The quest for the RCS
Real Climber Status, that is
By Penelope May
“I haven’t had such excitement on 5.3 in years!”…was Alois’ comment afterwards. On March 23, 2003, we set out to climb a route on Tahquitz to practice my leading. It was to be my second time trying this on a multi-pitch route. After noticing from Humber Park that there was melting snow and ice on our target, East Lark, we quickly dispensed with that idea. Let’s go to the south side, do something warm and short, I suggested (thinking the cowardly word easy was best left unsaid). We then spent some considerable time hiking up the climbers’ trail in frozen snow. Complaints about sliding around in tennis shoes were assailing me from the rear…after all, since I lived here, I should have given better advice. Well, I do remember saying there was snow “at the base of the rock” and I was wearing boots, you see.
So, we opted for good ol’ Finger Tip Traverse (5.3), where I could presumably do a bit of leading. We simul-soloed (yeah!!) up the first pitch to the tree, whereupon Alois rearranged my (his) rack and the way I had it organized, rearranged the gear on my belt loops, rearranged my belay device position and my harness, until I was ready. I was then ready for nothing as I was totally confused as to where anything was. Still, you have to do things right when you are leading, so I complied with all this disorder, beginning to feel quite nauseous. I then climbed the tree, managed to disengage all my gear from the various branches and actually make the move onto the rock, unimpeded. I had barely placed my foot on it when Alois boomed out “place a piece, NOW!”. I think he was just a little nervous. I obeyed. Then, off I went up the crack, which was not too bad, and I started feeling better.
Alois had told me to turn right into the jungle, which I did, avoiding the frozen snow in the so-called gully. I was happily positioned way over by the wall when he came up, only to be told that I was in the wrong spot and needed to move over toward the dihedral. That’s the route I exclaimed?? It looked rather hard to me…hmmm…can’t be, it’s only 5.3, I said to myself.
So, after I was on belay, I gingerly moved over to the start of the 2nd pitch. I climbed up a little to the base of the 8 foot lie-back portion. I stood there staring up at this feature, actually laughing at the idea that I had ambitions to climb that on lead. There’s no way it could be done. Alois then primed me on placing gear just above me and yanking on it if at all necessary…isn’t that aid climbing, I asked? I eventually decided to go for it and by a miracle managed to get my foot in the crack above the piece and stand there…Alois was yelling to place another piece but I didn’t fancy stopping to mess around with all that coordination, so just continued climbing instead.
As I passed the lie-back section and moved into the buckety face-climbing area, to the continuous and loud sound of “place some pro”, sewing machine legs developed. I kept looking around for suitable places to place some pro, and not seeing any I liked, just climbed a little higher. I was now about 25 feet above the last piece and the rock was not yielding me much. I tried a variety of stoppers and eventually managed to get something in before climbing higher, and yes Alois, placing another piece of pro there. Then, I saw the little traverse to the left and realized I was going to lead it, and have to make a bit of a move without the security of nice continuous hand hold(s) that I do so enjoy. Come on now, you are a big girl, remember Alois always saying that there’s a ledge (ha ha)…and there it was (sort of), so I swung over there proudly without one palpitation. I walked up a small ramp and was about to climb up over the top, my confidence blossoming, when I spied that miserable Finger Tip Traverse in front of me. Yikes, not that!
I backed away and climbed back to a somewhat secure spot. It was small and sloping outwards and exposed; Alois later said he could have slept on it (testosterone). Looking around I found an old pin in which I put a triple sling and secured myself in the flatter area with two stoppers and more slings and biners. The more the better, I thought. I was not happy with them but there seemed no where else. This was all taking quite some time. Alois yelled up an impatient/anxious enquiry as to what I was doing; I told him I was busy. This apparently did not slake his curiosity, as questions continued to rise from the depths.
Next thing you know, an unknown head came over the top to the traverse. It was a very nice Spanish young man (Rafael, I learned later) soloing. I encouraged him to pass me on the little ledge as one less thing for me to be concerned about. After he passed me, I asked his opinion about the security of my pro: he said he would not trust the pin and the two stoppers could easily jump out because they were horizontal. By this time, Alois was coming up and I merely froze into position, terrified that something would happen to either one of us and the anchor would not hold. Then Alois dropped his cleaning tool (I think, trying greedily to get out someone else’s cam that was stuck there) and had to down climb the whole pitch to get it. My arms were dropping off by the time he started up again and my nerves were just a little bit tattered.
Finally, complaining loudly about the slowness of my belay, as I was feverishly hauling up the rope in this new mode of being stationed above, he arrived at my ledge, appalled at all the gear involved in my anchor. He redid it using just the rope. I had also dropped a couple of stoppers en route (how had that happened?) for which I was in serious trouble, even though he had found them. Guiltily I had to reveal one set was clipped incorrectly on my harness. Plus one or two of my pieces were not placed totally up to snuff. But most of them he would fall on, he reassured me.
Then, he lead off over the main Traverse which I followed, trying to see that, yes, I could lead it next time. Failed miserably at that prospect. We arrived at Lunch Ledge and relaxed in the sunshine, ate a snack, discussed “progress”; I did receive a small compliment for leading the lie-back section below: Alois assured me it was 5.7! A lesson on the (il)logic of ratings quickly followed.
Meanwhile, Rafael reappeared and asked directions for getting off the rock. Alois suggested he join us. Soon they realized that they both knew another Spaniard, our very own Miguel Carmona. Male bonding quickly followed. While this was happening I had some peace and quiet and calmly lead the next part, toward the ledge-and-face exit up to the left. I was doing really well until I realized I was actually UPON the bloo*y Ledge. Yikes again. Not liking the position I was in, I followed part of Alois’ advice if I were to get stuck: put in two pieces and yell. I decided I could manage with the two pieces and instead of yelling, since I was now a mature lead climber, I lowered myself down back to a nice ledge area, leaving three pieces (and, of course the rope), in them “behind” up there. I then anchored myself in and happily belayed Alois up, knowing my troubles were now over. As he arrived at the ledge and eye-balled the complex arrangements of ropes before his eyes, I decided to be pre-emptive, laughingly introducing the topic with, “I know you’re not going to like this, but….we have three ropes now”.
Well, he adapted and led the last ½ pitch to the top. I took most of the back of my hand off, trying to get out that well secured stopper I had lowered on. Rafael knotted into our rope for some measure of protection as he exited. I came up, as usual not particularly enjoying the last part. When I looked up the 5.6 face, it was streaming with water on the right; it was possible to climb it on the left but the bolt and the pro were over in the water, causing some extra effort and balance on my part. I tried to do it all slowly and methodically and look like I was totally in control without a care in the world as I was being scrutinized from above; I didn’t fool him, but was told I did it better than last time. Ah, the crumbs of a compliment.
On top I displayed my bloodied hand and received 2 seconds of sympathy before we dismantled all the gear and set off down the friction route. There was melting snow and water everywhere but it felt quite safe with our rock shoes on. I took Alois on a little detour just to keep him flexible. Down at the car, enjoying a beer and bean dip, I realized it was finally safe to dramatize my achievements and hug myself just a bit.
That was Pen's second lead ever at age 52. Since 2003, She led just about all of the climbs up to 5.7 on Tahquitz and I have pretty much stoped yelling at her! She can be funny (IMO)describing this climbing stuff!