ksolem wrote:Holy handsprings, Batman! You're lucky to be alive - as am I.
Soloing stories? Bring 'em on...
It's good to see, once in a while, someone who wants to read and will understand a solo story from the soloist's perspective, instead of immediately questioning the climber's need to solo or questioning the need to share the story. In particular there are so many who seem to feel that the natural desire to share an interesting story betrays some kind of egomania. I have solo success stories mostly kept to myself, but there's this one near-death experience I figure is worth sharing.
Up the Wrong Tree in the Minarets
A near-failure, circa 6/21/04.
I kept quiet on this one for several years because I felt it was embarrassing and, frankly, I was still in post-traumatic shock about it. Ultimately I forgave myself and feel it's better to tell the story because it can add more to the picture for others who may consider soloing in the same area.
If you fire up Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D, then head for the Minarets, you can get a pretty decent view of a nice-looking triple spire (it's unnamed as far as I know) that lies between Pridham and Kehrlein Minarets. For those unfamiliar with the place names, find the peak between Deadhorse and Minaret lakes: that's Riegelhuth Minaret. Follow the ridge from Riegelhuth westward toward the main group of Minarets, and the next major high point is Pridham Minaret. The other main one before the ridge joins the main crest is Kehrlein. But just east of Kehrlein, there is an obvious "triple spire" on the ridge, separated from the true Kehrlein Minaret by a notch. I got stuck on top of that spire when rockfall obliterated my ascent route.
One day in late June 2004, I think it was about June 21st, I had set out to solo that ridge beginning with Riegelhuth and hopefully make it as far as Starr and possibly Michael Minarets, if the weather held out and if I could move fast enough. I started early and Riegelhuth and Pridham went smoothly. Along the ridge toward Kehrlein, I wondered if I should skip the next prominence and drop down, then regain the ridge at the notch before Kehrlein Minaret. Instead I was bitten by the "stay on the ridge no matter what" bug, deciding I'd make that my challenge for the day rather than summit as many official named points as possible.
On the way up this triple spire, I came face to face with the Soloist's Prime Directive: never climb anything you are unwilling to reverse. I've soloed a good deal of 5.6 and below, a fair amount of 5.7, and have been willing to cross 5.8 and 5.9 terrain as long as it is clear, clean, and visibly returns to easy ground after only a few moves. There I draw my line; I will typically never commit to 5.8-5.9 soloing if the difficulty continues out of sight around a corner or over an overhang, or if it clearly lacks rest stances for long.
So I came to this spot that tested the "would you downclimb it" criterion. It was all visible, and it was only about ten feet from the top, and I could see it was only going to be a sequence of two 5.9ish moves in a row then back easy stuff from there to the top. But the crux was a lieback on lichen-encrusted rock. I stood tight for a while and thought it over. Ultimately I decided I was in fact willing to reverse this sequence and had no doubts about continuing. So I went ahead on up.
Everything was fine so far. On top, I looked around for a minute in case there was a register for this unnamed point, but there was none (and not much place to hide one either, only a few eligible spots under loose boulders -- the entire top of the thing being fairly small). I noted that the weather was deteriorating; the temperature had dropped into the 40s and the wind had picked up. In fact, fingers of cloud were beginning to stream through the gaps between the major Minarets, riding a strong west wind.
I want to repeat and emphasize that I was very careful to only ascend what I was willing to descend. I was not, however, prepared for part of my ascent route to leave without me.
It was all good until this point
With decreasing temps and increasing wind it was time to descend immediately. I went back to find the system by which I had ascended. I had difficulty finding it due to the changed perspective, but soon located the setup above the crux. Unfortunately it looked quite a bit worse from above. In fact I was able to see a worrisome fact about it from above, which I had never seen while ascending. I could see now that the lieback moves I had done were on a large but detached rock. It was apparently glued to the main spire by only dirt and lichen, while resting on a small supporting shelf that sloped off at something like 35-40 degrees. I felt pretty bad about missing this assessment on the way up. But I had indeed slapped and kicked the rock as a soloist often does, and I had detected no motion and none of the "acoustic" warning of looseness that one often finds.
