“Trust me dude, you really don't want to fall here.” When I hear Rob say this, I know that he means it. Problem is, it feels damn near inevitable at the moment; my precarious perch feels like it's itching to spit me off, & I feel the beginnings of a pump, trying to get past this initial “rock” section. I say “rock” because- as anyone who has been on Round Top, near Carson Pass, California, knows- the mountain might as well be made of some kind of dark grayish drywall, or something of similar consistency. Instead of logically analyzing the futility of my position until my muscles give, my body reflexively takes control from my mind, I commit, & grovel upwards these last few feet, practically willing myself up to the next stance. Phew.
It doesn't take long to realize that this moment is going to represent the majority of the technical portion of what seems to be a new route we're beating our way up the peak.
I am back on 'familiar' ground after a hiatus of a season or 2- I'd been around the Carson Pass area many times, & up Round Top a few times. The last time I was here, I'd decided to try going up an unfamiliar aspect of the peak, to see where it would get me. After some fun steep snow, I eyed some blue ice right above me- without a rope, it definitely didn't seem worth it at the time. Now I was back, wondering if it is worth it WITH a rope...
Rob, like always, won roshambo. He convinced me long ago that it is far beyond a test of luck, & indeed more a psychological battle, trying to outwit your opponent, or partner, as they're sometimes called. After getting scissors (or 'shears' as they call them in his native land) over my paper, he got to decide the opening pitch. I need to convince him one of these days of a coin flip to decide the start of a climb, to give myself a fighting chance.
Starting up P1
I questioningly eye the “rock” buttress he's started up, slipping the cord through the belay device; 'Wonder if he knows what he's getting into,' I muse. Whether he knows what he's getting into or not, though, Rob is a talented, tough, & inventive climber, & when he goes for it, he goes for it. That also means, when attached by means of a rope, that when he goes for it, YOU go for it.
Halfway through the first pitch, I hear a “Dude, I need slack.” I remember thinking 'Hmmm... It really seems like he should have a little more to go before getting to the end of the rope.' My thought process is broken by a louder, more urgent “Dude, gimme some slack!” I stare up at the first few moves of the route directly above; they are somewhat committing, taking one out onto the buttress itself via a thin, slanting ledge system & away from the safety of the steep snow slope on which I'm currently standing. Below the small ledge system looms a 70 – 80 degree snow & rock chute that eventually turns into a bowl, some 50 – 100 ft. below. Down there would be a mellow place to be right now, but getting there after slipping would be decidedly less pleasant. Suddenly “DUDE- I need fockin' SLACK!!!” Decision time. My mind alternates between 'Shit! He should really have some rope left- I would love a belay just to get up there & if I fall we're both going (the 2nd cannot fall!)' & 'Need to do what I can now to help the leader!'
Eventually the diligent (yet quite nervous) belayer in me decides to assume responsibility, despite heady protests from the other side, & I commit the first few moves to the pin Rob drove, as well as the first decent stance. Shortly after I achieve this stance, Rob voices his opinion that he needs yet more rope. 'Ugghh!!' I think, 'Give him an inch & he takes a mile...' Same conflicting thought process as before. Same conclusion. I nervously tap out the pin & make another gingerly move to attain the next stance, this time sans anchor. This is getting old.
“I need more rope!” I hear. How many more shots in this game of Russian Roulette before I get to the bullet? I roll my eyes & make the next sequence of undesirable moves to a one-foot stance. It occurs to me that to give Rob more rope at this point, I need to lasso it over the outcropping above, where it has inadvertently gotten stuck. “Are you cool where you are for a minute? I need to free the rope!” I query up. “All right, but hurry up!” comes the response. After a few unsuccessful attempts to free the stubborn rope, it conveniently lodges itself under a 20-lb. Block that sits precariously at the edge. Fucking great. Thoughts flood my mind of a partner of Steve House getting bludgeoned by a microwave-sized block from above, slamming to the ground below after the rope failed, & ultimately dying days later, after a determined rescue attempt. 'Everyone's gotta go sometime,' I reason, 'but there are better ways to do it, & I'd really rather not do it today...' Rob waits above. The rock waits above.
