We were attempting Royal Flush, a 20 pitch sport route that starts off on easy slab (5.4) before growing progressively difficult as you approach the headwall, were you encounter consistent 5.8 for 3 or 4 pitches to the summit. I decided on the early start for two reasons: my knowledge of the route was minimal and conditions were supposed to turn sour in the afternoon, with storms forecast. The developer of the route, Tim Toula, has specifically requested that no route topos be produced and limited the publication of full route descriptions, so all we had were meager explanations for each pitch taken from Mountain Project. This was supposed to be an alpine climb, and it sure lived up to that expectation.
The startWe found the base of the climb without any difficulty. Cristina and I had agreed that the leader would proceed without a pack while the second would climb with our single pack, holding our water, some food, and a few extra layers. Not knowing how fast we would proceed and worried about conditions, we had thrown in more than we needed and the pack was surprisingly heavy. Having discussed it earlier, we had decided I'd link the first three pitches and that Cristina would lead the next one or link it up with the fifth pitch depending on the difficulty.
Without the weight of the pack, I made quick progress through the first three pitches. Each move was simple, 5.4 climbing at its best, flowing from one into the next. At times I felt like I could try and run up some of the lesser angled slabs, but not quite. About halfway through the second pitch, I noticed on the slab above me an unusual sight: a large mountain goat was on the slab
The next pitch went just fine. Cristina was a little tired from having hauled the heavy pack up three pitches, so she was moving a little slower than I had. Still, she quickly made her way through the 4th pitch. Unfortunately, things with the 5th pitch were not as easy.
Things get harder...After the relative ease of the 4th pitch, she went straight into leading the 5th. However, the link up was not going to go: she reached a roof about 20' up from the 4th pitch's anchors and could not pull it. After briefly talking it out, I lowered her to the anchors and had her belay me up. Knowing that the pack would not make anything easier for her, I took it for the lead.
I quickly made my way up to the roof and immediately agreed: it was stiffer than expected for the route grade. I ultimately managed to pull the roof by traversing left about 6' to a more fractured area of the roof, were I was able to gain a few jugs to make the roof feasible with the pack. Even with a few jugs, I was nervous about the pendulum onto the ledge below the roof that would result if I slipped. But after pulling the roof, I managed to traverse back right to the bolt line and then the anchors, belaying Cristina up to me without difficulty.
Five pitches down, and though we weren't moving at the same quick pace we had started at, we were doing fine. But then things turned for the worse.
Mountain Project describes the sixth pitch as a 30M traverse right over 4th class rock. Cristina moved out, unroped, to check out the traverse but could not find it. Frustrated, I had her come back and rope up and did so myself. The fifth pitch ended right below a nice, large ledge, so I had her take a seat and belay me while I searched for the traverse. I moved right, slinging a tree about 15' down the ledge, and moved out onto very exposed 4th class rock that I though may have been right. These traverse quickly turned into low 5th class rock though, and it became clear that where ever I was, it was not where I was supposed to be. By this time, I had traversed 50' right from the tree, my only 'protection,' but with no more trees and no rock pro, I could only make sure I didn't fall. It was about this time that the sun cleared the ridge and thus shined straight down in line with the angle of the rock, making it impossible for me to look up or around for bolts. Unable to see much, I could only keep traversing, knowing that every foot further out away from my single point of protection was another foot I would pendulum if I feel. About 20' further right and about 10' up, nearly 100 feet away from the slung tree, I found a huge flake that I was able to sling and then fix my line to. Knowing that this was not the right spot, but with no idea where the bolt line was, I decided that I would traverse the fixed line to Cristina, bring her over to me, and that we would then be able to bail out right into a gulley.
After doing just that, Cristina broke down the fixed line while I free soloed 4th and then 3rd class rock to find an escape. After about 10 minutes, I found the gulley whose existence I guessed and found that we would be able to follow it upwards to a large ledge, a huge area where we'd be able to sit, think, eat, and plan.
Up or down?Cristina and I talked after gaining the ledge and decided that since it was now growing late (it was about 11:30; we expected storms starting around 2pm) and that since we didn't know where we were, that we would bail using the gulley to hike out. Though steep and loose with talus, I thought this feasible and reasonable. After munching on our lunch though, I got restless and explored our ledge. About 15 feet away from the large boulder on which we'd eaten, I was surprised to find a carrion. Following that and a second one, I eventually made my way to a rock rib further up the ledge only to find glistening bolts riding the top edge of the rib. I quickly made my way back to Cristina with news of my find.
After re-reading the route description, we established that those bolts belonged to the 10th pitch. Excited by our good luck, and with no clear evidence of a storm moving in, we decided to pick up from there. I led the pitch, 5.7, with the pack, but could make it no further the fourth bolt. After all the stress of the traverse and being lost, we just didn't have the strength left. We could have pushed through, but not if we wanted to be in any condition to react appropriately to deteriorating weather. Admitting defeat, I cleaned the bolts as I down climbed back to the ledge.
Down it isAt this time, another group came up to the base of the climb. They had started much later than us, but this was their third attempt and had the first dozen pitches pretty well down. In talking with them, I was furious to learn were we'd gone wrong in finding the route: there is no traverse. After pitch five, you move up to the small ledge (where I had Cristina belay me from) and move straight up into what Mountain Project calls pitch seven. All the searching we had done for bolts, scanning all of the rock to the right of the ledge, was for nought. And with the sun below the ridge, we hadn't seen the metal glittering or anything. This group was also able to give us crucial beta on the descent, explaining that the 8th pitch tops out immediately below the large ledge where we had done lunch, accessed via a small trail that winds its way down the front.
Exactly where we were told to expect it, we found the rappel rings. 8 Rappels later, we hit ground and walked back to the car, exhausted. It was now past three, and dark clouds were all around the horizon; no storm had broken yet, though our spirits had.
Upset at our failure to climb Royal Flush, we buoyed ourselves with the thing that always helps me feel better: food. Over pretty delicious Mexican food, we discussed the successes and failures from the day. Our over-weighted pack was certainly a factor, as was our lack of knowledge on the route, in understanding the failure. This was compounded by the stress of getting lost and my subsequent sketchy traverse. We succeeded in maintaining a positive decision making process, taking the time to evaluate options and retreating as things progressively deteriorated. Ultimately though, I chalk this failure up as more of a lesson about alpine climbing: be prepared for things to go wrong, go light, and have your escape planed before you start. I know we could have done the climb with much less in the pack, but without knowing more about the route, I was unwilling to give up some of the supplies for fear that we could have been stuck overnight. Knowing what I know now, I'm certain we would have been fine with nothing more than our rain gear and water in the pack, accepting that on that route, bailing is possible at almost any point.
In the end, it was a long, tiring day. But what can I say, that's how I love them!