Sunday, June 09, 2019

Sundial Dihedral with Mark

Mark on the small ledge at the base of the fifth pitch.

Mark has been learning how to jug this year. He was preparing to go up the Nose with Derek and I, but due to variety of factors, including my shoulder problems and weather issues in the Valley, we didn't make our planned trip to Yosemite. As a consolation, we picked a location equidistant from his house in Provo and mine in Superior, which was Colorado National Monument. The weather forecast called for a high of 85 degrees, which was a bit of a concern, but didn't stop us.

The most prominent tower in CNM is Independence Monument. It is 500 feet tall and has a unique, chiseled route up it called Otto's Route, after the first ascensionist. Even with the chiseled holds, the routes overhanging finish is 5.9+. I'd done that route a number of times and it's super fun, but we wanted something more suited to Mark's new skills. We chose the Sundial Dihedral on the southeast face. This is a six-pitch route with a mix of free and aid climbing. Done as free as can be, the only aid is the final-pitch bolt ladder. Done as free as Bill can be, the second pitch (11+/12-) was aid as well. The fourth pitch is rated 11a/b and would be the crux free climbing for me.

We met at the trailhead a bit before 7 a.m. which is a bit later than ideal, but allowed Mark to sleep at his house the night before, though it wasn't a very long night, since he was up at 2:30 a.m. that morning. That was too radical for me so I drove out the night before and had a nice bivy at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
My bivy below a shelter at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
We saw a number of hikers on the approach and would all day long, but we were the only party on any route on the tower that day. This was surprising to me, since Otto's Route is in the shade and is a very popular route. We geared up at the base and were climbing probably around 8:30 a.m.

The first pitch is a 5.8 chimney/corner. I found just getting off the ground to be a crank, but things go easier and went nicely up to what I thought was the crux - a powerful lieback move at the very top of the pitch. Following, Mark had more trouble down below where is lack of crack/chimney experience made things difficult, but he worked out a beautiful stemming solution to the final move.

I'd climbed this route once before, long ago, with my buddy English Bob. He had done most of the leading and all the hard pitches, including the second pitch. Bob had tried to free it, but resorted to aid. A commenter on thought this pitch was 11+/12-, which is definitely too much for me. At first I thought I could maybe french-free some of it, but it's so steep. I got in my aiders and plugged away. The gear is solid and pretty easy to place. I did place two RPs, but the rock is surprisingly hard.
Mark deciphering the final moves on the first pitch
In this 100-foot I placed most of my substantial rack, but it allowed me to move a bit quicker since I didn't backclean anything except one of the RPs. I even placed my old-style #4.5 Camalot (roughly equivalent to the modern #5) near the top of this pitch. I did free climb the last 15-20 feet, which would have been more difficult to aid.

I wasn't able to self-belay up the third pitch because my rack was so depleted, but Mark jugged quickly so I didn't have to wait long. I was leading with a trail line and hauled up the pack after each pitch. In the pack we had 2.5 liters of water, which proved a bit light. Though we were in the sun almost the entire time it didn't feel nearly as hot as I expected. I didn't feel my climbing performance was limited by it. We also carried extra gear in the pack. I stowed the aiders in there and we had some extra cams in there as well.
Aiding the second pitch.
Third pitch started with a chimney which led to an easier stairstep arete and finally some burly laybacking up a couple of flakes. Both Mark and I cruised up this pitch. The belays at the top of the first three pitches consisted of a single bolt. Atop the second pitch I had nothing that would fit the crack to backup the bolt, but I called down to Mark to pull the cam (0.5 Camalot) from the first belay and send it up with the pack.

The fourth pitch is the crux free climbing, for me at least. recommended bringing four #2 Camalots and we pulled the two extra pieces out of the pack. I avoided looking up at this pitch for too long, as it is intimidating. It overhangs for the first half. In the starting crack were two blocks stacked on top of each other. Both looked very precarious and the top one was completely loose. I put in a piece against the lower block, hoping a fall would just wedge the block tighter. To even get started I had to stretch for a tiny edge, match on it and do a pull-up on it in order to get high enough to swing into the wide crack.
Mark about ready to start liebacking the finish to pitch three.
Once in the wide crack I stretched for a handjam formed by a flake on the left wall. I put in a #1 Camalot here and could then barely reach a handjam in the main crack, just as it closed down enough. I in a #2 and a bit higher a #3. I had good jams for this but the crack was overhanging and I was getting pumped. I didn't have good feet as the crack below me was mostly too wide. The main crack opened again to form an overhanging pod/chimney and the crux moves were getting into this. I was able to place a #4 Camalot at the base of the pod, bu then struggled. My left foot was in the crack, but not high enough. My right foot was useless. I gastoned the lip of the crack with my right hand and tried to set a chicken wing with my left arm. I thrutched upwards by an inch or two and then tried to kick my right foot up on a small 2-inch dihedral, but I couldn't quite get it up there. I needed that to help push me into the pod. I sapped all my strength and slumped onto the cam.
I'm in the chimney/pod above the crux, but below the awesome handcrack above on the fourth pitch.
After resting, I tried again. This time I got my left foot higher. I dynamically bumped up my right hand on the arete and was then able to get my right foot in the small corner and grunted my way into the pod. I rested for quite a while in this pod before making difficult, overhanging moves out of it and stretching around the corner to reach a handjam. The rest of the pitch was perfect hands, but very steep and burly. I barely got this section clean, but there appeared footholds that allowed placing gear nicely. The crack ended at a big roof and the pitch required an ten-foot traverse leftwards to get around it. I put in a bomber #2 Camalot in the corner and then crimped positive edges with just smearing for feet until around the roof and up to the belay. I knew Mark was going to have to free this traverse because there was nothing to lower-out from.

Mark approaching the traverse at the top of the fourth pitch.
Mark jugged the overhanging pitch with some difficulty removing the gear because of the tension on the rope. When he got to the roof he was glad I was nearby to talk him through it. I instructed him to clip into the Camalot and another piece to be safe. He'd then have to get off his jugs and I'll pull in the slack and put him on belay so that he could free climb over to the belay. But he balked at this plan. The Camalot in the roof was his and twenty years old. He decided to leave it and lower out on it. He wanted to learn how to lower out anyway. He did this expertly and was soon at the belay. I offered to climb back across the traverse to get the cam, but Mark wanted to leave it for future parties.

Mark after lowering out from the Camalot he left behind (go get your booty!)
The fifth pitch started with a very committing lieback of a thin crack. At the start I could barely get my tips in the crack and had to smear against a smooth wall. I barely made the reach up to a better hold. I climbed up a bit further and blindly placed another cam just before my feet slipped. I didn't come off, but it gave me scare. Higher up the climbing is cryptic as the crack closes down to just a quarter of an inch wide -- not useable. I gastoned holds out to my left and used opposing pressure with my right hand and barely made a reach to a higher hold. I could then reach right and place a cam. Some tricky stemming put another a block. Some easy liebacking led to a final burly lieback, protected by my trusty #4.5 Camalot.

This pitch ended on a huge pedestal on the eastern end of the tower. Three drilled pitons served as the anchor. Mark elected to jug the pitch and soon joined m on the big ledge. The last pitch loomed above us.  Protected by 13 bolts, the route followed the east buttress as it steepened from lower angle to slightly overhanging. I could barely reach the first bolt. Once I clipped it, I just grabbed the draw, pulled over as the start of the pitch is separate from the pedestal by a gap, and climbed up to step atop the pin. From there I could barely reach the next bolt and above it the angle eased and I had to free climb up low angle, but sandy slabs for 20-30 feet. Two more bolts and more easy free climbing let to the final bolt ladder which necessitated top-stepping to reach each successive bolt, though angle allowed this without too much difficulty.
Looking down the fourth pitch from near the top of it.
Once on top of the tower I looked in vain for the final anchors. There were none. I had brought with me just a few small pieces to possible protect the free climbing sections. I couldn't pull up the pack as Mark had decided to carry it on this pitch and I clipped the haulline into one of the bolts to prevent it from being blown around the tower. It was exceptionally windy. I managed to find a placement for my one cam: a #0.5 in a shallow, flared crack. I put in a couple of large stoppers that just barely fit. It probably would have held. At least a 90% chance. Probably 95%. Would I bet Mark's life on that? I pulled up the entire haulline and walked 100 feet across the tower to the far end, where Otto's Route topped out and secured the hauline to that anchor. I then ran it all the way across the top of the tower back to my anchor and clipped it into that. Next time I'll bring more gear on the final pitch.

Mark topping out on the fifth pitch.
Mark encountered new problems jugging the last pitch. The free climbing sections had to be freed by him as well, otherwise he'd have swung way to the right, risking a nasty pendulum. He had to climb and move up his jugs at the same time. Also, the start was so low-angle that it made it awkward to jug. And the top had free-hanging sections which were quite physical. Once both of us were on top, we didn't waste much time heading down. We were out of water and too parched to enjoy the food we brought. Plus the wind was brutal.

