Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Two for the Price of One", continued

I'm back in the Springdale Public Library, enjoying free wifi and comfy chairs. The weather has taken a turn today, with high winds, colder temps, and chance of rain. Seems like a good day for some rest and internetting. Without further ado, here's the conclusion of the trip report that I started yesterday evening. If you haven't read that yet, scroll down and read it first.


When I want to accomplish something big, I find that it's helpful to talk enough about it beforehand that I feel obligated to see it through. In this case, the strategy involved spraying to my climbing friends Josh and Megan, the morning bus driver, some climbers that were also on the bus, and random hikers atop Angel's Landing. Spraying that, not only would I solo my first bigwall, Prodigal Sun, but that I would finish, run down, and solo another bigwall: Lunar Ecstasy.

I had talked so much about it that it seemed totally reasonable when, at 3pm Saturday afternoon, still soaked in sweat from the run down the trail, I again crossed the thigh-deep Virgin River and started the hike up to Moonlight Buttress. Located conveniently just up the canyon from Angel's Landing, Moonlight Buttress is a gorgeous clean pillar of rock, maybe 1000' tall. Besides its namesake route, the buttress is also home to the spectacular "Lunar Ecstasy". With one Zion aid wall under my belt, this seemed like the next step up. Slightly longer, a bit harder, and much more sustained, "Lunar X" seemed like a fun challenge.

I arrive at the base. Earlier that morning, I had shared the shuttle bus with a party of two intent on climbing Moonlight Buttress, and I could see them about halfway up the route. I let out a loud "Yee-haw" as I approached, and they waved down at me. When out soloing, its always a big boost to get energy from other climbers. The first pitch of Lunar X, shared with Moonlight Buttress, is easy scrambling (5.8), so I opt to leave my pack and all of the gear on the ground, trail the rope, and haul everything up to a big ledge 180' up the route. This goes quickly, and now I'm at the base of a 5.10 pitch, also shared with Moonlight. By now, I'm a bit more comfortable free climbing with my soloing system, and this pitch goes with only a bit of pulling on gear. As I did on Prodigal Sun, I take advantage of my 70m rope to link through the next two short pitches.

This easy climbing at the bottom of the route has gone so quickly that I get some confidence going, maybe I'll catch the 10pm bus. One added challenge of trying big link-ups in Zion is that no cars are allowed in the canyon. The only way to and from the routes is via shuttle bus, and the last bus leaves at 10pm. The only alternative: a 5 mile hike back down-canyon to our campground. I hope I can make the last bus.

Despite moving quickly on the easy terrain down low, I know that my pace is about to drop dramatically. As I said earlier, Lunar X is only a bit harder than Prodigal, but much more sustained. In aid climbing ratings, Prodigal is C2, and Lunar X is C2+, the "C" standing for "Clean", which mean that the route does not require a hammer and pitons, only hand placed "clean" and removable gear. Whereas Prodigal had maybe 50' of C2 climbing spread over its 800', Lunar X has four consecutive pitches, all following one thin crack system, all clocking it at sustained C2. Standing now at the base of this crack, the beautiful evening light has given the "Great White Throne" a ethereal glow across the canyon.

As I have all day, I settle into the rhythm of climbing: lead, rappel and clean, jug. Rope work becomes second nature, as I easily stack my lead line so that it will feed out effortlessly. The aid here is interesting and engaging. Though the route now goes clean, many previous ascents had hammered pitons into the thin crack, leaving rounded, flared "Pin Scars" spaced evenly up the crack. Coming from a free climbing background, I have to get used to placing "body-weight" gear. When free climbing, all protection must be able to hold potentially large falls, which can generate thousands of pounds of force. In aid climbing, you're using the gear directly to climb the rock, and so some pieces must only be strong enough to support a few hundred pounds, just enough to inch your way up the rock. In the flaring pin scars on Lunar X, I would often place cams that would be laughable on a free climb, the lobes nearly umbrella-ed, barely touching the rock. Yet somehow, they always held.

Darkness falls. But not quite. I have picked this day for my big adventure because I knew that the moon, in its waxing gibbous phase, would be just rising over the canyon walls as the sun sets. The Moonlight Buttress, of course, gets full and glorious moonlight for the first half of the night, and it's almost bright enough to climb by. I break out my headlamp regardless, and I'm not afraid to turn it on full power, as I have a spare set of batteries in the pack. I let out a loud wolf-howl at the moon, and I get a response from the party bivying on Moonlight Buttress, just around the corner. With my world shrunk down to the size of my headlamp beam, the exposure doesn't even phase me as I navigate the routes C2+ crux, 800' up an overhanging wall. Of course, progress has slowed considerably, both from the dark and my exhaustion. Of course, I'd abandoned all hope of catching the 10pm shuttle.