With the newfound doubts of safety here, instead of zipping down the crux directly, I decided to get a good double handhold on a completely secure rock above it, and test the doubtful boulder by foot alone. I stretched downward and made an outward prying motion on it with my toe, pushing outward with maybe 40 pounds. It didn't budge and did not seem to shift or respond to my touch at all. I still did not trust the rock, and to this healthy distrust I owe my continued life. I stretched down again and this time gave it a good dynamic stomp directed downward on the top of the suspect boulder instead of outward.
> POP < It sheared clean away from the spire surprisingly easily. In a split second I could see that it was probably about a 600 pounder, maybe more. It was roughly two by three by three feet of rock. The way time dilated in my mind, with my heart racing, it seemed to hang in the air forever as it dropped around 30 feet untouched before meeting its first resistance. It slammed into a ledge at that point and fractured into many pieces, most of which had only a couple of touches or bounces in falling the next 250+ feet to make craters in the snowfield below.
The impact with the ledge was strong enough to reverberate within the rest of the rock, including my handhold. My nostrils were filled with the smell of crushed rock as my heartbeat went wild. I immediately sprang back to the summit and laid down to let my heart rate go down and gain control of my adrenaline level. I returned to the crux spot to evaluate the possibility of downclimbing without the missing rock, and it was totally beyond me. The lieback move was now gone forever and in its place was a very dirty, steep, sandy missing-rock scar. I saw no way to cross that spot within my abilities even if I were to brush it clean. It was too far down to the next reasonable holds.
Searching for an alternative descent route
I spent approximately 45 minutes trying literally every other way off that spire that I could identify. At first I limited myself to what looked like good bets, but as all of them cliffed out or went blank or overhanging, or rapidly increased to 5.10 and beyond, I ran out of possibilities. The most enticing one got me to where I could have reached the notch dividing me from Kehrlein Minaret with a 20-foot rappel.
If the reader takes no other lesson from my story, I'd like to note that it was at this point that I decided to always bring at least a small 40-50 foot cord for rappelling in last-chance situations when soloing into the unknown in the future. Not necessarily for well known, frequently climbed, clean routes. But certainly for undocumented ridge romps. And of course the minimum of gear to anchor the rope if necessary.
That notch mocked me severely. It was right there, just out of range to jump. The closest I got was I could downclimb about 10 feet of 5.7 followed by about eight feet of 5.9+ and then jump in the direction of the notch. But it still would have been at least a 12-footer, maybe 15, and the landing would be on a pretty badly off-angled slab that looked like it had every chance of breaking my ankle *and* making me fall down the nearby gully. So that was out. Believe me, I wanted to make that jump (or to be a strong enough climber to make it on very steep, thin stuff) and only the certainty of injury prevented it.
I made another round, along what I remember being about a 40 or 50 foot perimeter of the spire's summit. Since I had already checked out all of the "reasonable/sane" possibilities, this time I had to retry all of the previous attempts but set the danger level higher. This time I decided I wouldn't give up on any potential exit route unless it exceeded 5.8.
Still no dice, at first. First, there were only (maybe) five ways that even seemed humanly possible. Every one of these, as far as I could tell, was beyond my acceptable danger level and most were far beyond my ability. I briefly considered trying to survive the night on top, but the temperature was continuing to plunge. (It later turned out to snow a few inches there and around the Mammoth backcountry that same night). The chances of surviving exposed on the top of that spire in the teeth of the oncoming storm were slim.
I made yet another survey, returning to the original route and still finding it impossible even now that I was in "go for broke" mode. On the east side, between the central and eastern summits of this triple spire, there was a chimney that formed the main line of weakness down the higher, steeper south side of the spire. I had not considered it the first time I saw it -- why go down the long, steep side? Looking at it again, I still could not consider using it because it was capped off by some real overhangs at the top. If there had been any way to get into that chimney... well, it was still pretty ominous because after dropping straight down approximately 300 feet, the chimney went out of sight, cutting through a roof/overhang, and continued (?) downward entirely out of sight.
Desperate now to survive, I continued my route search. This time I figured I would look for any unlikely, geometrically weird lines I might have missed in my first round of trying not to panic. For example, this time I was looking for hidden sequences that required a partial downclimb followed by traversing a long way into another set of features.