Looking up the final pitch.
We belayed each other over the edge to the Otto's Route rappel anchors and then I rapped first on our fixed lead line, while pulling our haulline down with me. The idea was to avoid the wind whipping the ropes around to the opposite side of the tower. I didn't take all the lead rope with me, though and Mark eventually had to let the free end go. By then I was a hundred feet down and the rope came down fine. It's three rappels to the ground and after I got up the first rappel and yelled up "Off rappel" I was surprised to hear Mark yell, "Rope!" and drop the end of the haulline. Oops! At first I thought we'd just have to climb back up Otto's route to fix this problem, but, doh, Mark could just haul up the haulline with the lead rope. He'd have to risk the blowing rope on this rappel, but it went fine. We did two more raps and were soon on the ground.
Mark jugging the last pitch.
Originally we thought we might also climb Otto's Route, but Mark's ankle was hurting him and we decided not to push. We packed up the gear and walked around to the other side of the tower, to where we started, and had a late lunch. We reclined there and chatted for a long time, enjoying the views of the desert. On the hike out, just like on the hike in, we spotted a desert bighorn. These are raw sights and it was a great end to our adventure.

On the summit!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Racing the Iron Horse

My best friend in high school, Magoo, went to Fort Lewis College in Durango. That was probably the first time I ever really acknowledged Durango. I went there a couple of times to visit Magoo, but that was it. I next visited it when Sheri and I were working on climbing all the Colorado 14ers. I learned that the best way to access the three (or four, depending upon how you count them) Chicago Basin 14ers was by taking the train (a train!) from Durango to Needleton. Needleton itself was just a stop on the line. There isn’t a town there, at least anymore. The only way to get there is the train or by hiking an additional twenty miles (roundtrip). I thought that was so cool that you had to take the train. Most Americans, at least outside of big cities, don’t ride trains and hence this was a mini-adventure in itself. This train is an old coal-burning locomotive and is quite nostalgic. It’s a big tourist attraction now and many people ride it all the way to Silverton to experience the spectacular scenery.

At some point I learned about the Iron Horse Bike Race. This takes place the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and is the longest continuously run bike race in the United States. They’ve been doing it for 48 years. The premise is super cool. Cyclists start at the train station in Durango at the same time that the trail pulls out. The goal is to beat the train to Silverton. There are no roads that go along the tracks, of course, so cyclists take a different route - highway 550. The distance is 49 miles and has about 6000 feet of climbing (my GPS registered 5600, others got 5800+, and the medal that you get says it has 6800). The ride starts at around 6000 feet of elevation and ends at 9000 feet, so you do 3000 more feet of climbing than you get to descend.

That’s a non-trivial bike ride. And to do that two days before the Bolder Boulder wouldn’t be recommended if you cared about your race time. Hence, despite having this bike race on my list of things to do, I hadn’t done it yet. The motivation to finally do it was my brother-in-law Carl, married to Sheri’s sister Tara. They live in Durango and he’d signed up for the race too. My performance at the Bolder Boulder has been on a steady decline for 17 years (I peaked at age 40), and I am in danger of not breaking 50 minutes or 8 minutes/mile. At this point I realized that I couldn’t really be taking the Bolder Boulder too seriously. I don’t do much training for it and I don’t run fast. So, how much could one bike ride hurt me? At the worst, the bike race would give me an excuse for any subpar performance at the Bolder Boulder. Plus, Sheri wanted to go to Durango as well to see her sister’s house and would serve as my support crew and personal driver. Sweet. I signed up.

Months later I got a package in the mail. It has a race number in it. I wondered, what the heck is this? Oh yeah, the Iron Horse Race. It had been five months since I had been on a bike. I promptly went out for a ride. That was my one and only training ride. My bike wasn’t in good shape and I needed to replace my chain rings, rear cassette, chain, etc. I decided to upgrade my entire bike. By the time I selected the parts, ordered them, and installed them on my bike, time was short. I finished building the bike on Sunday. Monday it snowed and remained snowy and rainy all week until the Friday before the race. I hopped on the bike that morning and did an easy hour on it, making sure everything worked well. Then I put it in the car and Sheri and I drove 7 hours to Tara and Carl’s house.

The Iron Horse Race has grown to include waves for professional riders, lots of age-group categories and a Citizens Tour, with more than 2000 riders in total. I signed up too late to get into the age-group categories, so I entered the Citizens Tour, which isn’t timed. So, technically it wasn’t a bike race, but I treated it as one. The real racing categories go off in waves at 7:30 a.m. The Citizen Tour is the only group that actually races the train, starting at 8 a.m. with the train whistle acting as the starting gun. This Tour should have had 1500 riders in it, but as I staged in the corral it seemed like no more than a few hundred. Five hundred tops. I could have easily worked my way to very front. Where was everybody?

Carl wasn’t in the corral with me because he had elected to start an hour early. I think he did so to give him a better chance to beat the train. The train takes around 3.5 hours to get to Silverton, so beating it over this course is non-trivial. Carl wanted some extra time. I’d find out soon that this is extremely common. In fact, I’d estimate that 75% of the Citizens Tour start before the official start. Since it isn’t timed, it doesn’t really matter. Carl certainly wasn’t the first to start at 7 a.m. He’d be caught and passed by all the racers (the winning pro time was 2h28m), and many of the Citizen Tour as well. He wasn’t racing anyone, besides maybe the train. He was here to just finish the ride — a big challenge for him at 63 years old and carrying at least fifteen extra pounds.
In Durango at the start of the "race".
The whistle blew and we took off, riding behind a police escort through town. The first twelve miles of the course is relatively flat and I stayed towards the front, but well out of the wind, relaxing as much as possible and just following wheels. I was very attentive though, as I figured most of these riders were not bike racers and even though they may be quite fit, they might not be experienced pack riders. I figured the most dangerous part of the race was riding in this pack for this flat stretch. Things went well though and I had no close calls and everyone rode quite nicely. Almost immediately we started passing riders that had started early and were much slower than the head of our peloton. These riders were the biggest hazards as they frequently didn’t ride to the far right side of the road. We passed these riders within the first half-mile and would continually pass them for the next 50 miles, all the way into Silverton. I’d found the missing riders.

For the first thirty miles, up to the Purgatory Ski Area, the race had the entire use of the right line. With the shoulder, that gave us tons of riding room and moving around was easy for the entire race. Once passed Purgatory the entire highway was closed to cars. That was really nice. The weather was great too, though that was in doubt right up until the morning of the race. The mountains around Silverton have a snowpack that is 375% of average for this time of year. You read that right: 375%. They got snow two days before the race. I was worried about the cold before this race and dressed in leggings, armies, shoe covers, and even heaters in my shoes. I brought and expected to wear my windshell at the start and on the two steep downhills. It was 45 degrees at the start. The high in Silverton that day was supposed to be 52 degrees and the high on Molas Pass was supposed to be 39. Yet, we had very little wind and bright sunshine the entire way. I never put on my shell and conditions turned out to be nearly ideal.

Due to all the snow the Purgatory Ski area was open! A couple of riders rode with skis and boots on their backs and took one run at Purgatory before continuing all the way to Silverton. That’s cool. I saw one guy on a giant unicycle. I saw a few tandems and one of them had a kid trail bike on it. I joked to the couple as I passed them that they had put the big engine in the back. On the first climb I could hear a bike coming up on me fast. I wondered how a rider that much faster than me could still be behind me. Maybe a racer had missed the start and still wanted to get in a hard workout. Then he went by and I understood. He was riding an electric bike and was flying by all of us. He’d end up passing me three more times, all on the hills. I never remember passing him, though. Maybe he was taking extended breaks at the aid stations. Maybe he was getting in a quick charge. He’d surely have to do a lot of the work himself as the battery couldn’t power the entire ride. The last time he passed me, on the final climb, the rider next to me muttered, “F-ing electric bikes.” I could understand the sentiment, but it didn’t bother me in the least. It wasn’t like we were racing him. Electric bikes are cool. One might be in my future. Though I think they are technically illegal in this Tour, but maybe only in the timed race. All of these riders started well before 8 a.m. One rider that was particularly notable did not, though, because I didn’t see him until he finished in Silverton. I wouldn’t have missed him, though, because what he did is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
In Silverton at the end of the race.
This guy finished with a very respectable time of four hours and change. He did it with one leg! Why only one leg? That’s all he had. His leg was amputated at his groin. When I saw him go by my jaw dropped. Literally. I was speechless. I couldn’t even imagine how he stayed on his seat without anything on the other side of it. I looked across the finishing chute to another rider who saw the same thing. His mind was clearly boggled as well. He said, “Did you see how big that leg was?” Indeed, this was a big guy, well over six feet tall, maybe 6’5” or more. Fit, too. And his left thigh was about as big around as my waist. And I’m not particularly thin. I once did a couple of training exercises of riding with just one leg. It’s incredibly difficult and extremely tiring. Now imagine doing 6000 vertical feet of that over 50 miles with a central climb that is roughly equivalent to SuperFlag. I have many friends who are outrageous athletes, professional athletes who special in endurance. I don’t think any one of them could ride SuperFlag with one leg. That’s saying a lot, I know, and I might be wrong, but that’s what I thought when this guy came by. It just didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t shake my amazement, so inspired by the toughness and resilience of this guy. I went to search for him. I wanted to tell him how amazing he was. I wanted to get a photo with him. Yet, I couldn’t find him. I searched and searched and asked a number of people for the one-legged man, but no one had seen him. I guess he rode so normally that unless you really looked at him, you wouldn’t notice. Off the bike he was probably laying down, as he’d need crutches to walk. It was biggest disappointment of my day. I want to find this guy.

