BackgroundThe idea came to me while climbing Kelso Ridge about 3 weeks before the actual climb. I'm not sure where it came from, but all of the sudden the words "Ship Rock" went through my head. And that thought did not go away. As time went on (by nightfall, that is) I was already thinking to my self "yeah, that's totally doable in a weekend." I proposed the idea to Colin and he was down. That very next day, we set the date: September 19th. I was so excited, I couldn't sleep right. I even had a dream about it that night. For a few days, it was pretty much the only thing that occupied my mind, feelings of nervousness, and the occasional thought of "are we really going to do this?" You know the ones...Other plans put this one on the back burner for a week or two before it was actually time to start planning. I must have spent tens of hours scouring the internet looking for as much beta as I could on this obscure climb. After many emails and a couple phone calls, I compiled a route description that wasn't quite up to my liking for such a big climb, but it would have to do. As long as Colin and I wouldn't have to epic like the last big climb we did, we would be happy. We were ready.
The Drive...was pretty uneventful. We left Boulder around 11:30, drove west on I-70 for almost 300 miles, into Utah, before exiting on highway 191 to Moab. We continued south to the town of Monitcello, then down old highway 666 (why did they have to change the name to highway 491??). We drove through a particularly nasty thunderstorm between Monitcello and Cortez, CO. It was still raining a little bit as we finished getting dinner in Cortez. From there, we drove south, into New Mexico, through Shiprock town, and out into the desert. It was close to 9 oclock by this point, thus dark, so we could not see our objective from town. We had no idea where we were going to sleep that night, so after confirming that we knew where the road to the Rock was, we pulled off onto another dirt road nearby and parked the car a few hundred yards from the highway. This was when we saw our objective for the first time. A distant thunderstorm behind Ship Rock was lighting up the sky a couple seconds at a time, and during those brief seconds, we should see the Rock, silhouetted against the flash from the lightning. It looked downright ominous. The temperature was very comfortable for sleeping under the stars. By 9:30 we were dozing off.
We rose at 6:30. The air was cooler than what it was when we went to bed, but it still wasn't too cold. The sun still had to rise, but there was enough light for us to see the Rock for the first time in real light. It looked huge, and we were at least 3 miles away still! Some horses were grazing and meandering around about 50 yards away. After a quick bite, we quickly sorted out our gear, racked up, put our harnesses on, jumped into the car, and gunned it towards the Monolith. There were some low clouds in the vicinity, but we didn't give them much thought. Driving the road to the Rock was a bit slow going since we were in Colin's Civic, but with careful navigation over the ruts and rocks, we were soon at the base of the thing. We picked out a parking spot we thought was pretty good. Without wasting time, we were walking away at 7:30 am. We walked around the Rock to where we knew we'd find the entrance to the Black Bowl. The approach took about 25 minutes. Here, we tied in and casted off.
Colin took a look at the first sequence. A short overhang had to be scaled before we could get anywhere. I agreed to start leading. I onsighted the first pitch, with the help from the cheater stones, placing a nut that probably would not have held a feather. A few moves later, I was in the Black Bowl itself, belaying Colin up a crappy anchor I managed to make. From here, Colin and I simul-soloed up the Black Bowl. We short roped one of our ropes, while Colin trailed the other one. We gained a lot of elevation over a relatively short amount of time, even though the scrambling was pretty loose in some places. We reached the top of the Black Bowl and headed up right, onto a loose, crumbly, exposed ridge that separated the Black Bowl from Longs Couloir. It was wonderfully airy up on it. Since we were now very exposed, I belayed Colin over to the Sierra Col, a little rock bridge a few feet wide with huge drop offs on either side. It was here where the climbing began to get interesting... We looked at the next pitch; a short, but intimidating looking traverse over to the Colorado Col. "You wanna lead it?" Colin asked. "Sure", I replied. With Colin belaying me off the good anchor, I studied the unprotected, short little traverse. A fall would have swung me into the wall just below the Col, in other words, not fun at all. To add to my terror, the rock over the traverse was very crumbly. I stepped out on thin hand and feet. My hand hold immediately disinigrated, but luckily my right foot was still on the Col, so I didn't slip. After a few choice words, I got my mental strength back and tried again. This time I was able to get my foot to the foot hold way left while crimping the crap out of tiny holds that felt like they were about to crumble. "Shit! Fuck! God Dammit! Come On!" I yelled to myself as I was perched vulnerably in this scary position. Apparently my vulgar outburst worked, and I was able to shift my weight to my good foot hold out left, and was able to scramble up to the next belay anchor. After breathing a sigh of relief, I hauled our pack up to where I was and belayed Colin over. He, instead of traversing, downclimbed a bit, then came up the easier side. Doing this greatly cleaned the fall potential for him. Within minutes, we were on our way. We reached the Colorado Col, and rappelled down the gully. We came up just a tad short in getting to the belay bolt for the traverse pitch, so we had to do an exposed down climb to reach it. At this point we both started getting a little worried about the weather. There was no blue sky to be seen anywhere, and we could see rain over the town of Shiprock. We both didn't say anything for fear of jinxing it. Once at the start of the Traverse Pitch, Colin started leading it. I watched him as I belayed him around the corner and out of view. After a while, he yelled back to me saying that he had no idea where he was, and that he was going to belay me over. I climbed over to Colin and discovered that he went to high on the traverse and ended up in the wrong place. The fixed pins and bolts were misleading. With him now belaying me, I climbed back down onto the Traverse Pitch, and finished it on the next belay ledge, which was quite large and comfortable.
