Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Colorado Day One: Garden of the Gods (an introduction to soft sandstone)

"Jello"'s comments in italics

Everyone needs a break every now and again. While I'm not disadvantaged in any realistic manner, I certainly have felt under the gun the past year or so. Life changes do make things interesting and challenging, especially against the pressures of expectations. And I've worked hard to maintain some semblance of progress in my life. Despite some important setbacks, I've really tried to ensure that I haven't taken any other steps backward. Of course, that doesn't mean I've moved forward all of the time, because I haven't, but when keeping my head above water is the best I can do, well, all I can hope for is to do the best that I can do and that maybe, just maybe if I've done a good job and worked hard and focused on doing good, then I will be rewarded, even if that reward comes out of the blue and carries the risk of having to work harder, doing a better job, and doing more good as a result. I consider this trip to be that reward, and because I'm not sure what will come to me as a result of taking this trip, I'm going to enjoy it.

Many of you who read this blog back when I first started writing it full-time last year will remember my adventures with "Jello". We went everywhere the northeast the has to offer, driving from two different locations to meet up only to climb that weekend's agenda. And if that agenda wasn't possible, then we formed Plan B, or Plan C, D, or E; whatever it was, we had the opportunity to climb, we climbed it, and it was a good experience, even if it seemed that we had more epics per days climbing than any other climbing tandem in history (epic-to-route ratio was 1:1). Of course, like anyone living life, he had professional goals (to be a climbing guide) and that took him to Colorado this spring. Since that time, we've been talking about me coming out to visit and climb for a few days. Unfortunately, I haven't had the money to go on my own, but that all changed when I decided to go to a conference in Dallas. Seeing an opportunity to save my company some money by flying on off-peak days and by not staying at the expensive hotel where the conference was offered, I proposed that I fly through Denver on the way back, with the difference of me returning to work ten days later than expected. The offer was happily accepted, and I landed in Denver early Friday morning.

Going to Denver International Airport (DIA) is a pain. It’s on the outskirts of Denver and it’s far from Colorado Springs but I was happy to drive up there and pick up Greg because I knew it meant fun and adventure were in the future. So as I weaved my way through traffic on my way to pick him up I did what I always do when I don’t have anything to think about, I think about where I want to go climbing. Even though I have been living in Colorado for a little over six months there are still many places I haven’t been and climbs I haven’t done. This was an opportunity to do some of those undone things. First I had to deal with the airport. DIA is confusing for pretty much everyone so finding Greg was a challenge, first he was upstairs, then downstairs but I just couldn’t find him. After looking around for half an hour we finally were cruising down I-25 to Colorado Springs. I already had big plans.

When "Jello" picked me up he relayed me our newest agenda:

- Friday: Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs
- Saturday: Turkey Rocks somewhere in the South Platte region
- Sunday: Boulder Canyon in Boulder
- Monday: Eldorado Canyon
- Tuesday: Lumpy Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park
- Wednesday: Garden of the Gods
- Thursday: Red Rocks in Colorado Springs
- Friday: Either Garden of the Gods or Red Rocks
- Sat / Sun: The Black Canyon (I'm not sure where this is exactly)

An hour later we were in the main parking lot of Garden of the Gods for my first sandstone experience since attacking Red Rocks in Vegas last November.

Potholes (5.7) - 65 feet - Sport - Chained Anchors - Greg led

Approach: Take the path from the main parking lot and look for the large "Garden of the Gods" plaque on the right. When facing the plaque, turn left to the small pillar(s) (there are two, but you may not see them both from this angle) that is in between the two larger cliffs. Potholes starts just right of the sign that says "A priceless gift."

Potholes is a really fun intro to the Garden. The climbing is gym-like although not nearly as safe. The carnival-like atmosphere is very much a detraction, but since I’ve had to deal with it since getting here I really don’t notice anymore. For the most part, if you don’t like people watching you climb then don’t go to the Garden. I have fantasies of climbing Potholes naked while hundreds of tourists take pictures and yell in disgust.

This place is surreal. It's an interesting mix of glorious towers, easy access, and somehow the feeling that this little park that tries to be so grand is just a cheap trick on the tourists that come here. I've never been to a climbing area where the cliffs are both imposing and not so much at the same time. They are certainly tall, the rock is soft, and the slabs are slick to the untrained sandstone climber. But when you're belaying from the walking path with kids who have never seen climbers before pointing up at you and asking their parents what you're doing, well, it kind of takes away from the adventurous feeling this sport can have. There's something to be said about solitude when climbing, and I'm not just talking about getting away from climbing crowds (because certainly that is ideal as well). This is a city park, no different than Boston Common in atmosphere. Sure, Boston Common doesn't have stark red towers jutting out from its paths, but it does have the same touristy feel, except instead of taking pictures of the swan boats, the tourists are taking pictures of me instead.