After the opening flat stretch the route climbs steadily for ten miles or so to Purgatory. One of the steepest stretches is on this section, though it is short. Near the top of this section, I rode past a couple of young, thin girls, probably thirteen years old. The one in the lead says, “Great job” to me as I moved by. I returned the encouragement, not expecting to see her again. After this long section the ride consists of two hard climbs. The first is Coal Bank, which gains 2000 feet in five miles — roughly equivalent to SuperFlag, though no sections as steep as the upper part. Then there is a fast 3-mile descent before the last climb up to Molas Pass, a climb of about 900 feet. From the top of Molas Pass it is a screaming fast descent down into Silverton.

I felt really slow grinding my way up Coal Bank. Whereas before I was passing earlier riders at a much higher pace, I now slowly crept by them. Near the bottom of this climb I went by Carl. He was stopped, taking a short rest to eat something. I called out his name and put out my hand for a high five, but he didn’t register it was me until I was by. We had previously thought that I might catch him, but I was surprised to catch him so early. I think it was a combination of how fast the pack got me through the first 12 miles and Carl having a tough day. We found out later that it would get much worse for him.
Carl and Tara in Silverton -- all smiles despite the difficulties.
A mile or two up this climb the thirteen-year-old girl, her name was Maggie, came by me. She was just as friendly and just as positive passing me as she was when I passed her. This was a new, very humbling experience for me. To be passed by a girl so young on a bike. Girls that young have been running by me for years, but on a bike? That’s a first. I sure hope she goes on to be an Olympic champion, if not for her, for my ego!

At the top of Coal Bank I made my only stop and it was for less than 60 seconds. I didn’t even get off the bike, but waited while a volunteer filled up one of my bottles. Just before the start of the last climb, at the last bit of downhill, I caught up to and passed Maggie. She was so light the wind resistance limited how fast she could descend. I told her that I wanted to give her another chance to drop me on the hill. She did. Twice. After passing me the first time, she stopped to strip off a layer. Then she passed me again.

The start of the Molas Pass climbed was a bit disheartening because we went straight into a considerable headwind. I slowed to a crawl and labored up this last climb. I was starting to calculate my chances of beating the train. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the finish from the pass, but it might have been 9 miles. To be sure I wanted to be atop the pass by 11 a.m., three hours into the ride and giving me 30 minutes to get to the finish. I didn’t top out until 11:07 and felt some pressure. I wanted to give it all I had.

I punched it over the top and slid my hands down into the drops. I laid across my top tube in the most aerodynamic position I could muster without straddling the bar. I’ve done that before but with the wind and hitting speeds of 48 mph, I felt that was too risky. Still I blasted by every rider ahead of me, including the soon-to-be-pro, whippet-thin Maggie. Incidently, I did asked her if she was a racer and she confirmed it, saying, "Yes, but mostly a mountain biker."

Once in town, it’s at least a mile of a slight uphill grade to the finish. The coned chute is nearly half-a-mile long and I started to fade before the line. I finished in 3h19m and well ahead of the train, which didn’t make it to town until 11:44.

As I raced down the chute I searched for Sheri and Tara, sure to be there cheering me on and maybe snapping a finish photo. But I didn’t see them. After finishing, I pulled out my phone and sent Sheri a text message: I’m here. She sent back: “Ack! We’re getting coffee! Coming to the finish now.” Ten minutes later we met up at the finish. Obviously they didn’t expect me that early. I was pretty sure I’d break 4 hours and told Sheri that sub 3:30 was possible, but that was before I realized that I didn’t get 6000 feet of descending on this course. No biggie.
The coveted participation medal...
After recovering a bit I changed out of my kit at the car and we lined the chute looking for Carl and cheering on all the riders. When I finished I took a rough guess and figured Carl would be an hour behind me. But that hour came and went. We knew the cut-off time at Molas Pass was 1:15 p.m. and when 1:20 came and went we figured he must be over the top and on his way down. I’d come down from the summit to the finish in 12 minutes (35 mph average?!). We gave Carl 20 minutes before we’d start thinking about other possibilities (like a crash). At 1:28 p.m. he surprised us by going nearly by us before Sheri recognized him. We had thought he was in a white jersey. It was blue. We had thought he had a white helmet on. It was red. Two finishes, two misses.

At the finish Carl related his story of GI distress. He figured he spent maybe 90 minutes not moving. He contemplated turning around and dropping out at one point mainly because he could reach a bathroom quicker by descending than climbing up to the porta-potty on the summit. But he persevered and finished. He was in remarkably good spirits. It was very unfortunate to have those troubles, especially on race day when you’ve trained for six months. But these things happen and he didn’t mope about it one bit. You might think such a tough experience would lead one to say, “I’m done with that event.” Yet, not two hours after finishing he was vowing to go again next year. And I signed on as well. I can see that Iron Horse engineer already plotting his strategy on how to beat me. He’s going to stoke that fire even hotter. He's going to grease that axle. Maybe he’ll look into a fairing for the front. I’ll be ready. Bring it on, Iron Horse. My carbon steed will be ready.

Monday, April 29, 2019

We Came, We Saw, We Got Conquered…Again and Again

Photos - coming

Nowadays, whenever someone asks if I’m training for something, my answer is: Fitz Roy! Depending upon who’s asking, they might not recognize that name. Climbers know it. At least alpine climbers. Sport climbers might not have heard about it. Exclusive gym climbers almost certainly haven’t heard of it. But I only know one person who is exclusively a gym climber: Steph Ehret - Peter Bakwin’s wife. I’ve been asked about my training goal twice on trail runs, most recently on the Skyline. I caught up to a group of ultra-runners, which is remarkable in itself, as I don’t catch up to many people these days, no matter what I’m doing, but especially not running. Anyway, I asked him what the group was training for and he responded with a list of ultramarathons. When he queried me I gave my usual response. He’d heard of the mountain. Whenever that happens I expect the person to be confused how scooting along a local trail is going to help me get up the monster that is Fitz Roy. He didn’t though. Maybe he realized it was just one aspect of my training. All I’d been doing lately was trail running and gym climbing. That should do it, right? On the off chance it wasn’t sufficient, we planned this trip to Zion to see if desert trad/aid climbing was significantly different from gym climbing. Turns out, it is different.


We met my buddy Mark in Zion. He was training with us as well, though he wasn’t planning on Fitz Roy. We had plans for him to join us on another of our training adventures. I say “training”, but all of these, save the gym and the trails, are full-on adventures on their own. Mark secured us an early-drive-in permit for the next day and brought lunch to our campsite. Derek and I had set up our tent and organized our gear. Our plan was to take the shuttle bus into the Big Bend stop and do the first two pitches of the Touchstone Wall to warm-up our aid skills. Mark was new to jugging and had only done it three times before; first in a gym and then a couple of times at crags near his house in Provo. Derek and I hadn't stood in slings since we climbed Lurking Fear on El Cap two years ago.

It was after two p.m. by the time we arrived at the base of the wall so we weren’t surprised to find no one there. In fact, during this whole trip we only saw one party that wasn’t climbing Moonlight Buttress or Shune’s Buttress and this party (Spencer and Spencer’s partner) arrived at Touchstone just twenty minutes after we got there. They were there to fix the first couple of pitches before finishing the route the next day. It was overly warm for this time of year, though, with temperatures hitting 85 or hotter in the afternoon,

Derek led the first pitch, just like he’d done two years ago, but this time he was more confident and a lot faster. This isn’t due to a lot more aid practice, but just general confidence in his climbing ability and more trad leading experience. He set up the belay and expertly flaked both of the ropes he had trailed. Mark was jugging the lead line, which trended strongly to the right, giving him some practice with jumping the jugs around pieces and learning how to lower himself out using his lower jug and pulling on the rope beneath it. Derek made one lead mistake when he back cleaned some bolts on the hard traverse to the right. Mark had to lower out from the last sling and was then too far to the right to clean it. In this case we were saved by Spencer and his partner cleaning it for us. All the while Mark was jugging I was to his right jugging the free line and offering advice and instruction.
Once Mark was directly under the belay, I headed to to Derek’s hanging belay to take the next lead. The second pitch of the Touchstone Wall is the crux C2 pitch. I’d been up the route twice before and both times led this pitch, which turns a 3-foot roof via a thin flared crack. The first time I did this route, probably twenty years ago, there was a pin over the lip of the roof and I was able to do one semi-free move and clip it. Two years ago this pin wasn’t there any longer and I found it quite challenging to get a solid placement, taking one fall when a piece pulled. Despite that, I was confident I’d zip up the pitch.

I made quick work of the bolts leading up to the roof and then traversing sideways to the left beneath it. I backcleaned the traverse because the top bolt had a lower-out sling on it and this would allow Derek to skip the horizontal jugging and just lower out. Of course, then he’d be faced with a twenty-foot free-climbing jug up to the lip of the roof. This is quite strenuous jugging when you don’t have a wall on which to brace your feet.

I had lots of trouble getting a placement over the roof, trying three or four different pieces before using the third smallest RP. In the course of trying things I pulled off a #2 Camalot and then, unknown to me, failed to secure it back onto my rack. It was on there somehow but eventually dislodged and fell. I only knew this when Derek yelled down to the others “Rock!” Dang. That’s sloppy and scary for your partners. They rightfully wondered what was going on with me. Unfortunately it got worse.