From here, a very short 5.9 pitch blocked us from the next belay ledge. It was no more than about 5 feet high, so I just soloed it after taking a minute to figure out the sequence. There were anchors at the next ledge, so I belayed Colin up. From here, the “Double Overhang” was in plain view to the left. I ran it out on easier ground to the overhang, clipped the bolts in it, then made my way left out of the cave. There was a convientient bolt that protected the exposed move. Luckily, the climbing was pretty moderate and I scurried up the slope to the next large cave, some 20 feet above. In the cave I was able to girth hitch some runners around small holes in the rock and belayed Colin up.
In the cave, we took a break and got some water and food. We now knew that easy scrambling was ahead of us for awhile, and to add to our relief, the clouds that were hanging around earlier were starting to dissipate. The Sun came out, and it started to get really warm. After we packed up, we started climbing up Honeycomb Gulley, and scrambled up easy 5th class for about 500 vertical feet, both of us trailing a rope. The scrambling here really reminded me of soloing on the Flatirons above Boulder. We were glad to get most of our elevation back after having to rappel from the Sierra Col. It took about 10 minutes to get to the top of the gully, and we worked up quite a sweat because the Sun was heating up the rock at this point.
At the top of the gully we continued to solo an easy chimney that lead us to the base of the Horn. The rock quality here was way better than it was down near the Sierra Col and Traverse pitch. At the base of the Horn we were really able to notice where we were for the first time; the views were beginning to open up and we could feel the summit.
Colin started out up the Horn pitch. After a slight hesitation, he clipped the pin and made the exposed moves up the face to the belay ledge, leading it beautifully. I followed and loved the exposure, and loved it even more because I was on toprope. I joined him at the belay ledge in a few minutes. From here, Colin took the lead again and traversed a bit to the right, then climbed up a seam, protected by two pins. This too, he led cleanly. I followed, but had some trouble with the seam. Turns out I just had the holds wrong. It’s a good thing Colin led it, because I might have gotten sketched out and fallen.
At the top of the final pitch, we trailed our ropes again, and continued to scramble up easier terrain. We reached a slab, climbed it, passed through a chockstone, and soon we were underneath the summit block. Here, we dropped our gear and the ropes. Colin made his way to the summit block, I followed. He moved over a bit so I could get onto it, and we topped out together, in the same manner as he had done on Devils Tower. There was silence for a few seconds, then all we could say was “Dude”, then we gave each other a hug, which was followed by congratulatory whooping and yelling. It was quite a sight.
Neither of us had a watch, so we didn’t know the time, but I would have guessed it was about mid-afternoon. The near clouds had gone away, and we were left with a blue sky that stretched for a long time. We took several minutes taking in the view, one of the most expanse ones either of us had seen. We broke out some canned peaches and slurped them down and drank some water. We then downclimbed from the summit block in search of the register, but before we could find it, noticed a tiny little mouse scurrying around the rocks. What home that mouse has, I thought to myself. I easily found the register under a small roof and we proceeded to look at every page. Unfortunately the earlier entries were not original, but we still were in awe of looking at real entries by Royal Robbins, Fred Beckey, Steph Davis, Steve Roper, Gerry Roach, Gary Neptune, Jim Bridwell, and others. Some of the entries were really funny too. Colin and I signed in as the 490th party to ascend the Rock since the FA in 1939, the first ones since March of 2009.
The DescentAt this point, we were both about ready to get off the Rock. We found the rappel anchors easily enough and Colin rapped off first. I soon joined him at the next rappel anchor, a mess of old webbing tied to some old bolts. It was here where we almost got ourselves screwed, for we forgot to untie a knot in one of our ropes before we pulled it, so I had to swing over (the rap anchor was set a bit to the right of the rap line) to reach it. Luckily Colin noticed before it was too late. That would have sucked. We cut a piece of webbing to back up the anchor, and I rappelled down to the next large sloping day. Colin soon followed. Colin went down next, to another anchor. I joined him in a minute. From there, I rapped down into Longs Couloir, where the ground was flat. Colin came down in due time. From here we pulled our ropes and hiked down the Couloir to the next set of anchors, which we found easily. Colin went first, then me. We continued onward to the next anchor, rapped down that, and located the seventh and final rappel anchor. Colin went down first with my camera to get some shots of me as I came down to join him on the ground.
From the base, we hiked about 15 minutes back to the car, took some hero shots, threw our gear in the car, and drove out. It was 6:30 PM, making the outing a total of 11 hours. And that was the end of our ascent of Tse’Bit’Ai, the “Rock with Wings”.