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.
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.
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.