At this point I've been going continuously for more than 15 hours, and I force myself to triple-check everything. Finally, I arrive at the base of the last pitch, an outrageous overhanging arete, split by a serpentine crack. The aid is straightforward, but strenuous on this steep headwall. I'm elated to be so close to the end, but the route has one last surprise for me. Literally 10' from the top of the wall, the crack that I've been climbing dies out. With one last thin placement, I'm able to reach a lone aid bolt, 8' from the top. Now I'm stumped, though, as I don't see anything but a steep, blank wall above. There are a few sandy edges, so I break out my hook. As you'll remember, I was wishing I'd had my hook on Prodigal Sun, but had stupidly left it in my pack at the base of the pitch. I had remembered to bring it on every lead since then, but hadn't had to use it. Having never placed a hook before, I high-stepped off the bolt, found the biggest edge, placed the hook behind it, and gingerly started to weight it. To my relief, it didn't even shift as I stood on it. Gaining confidence, I stepped up in my aiders and began to reach for the top of the wall. PING! I was shooting backwards through dark and empty space. The rope caught me gently, and I hung, spinning, about 30' below the aid-bolt. That was a fun way to find out that my soloing system works! After jugging back up to my high point, I see that my hook had broken off the entire edge, not a very surprising outcome on this soft rock. In the scar left by my hook I spot a little V-notch that might take a stopper. Again, I high-step off the bolt, place the stopper, and start to weight it. PING! Again the rock blows out, but this time the fall is much shorter, as the previous fall had pulled most of the slack out of my rope.

Now I'm getting frustrated, though. Literally 8' from the top of the wall, I'm almost done. But if I can't find a placement that will hold, I might as well be stranded on the moon, I'd have no way of getting off. When I was stymied on Prodigal, I was able to free climb past the difficulties, but it seems much harder here. The wall is steep, and the hold have proved fragile. Still, I've got nothing to lose, so I tighten up my shoes, dump some excess gear, and start up. I'm able to stand up on the bolt and feel around for more holds. I reach up to what looks like an edge, but when I grab it, my fingers slide all the way in. It's actually a crack! The shadow cast by the headlamp had obscured it from below, but there's actually a thin horizontal crack here, and I quickly feel around with my fingers to determine the size. I reach down to my harness for a cam, slide it in the crack, and quickly weight it. It holds! One quick top-step and I'm mantling up on the the top of the route. With a howl of elation, I race up to a sturdy tree and tie off my rope. One last round of rappelling, cleaning, and jugging, and I'm officially done with Lunar Ecstasy! It's 1am.

Two hours later, and my entire lower body is one pulsing lump of pain. Hiking down from the route, my body had three primeval priorities: Water, Food, and Sleep. The first, water, was sated at the trailhead bathroom. With a five mile hike between me and the next two needs, I settle in for the mindless slog back to camp. I'm sure the canyon was bathed in ghostly beauty, with the moon lighting up the massive walls, and no cars or lights to spoil the stillness. I'm sure it was, but I was in no state to appreciate it. Reaching the campground, I momentarily get lost in the endless loops of RVs and tents, and finally find our site. I wake up Josh my banging around with pans on the stove, I'm intent on an egg and sausage burrito. He gladly notes that I'm alive before going back to sleep. Food: my second need is fulfilled. Now sleep, and my Zion adventure is over for today. Maybe tomorrow will be a rest day.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Two for the Price of One


So all is well here in the land of sandstone bigwalls. I have much to report from the past few days of action! Unfortunately, this will be a words-only post, since I don't have my camera with me. I think I'll take a full rest day tomorrow and hit up the Springdale library, looks for a picture and video post soon!


6:45am, last Saturday morning. The first shuttle bus of the morning is departing the Zion Visitor Center, and I'm on it. With a giant breakfast in my belly and a huge pack on my back, I ride up to stop number 6, Big Bend. The towers high above me are just coming into the sun, but the canyon floors is still dark and chilly, making it all the more unpleasant to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade across the thigh-deep Virgin River. My first objective: the North wall of Angel's Landing, the route: Prodigal Sun.