I gingerly stepped up on the RP, expecting it to pop at any moment. I didn’t want to Fifi into it for fear of putting any outward force on it. I strenuously balanced in my aiders, which hung free of the wall just below the roof, while struggling to get the next placement. Eventually I got another marginal placement, an offset cam in a sandy flare. From there I could get in a solid piece and when I pulled up my aiders, it hit the RP placement, which I stupidly hadn’t clipped to the rope after getting off it, and it fell out and plummeted toward the ground. Derek yelled “Rock” again and I felt like a complete Gumby. And a frazzled one at that. Between the dicey placements, my dropped gear, and my glacial pace, I elected to use the intermediate belay that was just thirty feet above the roof. This was just supposed to be a gentle warm-up and I was turning it into an ordeal.

I clipped into the belay, pulled up the lead line and fixed it for Derek. This was a pure hanging belay with no hint of a foothold. I stood in my aiders and fixed my end of the lead rope to the belay. Instead of having three of us in such cramped quarters, I’d rappel a single line to the ground once Derek arrived. Then Mark would jug up and they’d both rappel down on the doubled line.

Derek quickly remembered the technique for lowering out and then fought with the overhanging jug a bit because they were adjusted for the vertical terrain of the first pitch and not a free-hanging ascent. Mark had an even more strenuous jug because he ascended the free line that hung clear of the wall all the way to the belay. By the time he got down he was glad that our goal climbs were generally a bit less than vertical.

Back on the ground I found both of the pieces I dropped, but my confidence was shaken and I worried a bit of what my partners thought. I assured them I’d do better the next day.

We then walked the banks of the Virgin River, trying to find a safe place in which to wade across, as we’d hoped to climb Moonlight Buttress the next day. We later learned that the river was flowing at 940 cps (cubic feet per second) and rising each day. To put that in perspective, the Narrows hike doesn’t open until the flow drops below 150 cps. We didn’t find anything that looked safe, as least while carrying a heavy climbing pack. I feared if you fell in the river, you might have to ditch the pack to survive and lose a thousand dollars worth of gear and ending the trip. We’d later talked to two climbers who also didn’t think it was safe and their solution was to go to the top of the route and rappel in. That didn’t appeal to us. It was possible to cross the river at the Angels Landing trail and then bushwhack all the way around the Organ, and Angels Landing and then along the bank to Moonlight, but that didn’t seem appealing to us either. We decided to try a different route on the other side of the canyon, one that didn’t involve a river crossing. We settled on Space Shot. I’d done this route about fifteen years ago with Mark Hudon. I led every pitch on the route that day, as Mark was content to just belay and shoot photos. My confidence was high, despite my troubles on this day and some ominous comments on

After a birthday dinner (my birthday) in town (thanks, Mark!), we hit the bags with our alarms set for 5 a.m.

Space Shot

“Pitch 5 is now harder than the crux on the Shield (on El Cap).”
“Bring hooks and be prepared to bust a move on the last pitch.”

Why didn’t I pay more heed to these comments on Why didn’t I bring the essential offset nuts? I’m supposed to be experienced. I might not be that strong of a climber, but I’ve been climbing a long time. Too long to be making dumb mistakes like this. I’m headed to Fitz Roy at the end of this year because I wanted to give it a shot before my skills deteriorated too much to put this climb out of reach. I wonder now if I’ve waited too long…

We drove into the canyon, to the turnout for Space Shot and then started organizing our gear. We didn’t do it last night because it was late and we were tired. It wasn’t an issue because it was still dark. After a bathroom stop, we headed up in the light. After five minutes we were at the base of the route. I led the first pitch, 5.5, and Derek followed dragging the second rope. While Derek led the second pitch, a fun 5.7 chimney/corner pitch, Mark jugged the first pitch. I then followed and led the third pitch up to the start of the hard climbing.

While Mark jugged the third pitch, Derek headed up the fourth pitch. This pitch starts with a very reach-y bolt ladder. In fact, off the first bolt Derek had to stand in his hero loop and grab some holds above to reach the second bolt, and he’s six feet tall. We saw a duct-taped stick at the base of this wall, clearly made as a cheater stick. If you are less than six feet, you’d either need one of these or have to pull up out of your aiders completely, lock off on one hand, and clip the second bolt.

Once by this move, he moved steadily up the bolts with other high steps moves until they ran out where an incipient, flared, sandy, horrible crack started. The rest of the pitch, seventy feet of it, was dicey, scary aid climbing. We could hear Derek above semi-talking to us. He wasn’t really, as we couldn’t hear him, but he was just talking aloud about how nervous he was or how  bad the placements were. I knew he was scared and it was still a new experience for me: having Derek above me and in some distress. I can’t help him at this point. He’s so far away and out of sight that I can’t even give suggestions or advice. He’s totally on his own and all I can do it belay and keep him safe if he falls. I knew he hadn’t pulled out half the rope yet and hence could be lowered down, provided he had a piece good enough to lower off of. I heard such stress in the timbre of his voice that I expected this, yet the rope kept moving out, slowly, very slowly, but he wasn’t coming down. At one point he yelled “Watch me!” A couple of times the rope was jerked upwards hard, a couple of times in a row. If it was three times, that would mean he’s off belay. Each time that happened I prayed for a third tug, but it didn’t come. He passed the halfway mark on our 70-meter rope. The guidebook said it was a 40-meter pitch. The rope kept inching out and eventually, blessedly, finally the call came down: “Off belay!”

I got on my jugs and moved upwards at a quick pace, at first. Then the steepness of the wall got to me, especially my already hurting right elbow. Mark was complaining a bit about that and certainly jugging a vertical line puts a lot of stress on your elbows. I cleaned the bolt ladder and then the angled eased a bit and I started cleaning gear from the crack. The climbing looked hard and scary. The placements were technical and marginal. One was our smallest offset cam and the two bigger lobes were barely in contact with the rock. Yikes! I wouldn’t have wanted to get on that cam. Few of the placements looked bomber. I wonder how many could have held a fall. Further up was a sizable gap where Derek had to free climb above marginal gear. I’d have been very frightened and I wondered if I’d have been able to complete the pitch. I forced those thoughts out of my mind because the next pitch was even harder and it was my lead.

When I got up to Derek, at another pure hanging belay, he said, “I hated that. It was horrible.” I understood exactly those emotions. I’d been there before. Something like that you don’t want to repeat, but you’re glad to have pushed through and got the rope up for the team.

We re-racked and I was soon leading the next pitch, which goes pretty smoothly, though very steep, up to an intermediate belay. After clipping the belay I made a huge reach to my right and clipped a bolt and then up and a bit further right was a drilled angle. This got to a thin seam that only occasionally opened up enough for any gear options. I placed a bomber stopper at the start of this crack and got on it. Above the wall was slightly less than vertical, which allowed very tenuous top-stepping in the aiders. What I saw above me looked grim: flared pockets, flared openings, and nothing looking remotely solid.

I stepped high and tried my small Ball-nut into one-inch long, one-eighth of an inch wide crack. When I pulled on it, the ball pulled nearly past the nut, but it held. It looked like a time bomb, but I jerked on it and it held so I clipped in my aider and I eased onto it. It took my weight for a few seconds before ripping off and I fell onto my daisy, still clipped to the stopper below. This is an unpleasant fall because daisies do not stretch. At all. This also put such force onto the nut as to make it irretrievable without a hammer, which we did’t have and wouldn’t have used anyway.

I righted myself and went back up to my topstep and struggled to find a placement. This was strenuous and stressful work, as the balance was tenuous and held myself to the wall via a Gaston with my left hand while searching my rack, mostly to no avail. I eventually got a larger offset cam to stick on our of the flared holds. The outer cams weren’t touching the rock, though. It looked terrible, but tugs didn’t dislodge it, so I clipped in an aider and once again eased onto the placement. This time I climbed up the ladder a step or two before it blew and once again I fell onto my daisy.

This was just the start of this crux crack, which went for forty feet to the belay anchors. I decided that I’d had enough. It did look like there would eventually be better placements but until then I feared I’d rip everything I’d be able to put in. I called down to my partners that I was out and asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. By anyone, I meant Derek, as Mark really had no business on the sharp end here. In all of our climbing together I think I’ve only been turned around once with Derek, on Galactic Hitchhiker in Yosemite last year. Then it never occurred to me to ask Derek if he wanted to try it. That would have been silly. If it was too scary and hard for me then there is no way I’d let Derek try it. To my surprise, Derek responded, “I’ll come up and take a fall or two.” What?! After his mind-stretching lead on the first pitch, the lead he hated, he now wanted more? Already? After I couldn’t do it? With my vast experience over his meager experience? Okay. I fully expected him to take one look at this crack and say, “Ah, I see the problem. Yup, let’s go down.” This was a similar crack to the one he had climbed on the first pitch, only thinner and steeper.

I fixed the line and Derek jugged up to me and took over the lead. Mark remained at the hanging belay below. I’m at the hanging intermediate belay with my feet fast going asleep as my harness cuts off my circulation. Derek makes the big reach right and repeats my earlier moves over to the stopper to check out the crack. After getting a good look, he didn’t retreat, but instead headed up! He stood high in his aiders and probably placed the same large offset cam that I did. He got it to stick and then he got on it. It held, so he unclipped his lower aider from the stopper and just as he started to move up, it pulled and down he came, but he was caught by the rope, a softer, albeit a bit longer fall. Yikes. Yet Derek immediately laughed. A genuine laugh. He just fell ten feet on a blank wall, five hundred feet above the ground. When I fell I didn’t yell and I remained calm an outwardly unflustered, but I did not laugh. I feared trying again.

