So we have 10 days off in a row and a severe itch to get out of the rain. Where do we go? A month ago, the answer would’ve been simple: Moab. But that was then. We have not climbed in that time at all practically as the weather’s been shitty at Smith. My love of beer has left me fat and the skin on Shirley’s hands reverted back to being soft. We’re not up for the real classics that we thought about a month ago. Let’s go further south and see what develops.
December 23rd: The Grade V Drive
I pack the truck with all the climbing and aid pile we can think of including 5 ropes (no bull: twins, 60m thick, 70m thick, 300 foot thick static…) and more cams than our local REI stocks at any one time for fear of being robbed. Throw in some sleeping pads and bags… and a couple of home-comfort sleeping paraphernalia like 3 pillows and a blanket. Some camp chairs. A selection of audio books and music cd’s (though we end up listening to only a handful of those – you know, the favorites that refuse to leave your head). A bin full of food, a box full of guide books, and cooler full of beer. Throw in our big fat dog and off we go out of work at 4pm. Nine hours later we pull off the interstate in southern Idaho into the “usual” rest area and pass out (after agreeing that yet another Dean Koontz novel sucked…..that’s 2 out of 3 – no more Koontz). In the morning we pass through Salt Lake City and are in northern Arizona as the sun is setting. We celebrate Christmas Eve at the only open eatery in Flagstaff: Essence Of China and its “famous” buffet. No permanent harm done this time.
As it would turn out later in the evening, sleeping in a Mo 6 in Flagstaff (for ~$35) was a sound economic decision. We drive 30 minutes south to Sedona with plans to go for the most popular route there (you know, Christmas day – most climbers should still be at home and drunk) – the (51st North American Classic) Regular Route on The Mace.
Good times! Short approach (looks and feels like a city park) and soon we’re looking up at the first pitch. Bit of run-out 5.6 and a short pull through a bulge in a limestone band and I arrive on a nice ledge (all belays are on nice ledges here) to find a single, very fat bolt. Next pitch starts as an awkward 5.9 handcrack and after some huffing and puffing I finish the pitch via an easier OW crack (very happy to have brought one #5 Camalot….and walked it up with me). Pitch three is also pretty fun – an airy face traverse to a 5.8 chimney. Time for a beating: pitch four starts OK enough (cool views from below of one of the handful of “bulbous” summits that make up the formation) but gets hard near the top. I huff and puff some more and eventually stand on the single bolt to get through the short OW section. Now for the fun part: the last “pitch” (only about 20 feet long) requires you to step across (kinda wide) a chasm that separates the lower tower from the true summit using some 5.8-ish face holds on the other side. After some (10 minutes ) thinking, I finally get across. This really makes the route!! Shirley needs a bit more thinking than me but makes it across shortly as well. On top a very unique summit register container awaits which also happens to be the rap anchor.
Signatures, raps, hike (many, many hikers and tourists – “so did you guys rope the dog to the top too?”….yeah, that’s pretty clever – haven’t heard that before) and cold beer at the trailhead. No climbers encountered all day.
The Forest Service campground right outside of the town is nice…..it better be nice as it turns out to be the priciest camping we’ve experienced at $18/night. Shiiiiiiiiit!
December 26th: Oak Creek Spire Failure
Wake up at whenever hour – figuring it’s a short approach and only 5 pitches – and head for the trailhead just outside (opposite side) of Sedona. No self issue box for the required $5/day (another rip off) Red Rock Pass. Oh, well. Let’s gamble. We decide to follow the officially sanctioned directions (per Green’s guidebook) that avoid the sprawling development around the spire. The key seems to be following an established trail till a side trail heading for the spire becomes apparent (never did to us). Directions are vague but after 2+ miles of hiking and seeing the spire progressively shrink into nothing off in the distance, we decide that maybe we should’ve cut through the (goddamn) private property lots on a direct heading for the spire. It’s after twelve by the time we hike back to the trail head. Sedona the town kinda sucks – development seems to be sprawling out of control and the town seems to be too high class for a supermarket. Let’s get out of here. We head south. Baboquivari Peak has some nice routes listed on it in the Kerry guidebook.
We pass through Phoenix and Tucson and are soon driving through a few reservation villages with the aim to do the west side approach. The books mention the required camping fee charged by the Indians but fail to mention the “membership” fee required to use their land. Should’ve done more research. Our route of choice has the west side approach recommended. Don’t want to risk another day of no climbing. Screw it – next time. We change course and arrive in the Western Cochise Stronghold late at night. Stellar camping and it’s free.
