Friday, April 22, 2011


I've made a ton of interesting rappels in the past few years, but when climbing with Blake Herrington, it's always possible to learn something new. Unfortunately, that something will often be an esoteric and useless fact, such as the losing Vice Presidential candidate in 1872, how to improvise dining utensils with climbing gear, or maybe cheapest place to get week-old bagels in his home town.

But last week in Utah, I learned something useful: how to make a 40m rappel with a single 70m rope.

The basic idea is that, instead of rapping on both ends of your rope, as normal, you fix one end with enough rope to reach the ground, and let the other end function as a pull cord. You can then extend the pull-end with anything handy: slings, cordalette, belts, quickdraws, cams, wires, even jackets, t-shirts, pants, whatever. Since the pull end is not load-bearing, anything at your disposal can function to extend your rappelling range.

I'm sure most of you are having no trouble picturing the setup, but for those that haven't tried something like this before, here's some steps:

In order to to determine the length of the rap, and even if you have to use the extendo-rap at all, have one member of the party (let's call him Scott) single-line rap first on the full length of the rope (70m). Once Scott's on the ground (or to the next station), he can go off rap, but should hold on to the end of the rope. The second, still at the higher station (let's call him Blake), should then pull up rope until it comes tight on Scott. Now Blake knows that he has exactly enough rope to reach Scott.

Using the method pictured below, Blake then fixes the rap line. As you can see in the photo, this method allows Blake to rap on the longer end, and use the shorter end as a pull-cord to retrieve the rope.

Blake then begins rapping down the longer line, making sure to hold on to the pull-end (you can clip it through a QD on the back of your harness). When Blake reaches the end of the pull-end, he begins to extend it with any available material (slings, pants, etc) until he reaches the ground. Once on the ground, pull the pants and you'll retrieve the rope!

IMPORTANT CAVEAT! This is a slick maneuver, but not one that you'd want to rely on for multi-pitch rappels in adventurous settings. There is a huge potential problem: if you use the extendo-rap to reach a hanging belay, and then have a snag pulling (the knot gets caught) you could potentially find yourself in a situation where your entire rope is out of reach, and all you have is a few meters of slings (or pants!) with which to work. So, I would only recommend using the extendo-rappel when making you're last rap to the ground, or if the pull is super-clean.

Oh Benjamin Gratz Brown, what a different place the country might be if you'd been Vice President instead of that scoundrel Henry Wilson!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Castles in the Sand

Sometimes you see a feature, a line, a wall, a mountain that just captures your imagination. In an instant, it just goes from being pretty scenery, to being a concrete objective. You can no longer look at it without making a plan, visualizing the moves, reaching for your chalkbag.

The Castle Valley ridgeline is such a feature for me, so much so that you can see the photo on the header of this blog. A serpentine line of piled dirt and sand, the ridge is capped with five proud towers, jutting up the remains of a Chinese wall. It's an obvious and compelling objective, to traverse the length of the ridge, and to summit each tower along the way.

Last fall, with my frequent partner-in-sending, Blake, I made a jaunt out to Castle Valley to attempt the "Castle Valley Enchainment". Though normally adept at logistics, we punted on the first attempt, underestimating the difficulty of walking the ridgeline, planning on walking both out and back, and picking a late fall day that was both too short, too cold (in the morning), and too hot (in the afternoon). Having one gallon of cached water taken (by well meaning but unhelpful fellow climbers) didn't help either, and the day ended with both of us totally parched, trudging back to camp in the dark, having only sent three towers.

The initial failure, however, only increased my desire to return and try again. At first, I had thought it might be too easy, just a leisurely day of ridge walking and climbing, nothing challenging or memorable. But after being bouted royally, it was clear to me that this was a worthy goal.

So last week, with Blake in the passenger seat, and now a bike in the trunk, I sped over the Rocky Mountains, pointed west to the glorious red desert of Utah. We pulled into the mostly full Castleton camping area, and quickly threw down bivy gear and tried to get some good rest. Early the next morning, we took our time making coffee, frying breakfast burritos, and building up the psyche.

Blake maximizing the food-value of our "send-wiches" the night before the linkup

A full view of the ridge. From left to right: Convent, Sister Superior, The Priest and Rectory (overlapping in this shot), and Castleton.

A brisk uphill walk brought us to the first tower of the day: the Rectory. Though Castleton would be the logical first tower, the South-east facing route "Fine Jade" (5.11-) enticed us in the chilly morning. This route was not new to either of us, and we cruised up and down the three pitches of amazing crack climbing in about an hour. A short walk later, we were at the base of the "North Face of Castleton" (5.11-). Since I'd never been on it, Blake graciously offered me all the leads, and I savored the perfectly cut Wingate splitters, occasionally iced with Calcite edges. Again three pitches, this tower took maybe another hour, and we felt confident having established such a quick start.

Me leading on the North Face of Castleton, P1. Blake Herrington photo.

