Friday, April 24, 2009

The Moab Diary: Our Grade III Climb (day two)

Jello's comments in italics

I walked out of the tent and saw our shit blown all over the campsite. I was the only one awake and was discouraged. Honestly though, I don't remember hearing the windstorm because I was sleeping pretty good by this point, but our stuff was everywhere. Mostly it was "Sungam's", but I knew it would take some time to get our own stuff together, too. Today was my birthday and I wanted to get to the top of that damn tower.

I started to get our gear together. Shortly after Greg and "Sungam" awoke and we were working on breakfast, but things were moving exceedingly slow. I've noticed a lot of changes in both my abilities but also in those of other people. I've climbed with everyone from beginners to people with vast and varied experience who can out climb me sans rope. Of course, I've improved; it's hard not to when I climb almost every day. I've also developed some wicked endurance and I'm a lot more capable of just hanging around to figure out what to do or to fiddle with pro, which might be why I was able to climb my first 5.11 just a few days earlier on one of my first days outside in a while. Besides that, though, I've become ridiculously fast. I hike fast, I can climb fast - I get my gear together and I am ready to go. Mostly it's because I have to be going faster than my clients. They just take off their shoes and get their pack on. I have to break down the anchor, rappel, pull the rope, coil the rope, re-rack, all the while making sure I stay fed and hydrated. So while Greg and "Sungam" ate and talked, and put gear in packs and talked, and talked, I was getting restless. There was no way we'd get this done if they spent the next three hours talking. After a while "Texas Flake" and company ambled out of their tent. Finally they'd be getting their truck and leaving the area so we could actually climb, but only if "Sungam" could learn to talk and pack his bags at the same time. Even though we figured out the best way to juggle the vehicle mess was to have "Trucker" drop us off, there was still something that didn't seem smart about being stranded out in the desert without a vehicle. Nevertheless, an excrutiatingly long time later, we were packed and on the road. "Trucker" dropped us off at our most likely path and it was now or never. It was a little after noon and despite the late start I was confident that we could still pull off the ascent.

Wryick-Merrill (C1 5.8 III) - four pitches - mix of aid and trad - mixed anchors(<-- click link for guidebook information)

"Jello" and I had plans for this trip. Despite my hobbling injury, he was going to teach me to aid climb and I was going to follow him up some tough and exposed climbs. Castleton Tower was a must-do. The Fisher Towers loomed if we felt confident by the end of the trip. We even feverishly talked about conquering our virgin first ascent on a beautiful line we had scoped on the way in. The infamous Playing Hooky (C2 5.12- IV) was not out of the question if things went really well. I was nervous. This was going to be my first aid lead ever, and I had only learned how two days before with only that day to practice. Still, the first pitch was a bolt ladder. I had chosen this route, and that pitch, for the specific reason that I wanted to learn the aspects of leading aid in steps: first to control the fear of being above gear, which is different than being above gear when lead climbing, then to get used to the process (or system) of moving upward, and then finally to the point of trusting gear. I wanted to focus on the gear when I knew I didn't have to worry about the other aspects. I was hopeful this pitch would do the trick for step one.

We stared at the distant tower and wondered where the route was. There was one path that seemed to fade to the left when our objective was off to the right. We chose to follow the path and within a half hour we were stumped with a decision on whether to stay on the low ground and work our way to the right along the base of the lower cliff, which, as we studied its curves and impossible-to-climb softness, we discovered that it became taller and more difficult to scale the closer it got to River Tower, or scramble up the crumbly, slick slabs with the hopes that we could find a path along the series of talus fields we saw between us and the route. We chose to scramble.

The walk across the mid-section of the lower cliff, which was as high as we could get, was easy if not a bit unnerving in parts. Walking along the soft sand was annoying because of our two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back progress, but it was soft and saved the pounding our knees and my ankle would have taken on otherwise harder ground. It was also stable and secure. We knew we'd shift a little under the weight of our bodies, but we knew the slide would be minor. The sloping rock, on the other hand, allowed for easier progress, but it was too often on the edge of the cliff and covered with enough tiny shards of sand that made us wonder if one slip would end the day in disaster.

