Saturday, December 01, 2007

Red Rocks - Day Five - Into the Darkness

I noted in another post that on my first day in Red Rocks I sought out several climbs just so I knew where they would be. Almost all of the climbs were in the Pine Creek Canyon area, and all of those in that area were long, multi-pitch climbs in the 5.7 to 5.8 range. I was looking for classics, in particular, and one of the climbs I wanted to get up was Dark Shadows (5.8). I had heard good things about it and really wanted to see what it looked like before going up.

As I also noted in the older post, I didn't find the route that first day, but I did hear the waterfall. I couldn't see the waterfall, but I heard it and I knew I was nearby. Later that night, before I picked up "Tattoo" at the airport, I hit the local climb shop and got some directions: find the waterfall and you shall find the climb. "Tattoo" and I also had a bit of help while on the path from some folks who knew the area well. They told us to stay high above the wash until we couldn't stay high anymore. I thought I had done this a few days before, but I wasn't true to the directions. The directions say to stay high until the path dumps into the wash. Well, on my previous attempt I simply found the first path that dumped into the wash, therefore leaving me about two hundred yards short of one of the most fantastic corner cracks I've ever seen.

When we finally go there, I admit, I was nervous. I had seen the pictures in the book and the climbing looked committing and exposed. The descriptions told of holds appearing out of nowhere, so I was confident that I was going be OK, but this thing when straight up out of nowhere, and the right half of the corner seemed to be as varnished as brown glass. I was still a little tired from Crimson Chrysalis two days before, and wasn't sure if I wanted to layback 120 feet of finger crack. But I didn't show up to walk away. No way. If I was damn near puking at the bottom of Crimson Chrysalis, I wasn't going to walk away because of butterflies in my stomach. Instead, I looked up at the two parties above us and saw them working the various sections of the crack and the steep face / crack / pod at the top. Damn that looks exposed, I thought to myself. Damn I'm scared.

I've written before about how I climb for emotional therapy; how the throbbing fear inside me drives me to the brink of hopelessness and makes me feel as if I'm my own hero every time I'm lowered to the ground. Look, you have to understand that this goes way back to my days of being pummelled into "yes sir" submission by my strict, Navy stepfather. I had love and support showered onto me by my family who felt that his behavior was unwarranted, but in the end there was nothing they could do to help me. If I wanted to, the knife that I had stolen from a friend's kitchen was hidden under the desk. Two swipes and I didn't have to deal with it anymore. Thankfully, one day, I told myself that it didn't matter what folks thought. It was my life and I was going to do whatever I had to do to survive. In short, I saved myself, and whenever I start to whine about my limitations (in climbing and life) I always turn to what I know best: that I've conquered this fear before and all I need to do is conquer it again. What's the worst that can happen? I can lose, but that isn't really failure because even then I have something to hold close to my heart as a lesson for the future. All I have to do is get over the fear of caring the way society wants me to care, and everything seems to work out in the end.

Dark Shadows (5.8) - 4 pitches (out of a possible 10) - 340 feet - trad with bolted anchors at each belay station - Greg led

Pitches One and Two (5.5 and 5.6) - 145 feet combined

First off, very few people do all 10 pitches. Most only do the first four. The descent is difficult above pitch four, so make sure you know what you're doing before setting off.

Start on the slab right above the pool, which will be to the left. Follow the bolts up the face, climbing the pockets to the anchor at the bottom of the right-facing corner and finger crack. Stop here for the top of this pitch, but it isn't worth it to stop here. For one, the belay station isn't great and the next one is a huge four-person ledge. Two, it's only another 75 feet of climbing.

To continue, climb the thin crack to the top, then traverse left and back down on to the ledge at the bottom of the third pitch. I have to say that I don't think this second pitch is really 5.6. There's a stiff section about mid-way up the finger crack that requires quite a bit of body tension. I felt as if it was a series of two or three 5.9 moves before it felt solid again. And this section made me even more nervous than I was at the bottom. If this thin crack was a 5.6, then what the heck was the 5.8 money-pitch above me?