The Priest, also new to me, was definitely a highlight. We chose the classic route "Honeymoon Chimney" (5.11-). Put up by the all-star team of Layton Kor, Fred Beckey, and Harvey T Carter, this unique route is more of a vertical spelunking expedition than a tower route. After a first pitch of wide laybacking, you enter the chasm in the heart of the tower, and proceed to chimney up most to the way, protected from the infinite Castle Valley exposure by massive walls of sandstone. Finally, on the last pitch you emerge for an airy crux move onto an arete, and the romp around the tower for an easy summit pitch.

Blake, trying not to get stuck, on (in?) the first pitch of Honeymoon Chimneys

After the Priest, we had the first major ridge crossing, which had drained us last fall. This time, though, the day was mostly overcast, and we were protected from the brutal desert sun. Using some interesting fixed lines fixed to big chunks of rebar, we descended onto the knife-edged ridge and ran across towards Sister Superior.

The ridgeline, looking north from Castleton

Another favorite route, "Jah-man" (5.10) was not new to either of us. This didn't stop us, though, from enjoying two amazing pitches of chimneys, handcracks, and the obligatory sandy top-out. Finally, we had four towers down, but the crux remained.

The first part of the crux was simply getting to the final "tower", the Convent. I'm not sure of the true definition of tower, and the Convent might actually be a mesa. It is perhaps a quarter mile long, and caps the north end of the Castle Ridge. The narrow and eroding bridge of dirt that connects Sister Superior to the Convent proved tricky, but the real slog was traversing under the entire bulk of the mesa, side-hilling on loose gravel and ball-bearings, constantly having to out-run gravity and the forces of erosion.
Consuming the send-wiches

The route, "The Value of Audacity" (5.11++) would be final challenge. By far the hardest and least traveled of the routes, VoA features a massive roof on its first pitch. We had fortunately tried this last fall, so we had some idea of what we were up against. Blake led up first, re-sussing the sequence out the tiny underclings and crimps. A huge toss with the left hand gains a jug at the lip, but the feet are all but useless on the overhanging sandy wall below. Blake tries valiantly for a while, and then lowers back to the belay and we trade rope ends.
Benefiting from his beta, and my added 6" of reach, I gain the jug. Once there, though, I spend five minute trying to find the correct knee-bar position that will allow me to reach up and around into that tantalizing hand-crack. Finally as the pump-clock is about to expire, I get a perfect right leg knee bar, pivot around the lip, lock in the hand jam, and pull around into a welcome rest.
The remainder of the route is cruiser cracks, and we top out in two more pitches just as the sun nears the Western horizon. One more challenge: getting down! The previous fall, we'd had two 60m ropes, which made for an easy descent off the route to the left. This time, we opted to go light and bring just one 70m cord, and try an unknown descent to the right. After finding a more-or-less stable boulder to sling, we rapped onto a recently established (and bad-ass looking!) route "The Middle Way", and used two single bolt anchors to make the ground.

Coiling the rope at sunset

An easy romp down gravel ridges brought us to the road, and the bike that we had stashed the previous evening. A fully-loaded game of rock-paper-scissors determined that I should face the 7 mile ride back to our car. It was definitely worth it, though, because we'd sent the Castle Valley!

A compilation of our five summit photos

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Red Canyon Home

It's great to be back in Gringolandia! With near precision, I made the the migration from south to north just nine days after the spring equinox, ensuring myself maximum daylight in both hemispheres.

Of course returning to Colorado means returning to my true home, Eldorado Canyon! Everyone here is stoked to be out enjoying the spring sun, and I am not lacking climbing-partners!

Colin making it happen on an evening free-solo of "The Bulge" 5.7

Clayton soaking in the Colorado sun, literally hours after landing at DIA and returning from his months in South America. Ruper, 5.8.

Blake leading the 2nd pitch of "Le Toit" (5.11a), with me belaying. Photo by Forest Woodward.

Forest following the "Rosy-Toit" pitch (5.10). In addition to being an amazing photographer, Forest is quickly becoming a bad-ass trad climber. Get after it buddy!

Ryan Thompson, a very talented adventure sport photographer, joined us for an afternoon in the canyon and got some cool shots of Apple Strudel, a thin bolted face climb.

All of Ryan's photos got cut-off by the inept blogger, so just click on them, they're worth it!

Blake sussing the intricate movement of Apple Strudel, 5.12a
Sending on the Strudel, and making some really weird faces...

Joel on the "Rosy-Toit" pitch (5.10)

The biggest day so far has been a rambling ascent of Redgarden wall via some rad pitches. My friend Joel and I climbed "Scary Canary" to "Le Rosy Toit" to "Love Minus Zero" (on in eldo would a six pitch climb have three different names...). The Canary, though not really Scary, was plenty hard. That's one I need to get back on to send! Love Minus Zero, on the other hand, gave us our fill of indistinct, lichen-ous, runout, and "exciting" climbing!

Post send beers on the bridge.

As much as I love my red canyon home, the desert is calling me! Many socked-in, weather-enforced rest days in South America were spent dreaming of perfect Utah sandstone, and I'm heading out now (literally as soon as I post this) to the wide open spaces of Castle Valley!