I move as far over from what seems like it would be the fall line as I can, say a short prayer, hope that I have enough room to move a foot in either direction if I need to (& have enough time; it strikes me as unlikely), & give a tentative tug... Seeming like it had already waited too long, the missile obligingly plummits over the edge, 5 or 10 ft. to my left. Full of relief, I inform Rob that he can continue.
Although it has seemed like an eternity, something in my logical mind realizes that he indeed is making better time now than before. Shifting my weight from one leg to the other, I bide my time as Rob unlocks the sequence above. At some point I look over & see him traversing his way across what seems to be easier snow slopes. Soon he goes up a snow slope to a notch that seems like it might offer relative safety. “Off belay!” I breathe a sigh of relief. “You're off!”
I continue upwards. After a few easy moves, things steepen. I am acutely aware that given a hard enough tug, most holds above me, below me, & around me are more than willing to depart from their age-old home to explore the beckoning, snowy pastures below. The next few moves bewilder me. 'Where did he go from here?! Did he go up or traverse?! Shit!' Slowly I feel a pump start to set in. I do not like this. As bad as the leader has it, on a traverse all bets are off- depending on the belay, the follower might have it just as bad as the leader.
“Trust me dude, you really don't want to fall here.” When I hear Rob say this, I know that he means it. Problem is, it feels damn near inevitable at the moment...
The meat of P1
I make another few moves. “You should definitely put your crampons on- it'd make things easier!” comes the suggestion from above. I'm balancing on steep choss. “Yeah man, I've got other things to worry about right now!” I work my way over to a manageable stance. Unless I really botch things, I should be safe enough here to put on my crampons. 'Mighta been a good idea to have put these on before getting into the middle of this,' it occurs to me.
Strapping the ingenious traction-gaining devices onto my feet, my comfort soon evaporates when I look over the direction of the rope & realize what confronts me. 'How did he do this?!' comes to mind, followed shortly by 'How am I going to do this?!' Before me awaits a steep traverse over garbage rock covered in a thin layer of lovely powder snow, devoid of any meaningful holds. “Go on, just kick your feet into it & hook your tools- it's there!” comes the encouragement from above. I'm reluctant to believe it.
I realize that my (lack of) experience doing this kind of thing is controlling my viewpoint of the situation. I dig solid, consolidated, steep snow- the kind you can plunge an axe into & just hang from at 60 degrees; I thoroughly enjoy the bliss of sinking a bomber hand jam in warm, solid granite & just hanging off a steep wall; sinking picks & crampons into styrofoam ice while moving upwards on a wall of frozen water is crazily enjoyable like nothing else. How what I am currently on relates to any of these is beyond me. All I know now is that this is scaring the shit out of me. Insecure, slippery, frozen choss, all with a veneer of of powder over it to top things off, are far from my idea of The Climb, that beautiful, obvious line over perfect rock/ice/snow to stand on the summit. My idealistic self, however, takes a back seat to the part of me that wants to just survive the day & enjoy the beer that awaits us back at the truck.
After some encouragement, I tenuously begin to work my way across the improbable traverse. While the tool hooking thing isn't happening right now (note to self: must practice dry-tooling on toprope when get back!!), my crampons somehow find surprisingly good purchase in the frozen choss. Although the traverse is in no way as logical or obvious as what Rob makes it out to be, it IS there, & I slowly make my way across. After successfully removing the (amazingly solid, considering) pin & nut placed during the traverse, the implications of a pendulum are obvious. Moving deliberately and slowly, though, I eventually find myself at the end of the traverse, more or less directly below Rob. Scampering up the steep snow to the belay, I take a critical look around. Two anchor legs protrude from the snow above Rob; the one is a fluke I'd given him earlier; after a few moments' analysis, I realize that the other is Rob's technical tool, buried horizontally in compacted powder as a deadman. Never has the term rung truer than now. I half-consciously cock an eyebrow, saying nothing. Neither does Rob- the implications are obvious. “Fucking great lead,” I offer; despite still being wound up having followed that pitch, I am impressed by his effort.
Rob chuckles. “Know what I realized? I totally thought I needed more rope, but then I realized I had a bunch coiled around me!” Ha ha- the potential disastrous fall & associated stress level certainly had ME entertained!
“You think anybody's been up this way before?” I ask. “No fockin' way- I don't think anybody's dumb enough to have tried this,” comes the reply.