We were getting closer. The tower was close enough now that we could see what we believed to be the route, but we were also dismayed when we turned a crucial corner and saw that the Wyrick-Merrill route started much higher up the initial cliff than we had originally believed. We looked around and saw no way down except the way we had come. The only other way was up, and considering that we had just realized there were still things that we didn't know about the approach, the way up seemed long and full of potential mistakes that could ultimately send us all the way back down and around the bend whence we started.

"Jello" decided to scout ahead while "Sungam" and I stayed with the bags. It was gloriously sunny out, but the wind howled such that we cowered behind a car-sized boulder and hoped we weren't disturbing any unsuspecting snakes living underneath the rock. We watched him scramble up and down the various levels of the cliff in search of an easy path up. Of concern was my ankle. I could sit in an aider with little discomfort, but it lacked strength and tweaking or torquing it was the last thing I wanted to do this far away from the road. I needed easy with little commitment, and it didn't appear that "Jello" was finding anything.

He returned after a half hour of searching. The easiest approach to the right, which was where the tower was in relation to where we were standing, was at least solid 5.8 climbing all around, and none of the moves were single moves from bottom to top but a sequence of moves up a 20-foot headwall instead. The sand felt soft, and so he felt the risk was too great.

That left the curious option of heading left, away from the tower, in order to gain the scariest rock fall zone we had seen all day. "Sungam" saw the rock fall and headed right. "Jello" and I headed left. We didn't see him for about 10 minutes, but as we carefully made our way along without dislodging any of the large boulders above and below us, we started to hear what we thought was him talking to us. Fifteen minutes after we had split we joined together again. He was at the start of the climb and turned to us as we came closer. "Guess what, guys," he said with raised eyebrows, "I bet these aren't the kind of bolts we were expecting."
Now I knew Greg's ankle would slow us down but we had been trotting around in the desert for several hours and I hoped that he would be able to lead the first pitch quickly so we could get to the top and back down before dark. It was cold though on that dark north face and everyone was moving slow. I tried to help speeding up the process by throwing gear at Greg, but it just wasn't working. It was like trying to pour molasses in Antartica. Even so, I kept moving so I could keep relatively warm and eventually Greg was staring at us nervously as he clipped into the first bolt. I knew the bolt ladder would be full of quarter incher's and old pitons, but for some reason I figured there would be a few decent bolts somewhere in there. To be fair to the bolts, they were fine as far as quarter-inch bolts and old pitons go. I've seen a lot more quarter inch bolts than I'd ever seen in my life since I've moved out here. Rusted, hanging out of the rock, snapped off, ripped out, angle iron hangers, sheet metal hangers, no hangers - so the wing nuts didn’t really surprise me. Watching Greg for the next hour while he made slow progress was somewhat painful. It was about the easiest aid climbing that one could do. Even so I was glad he decided to tackle the first pitch having only learned the process of aid climbing the two days earlier.

I was naive. I'm not sure why I thought the bolt ladder would be like climbing at Rumney, with stainless steel hangers held into the rock by firmly drilled bolts, but I did. In fact, I probably would have even been surprised to see pitons and, had I seen pitons, that they would have been the weakest of all the bolts. But that's not what the route turned out to be. The first bolt was, in fact, a bolt as I had imagined. But the second was a quarter-inch bolt with a wing nut screwed on. I gulped. The route started right on the edge of a ten-foot drop. If the second bolt failed, if the wing nut came unscrewed, then the fall would be at least 15 feet.

