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.