Move left, move right, I said aloud.
Damien and I had arrived at the base of Corrugation Corner at Lover’s Leap without our guidebook. Some climbers can look at the Rorschach test of a wall of rock and pick an ascent line like they were looking at a highway map. Not me. Usually I need to bring a guidebook with me or at least carry a copy of the route topo. Not this time.
To say that I have route finding issues is to put it kindly. I once saw a peak (California’s Matterhorn) from a parking lot and all I had to do to get there was to follow a creek. I followed the wrong branch of the creek and wound up at the wrong mountain, about three valleys over. This took me two days to figure out. And I had a map and a compass.
At Lover’s Leap I was true to form. One day I was leading the third and final pitch of East Crack when I came to a V-shaped split. I placed a piece of protection and climbed left toward what I thought was a sloping ledge, expecting to find hand holds when I reached high with my hands. My hands found nothing. I inched up on my feet enough to glimpse over the edge and was surprised to discover that the ledge was actually a wide, steep and completely featureless slab. I carefully down climbed and moved up the right side of the V, only to find that it led to the same dead-end.
Looking down I realized that I should have traversed right about 30 feet below, where a crack system angled to the top of the climb. To get back on route meant retracing my steps and back cleaning several pieces of protection, all with my belayer far beneath, both out of sight and shouting range. Instead, I built an anchor and started pulling up the rope. Before too long Damien appeared over a bulge below. I yelled at him not to climb any higher. Move right and build an anchor, I told him.
We had started the climb (our third of the day) sometime late in the afternoon. Now the sun was slipping below the rimrock. I unclipped from the nearby protection and started to down climb, which turned out to be easier than I had feared. Then I traversed across to the right, placed more gear and proceeded to the top of the pitch. We were back at camp by dark.
The next day we decided to link up two climbs: Surrealistic Pillar and Corrugation Corner, creating a six-pitch line (plus some bushwhacking) from Lower Buttress to the Main Wall. My friend Adam and his partner Meg were planning to do the same routes. Walking to the base of Surrealistic, we spotted Adam and Meg already on the route, although they were off the first pitch by the time Damien and I arrived at the start.
I was eager to catch up to them and after a cursory glance at the route topo I headed up a flake system to the left. Before long I began to think I was off route. I backed off and went right, climbing high on thin protection until I entered a chimney. A long and very strenuous stretch of stemming followed, much harder, I thought, than the 5.7 rating that the climb had. I yelled down at Damien to leave the pack (which held the guidebook) behind since the climbing was difficult enough without something on your back.
Finally, I pulled out of the chimney and climbed cracks to a ledge about ten feet to the right of where Meg was belaying Adam on the third pitch of their climb. Damien and I followed them up and then cut through the bushes and a small snowfield to reach the bottom of Corrugation Corner, where Adam was on belay.
Adam offered me a look at his guidebook and I quickly tried to take in the topo, especially the instructions to move left on Pitch 2 and right on Pitch 3. I read the beta to Damien and repeated it out aloud.
Before long I was climbing a pleasant 5.6 corner and then moving into a beautiful large off-width crack. I pulled through a roof and out onto an arête. Suddenly I saw a rope shooting up the ridge. Looking down I saw Meg on belay about 20 feet below in a corner. I had gone up the wrong way, completely missing the belay station. Later I looked at the guidebook and discovered that I had climbed a 5.9 variation. Not recommended, the book added.
Once again I had to do some scary downclimbing and backcleaning, shimmying down the chimney and climbing some slabs to reach the belay. The second pitch is supposed to be the crux, runout and wildly exposed. It lived up to its reputation. Move left, I remembered, and I did, clipping two rusty pins and not even looking for anything to protect before I belly flopped onto the belay ledge.
I climbed a chimney out onto another exposed arête, where I clipped a ring and followed a crack to a wide ledge. The crack was committing and sustained and it started to lightly rain as I worked my way up. It was certainly harder than the supposed crux. Topping out on the optional belay I looked up and saw Meg moving up a much easier corner to the right. Later the guidebook clarified matters: The crack was a 5.8 variation. I had forgotten to move right.
The next morning I decided to lead my first 5.9 climb, a classic route called The Line. Damien and I scrambled up huge, broken blocks of granite to the base of the East Wall, where a thin crack splits the rock straight to the top. I climbed a flake about 15 feet off the ground and slotted a nut into a thin vertical pocket. Above that was a fist-sized handhold that I would have to grab to pull myself up into the crack system. I couldn’t reach the hold—at least not without first sticking my hand into the pocket where I had placed the nut. I could either protect the move or make the move but I couldn’t seem to do both. It was much too early for such a decision. In my head I heard a Monty Python refrain: Run away, run away. I decided my first 5.9 lead could wait.
Damien and I hiked over to the Hogsback formation and searched out a 5.8 climb called Deception Direct. I was silent most of the way, not regretting bailing off the climb but still morose about the whole thing.
From the base the climb looked fairly low angle and not terribly exciting. I soon changed my mind. I ascended an over-clinging flake system, liebacking on thick edges that allowed for sparse protection. About two-thirds of the way up, I set up a belay where the terrain increased in steepness, marked only by a series of thin dikes angling up at a slight diagonal. With great relief I spotted a bolt not far up. Getting there was another matter.
Face climbing is probably my least favorite kind of rock climbing. Now I remembered why. The dikes gave good toeholds but hand-level features were elusive. I spent a lot of time standing in one place, scratching around with my fingers like some kind of sad pet left out in the rain and desperate to get inside.
Eventually, I traversed on my toes along a dike slopping slightly upward, using my fingers only for balance, until I could climb to the next dike and moved back toward the bolt. I clipped a sling onto the bolt and traversed in the other direction, risking a horrendous pendulum fall if I took a misstep.
Scampering onto the summit blocks I belayed Damien up. He seemed to enjoy the dikes even less than I did.
Looking at my guidebook later it seemed that I had missed Deception completely, climbing instead Dancin’ Feet, the next route over, which goes at 5.10D.
Why, Adam said later, do you even bother to look at guidebooks?
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