Potholes: Climb the bolts to the right-facing flake with the pods on the right. The chained anchors are directly on top of this spire.

As I noted above, the last time I climbed sandstone was with "Tattoo" at Red Rocks in Las Vegas. My first experience on sandstone was interesting, but without any fear that related to the rock specifically. I was told to tap every hold before committing, and I did that for a good while until I started assuming the holds were strong. In fact, two climbers who were climbing the same route that "Tattoo" and I were on noted that I'd stop tapping the holds after a while because it really was a useless activity. The rock in Vegas is, well, fairly strong and solid when it hasn't rained. The sandstone at GOTG, however, is a little bit different.

The first thing that "Jello" told me about this place was that the rock was soft, and that he wouldn't take a trad lead fall on most of the towers in the park. He would take a sport fall on the bolts, but even then it would be hard for him to do so without thinking about his underpants afterward. In short, he believed that falling was simply not something I wanted to risk, but that shouldn't stop me from pushing myself anyway. He also noted that when pulling on the hand holds I should only pull downward and not outward, as the rock was more settled in this direction. I cautiously took his advice and jumped on my first route, a 5.7 that "Jello" felt was a good intro to climbing in the Garden.

Because I was not only climbing on a somewhat foreign surface for me but also in a new area, too, I asked him how the grades in the Garden compared to the 'Gunks, which is supposedly notoriously sandbagged (I'm still not convinced of this, by the way). He noted that he felt the grades were comparable (this further proves my skepticism that the 'Gunks are sandbagged), and so I started up thinking that if there were no roofs on this 5.7 then the route itself would be technically challenging in some other way. It turned out not to be the case. While I felt there were a couple of 5.7 moves, they seemed to be more like gym grades than 'Gunks grades and so my initial feeling that the 'Gunks aren't sandbagged came into question. I flew up this route with relative ease; the only thing that kept me back was my uncertainty with the soft rock. I also had a chuckle on the way up. Maybe this was just my inexperience with this type of rock, but for a sport route I was expecting only bolts on this route, not pitons. Well, to be a bit more clear, if I did see a piton then I expected to see it hammered into a crack. That is not always the case in GOTG. Of all of the fixed pieces that I saw that day, about 10% of them were pitons hammered right into a blank face. I'm not so sure why this seems unusual to me. After all, the piton is long and sharp and could easily be pounded into the soft rock just like a normal bolt could be, but it just looked funny.

Potholes is a route that I take clients on all the time. Its gym-like appeal makes it easier for most people. While Greg took his time I did notice he seemed a little perturbed by the rock and the protection. Potholes is not a well-protected route. The newest bolt is about ten feet off the ground, certainly a fall resulting in a broken ankle if taken. The first time I climbed the route, though, that bolt had not been placed and the pin was the first piece of gear, a twenty foot fall that has resulted in broken legs. From there the pins are usually eight to ten feet apart. Not a horrible fall but certainly unpleasant and possibly painful. Add to the fact that Garden rock is notoriously rotten and hollow, and I could see why Greg was taking his sweet time. His estimate of soft iron pitons pounded into drilled holes is a little off. There are over two hundred routes in the Garden. Rarely do more than twenty of them get climbed, and some have never been repeated. While the trad routes tend to be run out, a lot of them have good bolts. Most of the Garden is nasty old pitons. I have yet to see one fail but I have seen a lot that used to be in the rock and now reside in people’s personal museums of Garden artifacts.

Anyway, after we both got back down, "Jello" asked me if I wanted to get on something harder. I replied that I thought that would be a good idea, since this route seemed kind of soft. He then pointed out a nice 5.9 not too far away. It was a corner with a bit of stemming and I thought to myself, "a 5.9 corner with good feet? This has to be as soft as the 5.7 I just did."

I would hesitate to call the Garden sandbagged, same for the Gunks. I think for the most part that you get used to a certain style of climbing and it feels right on or even soft. Crescent Corner is not one of those routes. It’s very smeary and pumpy so in my mind it is certainly 5.9+. It is also one of the routes that relies a lot on your hands which can be scary given the Garden rock.