I'm hanging out here in Zion National Park with my friends Josh and Megan. It's great to be here with two cool people, but the downside is that 3 is generally a crowd for rock climbing. Since we were coming off a weather imposed rest day, I knew that I'd be full of energy, and climbing as a party of three would make me impatient. So I made the totally rational decision to go aid soloing. Never mind that I've never really rope-soloed, or even finished a route in Zion (as you remember, we got snowed off our first route attempt two days earlier.) Further, just soloing one wall didn't seem like enough climbing, so I made sure to pack topos for two routes.

Back to Prodigal Sun, I've finished the easy hike up to the base, and now the wall is bathed in brilliant morning light. The first pitch is a bolt ladder, a perfect easy pitch for figuring out my soloing system. For those who might not be familiar, aid-soloing isn't as crazy as it sounds. You still use a rope and all the normal safety gear that you would climbing with a party of two, but you have to do the jobs of both team members. So, you have to lead a pitch, belaying yourself on a gri-gri (an autolocking belay device). Upon reaching the end of the pitch, instead of sitting back, relaxing, and waiting for you partner to follow the pitch, you have to fix the rope, rappel down the pitch, clean all of the gear that you placed on lead, take down you first anchor, and then jug (ascend the rope) back up to the top of the pitch. So basically, you have to do every pitch three times: up, down, and up again.

The first pitch of Prodigal goes well, I've quickly figured out my soloing system and the climbing becomes rhythmic. One advantage with soloing is that there is no rope-drag, so it is possible to lead pitches to the very end of the rope. In my case, this was 70 meters, and this allowed me to link the first three pitches of the route. The next three also linked into 70m, so by the time I had finished my second pitch, I was atop the guidebooks pitch six. I was enjoying cruising up the easy bolt ladders, interspersed with thin cracks and a few tricky aid moves.

The first exciting moment of the day happened on the guidebook's "third" pitch (near the end of my first pitch). A missing drilled piton had left a 10' stretch of mostly blank rock. I could see the hole that the pin had left, and could tell that most people simply hooked the small hole and reached up to the next piton. I of course had brought a hook, and had of course left it in my pack at the bottom of the pitch. I looked around for alternatives; there seemed to be some features to the left, but I didn't see any obvious gear placements. I lowered off the piton I was on, swung to the left, and grabbed some holds. Free climbing is difficult while rope-soloing, and I was just wearing approach shoes, so it seemed doubtful this would work. But I started up on the delicate sandstone holds, passing the empty piton hold, reaching down to let more slack through my gri-gri, reaching back for my non-existent chalk bag, and finally stretching back to the right to clip the hard-earned piton. Exciting. I would remember to bring the hook with me on the remaining leads, but that doesn't mean that the excitement was over.

Nearing the top of Prodigal, the wall is now thankfully in the shade. The day was beautiful and clear, and the sun was baking the other side of the canyon. I had to force myself to interrupt my now familiar soloing routine to sit back and enjoy the view of the river far below, and the vast sweeps of sandstone lining the canyon. It was all over quickly, as I pulled up on the last bolt and into the low-angle chimney system that provided access to the top of the wall. After one last rappel, clean, and jugging session. I unroped, packed up my gear, and scrambled up the chimney. Being a gorgeous Saturday, the Angel's Landing trail was packed with hikers, and I asked some for the time. "2:30". Sweet, plenty of time! I quickly ran off down the trail, passing hikers as all of my climbing gear jingled and jangled, and I sweated in the full midday sun. Half hour later, I reach the trailhead, and grab some water, and catch the up canyon bus. My day is far from over...

Friday, April 23, 2010

And so it begins

Another round of road-trippin has begun, and here's the first update:

Tuesday, after finally tying everything off in Boulder, running "just a few" last errands, packing the car, cleaning out my room, and saying goodbye to my roommates, etc etc, I finally pull onto I-70 and point the car WEST. At 9pm. Five hours later, I struggle to keep my eyes open; I need to watch out for any stray cattle, deer, antelope, and fallen boulders on River Road. Finally I pull into camp at Castle Valley, just east of Moab, Utah. I quickly throw down a tarp and pass out. Waking the next morning, the huge sandstone towers, the namesakes of Castle Valley, greet me in brilliant sunshine.

