Thursday, November 22, 2018

No Sighting the Yellow Spur

I've done a few climbing routes (Yellow Spur, Bastille Crack, First Flatiron, etc.) so many times that I've asserted, jokingly, that I could climb them blindfolded. Of course I wasn't serious and it was only an indication of how well I knew these routes. I knew each hold, each foot placement, and the exact sequences of moves. But seeing someone climb a route that they don't know, without sight, is something altogether different.

Erik and Connor just above the first-pitch roof
As I watched Erik Weihenmayer, a world-famous blind adventurer/writer/speaker, feel his way up the 5.7 third pitch of the Yellow Spur, I calculated that it was the equivalent of climbing 5.10. He can't see the better hand placements near to where he's crimping a micro-edge. He can feel with this hands and remember the foothold locations, but mainly of the larger sizes. If the footwork is subtle edges, he has to smear. A move that a sighted climber can quickly execute and get off his arms and back onto his feet, takes Erik much longer. Yet, he's climbed the Naked Edge. He probably has 5.13 climbing strength, as does his business and frequent adventure partner, Connor Koch.

I teamed up with these two to climb the Yellow Spur. I met Connor earlier this year when a small group of us Minions scrambled by him and his buddy on the First Flatiron. He knew of the Minions and we got to talking and he amazingly remembered that I knew Erik, as we'd done one bike ride about five years ago (on his tandem). I'd been hooked up with Erik via our mutual friend Hans Florine, but after that one outing we fell out of touch. Connor got us back together.
Connor Koch at the top of the third pitch
We met in Eldo at noon. Already that should have been cause for concern. It's dark at 5 p.m. this time of year. I packed a headlamp. Connor forgot his. Erik...well, he didn't see the point. The trail was hard-packed snow and ice. I pulled on my Microspikes and Erik pulled out a cheap off-brand pair, which I think were Connor's. Connor just skated along with the agility of a young person.

Watching Erik hike along a very technical, rocky trail, coated in ice made me wonder if he's truly blind. I said as much to him and he came clean. He can see, but will only admit to it until after he retires from climbing, kayaking, bullet catching, etc. He knows he had good thing going. Erik taps along with his trekking poles faster than any of the tourists in Eldo. He didn't trip. He didn't fall. He didn't stumble. I think I did all three.

Erik isn't perfect though. He has terrible fear of heights. He only climbs because of the huge advantage he has of not being able to see. Think of all those poor acrophobic sighted people. Probably potential world-class climbers like Erik, if it wasn't for their damn eyes. Sure, one could use a blindfold, but they'd undoubtedly be hounded by cries of cheating, akin to those from using oxygen on Everest.
Erik belaying Connor on the fourth pitch
Also, I'm pretty sure Erik is terrified of bears. Connor hikes along in front of him holding a bell in his hand and periodically rings it, apparently to assure Erik that no ursine creatures are nearby. Connor will occasionally give directions to Erik about the upcoming terrain: "off-camber slope here", "funky rocks ahead", "branch on your right - watch your head." But not for everything. At one point I noticed a big boulder in front of Erik and asked Connor, "Aren't you going to mention that?" "No," he responded, "you can't coddle him too much. He'll figure it out."

Indeed Erik does figure things out. He never asks for help to do anything. He know exactly where all his gear is and how to use it all. When we stopped to spike up, he peeled off the pack, reached directly into his pack, pulled out the spikes, felt around for their orientation, pulled them on and had his pack back on practically before I did. Gearing up, we just hand him the end of the rope and he ties in. He cleans gear, anchors at belays, sets up and rappels without any assistance, pulls the rope, coils, etc.

While he never asks for help and hardly ever needs it, he is appreciative of any information you give him. He never says, "I don't need help." Never says, "I can do it on my own." He doesn't need to assert his independence. When you've done what he's done (he kayaked the Grand Canyon and the film made about this just won the Grand Prize at the Banff Film Festival), you don't need to tell anyone what you can do. Instead, he's thankful and appreciative. He makes you feel good for helping him. When I climbed with him on one pitch, I gave as much direction as I could (frequently getting his rights and lefts reversed), but his speed of climbing seemed independent of my instructions. When I paused to clean a piece of gear, he'd climb up into me. If he doesn't get any hints about the terrain, he just keeps climbing. It might take longer to search out a solution, but I never heard him once ask for a tip.