I just stand there slack-jawed for a few minutes, trying to dissipate the stress that has been accumulating since Rob started up. Sorting the rack as I stand there, I come out of my daze as Rob infers matter-of-factly “Your lead.”
I look down skeptically at the anchor, then upwards. A steep, yet manageable snow slope leads upward for maybe 20 or 30 ft. to an impasse. Above this point it does not look good. I look back down to the anchor. 'Shit,' I think to myself. How great it would sound to hear 'Hey man, how about you just belay me & I'll lead this thing!' But there is just silence. Time and experience have led me to believe that at times like these, it can be best to turn off the brain & just start moving- thinking can sometimes make things too complicated, if not downright dangerous.
Soon I find myself at the point where the snow narrows to about a foot or less between 2 faces of rock. The snow itself is the same few-inch-thick veneer of powder I've been cursing since we got on this thing- straight up the snow is not happening. The rock to the left is steep crackless (garbage) slab- Nuh-uh. Right side is steep, bad rock- risky. Not to mention that throughout this process there is no pro'- none (trust me, I looked hard). After endless waiting, I kick my crampons into the rock & stem the right & left rocks, side-pulling a bulge on the right-hand side. Somehow I find myself above the first crux. Phew.
My elation is short-lived as I look directly in front of & above me & come to the conclusion that the next step is as undesirable, if not more so, than the last sequence. I look down 40 ft. to the belay, & am reminded that I still haven't placed any pro' above the “anchor.” Shit this is nerve-wracking!
I spend the next 10 (15? 20?...) minutes seeking protection. It makes me think of a sustained aid pitch, where the belayer below could watch a full-length feature film in the time it takes the leader to complete the pitch. It's been so long that when I look down, Rob is standing there with his hands in his pockets. Is he awake? Is he asleep? Guess it doesn't matter much at this point anyway... I again turn my attention to the task at hand. Looking for a reliable crack, I remove snow from the rock like a junior high kid doing a driveway for $5. My desperate efforts are eventually rewarded by a thin seam splitting two questionable pieces of rock. I slot a nut into the upper part. While it fits nicely, I don't even bother to think about it taking a fall from 5 ft. above; I've been breaking this stuff off basically at will since we got on the rock... Below it, in the same crack, I hammer in a pin. By the time it's in to its head, the ring has not increased in pitch; it's bunk too. Having exhausted the protection possibilities, I forget about this aspect & turn my attention to the climbing above.
This section indeed looks even worse than the last. The traverse to the left looks totally sketch, and I don't even want to find myself in the nightmare that I know would be if I needed to reverse it after discovering a dead-end above. The initially tempting traverse out to the right turns out to be a handhold-less slab traverse over the dreaded powder. Scratch that. This leaves me with one option- straight up the bastard.
As bad as it initially seems, this section is actually only about 90% as bad as it originally seemed. While it goes straight up, the step is not long- the next viable rest platform awaits maybe an arm's reach above my head- just out of reach! After much rock- & soul-searching, I discover what might be the key- a maybe hand-sized, slightly sloping and concave platform just to the left of the arête that, if I can get my left foot on it, might provide me with a way out of this mess. Deciding it would be less risky if I didn't have 2 or 3 metal spikes trying to skate off of this delicate little platform, I remove my left crampon, allowing it to dangle from its retention strap. I test the waters by side-pulling a protrusion to my right while balancing my left foot on said foothold. Feeling too sketch, I retreat back to my comfortable stance. “Dude, I'm more scared than you are right now!” from below. “That's what you think!” I reply.
Knowing there's no way out but up, I force the non-productive thoughts out of my head- in retrospect I realize this to be that transcendence part that you read about in the magazines, where, if you fall you're fucked, so you'd better not think about it.
Glad that's over with!
Balancing on my left foothold & stabilizing myself with a side-pull from the right, I stand up, committing. Standing (& reversing would represent a great deal of risk directly over pretty much purely psychological pro', so that's not happening), I clear the platform above that is my salvation, of all snow. 'One way out of this one,' I think. Analyzing what needs to be done, I say a short prayer & steady myself. I plant my right hand firmly on the sizable, yet snow-remnant-covered platform. My left hand stabilizes the other side, & I mantle. Any slip here & bad things happen. Somehow, I manage straighten my arm, ignobly put my weight on one knee, balance, & stand up. I don't know if I've ever been as happy to be alive. The sky is bluer, the snow sparkles, & I can practically hear the angels singing. I smile, shake my head, & laugh.