Wake up (again at whenever hour – hey it’s a short approach and only 5 pitches) and make the somewhat familiar hike (done part of it almost a year ago to Whale Dome) up to the foot of Westworld Dome. Is this it I wonder pointing out 2 bolts in a low angle face with some features. The start looks 5.7 and not like the feared crux of this 10c route?? The location looks right though. Rack up light (mostly bolts) and start up – maybe we are right. Going is MUCH tougher than it looks and right off the deck! No warm up. Try this, try that and 15 minutes later I finally make the second clip 15 feet up. Going eases a bit but only for a bit. 50 feet up I again face an improbable looking section of high angle friction. More thinking and sliding. Finally make it past the crux of the pitch. Hard! Next pitch is the only easier pitch of the route – short 5.8 crack/dihedral. Easy part is over. Next pitch begins with a 5.10- flaring groove (some bolts, some cams, more bolts) and then hits with some harder section of friction and nubbin pulling (fingernails are gone). Two more pitches and exactly zero give-aways! Pitch four starts with more 10- friction followed by a funky dihedral and – despite its appearance – the upper half of the pitch hits even harder with solid 5.10 friction (looks easier from below). The last pitch is the real ass kicker though (crux of route IMHO) – the first 2 clips take more than I have and I hang on both bolts. Steep headwall with insecure, crystal-filled finger pockets. Fortunately going finally eases on the upper half of this pitch. We repeat our cherished routine: rap, hike, drink beer. Tomorrow we’ll take it easier.
Shirley wants to lead this route – touted by Green as the best 5.8 in the state. We relocate to the East Stronghold and after consulting Kerry at first, we decide to trust Green’s directions (his redemption after the Oak Creek Spire disappointment) for the approach. The approach is quick and easy. We decide to swap leads with me taking the odds. First pitch is crap – sandy, run-out 5.7. Shirley gets the better 2nd pitch – clean and well protected 8. My third pitch starts up an easy chimney but with little pro. The wake up call is at the top as you need to commit to a 5.8 face with pro far below and a bad fall potential. Some sweat and cursing brings me to the fun chickenhead-studded arête. Steep but very positive going ends at a hanging chickenhead and gear belay. Shirley comes up and (despite my reservations) takes the rack and sets off on the next (crux) pitch – long traverse on chickenheads beneath a huge roof which eventually tapers down to a 5.8 bulge. She dispatches the pitch quickly. I feel sick as I follow her – the pro opportunities are a bit sparse and the crux bulge is protected by a tiny nut loooong way down. Shirley is smiling at another hanging gear belay. I take the rack and do another traverse in opposite direction, now above the big roof (and beneath another smaller one). I head up into more chickenheads as another roof above me tapers down. I stop when the chickenheads run out and the terrain angle kicks back. Shirley comes up and takes us to the Dome’s summit via some 5.7-ish cracks. Best 5.8 in the state? It’s a fun one definitely – exposed and adventurous (more so than Warpaint IMHO) – but I haven’t climbed enough in Arizona to make that call myself. Probably the second best 5.8 we’ve been on (though a big notch belowCrimson Chrysalis in Nevada). It’s a good thing we’ve been climbing a lot (for us) as the beer drinking at trailheads is getting to be ridiculous. Though climbing and the weather in the stronghold are sweet, we want to fondle some more sandstone. With that intention, we head back towards Sedona.
This return to Sedona is meant to break up our trip up north to Moab into two, less painful sections. We return to our campground outside of town at about 11pm. We park, and jump into the sleeping bags in the back of our truck. The whole operation takes 5 minutes. In the predawn morning a tender knocking with the butt of a flashlight wakes me up - the fucking forest service Nazi is here to not only ask us for $18 (OK – there’s no self issue box) but to give a long lecture on how arriving after 9pm is wrong (not against the written rules, but against rules of nature)! Diplomacy (and the desire to crawl back into my sleeping bag) win over and instead of reminding the asshole about the other asshole who was running the generator on his RV till wee hours of the night couple nights before (“and where the fuck were you then?”), I say “Sorry officer” and fall back asleep. We wake up and head for the climb. It’s pretty casual and not really that memorable though definitely nice. Four pitches of well protected climbing on good rock and a cool spire summit. Later that night, we arrive in Moab.