Found a possibility and it was more scary than being stuck on top
With the idea of a possibly circuitous route in mind, I finally located my salvation. My elation at finding a way down was incredibly brief, squashed by a wave of nausea and debilitating adrenaline shakes as I was struck by the full significance of what I was going to have to do. I had located an exit route on the much steeper, much taller side of the spire. I had climbed up on the north face, which is only about 250-300 feet of mixed terrain, mostly 3rd then 4th then working up into 5th just near the top. The south side, which held the only downclimbable feature I could find (the chimney), appeared to average at least 70 degrees with many overhanging areas, far less features in general... and it was more than twice as far down.
In short, it was going to be at least 600 vertical feet of unbroken 5th class, and by all appearances there were going to be sustained 5.7 and 5.8 sequences in any given section.
I ate and drank, sucked up my fear, forcibly swallowed my adrenaline shivers and went to work. The reason I had not found this descent route at first was because it's completely indirect. I had to exit the summit on the west side, drop 20 feet on 5.6 to 5.7 holds the size and shape of triangular soap dishes, then traverse far right, above a drop that I'm pretty sure was 250+ feet before first scratch and a total of over 600' before the angle really eases into talus and snowfield. My line then climbed slightly, still diagonaling right -- through a notch dividing the main spire from a leaning turret that made my stomach jump -- to the east side of the spire, finally ending up nearly 180 degrees around from where I left the summit. It was a longshot but it was all I had. If it worked with no surprises I would be near the chimney, and far enough down to enter it below the roof.
Several minutes of very conscious climbing later...
I stood at a rest stance surrounded by 5.7ish ground and sized up the final moves to the chimney. I could see three alternatives. I tried the two that looked good, and both went blank (at least for my abilities... maybe a stronger climber would have made it). I really really
did not like the third alternative. It was there, all right, but its holds were much smaller and rounded, and one critical set of hand and footholds was especially bad. I considered actually jumping the final five feet horizontally to land sort of body-cammed in the chimney. Too risky. Pebbles I nervously scraped out from a foothold near my rest stance dropped for many seconds before making their first ricochet with the walls below.
This was perhaps the worst I had felt on this day and it was yet to get worse. I actually considered retracing my 60 feet or so of climbing to return to the summit and try something, anything other than try to make it across to this chimney. The chimney was my only hope so far, but it was still unknown. I looked down again, maybe a big mistake. I could see even more clearly how I was clinging to a face that dropped away many hundreds of feet below, and worst of all, how the chimney was only visible for a certain distance before it went down through an overhang. Beyond that nothing could be seen for a very long distance until my sight contacted the far lower reaches of the wall, gray and too far away to see individual features well. Could I really downclimb over 600 feet of a wall that I had never seen and even now could not fully see?
If I retraced my steps there would be nothing to do on top but despair. It was obvious that a storm was coming, and I was wearing all of my "just in case" layers now just to stay warm. I had no choice but to go for the chimney.
Snuffed it, almost
Finally I got the nerve up and tried the third and final way of traversing into the chimney. My feet slipped!
Certainly the nearest I've been to death -- One moment I was moving and the next I was hanging by only some of the fingertips of each hand from a small and rounded edge. Without intending to speak, I heard my own voice say "fuck, I'm going to die." I don't know whether it was internal or I said it out loud. Lots of things flashed through my mind in that fraction of a second, maybe even a full second. I briefly imagined freefall followed by violent destruction. Suddenly it was clear, it wasn't time to die yet. I made that fingertip pull-up, one that I certainly could not replicate right now no matter how much you paid me. And I got the hell past that spot and finished the traverse into the chimney.
The chimney felt like a godsend, and as if to confirm this, a minute or two after I reached it and rested very gratefully atop a flat chockstone, the clouds let a beam of sunlight shine down into the chimney and my hands warmed up a little. I wanted to stay on that chockstone forever: the possibilities awaiting me in the lower reaches of the chimney were too dark to contemplate. Onward, downward.
Without much time or weather to spare (I estimate it was past 3:30pm now), I moved down the chimney with newfound focus. I downclimbed sections that I ordinarily would never choose to solo. In the simplicity of my utter need to descend, and the now-total impossibility of turning back, I broke any and all rules.
For the next hour I was basically a condemned man, having signed my own death warrant. There was absolutely no certainty (or even likelihood?) of surviving the rest of the way down, simply because at least half of the route was completely out of sight from above.