A snow traverse to the right, around a small band of rock, leads to a notably less steep slope above. After the ordeal I just concluded, I might as well be on my parents' snow-covered driveway in Colorado.
Going right, I find the snow to be unconsolidated as I expected, but deep enough to sustain my weight. Ten feet or so later, I clear the rock band & gain a knife-edged, yet almost horizontal, ridge of sorts. Another 10 or so feet, & I'm on a relatively safe little snow field. What I hope is my last nemesis, a 10 ft.-high broken wall, awaits to my left. After what I've just been up, this looks easy. No pro' here, but what else is new? A decent ledge to grab with my hand above, stemming on manageable feet, a short & easy mantle, & I'm in The Promised Land. I see the band of stunted pines that seemed so far away before, across a short snow field above.
Practically drooling, I advance. Rope tension pulls me back. Though I realize I must be at the end of the rope, I push forward- I only have about 15 ft. to the pines and their salvation. Repeated unrelenting surges from me send the signal down below that I now need some more rope. After numerous tugs, the desired slack is delivered. I make the tree & embrace my fellow living being- I have never been as happy to see a tree as now!! I quickly sling the pine, sit down on my pack, & put the rope through my Reverso. I feel the rope coming in, and know that Rob is on his way up.
Knowing that Rob is a strong climber, and that things are completely differently following versus leading a pitch, I take in the rope as it steadily advances. Not too long after, I see Rob's helmet pop up above the ridge below me. Our eyes lock, & seeing the ground I'm on (& the anchor), we both smile broadly, knowing that we're finally out of the doghouse. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Rob passes me & starts up. While I had just expected to unrope at this point, his continuing roped indicates that he wants to simulclimb. I'm fine with this as well, and I disassemble the anchor as he starts his way up.
Yes- mellow terrain!
Time to git 'er done
Assessing the ground ahead as relatively risk-free, I wait for the rope to come tight, as it doesn't seem like we need to be too close together because of technical ground. When it finally does, I start moving, anxious to finish the climb. The stress has been almost overwhelming, & I'm ready to be at the summit, and familiar ground. As I crest the somewhat steep snow-covered rise directly above me, I see Rob ahead, past a saddle and on what looks to be the slope that leads to the true summit.
The final slope
I watch him move carefully across ground that lies somewhere between unencumbered ropeless climbing and that where one desires a belay. Snapping a few pictures, I see him disappear behind the crest above, & excitedly follow. I can feel it now, & know that I'm just moments from the summit. I look behind to the route we've just completed, no longer visible as it drops away behind the crest, and savor the final moments of the climb.
I pause briefly below the final steep step separating me from the summit, & remove the pin that was driven to protect this final short step. This being done, I make a few moves & see Rob waiting at the top.
We lock eyes and smile. Both of us realize that this is a special moment. Not remembering what was actually said, I meet him and give him a hug that expresses appreciation for what has just transpired. Not only did we just put away the guidebook & just go for it, piecing together an obscure and questionable line, we actually survived! I am very happy about this.
Looking around, I take in the sublime winter Tahoe landscape. I see the hulking mass of Red Lake Peak, Caples Lake, the far away summit of Pyramid Peak, the familiar slopes of Kirkwood ski resort, and an obscured winter sun behind a veil of dark clouds. Lake Tahoe itself is covered by the day's inversion layer. It is grand to be here.
Rob unhitches a sling from a random piece of skinny rebar that protrudes from the summit concrete slab, and coils the rope while I take in the grandeur. After sipping some water & consuming some calories for our descent, within 10 minutes we're on our way back down.
The descent down the standard route is mellow & enjoyable. Before long, we've traversed across the mountain to get back to our skis, which we'd left behind. At this point, I at least, am exhausted. I approach Rob, who had led our navigation across the mountain, without losing too much elevation, and is busy preparing for the descent. Wearily I remark “Well, one step closer.” He looks at me, and slightly modifying a catchphrase from Dark Side of the Moon replies cheerily, “One step closer to death.” It dawns on me. “Dude, that was the climb!” The route has its name.
Tahoe winter sunset