We climbed with two 70-meter ropes. That's one giant potential mess and it motivated me to belay only at ledges. I led the first pitch, which is incredibly circuitous. It goes like this: up twenty feet to a roof, traverse 90-degrees to the left underneath it to some jugs, then turn 90-degrees again to go up, above the roof turn 90-degrees back to the right and traverse the lip, then up 45 degrees to the belay at a tree. Pulling almost 500 feet of rope up that was arduous, but watching Erik cruise the burly 5.9 roof with minimal vocal help from Conner made it seem fun.
Connor and Erik climbing the last pitch. 
I linked the next two pitches (5.8 and 5.7) and set up a belay from four cams. Following this nearly 200-foot stretch took some time, though probably about average for most climbers of the Yellow Spur. I watched the sun get closer to the very high horizon and regretted leaving my headlamp at the base of the route. That was dumb. When Connor and Erik arrived I suggested we switch to the easier finish, up Icarus. They were both game and we avoided a mini-epic. We did a short traverse pitch over to the Red Ledge below the upper part of the Dirty Deed Chimney. Connor led a long pitch here up the route called Daedalus. He belayed from a tree 200-feet up and Erik and I climbed up to him.
I led a short pitch to the top of the wall, intersecting the arete descent from the top of T1 (where the Yellow Spur ends) and immediately descended left to the notch and the rappel anchor there. From there we did a 70-meter rappel back to the Red Ledge, then traversed north on the Red Ledge to the bolted rappel anchors at the top of the second pitch of the Dirty Deed. Another rappel here (less than 60 meters) put us back on the ground, just as it got dark.

What a great mini-adventure with two incredible people. We hit it off well, but I think these two would get along with anyone. They are just so positive, so pleasant, and so very capable. We vowed to return and start a bit earlier in order to complete the entire Yellow Spur. I'm going to talk them climbing with a hundred foot rope and do a bit of simul-climbing, if necessary.  I suspect that won't bother Erik in the slightest.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

White Rim Trail w/Liberty Crew

Two years ago I rode the White Rim Trail in a day with a group from my brother Chris' company - Liberty Oilfield Services. I invited Derek along because, well, he likes adventures and challenges. It wasn't because he was a mountain biker, because he wasn't. You'd think doing a 100-mile mountain bike ride for your first ride would be...unwise. But, we had full support via a pickup truck following us. This way, if anyone couldn't make it, they could throw their bike in the truck's bed and hop in. Derek did just that after 60 miles in 2016. It was the right thing to do at the time, but it left a bad taste in his mouth. Derek doesn't like leaving things undone...

This year, a couple of months before the scheduled ride in early November, Derek borrowed my spare mountain bike. He knows the benefit of training and he wasn't coming to get a further along the route. He was coming to finish. We did a couple of training rides together, but mostly he rode by himself or with friends. He was riding strong and I know his resolve. I was nearly positive he'd finish. I didn't know just how strong he was going to be.
Derek taking a break on the White Rim Trail
We drove out Friday afternoon evening. After I screwed up with the GPS coordinates of the campsite (trusting my faulty memory as to the location instead), we arrived after 10 p.m., the last ones. The morning quickly and it was cold. I anticipated this and brought lots of clothes and two big pairs of gloves for us both. I crawled out of the back of our Land Cruiser, where we slept, and the president of LOS, Ron Gusek, already hard at work at the grill. He had multiple burners going making bacon-egg-English-muffin sandwiches. I had two.

We started in the dark, via headlamps, and rode a few miles back east to highway 313. We were heading down the Shafer Trail and would finish by climbing up Mineral Bottom Road and then ride the interminable dirt road, gradually climbing all the way, 11 miles back to the campsite. It was a brutal finish with which I was quite familiar.

Derek, Ron and I bombed down the trail at the head of our 15-rider group, along with Ron. We kept rolling along until we arrived at Muscleman Arch. Derek and I both rode across it, as that is tradition for me, and now for Derek. While we did this Chris and Liz caught up to us. We took some time shooting photos and a few riders went by. We hopped back on the bikes and headed on.
The group taking a quick break.
We had three support vehicles with us for this ride. The lead vehicle was driven by Leen's wife and when we pulled up to us at the Airport Campground her right front tire was rapidly going flat. We inspected it and saw not only the obvious tire damage but some rim damage as well. It must have just happened because the tire was complete flat a minute or two later. What happened next was impressive.

LOS is a fracking company. These guys work in the oilfields running millions of dollars worth of equipment, 24-7. They are not your average highway repair work crew. The jack was found in seconds and while one guy jacked up the car, another was pulling the lugnuts off the wheel. Two others, including Ron, were on their backs under the truck, removing the spare. The entire operation looked like a NASCAR pit stop. I barely had time to snap a couple of photos (my contribution to the tire changing) before it was all done. Pretty impressive. No one was directing anything. Everyone knew what had to be done and if there was a task not being done, that's the task they took on. It was a bit similarly to an experienced climbing team setting up camp or rappels.
Changing one of our support vehicles' tires in record time.
We moved on. Ron moved on even faster. He was off the front until just before lunch time, when Derek and I finally caught up to him. He didn't make it last year either, which is surprising, because he is a 48-hour adventure racer. Going continuously for two days is his speciality. Heck, he once road 747.94 miles in a single workout (though it apparently was spread out over 293 hours?) But, like Derek knows, specific training means something. He wasn't biking fit two years ago. He was this year and his mantra was: I'm finishing this ride and I'm finishing it in the light. If anyone wanted to join him in that goal, he'd love the company, but he wasn't going to explicitly ride slower than it would take to finish in the light. Derek and I were on board with that goal.