So, down we go, right? Nope. He’s soon on the stopper again and this time placing a smaller offset cam in a lower pod, something either I didn’t consider or rejected or maybe it would have been my third choice had I the mental toughness to risk a third fall. Derek got it to stick and eased onto it. He hung on it for a bit. Then he pulled the aider from the stopper and moved up a step. He put in a two-cam 0.3 and eased onto that. It held and he pulled up and clipped a fixed stopper that was hidden behind a tiny plant in the crack. Cool. He was now three placements above where I’d been.

I knew right then, this was a change in our climbing partnership. Maybe not a permanent one just yet, but soon he’d be the go-to guy to put up the rope. I knew that was coming on harder, easier to protect climbing and that we were probably already there when it came to sport climbing, since he climbed so much harder than me in the gym, but I didn’t think we were even close to him taking the reigns on aid climbing, especially scary aid climbing. I struggled with this then and still do now. On the one hand I was glad to have someone to share the stress of leading, as it opens up harder climbing to us as a team because leading everything is stressful and weighs on me. On the other hand, the only thing I had to contribute to the partnership was my experience, my expertise with gear, and my cool head leading scary pitches. I didn’t have his finger strength, his endurance, or his power. Maybe this was the first step to losing him as a partner. He’ll seek out other climbers who could take him to the next level. I knew this was the endgame all along, I just hoped it was still years away. It was supposed to start with him taking leads that I could do, not by taking leads I couldn’t do. But it wasn’t just that. I was once again in the position of just belaying him as he entered the danger zone. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t bail him out. Watching a scary lead can be more scary than actually leading it, especially if it is your son.

He put in another dicey placement, another offset cam, I think. He got on it and it held and up he went. He called down that he wished he could turn the lead over to me at that point since it looked like only nuts were going to work above and he has very little experience placing them. He put in a marginal two-cam unit and considered it. He yanked on it and it held. He knew it looked bad. He thought he should find something better, but his previous two-cam placement held, so it got on it. It held and he moved to step up when it ripped out. Down he fell onto the offset below, ping! The next piece down pulled and he picked up speed and started to tumble backwards. This time he had time for a yell of fear to escape his mouth. The rope came tight on the next piece down, the fixed nut, and it held. I stopped Derek’s fall as he came about even with the belay, in fact a few feet below it. He’d fallen more than twenty feet.

Before I could even ask him if he was okay, Mark yelled up from below, “What’s the plan, guys?” I could tell he was getting stressed watching us take whippers up here. I was too. I sure wanted to go down and was thankful when Derek responded, “I’m done.” He didn’t seemed too rattled, but he didn’t want to go back up. It was still twenty more feet to the belay and the climbing didn’t appear to get appreciably easier.

Derek asked what to do next and I told him to climb back up to the pieces below the stopper and pull them. We’d leave the quickdraw on the fixed nut. He did so and I lowered him back down and he had to down-aid a move so that he could clean the draws off the bolt on the traverse. Once back at the belay, he clipped in, untied, pulled the rope from above and re-tied in. I lowered him back down to Mark, as the pitch moved right to left and I was worried he’d be dangling in space, if we just rappelled down. This way Mark could pull him into the belay with the line Derek was trailing.

Mark and Derek set up a single-rope rappel down the fourth pitch while I set up the rappel from the intermediate belay. As Mark was rappelling down to the top of the third pitch, I rappelled down to Derek at the top of the fourth pitch. Derek made sure I could get back to the belay by holding onto the ends of my rappel line and then he took off down the single line as well. I then tied the ropes together, cleaned the extra gear and rappelled down to join my companions. On the way down I noticed that there was a least some do-able climbing on the free variation (13a R) to the fourth pitch. This is the crux free climbing pitch of Space Shot. Since we were retreating, I was hoping to get a bit more done that day. I proposed that we try to toprope some of this pitch. I know that sounds crazy to toprope a 5.13 pitch when I’d have trouble toproping a 5.11 pitch, but some of the climbing looked do-able.

Derek went first. The pitch starts to the right of the aid pitch with some cool stemming/chimney moves between the main wall and the Rebozo Pinnacle — a six-foot in diameter tower that appears to be anchored via mud. We half joked that you stemmed with too much force, you’d push over the tower. Derek moved nicely up to the top of the tower where he had to gain the face at a bolt. The lower half of this pitch is protected by widely spaced bolts and the other half of this pitch joins the aid line and hence is marginally protected at best.

Mike and Mark Anderson were the first to free climb Space Shot in 200? It doesn’t seem to have seen many repeats though. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell freed it as part of a four-wall free linkup and Chris Weidner, again with Honnold, freed it and Monkeyfinger in a day. Quinn Brett did the first (and only?) female free ascent in 2017, after putting in about ten days of effort.

Derek moved up the face a bit and then had to make a hard traverse to the left via a tiny finger rail and no feet except a tiny nothing way off to the left. After one fall, he got it on his second try. This wasn’t the crux of the pitch, but sure felt like 5.12 to me when I couldn’t touch this move on my attempt. Derek moved up on the holds that enticed me to try this baby, probably 5.10 climbing for fifteen feet before another 5.12 section. He got through that after a couple more falls and then, at the supposed 5.13 crux, he came down. My turn.

I got up the pillar okay and onto the face, but couldn’t do the 5.12 move. Thankfully I had Mark down there giving me an industrial-strength power belay and any movement I could make upwards was immediately captured and magnified and I inched upwards between swings back and forth across the wall as I’d come off and pendulum across to the fall line. Seeing Derek’s issues, I brought a sling with me and once I got to the 5.13 section I clipped into the bolt and yanked on it to get by. I felt the holds and tried to pull on them, but they were so tiny and with only vertical smears for the feet, it was way beyond me. Once by that section I was faced with the only part of the route that looked truly impossible: a ten foot traverse to the aid crack with no holds — for hands or feet. It wasn’t vertical here, but it was close to it. I was standing on a four-inch ledge at the start of this traverse with one tiny hold for my right hand and I could barely stand there. The next ten feet there was nothing at all. In Quinn’s description of this pitch her only mention of this section is “a technical step down.” I did not see any way to do this. I plan to call Quinn (I know her) and quiz her about this.

I swung across the traverse and continued clear up to the top of the pitch via the crack that Derek aided. I needed all Mark’s power belaying to make it. It seemed like some of this was 5.12. It isn’t that steep, but the crack is so bad, so shallow, so flared, so sandy. Quinn called it 5.11 R. Mike Anderson called it “easy”, but time consuming because of how difficult it was to place any solid gear.

We did three more rappels back to the ground and then toproped Alpine Start, a sandbag 5.9 lieback. None of us were too excited about doing it because it was full-on in the 85-degree sunshine, but I wanted to get more things done, even if it was just a toprope. Derek zipped up it first, but said it was pumpy. I went next and concurred. It was quality climbing, though and pretty much a pure lieback the entire way. A few hand jams down low and two rests eased the difficulty a bit, but there was a sting in the tail when the crack closed down completely at the top, requiring a big reach from a fingerlock.

We hiked down to the car and collapsed onto the shaded pavement to drink and rest. Then we walked the Virgin River banks once again. Mark tested a couple of crossings, going in to past knee-deep and making it to an intermediate island, but it still didn’t look safe enough for Derek and I. We wouldn’t try Moonlight Buttress on this trip.

We got back to camp around 7 p.m. and hung out a bit before Mark took off for home. Derek and I heated up some canned pasta for dinner and turned in before 10 p.m.

More Flailing

My alarm went off at 5 a.m., as usual, but I didn’t get out of my bag for another 30 minutes. I wasn’t motivated after my ass kicking the day before and I was going to let Derek drive the team today. Apparently he wasn’t that motivated either because he didn’t get out of the tent until three hours later. Then we sat around reading. I’m not sure what was going through Derek’s head because he did so well the day before, but for the first time in our partnership, I was waiting for him to get us going. Maybe he sensed my reluctance...?

The longer we waited, the hotter it became. We’d move periodically to stay in the shade, each reading out books. We didn’t make a move until after 3 p.m. Zion had beat me down in only a few pitches.

Our plan was to just go do the first three pitches of Iron Messiah. Since they were pretty short, we figured we could rap them with a single 60-meter rope and that was all we brought. We selected this route because it was in the shade. Conditions were not pleasant in the direct sun.
Upon getting off the bus at the Grotto, we soon found that our approach trail was closed, due to rock fall. Zion has experienced a lot of rockfall this year and the Observation Point trail was closed indefinitely because of it. The park is using a geologist to evaluate the terrain above the trail to determine if it is stable to warrant the repair and re-opening of the trail. Also the tunnel to the eastern side of Zion was closed when we got there, though it opened before we left.

Climbers don’t use established trails to get to their routes, so I briefly thought about just going over the barrier and continuing upwards, but the barrier is very prominent, right on the other side of the bridge, so we didn’t try it. As we turned around to retreat we looked directly up at Shune’s Buttress, an 11+ route I climbed with Stefan years ago, with him doing the heavy lifting. The route was in the shade and we contemplated doing the first pitch, but at 11+ and us with no aiders, it had the potential to turn into quite a mess. I pulled up mountain on my phone and found a 5.10 route called Booked Out that was near the base of Shune’s. It didn’t mention how long the pitch was, but said to use singles to #4 and it has a 2-bolt anchor. Cool.

