There is a Hole in the Middle of the Seaa.k.a. Got Sand in Your Teeth?
3/26/11 - 3/31/11
Independence Monument (5.9) - Colorado National Monument, CO
Elephant Butte (5.3) - Arches National Park, UT
The Happy Turk aka Devil's Golfball (C0) - Kane Creek, UT
Pensive Putterman (5.3 C1) - Kane Creek, UT
South Sixshooter (attempt 5.9) - Indian Creek, UT
Mexican Hat (C0) - Mexican Hat, UT
Cabezon Peak (4th Class) - Jemez Indian Reservation, NM
Chapter 1 - There's a Hole in the Middle of the SeaMonday
"There's a frog...there's a frog...there's a frog on the bump on the log on the hole in the middle of the sea."
As I took a deep breath to sing the next verse, I felt my aiders lurch. I glanced up in time to see the small nut that I was standing on start to slide down the manky crack I had placed it in. The sandstone around it merely sloughed off as it moved downward and it only took a glance down to know that I didn't want to land on the ledge below me. Quickly high stepping, I reached and clipped both my second aider and the rope to the piton above me. I asked myself, "Why did it have to rain last night?" Before I thought about it too much I noticed the piton I had just clipped was fractured nearly in half.
"Hmmmmmm....it looks pretty solid still." I said to myself.
"What?? Is everything ok?" echoed up from my wife below.
Peering down, I could only see the edge of her helmet. The crappy rock had been sending missiles down to the belay stance and I had asked her to move safely around the corner. After a quick and fun ascent of the Happy Turk, I thought the addition of Pensive Putterman would make an easy tick. Although the route was very short, the rain-softened rock had proven less than inspirational. Although still having a great time, I felt annoyed that I couldn't get the songs I teach my elementary kids out of my head. As I began the final traverse before pulling onto the chossy summit I began the next verse.
"There's a flea...there's a flea...there's a flea on the frog......."
After sending a barrage of large rocks down to the base of the route, I pulled up onto the summit in time to see a chain of 4-wheelers rumbling down the road further into Kane Creek. This was shaping up to be a great day. After I got down we chatted with some folks who had pulled over to watch us climb. Wanting to move on we loaded into the car and stopped to scope out some pictographs near the road. Dust plumed behind the car as we motored toward Indian Creek.
Chapter 2 - Banditos for a DayWednesday
I always forget how motivation becomes an issue around the fifth day. We had camped at Gooseneck State Park in SE Utah and as the sun came up, so did the wind. This would be our fifth day of climbing and so far every day had been cold and windy. I rolled over and watched the side of the tent flap with the wind. Closing my eyes, I could see Mexican Hat tottering precariously on a small pedestal of stone. We had driven into the town of Mexican Hat the day before and were surprised at how small the village was. Located just outside of the Navajo Reservation and across from the famous Monument Valley, the population sits just under 100 people. The namesake rock formation sits just outside of town and although it looks absurdly impossible, has a simple bolt ladder put in by the Bandito Climbing Club. Summoning all the willpower I could muster, I rolled over and saw that my wife was also awake. I could tell that her motivation was just as high as mine was. Without a word, we both got out of our bags and started packing up camp. As we pulled off the highway toward the rock, we were shocked to see another party ahead of us on the route. Gathering up our gear, we watched as they summited and quickly began to rappel. Leaving the car I grabbed one of the most important pieces of gear, the ice scraper to use as a stick clip! Laughing about how absurd it was lifted our motivation at last. The hike up to the base of the rock went quickly and we soon stood underneath the massive overhanging summit cap. The other climbers turned out to be another couple on a road trip and Mexican Hat was the guys 50th desert tower. Wow! After we parted ways I leaned out to spot the first bolt. There was a surprising drop-off beginning at the start of the route and as I attempted to clip the first bolt it spun out of reach. Finally making the clip, I quickly lead up and brought up Jen. The summit was huge and a very cool place to hang out. We waved at the small entourage of tourists taking photos of us from the road and laughed at the bottle of whiskey on the summit. Finally the wind began to blow uncomfortably hard and we made a quick retreat back to the car. Snapping several more photos, we sped off into the reservation toward Albuquerque.
