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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.