We hiked up there, marveled at the sustained nature of the first pitch of Shune’s and then backtracked a bit to an “offset finger crack” with a clear wide section above. The guidebook mentioned that no offwidth moves are necessary as you can use compression moves instead. Whatever compression moves are… It had chalk on it and though I couldn’t see any anchors, I saw a small tree above on what looked like a small ledge. This must be it, I thought, and geared up. Despite the rack recommendations, I brought doubles. It would be my sole good decision of this entire trip.

I started up a ramp with a crack in it, but it soon ended at a vertical crack in a small inset on a little arete. I placed gear here and was able to lieback and crimp my way up the arete that formed the left side of this inset. Nice crack climbing above led to a chimney/flare section that was the crux of the route. It looked very intimidating as these things often do. This was a V-shaped slot that was initially maybe six feet deep. The crack in the back was really wide at the start, but five feet up I was able to place my #4 Camalot. The whole section was about twenty feet long. The walls were nearly featureless and I used my knees a lot in a desperate fight to stick to the sides. The entire weekend I climbed in long pants, but today I was in shorts. I didn’t even bring long pants in my pack. This is just dumb. I need the protection and my knees will be a glaring reminder of that fact for at least a week.

I grunted upwards and the flare became tighter and tighter. The crack had closed down to allow my #3 Camalot, but I had it pinned between myself and the wall and couldn’t free it. I was able to slide down to the lone foothold and ready the #3, something I should have done on the first time up. I went back up, got in the #3 and then, thrashed mightily until I was too tired and had Derek take me on the rope. Ugh. After resting I worked it out and exited to easier crack climbing.

There was still no sign of any 2-bolt belay and I seemed pretty high off the ground. I yelled down to Derek asking how much rope I had left and he confirmed the awful truth: I was more than halfway out with no anchor in sight. I was also running out of gear. I placed my second, and last, #1 Camalot forty feet below the tree above. I gained a ledge twenty feet below the tree and thought I had no gear left that would fit the climbing above. It was a hand crack and my largest piece left was a 0.5 Camalot. I looked twenty feet down at my #1 Camalot and then up at the 20-foot hand crack above me. It looked like a 5.9 hand crack. Maybe easier, but I’d be risking an 80-foot fall before it was over. Ugh. I thought about unroping so that I could lower down my rope and pull up some extra gear, but that would put me 120 feet off the ground, unroped, on a tiny stance. Then Derek would use the other end in order for my end to get to the bottom and I’d probably have to flip it around and throw it down multiple times. Nope, that was way too dangerous. Before I launched into the last bit I discovered that one section of the crack pinched down quickly. I was able to place my 0.5 Camalot deep in the crack. This gave me the confidence I needed to finish off the pitch, which was probably more like 5.8.

I got to the small tree and found no fixed anchor. Derek measured the remaining rope: sixty feet. So, I was 140 feet up. Bummer. I yelled down to Derek that I’d have to fix the line and rappel down, cleaning the gear and we’d have to come back tomorrow to retrieve the rope. He didn’t want to come back the next day, as he wanted to get home sooner. Plus, we were later to learn that rain was forecasted. Derek packed up and headed for the shuttle bus. I cleaned the pitch, packed the gear and hiked down to the shuttle bus stop to await Derek’s return. Derek had to get back to the camp, get our second rope and return without enough time for us to hike back up to the route, jug the fixed line with the extra rope, rap back down, pack up, and get back to the shuttle stop by the last bus, at 8:25 p.m.

My phone was dead so I had nothing to occupy my time. I talked to everyone waiting for the bus. I anxiously sat up and scanned all the passengers on each incoming bus. Then, at 7:38 Derek got off the bus with a big grin on his face and the second rope on his back. We booked it up the hill. I dropped my pack down low and put on my harness while Derek raced up to the ropes and setup the jugs on them I arrived clipped into the daisies and jugged the line in five minutes. I then got my daisies a bit tangled my rappel line so I slowed down and made sure I was safe. Soon I was back on the ground and stripping off my gear while Derek pulled down the ropes. We each coiled one and then ran down the hill to catch the second-to-last shuttle. Easy peasy. Unfortunately the two teams still descending Shune’s Buttress would have to walk the seven miles out of the Canyon.

We got off the shuttle at the Visitor Center and did the half-mile walk back to our site. As we approached out campsite something wasn’t right. That looked like our car, but there was a big truck there as well and two people around our picnic table with tons of gear spread out. Our site must be further down, I thought. Then one of the guys at the site got up and started walking toward us. What was up? He said, “Hey, Bill, it’s Connor.”

I had forgot that I gave him our site information a couple of days ago. Connor and his buddy Johnny offered us beers and we swapped climbing stories for a couple of hours. It was a nice end to our trip. We left the next morning at 5:20 a.m. Only ten pitches in two and a half days. Each day I was humbled in a different manner. My confidence has been shaken, but the only way to get it back is to keep trying.

Postscript: So, what pitch did I climb? From my Supertopo guidebook it looks like I did a variation start to Shune's Buttress. The topo rates this pitch 11-. Thank goodness. I was afraid the rating was going to be 5.9. Besides the flare, the climbing was great fun, protected well, and seemed pretty reasonable. Maybe even 5.9. Or maybe, as unlikely as this seems to me, I was climbing well enough where it really was harder...

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Itinerary Not Recommended

Angels Gate are the white summits to the right of the tallest mesa in the background, which is Wotan's Throne

I’m on a year-long quest to toughen myself up for long adventure days. Each month I planned to do an adventure that took at least 18 hours. Eventually, such an adventure will be the Third 
Flatiron, but I’m still reasonably fit and not ready for a walker, so my sights are set higher. Plus, I need to be a worthy partner for my 21-year-old son Derek. Luckily I’m friends with a lot of really tough people willing to bring me along.

In December I did the Top Ten Flatirons climbs in a single, winter day with the Modern Major General (Danny Gilbert). That was 16 hours, but I’m counting it, since the level of suffering was extreme. In January I climbed Mt. Harvard with Danny and Homie. It was less than 12 hours, but the winds were positively Patagonian, so I’m counting that too. Yes, I’m aware my standards are slipping. Perhaps in response to this I did the Running Up For Air in Salt Lake City - 9 laps up and down Mt. IcantRemember in February. Yes, it was a fully supported hike-athon with hot food every 2 or 3 hours, but I stayed in the game for more than 23 hours. Nothing like a continuous 23-hour adventure, but good enough to count.

Which brings us to March and the Grand Canyon. This is a good place for ultra runners to train vert when the mountains are too snowy. When Homie got into Hard Rock, I knew he’d be the ideal partner for something long in the Big Ditch. Most people think of the Grand Canyon as just…well, a huge canyon, but it is so huge that it has over 200 summits located in it. Some of them higher than the canyon rims. These summits are called temples. I’ve been slowly climbing the summits in the Grand Canyon and it was time for another.
Brahma (left) and Zoroaster (right)
My first temple was Zoroaster, which I climbed with the desert sage Opediah over three days. This temple, like so many I’m interested in, is located north of the Colorado River, yet the only access, in the spring anyway, is from the South Rim. Which makes for large adventures. I later went back and did Zoroaster and Brahma in a single 18-hour day with Homie, Stefan, and Buzz. The most photographed summit is Mt. Hayden, which is close to the North Rim. I climbed that with Homie and Loobster many years ago. We climbed it in the fall from the North Rim. The Loobster has been my partner on most of the temples, I’ve done, including the three toughest I’ve done: Buddha, Isis, and Vishnu, the latter with Homie as well.

The amount of suffering required to stand atop some of the temples is so extreme that it takes years for me to be interested in trying one again. They look so appealing, but the amount of just brutal, horrible, off-trail hiking is staggering. What better way to toughen up? To Homie, I proposed climbing Angels Gate. This is a twin-submitted temple with one called the Doghouse and the other Snoopy. The latter looks exactly like Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse. A summit that cool deserves some effort and this one required it: 50 miles roundtrip with maybe 13,000 feet of vertical gain, rim-to-rim. Of course it was on the north side of the Colorado River.
Pausing to admire Angels Gate while Hiking the Clear Creek Trail
I’m not sure if Homie used a full second to sign on, but it certainly wasn’t more than that. Derek was in as well and we scheduled it for the start of his spring break. Derek had previously done two temples: O’Neill Butte when he was ten years old and which he doesn’t really remember and Isis, which he’ll never forget. Isis was a super cool temple for me because my teammates were my 16-year-old son and my long-time partner - the 70-year-old, eternally youthful Looby Dooby Doo.

For this trip, Homie had an ace in the hole. He had met a New York ultra runner named Steve Hawkins on Bear Peak one day and ran with him for all of 15 minutes. He found out that Steve accepted a job at the Grand Canyon. He now lives a 5-minute walk from Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. This is a guy with which I was determined to form a lasting relationship.

Steve and Homie crossing the Black Ridge at Khazad Dum
With Steve in as our fourth, he lined up an overnight permit to camp at Clear Creek. This site is 17 miles from the South Rim (ten miles up river from Phantom Ranch) and the logical basecamp for an attempt on Angels Gate. Our plan was to leave Superior after work on Friday and arrive at the South Rim at noon on Saturday. But, Steve really does work at the Grand Canyon and he needed to be in the office Monday morning. So, when he signed up for a permit that said we’d go 17 miles on Saturday afternoon and then 32 miles and 9000 vertical feet on Sunday, the rangers made him sign a form that said “Itinerary Not Recommended.”