I scanned the route the best that I could. It was difficult to do so because the chimney started to the right of where the route began, and I couldn't see more than 30 feet up as a result. I saw nothing but pitons - all on the right-hand side of the chimney because I couldn't see the left-hand side - and became a little more nervous than I was before. "Jello" reassured me that the pitons were much longer than I was imagining them in my head. This made me feel a little better, but I was still nervous. "Wing nuts?" I thought to myself.

Now that I knew this wasn't going to be as easy as clipping hangers, I racked up with all the nuts and draws we had between the three of us. Honestly, I have never slipped a nut wire over a bolt before, but it didn't seem hard. The only thing that concerned me was the wing nut coming unscrewed, or the nut itself, which I would have pushed up against the wing nut to hold the wire in place, slid down and allowed my protection below me to bounce off. "Jello" and "Sungam" encouraged me to push on, I took three breaths, clipped the first bolt, stood up in my aiders, looked down at the sudden drop at the start, slung the wing nut with a wired nut, clipped it, and swung out over the empty air and into the chimney. I looked up and nearly shit myself.

Naivete must have been with me the entire time up to this point. I saw the wing nut at the second bolt and clipped my only Screamer draw to it. "Jello" warned me to take it with me because there might be scarier bolts up ahead. But all I was seeing was the big drop below me and the awkward reach up to the next bolt. If I fell at all, this was where it was likely to be the most dangerous. However, once I clipped and weighted the third bolt I discovered that this route wasn't only not lined with shiny new hangers, but it also wasn't lined with old, rusted pitons either. More than half of the bolts were the same as the second one: rusty, old, a quarter inch thick, and secured with wing nuts. "I'm thinking this is going to be a bold lead for a first time aider," "Sungam" said. "Jello" agreed. I wasn't sure if they were encouraging me as Mat Goodyear had so generously done the first time I had ever been climbing, or if they were serious. The debate on their true colors raged inside of me for a while, but I couldn't decide which side to choose and said, "fuck it," I'm just going to go. Let there be no doubt that this debate returned throughout the ascent, but I was never able to resolve it and, therefore, I never really knew if I was in over my head or not.

The climbing was slow, to say the least. I hadn't had much exercise the past month due to my injury, and my abs and were weak, too. Fatigue set in quickly, and my strength was getting sapped with the top-stepping reaches I had to make. I was also making mistakes early on that slowed me down. For instance, I would forget to extend my daisy before standing up. Because I hadn't mastered how to extend the daisy with one hand, I had to carefully lower myself and weight my highest piece in order to use both hands. I also hadn't figured out how to maintain my balance on the upper steps of the aider for very long. It became a common occurrence for me to step up two or three times before I finally secured the wire around the wing nut and clipped in. The wind was howling. "Sungam" was cold, and "Jello", who was belaying me, desperately had to piss. I wasn't very kind to him. He could have switched out the belay, and I knew it could be done safely, but I said no. I just didn't want to risk anything. I could finally see the anchors 30 feet above me, but after 100 feet of climbing, I was too tired to reach the next highest bolt.
Another hour had passed by, and the warmth of the sun was just barely out of reach. I had to urinate. I asked Greg if I could switch with "Sungam" to which he replied no. I knew he was a little gripped but I also felt he was blowing it out of proportion a little bit but mostly I was just frustrated standing at the bottom freezing my ass off while I had to pee because Greg was having a dilemma of reach and courage. Then Greg asked how much rope was left and explained he couldn't reach the next bolt. I was worried that there wouldn't be enough or that we'd have to do some kind of knot pass to get him to the ground. I also knew that he wasn't that far from the anchors so I tried to push him a little bit. I've had a lot of practice pushing people past their comfort levels but in this instance I really wanted Greg to succeed, mostly because his success was a team success but also because it would probably take longer for him to lower and for me to finish the pitch.