Cold Moab! From upper (sunny) 60’s we’re now back in mid 40’s (and cloudy 40’s!). We’ve been feeling an aversion to waking up early on this trip. OK, what’s short and close by? West Face of Argon is 4 pitches and 20 minutes from the parking lot. And the promise of 5.9 hands (thanks Cameron Burns) even on Entrada sandstone is irresistible. “Bring extra #2 and #3 Camalots” Cameron will tell you. Yeah, bring lots of those so that they can piss you off in the squeeze chimney of pitch 3! As expected, I aid the flaring finger crack of pitch 1 (C1 or 5.11). Pitch two is the first kick in the nuts! I place 1 #3 Camalot right at the belay ledge (my nice hands), 1 #3.5 Camalot 10 feet higher (nice fists for me) and am soon looking up at 40 feet of #4 Camalot sized crack (rattly fists, borderline OW for me)! I have two of those with me and use them to hang and curse my way up this 5.9-my-ass pitch. The next pitch is also a kicker – the going starts OK (hard for a 5.9 but the “+” in the rating is ambiguous enough so as not to leave you too disappointed) – up a squeeze chimney, followed by short #4 crack which quickly turns into short but fun #3 crack. The so-called 5.8 bulges higher up are bullshit! Crumbly rock and HARD climbing (or shaky hangdogging) bring you to even worse rock and finally a belay. The purported 5.8 face pitch to the summit looks kinda thin too and the promise of 2 or 3 bolts (thanks Cameron and thanks Eric) fades away as you see only 1, halfway out and ancient peg. I grab the peg and mantle onto it. Even with this “free” move, the going is tough and the last 20 feet have no protection. We got the summit but earned little style points here (to this day I’m hurting…). Consulting Green’s guidebook (should’ve done this BEFORE the climb) in the car, we see that pitch 1 gets 11a/b rating (consistent with Burns); pitch 2 gets a 11+ rating and has “fists” next to it (Burns gives it 5.9 hands); pitch 3 is 10b (Burns gives it 9+); pitch 4 is 10c (burns give is 5.8). Good times on a desert obscurity.
December 31st: Colorado National Monument Failure
We’ve been climbing for a few days straight now – not that many pitches per day but plenty for us. And so we should’ve known better than to drive out to the Colorado NM that morning with a goal of climbing another tower. In short we got lazy and climbed nothing. Grand Junction is a nice town though – with culture (they had pre-made sushi at the Albertsons) and sophistication (and a Starbucks also at Albertsons). Could see ourselves living there. We bummed around town and the Monument. We drove back to Moab checking out the views of towers from the River Road. We did some more tourist stuff in Arches including a nice short (<1 mile rt) hike up and down Park Avenue to snap photos of Argon – no style points, but we got the mother and we ain’t going back there for a cleaner ascent. We decided on the next day’s climb – opting for a confidence builder (after the Argon episode) instead of a tough classic. We picked up some Provo Girls from the local market. We forgot that it’s New Years Eve and hit the sack early only to be startled couple hours later by the explosions of fireworks.
Lonely Vigil route rated 5.10- was going to be our confidence re-builder. Mid sized tower is about 20 minutes outside of Moab on the River Road. The approach looks like it’ll take 15 minutes but ends up taking (us) about an hour (trying to boulder hop on shifting boulders to avoid trampling crypto soil as much as we could). One short approach pitch to access the backside of the tower and off we go. I take the first pitch rated 10-. It’s good – bouldery bulges followed by good rest stances. Shirley wants pitch #2 rated 5.9. She flies up the lower half of the pitch (5.9 thin hands to fingers and some wide stuff higher) but does not feel up to leading the stem box higher up. She belays me at an optional (well bolted too) hanging belay just below the “stem box”. Indeed, the stem box is wide – even for me. You place a good piece and then have to commit to 10 feet of solid, crotch stretching exercises ending with a mantle onto a small ledge. Then the crux hits – a hard 8-foot dihedral w/o a crack in the corner puts you on a nice ledge between the false summit and the main summit block. The next pitch starts with a leftward traverse on an easy ledge followed by 20 feet of (good bolt) of 5.7 face that brings you to the base of the 15-foot summit “boulder” (no 5.9 terrain on this pitch despite guidebooks). The boulder (rated variously 5.8 to 5.9) moves are what give this route an “R” or “S” rating qualifier – short but protection is shit. The moves are easier (5.8) if you’re tall and harder if you’re short. At the top however, there are no fixed anchors and so you need to downclimb the boulder – which, with the rope flaked over the other side of the block, is pretty straightforward. I don’t really have much confidence in the rope running over the summit and Shirley forgoes tagging the top of the boulder. We rap, hike, and the 14-hour drive home begins. We’re greeted by sheets of rain which would not let up for 2 weeks.
Our love of the desert and the reality of living in Oregon might have something to do with the transmission on our truck beginning to show signs of aging. The jerky shifting I’ve been hearing more and more often following this latest outing might prove to be a $3K kind of fun. Hard pill to swallow. The climbing sure was fun though and as we’re making plans to return, alternative means of getting there have to be considered.
I'll have to check which novel that was. I got hooked on his stuff couple months ago - don't remember the title of that good one, but it's got windmills on the cover. Then we hit 2 of his in a row that were kinda boring.