Pitch Three (5.8) - 120 feet

Just as "Tattoo" came up to the ledge, the first party was on its way down. I asked them how the rest of the route was and they unanimously said that it was spectacular, especially the third pitch. But one of them warned me about an awkward move on the fourth pitch. He didn't say much about it beyond that, and I didn't ask. I wanted to tell "Tattoo" that I was worried, but I kept telling myself to shut the hell up and climb. Just get over it and go. Trust yourself for once. You're a freaking Pisces for crying out loud, you have great instincts. Have courage and go.

For the third pitch, it's pretty simple: follow the crack and take the route of least resistance where it gets hard. Un-be-lieve-able. I couldn't get over how the holds that weren't there suddenly appeared, and the moves were so stable and dynamic at the same time. This pitch takes commitment, but the rewards are there. Just trust the route...and go. (Oh yeah, bring tri-cams for the run-out section).

Pitch Four (5.8) - 75 feet

As "Tattoo" was on his way up, the second party was rapping through. They, too, had smiles on their faces and I figured that the last pitch was just as nice as the third, but I was still a bit worried about the awkward section coming up. I asked again how this pitch was, and again I was told, this time with great hesitancy that it was a good pitch, though not as nice as the third. This time I learned that the awkward move was protectable, but that placing the gear was going to be tough. The guy recommended running through it if I could. I thanked him and then gulped. I was aware that there was an awkward move, but I hadn't considered how well protected it was. Thus far, the pro had been so-so. This route doesn't take nuts very well, though I did use a couple. Even the cams were somewhat useless in the pockets. Look, the third pitch wasn't all protectable crack. In some areas the two corners melted together so there was no gap. In other areas, the melted rock spilled out of the corner as wax would spill off a candle: it formed odd shapes at the bottom. The odd shapes I'm speaking of were pockets; that's right the crack. It was bizarre.

Anyway, as "Tattoo" came up, I shifted back and forth as my spine tensed up, my face cringed and my chest tightened. A particular swear word ran through my mind over and over again followed by the words "calm down" over and over again. I studied the climb in front of me to see where the crux would be. The route ran right, out over the face instead of staying left and in the crack. I imagined looking down as I was on it - a direct shot to the ground of over 250 feet would be staring back up at me. Any fall meant not only falling into a self-rescueless empty space but possibly swinging hard back into the corner below. Where the hell is that crux?

Finally, "Tattoo" had me on belay and I thought one more time, do I tell him that I'm scared? Is it a safety issue? Should he be prepared if I fall? The answer was "no". I was going to put the pressure all on me to not fall. "Tattoo" is a good climber, but he doesn't have the outdoor experience that I have. I had already given him his first rappel in the dark, an event that he wasn't overly fond of. I had already pushed him farther than he really wanted to go on Crimson Chrysalis. This had to be on me. I had to do this because: a) I said I would and; b) I needed to, both for the team and myself. I guess I should say that I prefer pushing off risk unless I absolutely have to take it on. I'm not particularly fond of taking on risk on purpose (I know, as climber, that sounds weird). I'm not the guy who walks into a bar ready to pick a fight. I'm the guy who walks into a bar and tries to find the easiest way out without getting hurt once a fight breaks out. This time, I picked a fight, and I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out, but I knew I was going to scrap until my body failed me.

I started out on the face and set the best pro I could. I was aiming for the pea pod-like, diagonal crack on the right face. Above that was a bulge, and I figured that was going to be the crux. I entered the pea pod and shoved my entire body into it. This was as safe a spot as any, and I felt that I should have been able to place gear below the bulge. This was starting to feel OK, as a 5.8 should feel. So what if the bulge was a bit pumpy. If I could protect it then I was as good as gold.