Hiking up to the towers. The Priest is the further one on this ridge, with the prominent roof sticking out on its left side.

I've come to Castle Valley to meet up with a friend from Colorado, Josh, who has been camping and climbing out here in the desert for the past month. He's been working on a particularly hard route here, and is excited to finally have a partner so that he can try and lead it. So we hike to to the towers, try to ignore the raging wind that seems like it's trying to disassemble the towers, on grain of sand at a time. The day's objective is a route call Excommunication, on the Priest tower Since this is Josh's project, he's gonna lead all of the pitches, which is fine by me; it looks hard!

The climbing goes well, Josh had been working on the hard sections on solo top-rope, so he moves quickly through the first two 5.12 arete pitches. The third pitch is the crux at 5.13a, but Josh is worried that it might be harder, since he had broken off a fairly good hold while working on it a few days earlier. It does end up being a challenge, Josh hangs a few times before piecing together the moves, and I have a hard time following it. One more 5.11+ pitch and some sandy crack climbing takes us to the summit, surely the highlight of the climb for me. This summit, like many towers in the desert, is truly an "island in the sky" totally inaccessible except by difficult, technical climbing. There's an old ammo box bolted to the top with a summit register, it's amazing to read notes going back three decades, clearly this is an inspiring place to be!

Josh leading Pitch 2 of Excommunication

The weather in Castle Valley is very fickle, with the insane winds bringing clouds past like passing jets. One minute we're sweating in the sun, the next were being rained on. It's still early in the day, we'd have time for another climb, but the incoming clouds quickly obscure the mountains around us and we decide it's time to hike down. Reaching camp, it seems like a good time to pack the cars and head further WEST.

The fully loaded road-trip-mobile

So where are we now? Zion Canyon! I'm sitting in the county library here in the town of Springdale, we're taking a rest day on account of the weather. Spirits are high, though, check out this forecast:

Looks splitter! That was not the case, however, yesterday. It was out first day in Zion, and Josh and I wanted to get a feel for the area with a long classic 5.10: Iron Messiah. Though the weather called for 60% chance of precipitation, but we took our chances and headed up anyways. The climbing was fun, adventure style easy climbing, with plenty of chimneys and sandy rock. Nearing the top, trying to move quickly and beat the incoming clouds, we lose the race and it starts to snow. Yep, mid-april in the southern Utah desert, and we getting snowed on about 1000 feet off the deck. No matter, we've been paying attention to the pitch lengths and we know that we can safely rappel, and we are back on the ground within an hour.

Josh is skeptical of our skimpy rack

Josh following Pitch 2 of Iron Messiah
So as I said, today is a rest day, mostly to give the soft sandstone a chance to dry out. Looks like it's gonna be a good weekend, check back for an update early next week!

 This place ain't ugly

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Leavin' Town

Visions of Sal and Dean, part II

The days get shorter and the nights get cold.
I like the autumn but this place is getting old.

I pack up my belongings and I head for the coast.
It might not be a lot but I feel like I'm making the most.

The days get longer and the nights smell green.
I guess it's not surprising but it's spring and I should leave.

I like songs about drifters - books about the same.
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane.

"The World at Large"
Modest Mouse

Here we go again, time for another round of roadtripping in the Big Wide West. I've cut most of my ties with civilization, packed up the car, and I'm headed out to experience the country and -you guessed it- climb some rocks!

Here's the agenda:

First stop, Moab. Meet up with Josh, a friend from Boulder who has been "on the road" for about a month already. We've got a few projects in mind, all over Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. I'd definitely like to hit up Zion, it'd be good to get back in shape for climbing looong stuff.

Towards the end of the month, I hope to meet up with Blake, a recent transplant to the Front Range from the Northwest. He's gonna be in Vegas, exploring some less traveled routes in the Red Rock Canyons, and I'd love to help him out.

Of course, the gravity of the whole climbing universe is pulling me in one direction: THE VALLEY. I'd like to get to Yosemite in early May, in time to get some quality granite in before heading to the Bay area on May 12th. I've going to fly in and out of the Bay, going home for a quick, but important, visit. It's my brother Steve's wedding! Good luck to him and my sister-to-be, Abbey. The wedding is in Ohio, which hopefully provides some beautiful spring weather for the big day.

After the happy couple are wed, I jet back to Cali, with high hope for a RAD season in the Valley.

Anyways, you can tell I'm excited, so check here for updates!