Descent: Rap with a 50m rope.

Crescent Corner (5.9+) - 90 feet - Sport - Chained Anchors - Greg led

Approach: Find the plaque noted above and turn around so that the plaque is behind you. Find the path heading to the crag on the opposite side of the path. Take that path and walk up to the right a few feet until you're below a left-facing corner that arches left at the top.

Crescent Corner: Follow the corner, clipping the bolts on the left roofs for the first few pieces of pro. Climb to the chained anchors and only continue if you're confident in your climbing. The rock above the chains is supposedly weak and not worth continuing the climb for.

Well, so much for the grades being soft. One thing that GOTG does is test your mental fortitude. Three things stood out on this climb: the spacing of the bolts (not really that unusual, but certainly scary considering the soft rock), the hollow-sounding nature of the rock itself (I was tapping on the thickest part of the crag itself and still heard the deep thudding sound of emptiness on the other side), and the requirement of liebacking the crux. Now, all three of these go in tandem with "Jello"'s advice from above: that one should pull down and not out on the holds. Add in a bit of slick and crumbly feet, and you've got yourself a full-on basket-case route. Seriously, I tapped the rock (not a flake mind you, but the actual cliff. You know, the rock where all the holds are molded to?) and heard the hollowness on the other side. The reason you don’t tap the rock is because you don’t want to know that the most solid looking pieces are hollow and fragile. You don’t want to know. As far as Garden routes go this one is pretty well protected. The first bolt is a little high but it’s easy ground and the rest of the route is decently protected. Even so I think the funkiness of the Garden was getting to Greg.

- Me (to myself): This cliff is 30 feet thick. How can it be hollow? OK, so that makes the rock a bit more sketchy, so let's make sure I pull down instead of out. Hmmm...nothing to pull down on....
- "Jello": You have to layback.
- Me: Um, doesn't that take away from your advice of pulling down?
- "Jello": Uh, yeah, but that's how the route is done. It's a lieback.
- Me: OK, but the rock is hollow.
- "Jello": It's always like that.
- Me: Um, OK, so I'm supposed to pull out on sketchy rock that I'm otherwise not supposed to pull out on.
- "Jello": That's correct.
- Me: And where's the first bolt?
- "Jello" (pointing upward): That's it, about 20 feet above your head.
- Me: And the next one after that?
- "Jello": Can't you see it? it's about 10 feet above that. And so is the third, and fourth, and so on.
- Me: Gulp!

Well, my head couldn't convince me to just go for it, so I hung a few times at the crux (between the second and third bolt). The bolts were spaced apart appropriately (and placed appropriately, too), but it sure felt like I was destined to go for a ride each time I pulled on the holds. I eventually made it, but this was a lesson in climbing sandstone for me: never trust the holds completely, but just understand that they're probably OK.

Descent: Rap with one 60m rope.

Silver Spoon (5.5) - 65 feet - Sport - Chained Anchors - Greg Led

Approach: This is in the same section as Crescent Corner, except instead of taking a right where the path meets the cliff, take a left. Walk along the base until you see another path on the left that leads to a fence where that meets the paved path. Walk a little farther over (about 10 feet) until you see a fair amount of names carved into the rock. I particularly remembered the name "Aurthur" for some reason.

Silver Spoon: Climb up to the first bolt and then smear left over what appears to be blank rock to a large right-facing corner that arches left into a roof. Follow the corner up to where it meets the gully. To find the anchors, peer into the gully (you may have to look below you) and find them on the other side of the arrete. It is best to set your anchor long so that you don't belay inside the gully but on the face below the corner instead (i.e. - left of the arrete). This will protect the rock from the rope scarring the arrete itself. If there is one thing that bothers me it’s when people do stupid things. While climbing Crescent Corner, the person on Silver Spoon asked if I would carry up a rope to set up a toprope for him. Figuring they were done and it wouldn’t take that long, I said sure because I’m a damn nice guy. After waiting around a few minutes I decided to see what was going on. He was just finishing the climb and was preparing to rappel...down the wrong side of the face. There are two directions you can rappel off Silver spoon. Down the gully or down the face you climbed up. Because of the placement of the anchors it is a much smarter idea to rap down the gully. You save your rope, you save the rock, and it’s just nicer that way. When I explained this to the gentleman he simply said, “this is the way I always do it.” People used to also always not take showers and we know how well that worked out. So while the rock-grooving pile of monkey spunk struggled to pull his rope over a sandstone edge, I wandered back and told Greg what was going on (because he was waiting at the top to bring me up for about, what, 10 minutes? When they finally came over I quickly put their rope up and moved on trying not to be a jerk, which was hard because I’m really good at it.