Our 2-pound Big Agnes tent at Clear Creek camp.
Our drive went smoothly and with the hour time change (Arizona abstains from Daylight Saving Time) we got to Steve’s house around 11 a.m. We ate some lunch, packed our gear, and hopped on the shuttle bus. Our plan was to hike down the shorter Kaibab Trail via the shuttle, since you couldn’t park there, and then come out the Bright Angel Trail and hike directly to Steve’s house. We started down from Yaki Point at 12:45 p.m. Six hours later we arrived at the Clear Creek  camp. Two other tents were here, but we found a nice spot between the two and out of sight of both. Steve brought a stove and we all cooked up some hot food. Homie scoped the half-mile descent of Clear Creek before we’d turn up a tributary and head for Angels Gate.

Heading up through the first cliff band out of the wash, before traversing into the Red Wall gully.
We got up at 5:00 a.m. and were moving around 5:30 a.m. Homie led us down to the confluence and we turned up the almost-entirely-dry wash. A mile or so up the wash it looked like it would dead end into a 200-foot cliff band. We found a cairn leading up the slope on the right and then followed our nose up to a bay with a big overhang. We hiked out left of this on steep terrain and onto the sloping, prickly-pear-encrusted strata above. We made a tedious traverse across this slope and eventually into the wash that led up to the Red Wall break below the Wotan’s Throne/Angels Gate saddle. Getting through the Red Wall was steep 4th class scrambling, though not long or sustained. We arrived at the saddle in less than two hours. Elated with our progress, Steve uttered the words that would doom us: “Heck, we’ll be back in camp by 9 a.m.!” We were not.
Steve starting up the 4th class climbing through the Red Wall break.
We take full responsibility for the flailing that ensued. It was our job to find the route on our own or do enough homework to help us find the route. We failed. Detailed information on how to climb this temple is non-existent. Or at least we couldn’t find it. I own the latest version of the Grand Canyon Summits guidebook (out of print) and while I highly recommend this book and very much appreciate the effort that went in to compile this information, the info on Angel’s Gate is confusing and a bit frustrating. The black-and-white photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai cliff bands is of extremely poor quality. A key bit of missing information is the aspect from which the photo was taken. I had mistakenly assumed it was taken from the saddle. This was a dumb assumption on my part. Also, the text description in the guidebook does not match the track on the photo. The terrain from the saddle through the Supai bands is complicated to say the least. A climber must negotiate three smaller bands before reaching the impressive 150-foot final barrier, which just leads to the temple itself.

At the Wotan/Angels Gate saddle. The summit above us but the red Supai bars the way.
We got through two of the bands via a continually rightward traverse to the base of the third band. Here we made our first mistake. The photo showed the route traversing right underneath the fourth and largest band. Instead, we traversed under the third band, way around to the north and then to the west, without finding any break in the wall above us. The difficulties here were only supposed to be fourth class, but we found nothing easier than 5.10 or 5.11 or worse, which we were not prepared to do with our 100-foot, 7.8mm rope and rack of four cams. The route on Angels Gate, which we wouldn’t get to, is supposedly 2-pitches: 5.7 and 4th class. Hence, the minimal gear.

At the corner at the base of the third Supai band - the wrong place.
At one point Homie found a possibility and wanted me to check it out, as I traversed back towards him, I moved around a mini cliff and the top of it broke off. As I started to fall down the slope I immediately thought of my buddy Dave Mackey, who had rocks collapse on him and follow him down the slope to land on him and crush his leg. I pushed aggressively with my legs to avoid the rock coming with me and hit awkwardly and then tumbled once down the slope, bashing into a multitude of nasty rocks, but miraculously no cacti or yucca. I stopped, battered, bruised, and bleeding, and Steve was on me in seconds. He got my pack off and I got my breathing under control. I had cuts on my legs and shoulders, but what hurt the most was my right index finger, though it showed no sign of trauma. It felt like it had been partially crushed. After a few minutes I was able to continue, though a bit shaken and definitely more respectable of the suspect nature of the Supai.

Derek climbing through the third Supai band.
We finally figured out our mistake and traversed all the way back around and then had to traverse even further to our left to find a scramble through the third band. We then proceeded to the imposing fourth band and traversed right again. Sure we had it right this time, we scanned the wall above as we moved right. We went around the corner and saw nothing climbable. Disappointing to be sure, but the next corner wasn’t far away. Surely it was around the corner. Nope. The next corner was a substantial traverse. Dejected, we stopped to re-read what we had and to look at the photo again. Homie continued more than halfway across to the next corner and found nothing climbable, nor did he find any tracks of previous passage. Even on our mistake on the lower tier, we followed some footprints for most of it. Assuming it was wrong, he retreated back to us. We now think that going around that next corner was the key. The photo was taken from a position more around towards the north than we had assumed.
Exploring a dead end passage at the base of the fourth Supai band.
Now we traversed all the way to the left, thinking that maybe the photo was reversed. The text said to head southwest and south was definitely to the left. Southwest seemed to be directly up from the saddle but the photo showed a continuous, rising traverse to the right. Maybe the author got the directions wrong. We went clear around that first corner and again found nothing climbable and nothing that looked feasible all the way to the next corner, which was at least 15 minutes of traversing. This time Steve went out to scope it. No go. We took a bit of a siesta here. It was frustrating. We couldn’t find any way up, yet we weren’t ready to give up. We ate some and rested and re-read everything. Finally, we started down in retreat. We had to get back to the rim that night and we had a long way to go. I had a hard time quitting and kept thinking about it. Shortly into our descent I had the others convinced that the only thing left to do was to go back to the upper traverse right. They were convinced it was the only thing left to try, but none of them wanted to do it. I didn’t push it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. If I had pushed it, I’m sure I would have got Homie and Derek to try it. Steve had to go down, though. If we went up again, we’d be spending a second night at Clear Creek, which Steve couldn’t have done. We wouldn’t have anything hot to eat, but we’d have been fine, though a bit hungry by the time we emerged on Monday. Alas, the fight had been driven from us. Down we went. Snubbed by the Supai.
This was the photo of the route from the saddle through the Supai bands. Pretty hard to see details...
It was not trivial finding the path back through the Supai bands to the saddle and we searched around a bit. When Loobster, Derek, and I did Isis we couldn’t find our way back through the Supai bands in the dark and had to do an unplanned bivy, sans any sleeping gear. But we had the light and figured things out before long. The rest of the descent back to camp was familiar, but my feet were blistered and I fell behind my companions, limping a bit with my left leg in an attempt to limit the blister discomfort.

Derek finds the way through the first Supai band
Back at camp it took us nearly an hour to pack up, eat, and take care of our feet (Homie was having some issues as well). We left Clear Creek at 4 p.m. Steve took the lead here and pushed a steady pace. He’s a veteran of many 100-mile races and is even faster than Homie. I knew who the anchor was on this trip: me. My only contribution was supposed to be leading the technical climbing and I couldn’t even get us to the start of it. That was certainly disappointing to me.

We started with a 750-foot climb out of Clear Creek and up onto the Tonto tier. Once there the terrain rolled and we’d do 1500 feet of climbing before descending steeply, in the last vestiges of light, to Phantom Range. I just barely maintained a 3 mph pace on the 10 miles to here. It was full-on dark when I arrived but the moon gave me just enough light where I didn’t have to stop to pull out my headlamp. I was the last to arrive and when I got there Steve had already told the others of his plan to blast for the rim in the hopes of getting a reasonable night sleep before work the next day. We bid goodbye and good luck. Steve took off, then Homie, Derek and I ate, drank, and filled our water containers for the stretch to Indian Gardens, five miles away.
This is an agave (I think). Best not to run into these.

The hike out was long and dark and slow. Derek and I listened to our audio books a lot, when no one had the energy to chat. We spread out a bit, with Derek mostly in the lead, Homie next, and me bringing up the rear. Probably never more than a couple of minutes between each of us, I could keep track of the other two by the glow of their headlamps. We got to Indian Gardens at 10:15 p.m. Here we found a couple that were in rough shape. They asked for and received some Motrin from Homie. While we took a break to re-fill our water, eat and put on long pants, they continued on. We would pass them not that far up the trail and the woman was lying down to rest. I didn’t know if they had sleeping gear. I doubt it. If they did I would have strongly pushed them to sleep at Indian Gardens. I hope they got out okay.

I predicted a 1a.m. rim time, based on the 3200 feet of climbing still to do and pace I thought I could maintain. I seriously thought about sleeping here, at a nice shelter. I had no permit to do that, but wasn’t very concerned about it. I’d be up early and knew no one would even know I was there. But Homie and Derek were set on finishing this baby off. I was out there to have long, hard days, so I shouldn’t have been looking to shorten it. The three of us headed for the top.