I looked around the pea pod for signs of a fissure where I could plug a cam or two. Nothing. I looked outside the pod and saw some thin cracks to my left. I tried to reach out but found the feet terrible, so I backed off. I then saw another crack above me. It was in a perfect spot, and I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. This crack was right below the bulge, and with "Tattoo"'s height, I knew I could plug this and give him a chance to safely take it out. I reached up, but was about six inches too short. I tried to step up to get a better position, but as soon as I did I felt my body start to barn-door. Now, let's be clear, this isn't a barn-door where one goes from side to side. My feet were somewhat below me, so that meant it was a barn-door that went headfirst down into the abyss. I retreated and again looked inside the pea pod for a spot to place my pro. Nothing. I looked below me and realized that my last piece was a good six or seven feet below me. The pea pod itself was about four feet long, and the bulge was above that. All of a sudden I realized that I wasn't going to be going over this bulge will good pro below me; I was going to be running this out at least 10 feet. I know, a 10-foot run-out isn't that bad, but it is if the 20-foot whipper slams one into a jagged, chickenhead-infested wall. I wasn't looking forward to this at all.

But after taking stock, I reminded myself that I was on this climb and there was no going back. It was only 5.8. I know I said that at Poke-O, but this felt right. Poke-O never did. I made the decision to go over the bulge without an extra piece of gear. I know this is a philosophy that I'll have to fix someday (hopefully sooner than later), but I often run out difficult-to-place sections because I feel as if I'm more likely to fall while placing gear than just getting to the next best section. The flaw with this? Someday I'm going to get to a spot where there aren't any good spots to place gear, and I'll be too far up...

Well, the lack of pro wasn't the last surprise the pea pod had for me. It turns out that the crux isn't the bulge, but the pod itself. Body-jamming doesn't help one bit, because the pod ends and at some point one has to go over the bulge and, thus, leave the pod. There are some jams, but they go in the wrong direction. Ordinarily, when laying back on a diagonal or horizontal crack, one's back is facing the ground. It's just easier to hang on one's arms that way. But all the hand holds suggested the layback was in the other direction, with me facing down, straight down, all the way down. Did I mention the barn-door feeling? Imagine walking across a balance beam. Now imagine walking across a balance beam propped at a 45-degree angle. Would you rather climb it like a pole, from below with your hands and feet wrapped over the top? Or would you rather climb it like a slick ramp with your body bent over so that your hands were only a foot or so above your feet? This was the boldest trad move I've ever done. I had no clue what the holds were like above the bulge, no clue if I was going to be able to shift my body weight in the complete opposite direction at the top of the pod (as the holds suggested I was going to have to do), and I had no clue if my last piece was as good as I hope it was. This felt like three, stiff, bouldery, layback moves where my abs and thighs were as stiff as I've ever had them throughout the duration of the moves. I kept telling myself to breathe, to calm down, to just go, go, go. And I did. I saw the change-in-body-position hold and went for it. If I grabbed it then I was home free. I could see the bulge at that point, and could see that there were huge jugs waiting for me. The bulge wasn't the crux after all. The pod was, but if I missed it then I was going. And I wasn't sure what that meant. I wasn't sure I wanted to know. I took three, quick, deep breaths and grabbed. My body twisted out of position. My feet started to give way, and I felt the barn-door whip my hips downward. But somehow I held on, and within a split second I lunged for the jugs above and soon after found myself at the anchors. A huge yelp erupted from within my chest and, just as it was about to bellow out, I held it in and thought, act like you've been there and you'll be a better man for it later.

I did admit to "Tattoo" that I was afraid later on, but that was OK at that point. I didn't care. I had once again conquered my fears and was stronger for doing so. I'm still happy about it.


With two ropes, rap straight from the fourth-pitch anchors to the bottom of pitch three. With one rope, rap down to the anchors on the route on the right, and then rap again to the bottom of pitch three. Understand that you can probably rap straight down from the bottom of pitch three to the ground, but you'll be tossing and potentially landing right into a large pool of water. Your rope will get wet. "Tattoo" and I did the short rap around the corner to the top of pitch one so that we could rap down to the original starting slab to avoid getting the rope wet. Still, when pulling your rope once down to the bottom, it will get wet. No hands are faster than gravity. I hope your OK with that.

In keeping with the spirit of my Vegas entertainment theme, I think this video best represents my feelings of the day (it may take a couple of seconds to load):
Placebo: Sleeping with ghosts

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