This was a very nice route that got me back into my smearing and slab technique. I found that I had a lot of confidence in my feet on the rock after this climb. "Jello" wanted me to do this climb first because it is a good introduction to GOTG. However, we did it third due to it being taken when we first arrived. Silver Spoon went well for Greg which I expected given the grade and rappelling down the gully went fine as well. Don’t damage the rock when you rappel and don’t toprope through the anchors, you didn’t pay for them.

Descent: Rap down the gully with one 60m rope. Do not rap down the route itself. Again, this will help save the rock from scarring. The rap should put you back down to the path that leads to the fence. Despite the route being so short, it is advisable to rap with a 60m rope because the gully route is actually longer than Silver Spoon is.

Finger Ramp (5.7) - 75 feet - Sport - Chained Anchors - Greg Led

Approach: When looking at the plaque noted above, head left up the paved path and find a climber's path on the right. The climber's path will lead back toward the same cliff that the plaque is on, but this climb is on the face that is around the corner to the left from the plaque itself. Start where this path meets the cliff.

Finger Ramp: Fade up left, following the bolts to the large and wide, left-fading diagonal crack. From there, either climb up so that your feet are in the crack and you're using the upper holds to walk up the crack and around the corner, or stay low, keeping your hands in the crack and using the thin but solid foot jibs below.

My first inclination was to stay very low below the crack so that I wasn't even using it, and there are some solid crimps that could lead straight up to the anchors. However, this is definitely not a 5.7 section of rock and it is difficult to retreat from. I then decided to keep my hands low in the crack and was able to stem with good feet through this crux. "Jello" took the high holds, but this is because he did this once before and fell, which, if you look at where the last bolt was, means he took about a 15-foot swinging whipper on sandstone that you'd never want to fall intentionally on. He wanted to conquer that demon, and did so with relative ease. Finger Ramp is a fun climb but it had me a bit shaken after my last fall off it. Luckily I had my trusty new shoes to see me through the smeary section. Despite this I still hesitated. I don’t like hesitation. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t hesitate and everything is fine but that small percentage is what usually ends up with nasty falls and scariness. Thankfully, today nothing significant happened.

This was a fun route, maybe the best route of the day. I do recommend this as a good single-pitch climb if you've only got a limited amount of time to climb. It is also nice because the anchors are perfectly placed to tackle on top rope the hard 5.10 route directly below.

Descent: Rap straight down and end up at the top of the hill that is up left of the start of Finger Ramp. A 50m rope would suffice here.

Lower Finger Direct (5.10+ X) - 65 feet - Sport - Chained Anchors - Greg Topropped

Approach: I topropped this after leading Finger Ramp, and this is advised due to this route not having good pro (or any for that matter). So, if you lead Finger Ramp, then the rope will automatically be in the proper spot for this climb. But if you're bold enough to lead it, then walk up the hill from the start of Finger Ramp and start in a small, shallow, left-facing corner (its more like a series of ridges that fade and get smaller to the left than an actual corner) that is just below the top of the path. This is right of another and very similar looking section of rock. The left-hand corner is much harder and doesn't follow the thin crack seam as well as the right-hand start does.

Lower Finger Direct: Follow the thin seam / crack up left to a pin, and then step immediately right (crux) to what will appear to be blank rock, but once you do manage to step right and you are able to smear up one move, then the climbing is essentially over as it gets very easy to the anchors.

I was happy to have climbed this clean after struggling so much on the 5.9 earlier. It was my kind of climb, though, with thin crimps and static-but-balancy moves throughout. It was a good way to end the day, though I wish it was bolted or had better pro because I would have loved to have led it. Isn't this always the case? I find this happens a lot to me; the solid, hard climbs that I could lead are never leadable without serious risk of injury. It's a bummer for sure. I hope this isn't always the case.

Descent: Rap off the chained anchors with a 50m rope.

I think the most impressive part of climbing here is that "Jello" only lives 15 minutes away. That allowed us to climb until some heavy winds came in and it was time for dinner. A few minutes later and I was unpacking after my flight and cooking salmon just as I had never left home.

There's a few good pictures in the 2008 Garden of the Gods Album. Click here and enjoy.

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