Traversing below the third Supai band, which was incorrect.
I surprised myself and did better than expected on the rest of the way. I was still the caboose and still slow, but I was steady. We regrouped at the 3-miles-to-go Rest House and the 1.5-miles-to-go Rest House. On the final stretch to the rim I was surprised to be keeping up with Homie. He was fading fast. Despite being a super strong hiker and ultra runner, Homie had a history of trouble on the climb out the Grand. Mostly because by the time he heads out he’s done quite a lot. He made the rim with me right behind him, but had to sit down and dig out some food before he was able to hike the 10 minutes to Steve’s house. Derek had been waiting a bit and had his shell on to keep warm. Once Homie ate, we navigated through parking lots and the railroad tracks to Steve’s neighborhood and his fully enclosed front porch. Once there we just inflated out pads and crawled into our sleeping bags. I was so thankful to take off my boots and let my blistered feet breathe. I was so thankful to lie down and stop moving. I was so thankful to sleep. It ended up being a 19.5-hour day. This will definitely count.

No way up these cliffs...
The next morning I was up before 6:30 because I knew Steve left for work then. I wanted to ask him for a towel. I spent a sticky night in my sleeping bag and now craved a shower above all else. Once showered, we all craved food and headed to the cafeteria. Here Homie and Derek both had two breakfasts, like a couple of hobbits. I limited myself to one.
Crossing the Silver Bridge over the Colorado River and starting the 10-mile, 4500-foot climb to the South Rim
We lingered and then returned and packed up for our next objective: Coronado Butte. This was another GC temple, one Homie had tried before with Jeff V. They tried to onsight this climb in the late afternoon after driving all the way from Superior. This temple is only rated fourth class, so they didn’t bring a rope. Homie made a strong attempt, but didn’t ascend the correct gully and had no time for mistakes. They retreated summit-less.

Coronado Butte, an "Easy" temple, from the New Hance trail.
We headed in to right this wrong at 11:45 a.m. Yes, crack-o-noon start, but the previous day had been taxing. We packed our tiny rope, light harnesses, and a small rack, just in case. We were very determined to stand on top of at least one temple before leaving the Grand Canyon. We hiked a quarter mile along the highway to the New Hance Trailhead (no parking at all here). This is a very steep, rugged trail and drops clear to the Colorado River. We descended 1100 feet before leaving the trail and heading up to the saddle and ridge that we’d follow to the base of the butte.

Lots of loose sandy blocks, camouflaged gray prickly pear and vibrant agave led to a traverse to the right around the steep cliffs above us. The guidebook said to go up the third gully. We looked up and saw a weakness and wondered if that counted as a gully. One deep, chimney system seemed to qualify, but we didn’t see any others until we got around to the north and found the first real gully. The third gully matched the route description and we headed up it.
Scrambling the ridge up to the base of the temple.
Loose slopes led to some solid scrambling and then more loose slopes to a headwall above a ledge. I traversed way to the right along this roofed ledge, crouching low to avoid bumping my head. I had spotted a weakness over there, but once below it, ruled it out. It was climbable, but probably not easier than 5.9+. I came back and climbed up a steep crack for just a hard move or two to another ledge. Some easy scrambling got me to the exit move. A steep mantle leading directly to a steep dirt slope. I tried a few different options before committing to the move and made it up onto the slope and up to a tree. I pulled out the rope, tossed it down to Derek and Homie and belayed both of them up. It was just too dangerous for everyone to do this move, especially when we carried a rope.
We traverse around to the right until finding the third gully on the north side.
Above this section, Homie led us to the right and up a short squeeze chimney of very sharp limestone. I thought it felt at least 5.5, but we didn’t rope it, as it was pretty short and above a pretty good ledge. Then Derek took the lead and led us left and then up a steep 15-foot limestone wall with a tricky finishing move. Then we went left again, up, back right, up, and finally back to the left and the summit. We found a nice summit register up here and Homie perused it. We languished like lizards in the sun, eating our Oreos and chips and hydrating. It took us over 2.5 hours to make the summit.

Looking back at tree below the correct ascent route.
After 40 minutes on top, we reluctantly started the descent. I didn’t want to leave, not only because it was so relaxing, but the view were tremendous and these would be our last, at least for this trip. We carefully reversed the limestone wall and then I set up a rappel for Derek and Homie on the limestone chimney section. I then pulled the anchor and downclimbed. Above the dangerous-mantle wall, we left a sling and a carabiner around a tree and rappelled down. We then reversed our route back to the car. The 1100-foot climb out of there was arduous. This trail is extremely steep, and we had to use our hands in a couple of sections. It is nothing like the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails, which are highways in comparison.

On the summit of Coronado Butte.
Back at the car, we drove to Tuba City for dinner. Derek had two dinners. Kids. We slept below the bizarre Mexican Hat formation. Years ago, Homie and I climbed that en route to climbing Shiprock. We awoke to a heavy frost on our bags. Motivation was waning this morning, but I really wanted to climb South Sixshooter Peak. This was supposedly one of the easiest desert towers with some rating it 5.6 (this is incorrect). It had been on my list for at least a couple of decades (obviously not very close to the top of that list), but I hadn’t done it mostly because it involved driving an hour past Moab, past countless other towers. But now we were already south of Moab. The detour was only 30 minutes to the dirt road leading to the trailhead. Neither Homie or Derek seemed very excited, but they weren’t calling to skip. When we got the junction, Homie turned toward the tower.

Hiking back out on the New Hance trail.
After a brief bathroom stop at Newspaper Rock, we found the dirt road and using the good directions in the comments from Mountain Project, we drove to the trailhead. We were the only car there and we spread out our tarps to organize our gear. Despite the easy rating, we brought a double rack of cams to #2 Camalot and one #3 Camalot. I wanted Derek to handle most of the leading and didn’t want to handicap him with a spartan rack. The trail to the base of the route is steep but well marked and it was a joy to approach a climb completely on a trail.

We geared at the base and Derek scampered up the first pitch easily. Homie and I followed with Homie tied into the middle of our 70-meter rope and me on the other end. This worked out great as no pitch was longer than half a rope length. The first pitch went up a crack with lots of footholds and handholds and then traversed left to what would be a hard squeeze chimney if not for the three handy chockstones.
South Sixshooter Peak
On the second pitch we sent Derek up the wrong way, though a path traveled by many others given the deep rope grooves cut into the soft sandstone. Derek climbed up steepish, blocky cracks and then downclimbed to the rappel anchors in the middle of the pitch. Not sure how to proceed, he brought us over to him. We figured out which crack to climb next and Derek polished it off quickly, placing a single #3 Camalot near the top of it. Following this crack both Homie and I found it pretty stiff climbing at the top. It felt like 5.8 to me, at least for the last two moves.

Atop the second pitch.

By this time Brian had caught up to us. He popped through on the same second pitch Derek did. He wore fancy man-pri tights and…nothing else. Not even shoes. He was climbing barefoot. His partner, Millie, wore a bit more clothes. At least she had a top and shoes on. Derek was belaying at the rappel chains with the final pitch above him. When I got there he asked, “Do you want to just continue?” I did because it would be slightly faster. I was feeling a tiny bit of pressure only because I don’t like holding other climbers up. Brian was super nice, though, and any pressure I felt was purely self-imposed. As it turned out we didn’t hold them up at all.

The last pitch of this tower is interesting and certainly had my attention. Easy climbing leads up to the much-talked about “hard for 5.6 mantle.” Indeed, this pitch seems to be 5.8 also, though not very sustained. The tricky climbing amounts to about three total moves. Doing the mantle is easy. The problem is standing up on the one foot you get up there. The wall is quite steep here and there is hardly anything to grasp. I used the arete on the right, but it was marginal. The bulk of the work is doing a one-legged press. Once I stood on the ledge, I could clip the bolt, which protects the final moves which are positive face holds with very marginal feet. I thought this move was at least 5.8. In the gym it would surely be 5.9, but Derek gave it a grade of 5.8. Anyway, the 5.6 rating is complete bullshit and a 5.6 leader would probably have a hard time leading this route.
Homie starting up the crux pitch.
Homie and Derek soon joined me on top, both confirming the dicey step up after the mantle and burly moves at the top. Homie had previously told us that the summit of this route wasn’t the true summit of the tower, which was the southern summit, only thirty feet across a gap. Sure enough that summit looked a foot or two higher. We rapped to the notch and I set up a belay below the 20-foot pitch. Derek led it with a few cams for protection and Homie could feel good claiming this summit.

On top of the lower summit, which the Regular Route ascends.
We rapped to the chain anchor at the base of the last pitch on the regular route, now vacated by Millie and Brian. From there it was one rappel on our 70-meter rope to the ground. We didn’t have a lot left of our rope at the ground. A 60-meter rope would be quite marginal. I suspect if you were heavy enough it might be fine with rope stretch. On my way down the last rappel I passed a team of two guys. The leader was struggling on the steep crack that Derek led. He would eventually back off and have his partner lead it. He appreciated that I told him I thought it was 5.8.
Derek at the base of the summit pitch of the true summit with Homie about to rap off the Regular Route summit.
Back on the ground we celebrated a safe, successful ascent and ate and drank. On our hike out we passed a family of four and their dog heading up to do the tower. I felt lucky that we had been the first team up there, despite our late start. Despite failing on our main objective, the trip had been a tremendous success, with the most satisfying part being that we made a new friend. We’ve already vowed to return at least every year to join Steve for a Canyon adventure and I’ve invited him up to my house for a Colorado mountain adventure, once the temperature advantage swings in our favor. Adventuring with partners as great as Homie and Derek is the most satisfying. The objective matters a lot, but that is nearly meaningless compared to the camaraderie of my companions.

Homie following Derek's lead to the true summit.
Derek rappels while Homie packs up.