Thursday, August 31st, 2006
What a freak! After waking up at 1:45 a.m. Pacific Time to catch a plane back to the west coast, I hurried home to pack up all the junk I’d need for a second ascent attempt on the route “Freak Show” (5.9, A3), a big wall in Kings Canyon, California. Kris would be on his way over by 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. I began madly stuffing clothes, toiletries, first aid medications, knee pads, harnesses, climbing gear, and wall snackins’ into a big duffle bag. We were meeting Craig, one of the original first ascentionists, in Kings Canyon that evening.
Having just returned from Florence, South Carolina where I trained a bunch of employees from my company on a new computer application, I tried to multitask as much as possible: Log into work, make it look like I’m online and working hard, check emails, and at the same time pack everything up, do some emergency laundry, and gobble down some dinner. 178 emails – eeee gads! Lot’s of catching up to do. Looks like they will have to wait! Sorry, work – we gots some climbin’ to do.
I waited for Kris by the 7-11 Store downstairs, looking more like a homeless person with a bunch of bags that a climber, about to embark on a wall adventure. I stuck my thumb out, waggling it about as Kris pulls into the parking lot. Kris, being the kind person he is, hauled the homeless person into his Honda Del Sol and off we sped towards Kings Canyon. Free at last!
During the previous weekend, August 26th and 27th, Kris, Craig, and I ventured up the first two pitches of Freak Show to fix lines and haul water. We anticipated high temperatures and wanted to make sure we had enough water, beer, and fruit cocktails – all of wall life’s essentials. The plan was for Kris to lead the first pitch (5.9) and for me to lead the second. (5.6) All sounds good and fine, right?!
Well, Kris did a great job leading the 5.9 on the first pitch. Kris, in typical deprecating fashion, lamented his “lack” of free climbing skills but then scampered right up the 5.9. I followed and then Kris and I had hauled the pig up to the first belay.
Unfortunately, the corner of the first belay had become an inferno. Although I felt as if I would pass out from heat exhaustion at any minute, I agreed to lead the next pitch. (Oh, what the heck – it’s only 5.6, right? Can’t be THAT hard.)
I had hauled myself up the easy 5.2 beginning of the pitch and then prepared to ascend the much more vertical second of “5.6”. I had made one move. I looked around. I looked some more. Where were the nice, easy, 5.6 foot and hand holds? They were nowhere to be found. What sort of a freak sent me up this pitch? My brain began to sway in the heat. What sort of protection did I have that would work here? One piece, that’s it. Come ON Carolyn – quit pussyfootin’ ‘round and get up this dumb 5.6. I made the commitment and made a half layback, half stem move, with my one piece of gear just at head-level.
Shhhhhhhhhppppploooop. I slipped off and came right back down to the blocky start of the steep section. Dangit! What is wrong with me? I can’t climb 5.6 now?! Ok, it’s only 5.6 so it must get easier. I’ll just yard on the one cam I have that can protect this crack, and then I’ll be able to get up… Shhhhhhhhhppppploooop. I swayed in the dizzying heat and landed back on the top of the blocks. “NEXT” I yelled to Kris with a scowl.
Kris, on the radio, muttered something about “I see what you mean” as he clamored up the crack with a few more pieces of gear than what I had had. I also heard him mutter something about “my self-preservation instinct must be pretty high” and “I’d much rather lead that 5.9 on the previous pitch any day”. After those comments, I felt much better! After Kris and I were both on top of the second pitch, the first ascentionist climbed up and made some disparaging remarks about the first ascentionist “sandbagging” the route. Haruuumph! I made a note to myself to check to see if someone had taken out any large life insurance policies on me without my knowledge. With all of us on top of the second pitch, and with lines fixed to the ground, we rappelled off the route and headed back to our campsite. We also met up with Phil Gross, a climbing maintenance worker in the park who is an absolutely fabulous guy and generous, friendly person. We barbequed chicken and also had Caesar Salad with fresh corn-on-the-cob. Did I mention a nice bottle of wine?! Perhaps that goes without mention. On Sunday August 27th we returned to the route and hauled as much water and canned goods as we could to our bivy spot on the top of pitch 2.
Friday, September 1st
I was eager, anyway, until I came face to face (or should I say “mouth to mouth”?) with a large bush, full of dirt clumps, directly in my path. I wished I’d brought my gardening shears. After leading up about 2/3 of the pitch, and the sun going down, I decided to set up a mini-anchor and lower off with a fresh start the next day. The day ended with cold beer and beanie weenies for Craig and me, with tuna and pita bread for Kris. We watched the almost full moon rise over Grand Sentinel and relaxed on our large bivy ledge.