Chapter 3 - When to say whenTuesday
The drive from Kane Creek to Indian Creek is great. The landscape is punctuated by massive sandstone formations and who doesn't love the Hole n the Rock? Thanks to the Friends of Indian Creek there are several free spots to camp and we set up at Creek Pasture. As we packed for the next day's climb of South Sixshooter the sunset turned all the cliffs crimson. The night was cold and the wind blew an occasional puff of sand into the tent. Morning came soon and we soon drove toward Davis Canyon. Not wanting to trash my car, we parked close to the highway and began hiking in toward the Sixshooters. The road was dusty and offered excellent views of the towers. Both are striking formations and I couldn't wait to climb South. Soon we left the road and pushed up the steep talus cone to reach the rock. We moved slowly under the weight of climbing gear and it was obvious that we'd been pushing ourselves. As we reached the rock I pulled out the vague description I had of the route. "P1 - Climb broken rock to a fun chimney (5.6)." and "Start above a pictograph." As I snooped around the wind chilled me and I wished for a bit more detailed description. I found a faint pictograph below a flake system and looked up to see rock that looked harder than 5.6. After more snooping I just decided to give it a go. As I laced up my shoes I thought to myself, "It looks harder because I'm tired." Leading up the rock I made short work of the first 35 feet and found myself below a steep bulge. I tried to get my fingers into a thin crack but it was too small and only numbed my hands. Looking down at the marginal nut below me, I fished for something better to protect the harder move. Unfortunately, when I read the 5.6 rating I had left my micro-cams in the car and had nothing small enough to fit in the crack. As I tried to build myself up to the move I grew colder and colder. After what seemed like forever, I decided to bail on the pitch. Lowering off a nut, I cleaned all the lower gear and ran into the sun to warm up. Bummed, I sat at the base and kicked myself. "Why couldn't I lead 5.6!?" I asked my wife. After we sat and soaked in the views for about an hour we headed down so we could drive to Mexican Hat. On the hike out we encountered another party coming up. After discussing what happened we decided that I had attempted the South Face Direct that was rated 5.10. I couldn't believe that I had just assumed I that I was tired and that made it feel harder. Thankfully, my wife gave me a pep talk and my mood rose dramatically. We still had been in a beautiful place and it gives me a great reason to go back.
Chapter 4 - Golf with the DevilMonday
The first time I saw a photo of the Happy Turk (aka Devil's Golfball) I thought, "I have to climb that!" The improbable formation looked like it would topple over at any moment and was the epitome of unusual desert formations. As we drove into Kane Creek I couldn't wait to see it. Finally it appeared and we quickly hiked out to the base. The weather threatened rain but seemed to be holding as we reached the rock. The guidebook rated the moves to the first bolt as 5.8, but one glance up squashed any thought of free climbing. Fortunately, there were several long metal poles from the nearby uranium mine that served as a perfect stick clip. As I began to lead up the odd bolt ladder, I quickly discovered that I was much shorter than whoever placed the bolts. Top stepping and free moves were mandatory for me to reach each bolt and the summit moves were a bit sketchy in approach shoes (especially since it started to rain while leading). I whooped as I topped out and waved at passing motorists as Jen came up. We enjoyed the summit views for a long time and were amazed at how few people noticed us as they drove by. After snapping loads of photos, we crossed the road and prepared for Pensive Putterman.
Chapter 5 - The Monster's HeadThursday
Taken from my report on Tse' Bit' ai...
" As the Navajo Ancestors fled an attacking tribe, they prayed to the Great Spirit for their salvation. Suddenly, the ground lurched beneath their feet and began to rise. As the People saw the enemy tribe recede, they looked down to see that a giant bird bore them on its back. The Bird gracefully soared upward and began to fly toward safer lands. Days passed, and the Bird began to scout the land for a better place for its People to live. Spotting a suitable location in the desert near a river with distant mountains, the great Bird circled thrice and landed. As the People moved out onto the land, the now exhausted Bird folded up its wings to rest. Unfortunately, all was not well. A giant man-eating dragon named Cliff Monster climbed up onto the weakened Bird's back, built a nest and trapped the Bird. The People were furious and immediatley sent their Monster Slayer up to grapple with the beast. A tremendous battle ensued, and in the chaos, the Bird became gravely wounded. In a fury, Monster Slayer cut off Cliff Monster's head and cast it off into the distance. As Cliff Monster's remains were cast out, they turned to stone as they touched Earth. Its head formed Cabezon Peak to the east, and its coagulated blood formed the Great Dike immediately south of Tse' Bit'ai. Deep scratches and grooves were carved down the sides of the Bird as Cliff Monster's blood ran freely during the battle. Sadly, the victory was bittersweet, and a great tragedy soon came upon the People. The Bird had become fatally wounded during the struggle. Rather than let the Bird perish, Monster Slayer used his power to turn the Bird to stone so as to preserve and honor its gift to the People. Now a great rock stands just as Tse' Bit'ai rested: with its wings stretched up toward the heavens."
Ever since my experience with Ship Rock, I had wanted to climb Cabezon Peak. We had planned on hiking it on the last climbing day of our trip and saw it as a fitting finale. After we left Mexican Hat, we drove though Ship Rock on the way to Albuquerque and stopped to marvel at it's power. It is very easy to see why this Rock is sacred to the Navajo people.
