getting to 36 degrees C (97 degrees F) according to our compound desk clerk Jose Luis. We felt that big time by the top of the route. Spoiler Alert!
I led the first two pitches, a 5.7 to an 11a/b. I fell off the 11 once and then grabbed a draw, not feeling strong enough to clip from the hold next to it. This was a bit disappointing, but it was my first lead of the day and I didn't want to take much time on it. Derek followed and waltzed right up it. He hardly paused, even, like he was climbing a clearly marked route in the gym and it was 5.9 jugs. I wondered how I could have so much trouble on something that looked that easy for him.
|Derek cruises the 5.11a/b pitch|
|Derek nearing the top of pitch 17.|
|Derek starting up pitch 18|
Derek then took over for the final real pitch, rated 5.8, but it seemed harder. Derek was massively dehydrated, having only drank about 25 ounces of water. He was very tired from climbing the 12a pitch and just mentally done. Yet, he took the sharp end and headed up, hoping for a cruiser pitch. We'd had pitches rated 5.9 before that felt very comfortable. Derek got up to the steep section on the pitch and balked. He tried to climb up on the right and got himself into a dangerous fall position. He was scared and I couldn't do anything to help him. He figured out how to downclimb back to the last bolt and he was completely done at that point. I lowered him back to the belay, a hanging stance, and I led the pitch up to the ridge. Derek followed without falling and then led the last 5.6 (more of a scramble) to the summit.
|Derek resting while following the crux 21st pitch. He's still smiling here.|
|Derek at the top of pitch 22. We just have the 5.6 ridge behind him to go. No more smiling for awhile...|
Reversing the top pitch was time consuming because Derek was just gone and this took some climbing effort. Also it seemed to be the hottest on the summit. We had absolutely no breeze. Starting the first rap was a bit tricky, but we quickly found our rhythm and Derek seem to revive a bit. We worked fluidly together on every rap, diligently tying knots in the ends of our rope each time. Pulling, threading, knotting the rope 21 times. Carefully weighting our ends simultaneously. Carefully doing the delicate sideways rappelling on the two pitches. We were definitely better off by the time we hit the ground than when we left the summit, but that's easy to understand as the burden of 2300 feet of technical descending had been lifted.
We packed up and hiked down. The route had taken us only 7h45m but that was continuous movement with no eating at all. It took us 3 hours to descend. Another 90 minutes for the hike up and down and you've got about 12h15m for the roundtrip. But most of that in 90+ degree heat with a total of 64 ounces in my Camelback and 56 ounces in Derek's pack.
Once back on the ground we could finally really celebrate the ascent and feel great about our accomplishment. Derek is gaining experience by leaps and bounds and he is very tough and rarely quits on anything. He's a great partner and I feel so blessed to be having these adventures with my son. Everywhere I go people tell me how lucky I am. I do NOT take it for granted.
We had a fun dinner last night and talked with our new friends Neal and Owen (whose wife Mrs. Lunz taught Derek at Monarch High School and knows and has climbed with Chris Weidner!) and some other climbers.
Tuesday, March 28th: Higher Spire - photos
I was up at 6 a.m. the next morning, having fallen asleep soon after I laid down last night. I made my coffee and ate my cereal and soon Owen and Neal showed up.
Today Derek was reluctant to get up. Extremely reluctant. I hiked around Potrero for two hours scoping out approaches to routes until the heat drove me back to La Posada around 1 p.m.
|Today we climbed the spire on the right. We climbed the left spire on our first day.|
Derek followed nicely and found the climbing challenging, as well. He took the lead for the summit pitch, rated 5.9, but quite delicate with very marginal holds and some great exposure down the south face. He worked it all out and belayed from bolts just below the summit. After I joined him, I continued five additional feet to the summit and then he did the same.
|Starting up the delicate and tricky summit pitch.|
Back at La Posada we both had the fettuccine Alfredo with chicken. We noticed someone eating it the night before and it looked delicious, but we also noticed the lack of bread. In preparation, we toasted up a couple of slices of bread and two tortillas. We also brought our milk to dinner and drank it after our Cokes.
Wednesday, March 29th: Dope Ninja - photos
I was up at 6 a.m. again and, after making sure Derek was semi-awake, went over to the kitchen area for some coffee and breakfast.
Tres perros joined us halfway up the road. We recognized them from our compound and they seemed to roam free. They accompanied us all the way up to the base of the climb, including up some steep scrambling. There they got in the way, as the stance was too small to accommodate two climbers gearing up and three pooches.
Dope Ninja was described as a "mountaineering route with bolts." I guess that means it wasn't very continuous and indeed it was blocky and ledgey. The climbing was fun and low stress and it was a fine choice for our last climb. We thought the second pitch might be the crux since some rated it 10b and it was the longest pitch. Hence, Derek led the first pitch and I the second. But the real crux was the third pitch, rated 10b and all that and more at the bouldery crux. Once again Derek led the crux of the route. He did this on three of the five multi-pitch routes we did on this trip. Quite an introduction to leading. He went from zero leading to mostly leading the cruxes and doing 20 leads over the five days were in Mexico. The kid learns fast.
The crux gave Derek a bit of trouble, but he worked it out. I followed, barely staying on the rock. The next three pitches were 5.6, 5.9, and 5.7 and were easy rambles. The climbing isn't stellar here, but we had a great time being together, chatting it up and working out the climbing problems. On the descent we got our rope stuck for the first and only time of the trip. I had to climb up the start of the fifth pitch (5.8) for three bolts and then downclimb back to our belay. No biggie. Pulling the ropes down this way was a bit more work because of all the vegetation, which was particular rich on this climb.
We had started up the route at 7:35 and were back down on the ground three hours later. We hiked back to La Posada and had just enough time to pack, shower, grill up our remaining hot dogs for the ride to the airport and hop in our taxi. Things went smooth on the flights home and we considered the trip a huge success. We'd seen a new climbing area, climbed a 23-pitch route, got Derek a lot of experience with leading, belaying, and simul-rappelling, and we'd stayed safe and had a great time being together. Will we be back? I'd definitely come back, though at a much cooler time. There are many hard, cool climbs here and with more moderate temperatures I'd be interested in giving them a go.
|Derek following the fourth pitch. Space Boyz is in the background and two parties are on it.|
|Starting up the fifth pitch.|