The three of us continued together to the very challenging Murphy's Hogback - the halfway point of the ride. Atop this grueling climb we'd have lunch. I was just barely able to clean this climb without stopping or putting my foot down, but I nearly passed out with the effort. Derek has more fitness and more power, but two months of riding wasn't enough to learn the subtleties of balancing your weight between the two tires and holding a good line. Plus, he was riding a 26" mountain bike, which is more challenging than the 29" tires that I rode. Ron and Derek were both dropping me on the flatter terrain approaching this climb, but Ron's a TT guy and climbing isn't his strength. Still, it was only the last pitch where they faltered.

We waited there for the rest of the group and more importantly the food wagons to catch up. We ate hearty, but watched the clock. We knew we couldn't take too long of a break with nearly 50 more miles to ride.
Chris Wright - the Imperial Grand Poobah at LOS
After lunch we moved on in smaller clusters of riders. After five miles or so, it was Derek, Ron, and I off the front again. We rode together to the base of Hard Scrabble and there, Ron offered to let me try his fancy mountain bike on the climb. I've never got this hill clean. There is one section where I fall off just ten feet short of easy terrain. I figured it couldn't hurt and we switched, all of us using Crank Brothers pedals. Alas, I still failed at the same spot. This hill is a grunt.

At the top we assessed our situation. We thought about possibly regrouping a bit, but I predicted that if we rode on, we'd just barely make it in the light. Waiting would surely put us in the dark. Yet Derek and I didn't enough water to finish. Ron offered to share his and we committed to push on.

By the time we hit the campground down at the bottom of Hard Scrabble I noticed my chain was really complaining. When I noticed a big group setting up camp, I told the others I was going to zip into there and see if they had any lube. Ron and Derek followed and we found very friendly riders there. We all got our chains lubed and we all got topped off with water, as they had a huge 30+ gallon container in one of their trucks.
Derek right with the vertiginous Standing Rock spire in the background.
The long, rolling, sandy approach to the Mineral Bottom climb sapped me and I was just barely hanging on to Ron and Derek, who seemed a lot stronger. At the base of the climb, they both stopped to eat something before the climb. I just wanted it over and pushed on directly up the climb. I got less than halfway up the climb before Derek caught me and then dropped me. I was impressed and surprised. It was the first time he'd ever been truly stronger than me on a bike. And he did it with minimal training. Perhaps his youth gave him an edge, but still, I have so many more miles in me. I understand he'll be more explosive and I couldn't out sprint him, but we over 80 miles into this ride. Endurance should be the key now and I should have had more endurance. I did not.

As Derek stretched out his lead in front of me, I consoled myself by looking down a couple switchbacks to Ron. I pedaled on. My pride had me wanting to limit my losses to Derek. When I got to the top I found Derek talking to someone. I immediately recognized Tom and then his truck and then Kirsten. I had told Tom we were doing this and we had hoped to ride some with him. After a short discussion we found out that Tom had ridden right by us when we were changing the flat tire. He had just finished himself and Derek nearly caught him. Kirsten brought us over chips and salsa and we relaxed and waited for Ron, who also partook in the sustenance.

Tom had the good sense of starting his ride right at the rim, so he was done. The rest of us remounted our bikes and started the worst part of this loop: the horrible, endless, relentless climb back to our campsite. Ron soon faded and Derek and I rode together and, as the sun dipped closer and closer to the horizon, the temperature fell. I counted off the miles, trying to predict when we'd be done, trying to overestimate the mileage so that I wouldn't be disappointed. Yet, my prediction came and went. The sun set and darkness rapidly closed in on us. Derek gapped me for the last mile or so.
Ron Gusek: LOS President and Head Breakfast Cook
We pulled into camp less than a minute apart, chilled to the bone, especially Derek who was just in short sleeves. I at least had armies. We jumped in the truck and cranked the heater. Unfortunately, at least for Derek, our total mileage was 99 miles. He'd never ridden 100 miles in a day before and he wasn't going to let this opportunity pass. Once warmed up, he put on a headlamp, my down jacket, and some big gloves. Then he jumped on his bike and continued along the road until he hit 99.5 miles, where he turned around and headed back to the car and his 100-mile milestone.

The others came later, finishing in two's and three's. All chilled, but all with high spirits and excited to finish. No one failed to close the loop. That's impressive.

The next morning was chilly, but Ron was up early manning the grill. I worked on the fire and, after eating, I took over as head pancake chef. Then we packed up and headed for home. Another great WRIAD with Team Liberty. I hope this tradition continues. If not every year, at least every other year. I'll be in. Maybe I can keep up with Derek next year...