Honestly, I tried several times to reach it, but it was just too far. The first two or three times it seemed only six inches from my fingertips, so I figured I could reach it by extending my reach with the wire from the nut I was going to use. My first attempt with the wire was a disappointment; I was still an inch too low. I lowered and rested, thinking about how I was going to get more height. I had already used the top step of the aider below me, and the haul loop, which is even higher than that, seemed too daunting to use. At least four times below my current position I had tried to climb higher by using whatever features in the mud I could use to hold onto, but all of those attempts ended in large sections of the chimney dislodging out from under my grip. Climbing higher, free climbing, seemed too dangerous. I gave it another try, and this time I was able to just reach the wing nut with the wire. I was stretching as far as I could stretch and it was right there, less than a millimeter from taking hold, but the end of the wire wasn't wide enough to slip over the wing nut. I lowered again and physically widened the wire as much as I could. Unfortunately, this made it shorter. So when I stood up again, I was too low.

I felt defeated. This was the most difficult section of the route for me and I was tired. I looked down and wondered how much rope I had left. Was it a 60m rope? Did I have enough to be lowered? Or would I end up short and dangling in space with a 20-foot drop straight down to the lower ledge and a five-foot swing to the left to get to the starting ledge?

- Me: How much rope do I have left?
- Either "Sungam" or "Jello": 80 feet or so.

"Fuck," I said to myself. "I'm too far up. There's not enough rope to lower." I tried to think about my options, but all I could think about was whether I believed in God or not. One might think this was a perfectly normal thing to think about, but what I was debating wasn't whether I'd go to Heaven if I died on on this route, but more how I've always had a run of bad luck whenever I've asked God for help. One can debate what that means for my future, but I wasn't thinking about that particular angle. I was wondering if God wanted me to do this on my own or if he was testing me, making me fail all these previous times I'd asked for help only to see if I'd continue to turn to Him in my greatest moment of need. This seemed unfair to me, but I wasn't in a position to understand His methods; I was merely caught between my own personal experience and faith. I was rested now, and so I chose experience. "This couldn't be my greatest moment of need," I thought to myself. Of course, I couldn't never know that for sure, but I just felt that this wasn't it. "I'll get out of this and examine this slippery slope later."

I stood up again and stretched, but I was too short. I lowered, regained my composure, widened the wire, and went again. Too low. I lowered again and rested. I was determined to get it. I had to get it. Every bit of my courage depended on gaining that bolt. It had to be perfect, everything had to be precise: my feet needed to be on the top step, my body stiff as a board, my arm as stretched as it cold stretch, the wire long enough to reach and also wide enough to slip over the wing nut. I stood up, reached, willed the nut higher, stretched with all of my might, but the top of the wire was just barely scraping against the bottom of the wing nut. My endurance had failed me. My knees were too bent, my body was too limp, and my courage too weak. I looked down and fretted about the descent. I was going to have to build a makeshift anchor on bolts that were about six feet higher than each other. I was going to anchor myself into that anchor, untie, pull the rope up, and fix the line so that I could descend all the way down. I told "Jello" and "Sungam" what I was going to do.

- You're going to do what?

I repeated my plan. I told them that I just couldn't do it. I was too tired, and if I could barely get this bolt, with another six or seven just like it to go, and then 10 feet of C1 aiding on real gear in the softest of rock that I'd ever touched, then I was surely going to flail when I got to the real aiding. I apologized. They told me not to, but I did anyway.

- "Sungam": can you hold on for a second?
- Me: Sure.

I waited by looking straight ahead. Looking up made no difference. That was a place I wasn't going to get to. All I needed at this point was to have faith that the bolts would hold all the way down. I tried to muster that faith and put the horrifying images of the fixed anchor blowing out and me plummeting to the sandstone earth below out of my mind. It was my only option, and so I hung on until I heard "Sungam" shout up to me.

- "Sungam": We're going to lower you.
- Me: What?
- "Sungam": We're going to lower you.
- Me: But how? There isn't enough rope!
- "Sungam": We think we underestimated how much length there was before. We think there is enough.
- Me: Are you sure?