Multiple pitch-lengths of 5.7 and 5.8 chimneying went by, sometimes requiring the typical knee-to-heel jam, sometimes widening to 4 feet and requiring face climbing or stemming, sometimes narrowing to a near-offwidth that threatened to spit me out onto the face. Many times I worked my way out to the lip of the chimney to determine whether there was actually an easier face route, only to instantly feel almost overwhelmed with nausea as the exposure dawned on me (and the face was 5.9 and beyond, every time I peeked).
I felt true terror but there was no choice but to continue. As far as I knew, I could do absolutely everything right for hundreds of feet yet still be cut off from safe ground at the bottom of this wall by a completely impassable section. Would I jump to commit suicide if I reached that point, or would I curl up and die of exposure in the chimney? My thoughts touched this question from time to time and I just had to shut them off.
Unseen chimney downclimbing & contortions
There was one particularly terrifying section where the chimney was choked by thin plates of rock, aligned vertically, several of them parallel to each other and parallel to the chimney. They were stuck, cammed in there together, but they were able to pivot around their centers like the blades of some slicing machine. I had to pass them somehow. Again I found the face outside of the chimney to be much too difficult to downclimb. I tried knocking out the chockstones but they wouldn't move that much, they just rotated when I weighted them with a sinister grating noise. And their edges were thin enough that parts broke off in my hands.
Finally I worked out a way to pin the chockstones in place by camming a foot in one place and an elbow in another, and just sort of slithered past them and swung back into standard chimney technique below that. I can't explain it better than that, and I felt lucky that it worked.
But there was an even worse spot. I finally came to where the chimney went out of sight by passing down through an overhang. I had been quietly worried about this ever since first laid eyes on this chimney. As it turns out, the chimney widened below the overhang, going from something like 24 inches to many feet wide -- in fact too wide to even stem it. I remember the lower section being something like 7-8 feet wide for some distance before it narrowed back down to a nicer chimney. Apparently I was going to drop down out of this overhanging slot like a bunch of loose change and then freefall a couple hundred feet, unless I could work out some crazy yoga really quick. And it wasn't easy hanging on in the slot, just above the point where my feet would lose contact if I continued.
Briefly I thought of how I had not left a note, and how I would probably be little more than bones and rucksack by the time my remains were found.
It is absolutely ridiculous that I survived the next 30 seconds, and to any readers with spiritual and/or religious beliefs, I assure you I have given thanks for making it every day since then and always will. I managed to create solid enough friction for the upper body as I lowered my feet and legs and even most of my abdomen out of the chimney and into thin air, then I swung my feet across to the wall maybe 4-5 feet away, and fortunately connected with some edges I had visually identified by leaning out previously. Now I had my feet on one wall of the wider-than-chimney section below, and my hands/arms/head still stuck above. Somehow I managed to extend to where my whole body was out of the slot with just my hands remaining above -- well past the point of no return.
For a moment there I had my hands back up in the slot, with my whole body leaning far away from my feet and from the wall I would need to downclimb next (and still having no idea if *that* would go). There was nothing else to do but make a massive effort; I pushed off hard and found handholds to get my hands above my feet. I remember it took the full extension of my arms, and that big dynamic push, to get my torso over to the rock that held my feet. Down I went, on thankfully "only" 5.8 face with thankfully clean edging.
The final couple hundred feet went by in a total daze. There was another 15 minutes or so of climbing. I remember chimneying, some face climbing too, with my mind in a bizarre state, feeling totally surreal. Finally the system emptied out into the rubble chute at the bottom of a gully. You can see this gully in the satellite views on Google Earth and on MS Virtual Earth 3D, and that can help you understand where I was and the size of this endeavor. That gully held one last kick: it choked up with a big chockstone and after passing that there was one last bit of somewhat difficult downclimbing. I don't even remember what it was exactly. Another half pitch and I was at the snowfield below.
That's all. I stumbled home with an empty feeling, trying to come to grips with the fact of still being alive. Yes, I very much still wanted to be alive, but it was hard to feel like I deserved it. I was rattled to the core. It took a very long time to fully absorb the experience. Many times I wondered if I actually had
died up there and was dreaming the rest ever since.
Some day I would like to return to the top of that spire (with gear this time) and take some photographs, maybe even make sketches for a painting of that chimney as seen from the summit ridge. I feel as if that sight is burned into my unconscious and I will never really get it out without making some external images of it.