Monthly Archives: July 2012

Not to Be Missed

So many climbs in the Needles merit this description. Here are two of them.

Looking up at the Cathedral Spires from the hairpin curves on the Needles Highway, one spire stands out. With its horns on top and sheer yellow sides,  Khayyam represents the Needles. It looks like a place for the bold and the elite only, but tucked away on the Northwest corner is a moderate gem: God’s Own Drunk.

The climb is two pitches, but the second is not of the same quality as the first, and is done infrequently.

It starts with a dicey bit up an arête. A key pink tricam placement makes this section much less dangerous.


The climb continues up a crack in the corner to a belay out of sight on the right at the second set of  ledges. The pitch is long; the rap takes two ropes.

Starting the business on Hang a Right

Spire Four is known for its easy classic route on the West face. The real prize is on the other side. Hang a Right on Fourth Ave. starts in a corner on the South side of the spire. “It’s all there,” Rich likes to say. True, but it’s all steep and reversing the moves, at some points, would be desperate. Both pitches have everything, from thin face climbing, to lie-backs, to off-width. At .10b (if you’ve done a lot of Needles climbing), it’s not to be missed. Five and six Camalots will be necessary for safe passage.

Second pitch

I Don’t Get a Scooby Snack (But Then Again, Who Does?)

Being an all-around climber is like being a pig: it’s a dirty life spent wallowing in mediocrity, which garners no respect and may end early by trauma. While the rock purists are hiding from the snow in the desert, we swine are mutilating frozen waterfalls and scraping our way up icy rock with tools and crampons. When the last pillar of ice collapses in the spring and the wet snow avalanches start to slide, we must set down our tools, pick up our sticky slippers, and relearn the more delicate art of rock climbing.

Climber on El Matador

It’s a frustrating experience, but a person gets used to it. Progress is starting at a higher level and getting back to ‘go’ quicker each year. For me, that means starting on the 11’s at the Tower earlier and earlier. This year, I arrived back at my previous high point in July, and my first 11 lead of the season was Way Laid, the thin corner just left of McCarthy West Face.

Looking up Way Laid

We belayed high on a ledge where the two climbs diverge. You get to ease into the difficulties on this climb, as the corner it follows turns gradually toward vertical. Building confidence on the lower section, I made my way up the thin crack to a horizontal break where the corner gets steeper. Even as the terrain got harder, the moves felt good enough that I could enjoy the route’s puzzles rather than simply having to worry about sticking to the rock. Soon I stood below the first of two small roofs and the technical crux of the route.

Rich approaching the crux

Wedging my left foot in the corner, I stepped up into a under-cling and then latched onto a solid finger lock with my left hand. Another flared finger lock let me move my left foot up to a sloping foot hold above the roof. With my palm out on the right wall to provide counter-pressure, I moved my right foot up to a tiny edge and stood up. It all held. In fact, it felt good. As I locked my fingers into the next solid hold, I was probably feeling a little too good. The next roof went well, as did the mantel onto a narrow ledge below the final difficulties.

From the ledge, the top of the column where the route ends is very close. If you had the guts to pull up some slack and jump, you just might be able to snag the edge. When considering this plan, two things give one pause. First, to make the distance, you really ought to be able to touch the rim of a basketball goal from a standing start. The second concern is the gear. There is a bomb-proof gear placement just below the little mantel ledge.  Above the ledge though, the crack pinches down and the only protection is a nest of micro-stoppers. Overall, the situation seems to call for a less parsimonious, more controlled solution.

The three stoppers protecting the last moves

To that end, I placed my right foot on a diagonal hold out on the face and grabbed a disappointing side-pull with my right hand. A tenuous crank on the side-pull let me paste my left foot higher on the blank wall above the mantel ledge, then move my left hand up to a better side-pull above my right hand. Here’s where the unreasonable optimism from my performance at the crux came into play, along with a little pigeon shit.

View past the line of roofs on the West face

As I reached for the next hand hold, a ‘thank god’ sort of edge, I noticed a blob of guano right where I wanted my fingers to go. It looked dry, but as I prepared to sweep it away I noticed a very slight squishiness. Instead of smearing the whole hold, I left the turd lie and laid a finger on either side of it. Now my situation had changed and it demanded a reassessment and probably a little stabilization before I continued. And I would have done just that, if I hadn’t been feeling so damned good about things.

Instead, I proceeded with plan A. Moving my left hand up to an edge that would prove a very good hold once I swung my feet around, I cut loose my left foot and tried to swing my right over to a hold on the edge of the column. With no potential to generate lateral force on the crappy hold, I couldn’t make it happen. With the holds now well below and to the wrong side of me, my feet blew off entirely and started to make the sound that a startled Hanna-Barbera character’s do as they scrabbled for friction on the wall.