There was a moment of silence.
- Yes

I was somewhat relieved, but scared at the same time. What if they were wrong? There wasn't much I could do, though. They had the better information and I felt their solution was safer. I equalized the two highest bolts as best that I could and clipped in. "Jello" was kind enough to lower me slowly, and within a few minutes I touched back down on the ground.
I'm not sure what the air was like when I lowered. Certainly the wind was cold and the tear in my down jacket was spilling feathers. But the smell of disappointment was masked with encouragement and support.

- "Sungam": That's a stout lead for a first time aid leader.
- Yeah, good job. No need to be sorry.
- "Sungam": Aiding is slow. It happens.
- You just got tired, worn out. It was probably a difficult move.
- "Sungam": You made the right call, if you didn't think you could finish.
- It's getting late anyhow. We need to summit soon or not at all.
I told them I wasn't going back up, and the wind shifted. My reason was simple: I was too slow and there was no need for all three of us to summit. Why reward me for slowing us down? They'd move faster without me, and at least someone would get to the top. But I doubt they saw it that way. I had just spent at least a couple of hours of their time and now I wasn't going to finish what I had started. They encouraged me to continue, and spoke as if I was going to summit whether I liked it or not. But I could tell that they knew they were saying the right words. Whether I made it up or not wouldn't have stopped them from continuing. We all knew it, but I was the only one comfortable with having failed. I wanted them to summit because I didn't want to have wasted their day. They wanted to summit for the same reason, and they wanted me on top, too, because they didn't want me to have wasted their day either without the team succeeding together. I'm speculating. I can never know the truth exactly about how they felt at that moment, but I felt it and I believed it was all true.
Greg had barely taken his weight off the rope before I was grabbing gear and preparing to head back up the rope. I noted the sun was just starting to touch our faces at this point, which was a wonderful feeling, but also meant we were nearing the end of the day. As cold as I was, I took off my jacket and started up the rope. I knew I'd warm up soon enough. I came to Greg's last bolt and I nearly laughed out loud. In an attempt to equalize the mess of crappy bolts he'd made a mess of slings that I could not quite comprehend. After assembling my wares, I stepped up to see what all the fuss was about. Stepping into the top step I couldn't quite reach the bolt, so I stepped one foot out of the aiders and smeared it onto the mud. Half top-stepping and half free climbing I moved up cautiously and clipped the bolt. It was scary but not all that bad as far as I was concerned. Another few bolts passed and I came to a small crack of Cutler Sandstone. Despite the mud crust that was covering everything the stone seemed surprisingly solid. I plugged a few more pieces and I was at a four piece...anchor? The three pins were ancient, probably older than me and I was turning twenty five that very day. The single bolt wasn't spinning, but it wasn't confidence-inspiring either. Oh well, if the anchor did fail there were still about forty pieces below me. Something would probably hold and if not then at least it would be an interesting ride to the ground. I equalized the pieces and called down to "Sungam", "the line is fixed".
"Jello" jugged to my high point and led the rest of the way. He had to free climb to the bolt that I couldn't reach, but that was because he didn't see another bolt in between the two. Until he had seen that bolt, he agreed that it was a difficult reach. But when he realized that I was using the higher bolt, the one that he initially missed, I could tell that he couldn't believe I couldn't reach. It made me question my ability and courage. I wanted to run away, but I stayed and watched him finish the route and "Sungam" jug to the anchors. They were not at the anchors for long.
As "Sungam" bounced his way up the jug line, I watched the anchor. All seemed well and that put me at ease and I started thinking about the next pitch. According to the guidebook there was a section of 5.4 and then some short C1 moves. Now, reading it in that order, I, like most people, would think that because of the order it was presented in that the 5.4 climbing would come first and then the C1 after that. As "Sungam" came to the anchor he briefly complained about it, but I brought his focus on to whether we should climb or descend. His thoughts were that we should go for it, mine were the same.