Driving out to Cabezon built a sense of solitude and isolation. Although we were less than 2 hours from a major city, the barren landscape showed little sign of development. As Cabezon appeared, we saw why it was part of legends. Rising sharply out of the barren desert, the peak looked like a miniature Devil's Tower. It was hard to imagine there was a route to the top that did not involve technical climbing. As we parked, we noticed the only sign marking the trailhead had long since blown down. The trail rose steeply and it felt good to stretch our legs. We dodged prickly cactus on all sides and imagined how horrible it would be to put a hand in one. After circling the peak the trail turned sharply toward a narrow gully breaking the other-wise impenetrable cliffs. Steep and loose scrambling was interrupted by short sections of easy trail and we soon crested onto the summit plateau. I peered across the vast desert hoping to spy Ship Rock, but was disappointed to see the view blocked by wind-blown dust. Still, I enjoyed knowing the connection between the two mountains and we spent a long while on the summit. On the descent we took care not to make a mistake because we were tired. Soon as we were back on solid ground, we picked up speed knowing this was the last hike of the trip. It had been a great week of climbing and this was a fabulous end.
Chapter 6 - Elephants in the DesertSunday
Gas pedal down...check. The speedometer slowly crept up as the road straightened out at the state line. It was exciting to be leaving Colorado and heading into the desert. We decided to take the scenic way and cruised down past Fisher Towers and Castleton Valley. My brain reeled at all the awesome climbing there was in such a small area. You could spend a lifetime just climbing here, but not for us this time. We pushed on into to Arches National Park and made straight for the Garden of Eden pull-off. Elephant Butte was our next big goal. It is a fabulous route with lots of scrambling and several rappels to the highpoint of Arches N.P. The weather looked iffy and I sure didn't want to be halfway up the sandstone slabs if it decided to let loose rain. With a weary eye skyward, we sped up the vague trail. Having down this route several times, I led straight up the potentially confusing route. We moved together up the sandstone and the weather created many beautiful shades of color. The summit came abruptly and I immediately showed Jen the unique view of Delicate Arch. I had always enjoyed finding so much solitude in one of the busiest national parks. Still not trusting the passing clouds, we moved down. The final rappel was blocked by s large pool of water and we had to wade to reach the anchor. As we rappelled, the wind stirred into action and the weather turned for the worse. We stopped to check out Bullwinkle Tower before the wind drove us to the car. It was as if the weather only wanted to let us have Elephant Butte so we listened. Sitting in the car, we laughed as the tourists crowded the roads but wouldn't leave 100 feet of their cars. Pulling back onto the road, we made for Kane Creek.
Chapter 7 - Happy Good Fun Old Boy TimesSaturday
After I woke up, I glanced out the to see puddles on the ground from the last night's rainstorm. I could tell my parents thought I was going to kill both my wife and myself.
"You're not going to climb if the rock is wet are you?" asked my dad, obviously concerned.
"I'll decide when I touch the rock." was all I could reply. Doubt hung in my mind since we had driven through the massive rainstorm the night before.
We geared up and hit the trailhead early and were happily surprised to see that the trail was fairly dry. We clipped up and soon found ourselves at the base of the rock. P1 went smoothly and I leaned to peer up the P2 offwidth as I belayed. Although I had led it before, I was not entirely thrilled about the prospect of doing it again and believed it to be the crux of the climb. Regrouped below P2, I joked about mandatory swearing to get up the offwidth and although I laughed as I started to lead, I found myself grunting and cursing as I battled my way through the pitch. When Jen reached me above P2 I was frozen solid. It was cold and in the shade and my hands/feet were not impressed. We raced through the classic time tunnel and I hurriedly led P3 to reach the sun. Happy to feel the warmth, I relaxed and readied for the awesome fourth pitch. Although I had led all the pitches before on separate occasions, leading all the pitches in a row was more taxing than I had anticipated. I gathered my thoughts and started up the initial runout toward the summit. I paused at the large finger pockets and imagined John Otto up here pounding in long iron rods. Looking down was enough to solidify to myself that he was insane and that this was the only spot on the entire climb that he donned a rope. Back at the task at hand, the climbing went smoothly and soon I was helping Jen up the final step to the summit. This was her first desert tower and she was exhilarated. A perfect way to start our week-long trip and I could see the excitement in her eyes. Several parties were coming up below us and I took some time to read entries in the summit register. The rappels went smoothly, and other than watching another climber lead the final pitch, we made great time. Back on the ground we made a quick stop at the large boulder that Otto's fiance carved the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and wondered if she thought he was nuts. Clipping out we soaked in the sun and were happy to have a great start to a wonderful trip together.