Saturday, September 2nd
I struggled out of the ledge and began immediately gearing up for the day. I could see the sun and ensuing inferno creeping around the corner, ready to blast us with radioactive heat. I wanted to clean and lead the next pitch as soon as possible.
I cleaned the pitch up to the mini-anchor from the night before and then proceeded up the 5.7. Because I was still in my hiking boots, I thought it would be better to simply aid up the short 5.7 section. All was fine until I arrived under a small roof near the top of pitch 3. The cracks under the roof were thin and I was ok with that. However, when I tapped in the first blade, the rock that made up the crack decided to split and the blade fell out, all on its own. I tried a thicker one, or maybe a bugaboo. It still seemed awfully sketchy and pounding it straight up didn’t make me feel very well. Some harassment from the peanut gallery drifted up from below and I recall Kris saying something like “Wow, this is TOUGH LOVE”! Haaarumph.
I stepped up on the blade, and for a moment everything seemed ok – but a second or two later the pin pulled and I fell back under the roof. I put the pin back in and pounded again with the idea that I could just use it for one foot, in order to get to the next placement, which looked more solid. I did just that, pounding in an arrow. Though nothing solid, it sure seemed a lot better than the blade so I tested it and stood up on it. The next placement was a small Alien placement that was just out of reach for me. By stretching I was able to shimmy the Alien in place, but it got all fouled up. However, I couldn’t reach it enough to fix it and folks were getting antsy downstairs so I decided to just go for it and stood on the Alien placement. I was now out on a third marginal placement and couldn’t see ANYTHING. Flummoxed again! I tried to pound another pin straight up but it just kept falling out. All at once I had had it. I climbed back to the roof and told Craig “That’s it”. I set up an anchor with four placements and he began to jumar up.
As Craig began to jumar, I discovered with great alarm that the top pin of the anchor was pulling. Some expletives flew out of my mouth and I quickly put two more pieces of protection in to the anchor and tried to equalize as well as I could. I relayed the message to Craig, but he must have heard a message something like this: “******** pin ******* anchor ********* pulling”. There were now six pieces of gear in for the belay, two of which were bomber nuts – but that did not appease Craig. When he arrived at the makeshift belay he exclaimed “That pin looks like SHIT!” Well, duh! I was in over my head and I knew it. At that point I think Craig knew it too. What was up with sending my sorry butt up this pitch, anyway? I’d never done blade stacks. I was clueless… and mad!
Craig managed to lead the last little piece of roof. At one point I heard “Oh, this is really tricky – it’s not just you.” Just me?? Haaaaaarrruuuumph! Kris cleaned the remainder of pitch 3. Once again, we all arrived at the belay and decided to haul and fix lines back to the bivy ledge. I felt dizzy and faint from the heat and excitement of the day and was grateful for a break and hopefully a better night’s sleep.
Sunday, September 3rd
When Craig finished the pitch, Kris cleaned while I jumared up the free-hanging rope. The wind had come up a bit and was cooling things down, just a tad. At the top of Pitch 4 the views were fantastic and we relished the airy feeling of floating in space. After snapping a few more pictures and shooting a little more video, we made the rappel back down to the top of Pitch 3 and back to our ledge as well. We had burned through most of our time and had survived the blazing heat, but again hadn’t allotted enough time for a 2nd ascent of the route. We kicked back in the balmy night, listening to the Hot Club of San Francisco swing jazz, and consumed the last of our Beanie Weenies and beer. We also drilled one more bolt at the ledge to rap off of and hang the portaledge off of as well. Finally! The Titantic failed to capsize and we got a good night’s sleep.
Monday, September 4thIn the previous day’s haste, we’d left the fixed lines at the top of pitch 3. On Monday morning Craig volunteered to retrieve the lines and rap down. We again struggled with the monstrous pigs on the way down. In my heat-induced delirium, I got the second belay all fouled up and Craig ended up cutting the bags loose in their final rappel down. Kris, not to be outdone, became the Denali animal that he is and fired up and down the approach TWICE with heavy haul bags. You’re our hero, Kris!
All in all, it was another learning session for me and two of the best wall buddies I could imagine. Grateful for Craig’s disciplined tutelage and Kris’ goofy camaraderie, I look forward to the next episode of wall “bliss” – will it be another Freak Show?