Greg had decided he wasn't going to come up but I wasn't going to take no for an answer. It doesn't seem fair to me that one of us make it and not another. Climbing is a partner sport and to leave one partner hanging because of lack of will or ability is a failure of the other partner(s) to properly assess their own goals in relation to the team. I knew this was pushing Greg, especially with the weak ankle but I knew he was capable both physically and mentally. Either we all made it or none of us made it. We were going for it.

After observing the route above, it became clear that the C1 came before the 5.4 climbing. I top stepped off one of the pitons in the anchor and crammed the small crack above full of C3 Camalots. After fiddling them into place and weighting them, then adjusting them as to not fall directly onto the anchor, "Sungam" said that maybe we should head down. I looked out onto the landscape opening up to the Colorado and the canyonlands beyond. The light was fading and our upward momentum was gone. We were defeated. Here we were on our second day of trying to get to the top of this damn mud spire, here we were like Odysseus and crew just wandering, encountering obstacles and danger yet still far from our objective.

- "Sungam" (yelling down): It's your lucky day!
- Me: Why?
- "Sungam": We're fixing the rope and coming back tomorrow.
- Me: What? Why?
- It's late, and we can't all three make it up at this rate.
- Me: Go! Go! Don't stop for me. Go to the top! I don't care!
- "Sungam": We're fixing and coming back tomorrow. You're summitting with us.
- Me: No! I'm not going. You're just wasting your time. Go! Forget about me!
- We're fixing it and that's that. We're coming back tomorrow and you're fucking summitting.

They lowered, and my heart sunk with each foot of descent. It wasn't until they were at the bottom that I understood they hadn't necessarily lowered because of me: the anchor was scary, moving in places, and neither felt comfortable with daylight running low and a difficult first 10 feet of the next pitch. If anything had happened, it would have likely happened in the dark on a less-than-ideal anchor. In their minds, it was convenient to fix the rope today and come back tomorrow when there would be more daylight and more time to figure everything out.
We fixed the line all the way down to the base of the tower, where the path was, so that we could jug our way up to the start of the route the next day (and avoid the long, sketchy approach we endured on the way in) and we walked out. "Trucker" was waiting for us by the road when we got there.

- "Trucker": How'd it go boys?
- We didn't finish. We're going back tomorrow.
- "Sungam": We walked all the way in and fixed the first pitch of a grade III climb.
- "Trucker" (laughing): Well, that's a desert tower for you.
- "Sungam": Yeah, grade III means three days, right?
- I can't fucking believe it's going to take us three days to do summit this thing.
I couldn't believe it either, but there it was, our first multi-day epic, and wasn't even an epic.
I was dissapointed in the lack of reaching the top, but for me it's more about the experience than the summit.
"Texas Flake"'s truck was fixed, and he and his girlfriend had managed to lock themselves in the cab of the truck while we were away. We let them out after ribbing them for a few minutes and they went on their way. It was "Jello"'s birthday - the big 25 - and so we headed off to grab a bite to eat and celebrate. They went into the restaurant first, and I followed a few minutes later. The hostess knew exactly who I was looking for when I walked in and said I was with two other guys "who smelled like shit." When I got to the table "Sungam" was laughing histerically after a brief exchange between "Jello" and the waitress:

- Waitress: What can I get you to drink?
- I guess you can give me an orange soda.
- Waitress (walking away): I'll be out with that in just a few minutes.
- I need something sweet to wash down the bitter taste of failure.
I didn't have a bitter taste of failure but I felt a little dejected. The climb is FOUR PITCHES. It's not even five hundred feet tall. I've climbed things that are two or three times as big in a number of hours. Granted aid climbing is slow but we were moving like snails through the salt flats. The meal came with some free ice cream and we talked with the couple behind us about our travels which all eased the sting of failure, but I was determined to crush that tower the next day. As I sped back towards the tent - my cohorts clutching their seats in white knuckled fear - I thought about how we could increase our speed, even though I didn't know exactly what lay ahead.

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