Finally, I let my legs hang and resorted to the ‘skills’ gained from all those hours of training in the basement. I skipped my left hand up to a slightly better hold, then my right, just like working the campus board. At last, I flopped onto the apex of the column. It wasn’t the graceful finish I wanted, but it was controlled. I guess I ought to just be happy with not having tested out those micro-stoppers.

Climbers atop the first pitch of El Matador

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Oxidative Stress

Weston County caught fire Sunday. On the way to the Needles, the air was clear and the land, peaceful. On the drive back, the trees were exploding and the sky was filled with buzzing aircraft and stinging smoke.

As I waited with the other cars for a grader to pass, I got to watch fire-fighters scramble for their trucks as flames popped out of a 40 foot pine less than 10 meters from them. They were experiencing severe oxidative stress. Scaled back and slowed down, that moment captured my whole day.

With temps in the upper nineties, our climbing choices were limited to the Cathedral Spires or Sylvan Lake, the best places to chase the shade. There’s an off-width with my name on it in the Spires, so I begged off that option – too hot, I insisted.

I wanted to climb Shelob before the day was over. This route is a Bob Kamps classic, a steep series of cruxes protected by just enough bolts and gear to make it reasonable. If I’d had my way, we would have gone right over to it. Instead, we warmed up.

The actual warm-up, the first route, made sense. It was a 5.7 crack named what every good 5.7 crack in every climbing area in every part of the world is named: Classic Crack. The second route, ostensibly part of the warm-up, was, in retrospect, what sealed my fate.

I believe the route is called Four Play (apparently lots of lonely climbers roaming the Hills back in the day – watch for a pattern in the route names). Though it is a slab and gets a low difficulty rating, it is a route made to make anybody look bad. It follows a line of greasy feldspar crystals up a nascent groove in the rock. Most people step back and forth several times trying to find the best way through the lower section. The generous gaps between the bolts add to the sense of insecurity and the angle permits indecisiveness.

With fingertips and toes feeling a little tired, we slogged up the other side of the little valley to Shelob. This is one of my favorite routes at the Lake because I can cheat my way through the crux. An alpine climber at heart, cheating makes me feel clever and I am proud of it whenever I manage to weasel my way through a challenging bit of climbing that would otherwise demand skill, strength or boldness.

The first moves are steep, but straightforward up to a couple of bolts. Then a pair of cams in a horizontal crack protect a few moves through a bulge. A fall on those moves would be bad. The cams would hold, but you would brush the ground, at best. Three boulder problems, protected by bolts, follow, then a step up and right to the little roof and corner which constitute the crux. Once I peek over the lip of the roof, I can set my feet on some good holds below the roof, lay my left side and shoulder against one side of the corner and apply counter-pressure. This allows me to rest while I place a pair of micro-stoppers to protect the move over the roof. I can then step high with my right foot to maintain the pressure and just wriggle my way up the wall until I get to the next good hold. It was just as beautifully uncouth this time as the first time I ever did it.

The diagonal crack, Sex Never Did This to My Hands

Perhaps I was feeling too smug coming off that success. I felt like finishing the rotation with a route on Vertigo View called Sex Never Did This to My Hands. It’s only 5.8. Plus, it’s a crack. It’s a diagonal crack though, steep, crusty and irregular. Much of it is just wider or just narrower than a clenched fist.

I felt a peculiar sense of fatigue as I skirted the small roof at the bottom, but I wasn’t worried; I had climbed this route many times before, and I had just waltzed up Shelob after all. About midway, the tape sweated off my right hand, and when I got to the hard part the back of my fist was slick with more sweat and a light sheen of blood. By then, I was cooked.

Tape vs. No Tape and why the route is named as it is

Fermenting like mad, I tried to pull through, but realized I couldn’t get to the next stance with enough left to place gear. I managed one and a half moves back down before I had to disengage. Eighteen feet later, it felt like my cheap rope delivered every bit of the 8.5 KN of impact force it allows right to the leg loops of my harness.

Deflated and burdened with what I am convinced were actual crystals of lactic acid in my blood vessels, I climbed back up to check the tricam that saved me, then staggered on through to the anchors. From the top, I could see smoke in the distance.

As the line of motorists watched those poor bastards scrambling to save their fire truck, I’m sure some of the observers questioned the fire fighters’ decision to park where they did. I wasn’t among the critics. I was thinking that the firemen probably thought the situation was more manageable than it turned out to be, and I was reluctant to blame them for that. Hell, I know that’s the reason most of them were out there in the first place. Civic duty be damned, some folks just need the oxidative stress. It’s the kind of love-hate relationship that keeps you going.

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