Trouble Before We Arrive
The trip started smoothly enough. Franky scooped me up at McCarran International and we made our way east into Arizona and stopped for the night west of Flagstaff. We were a little concerned with how cold it was (8 degrees F at 7000 feet) but knew that there was a slight warming trend predicted for Saturday before the weather went to hell again. We decided heading northeast through the Navajo Reservation would be a more interesting drive than staying on I-40 to get to New Mexico, so we turned off at Flagstaff, grabbed some groceries, and made our way onto the Reservation.
Taking the scenic route almost ended up costing us the trip. Little did we know that our first encounter with the Navajo Tribal Police would be 100 miles from Ship Rock. As Franky was coming down a hill at a rate of speed greater than or equal to the speed limit, an SUV headed in the opposite direction swung a U-turn and sped up to pull us over. Franky, ever the dirtbag, began pleading with the officer to not give him the speeding ticket he couldn’t afford. The cop had Frank step out of the vehicle and patted him down.
“I live in my truck, I don’t have money to pay a ticket!” Franky insisted.
“Then why do you have an Illinois registration and a California driver’s license?” the officer retorted.
Franky launched into an elaborate story that he was borrowing his dad’s truck to drive back to Illinois in order to look for a job. He was apparently dropping me off in Boulder. I could hear the officer behind the car reciting seemingly the entire Schedule I Controlled Substances List and asking if Franky had any of each in the car. When Franky said no, he told Franky he had smelled weed and asked to search the truck, with which Franky told him he didn’t feel comfortable.
I’m glad he didn’t ask me where we were going because I didn’t know Franky had created this story until after they had me get out of the car and asked me which drugs I was carrying on me. He then brought out a dog to sniff the car. I assumed he’d have a German Shepherd in the car, but he pulled out a mangy mutt that I’m pretty sure he picked up that morning from the plethora of strays roaming the Reservation. The officer explained that if the dog pointed, it would constitute probable cause to search the vehicle. He trotted the dog for one lap around the car, and the dog didn’t seem to react in the slightest. When he finally got the dog all the way around the car, he jerked the dog’s leash tightly and the dog lurched up. Apparently this was his probable cause, and I’m pretty sure we had our rights under the 4th Amendment violated.
As Franky and I stood and watched the officer, then the mutt, and then another officer who pulled over to join the party rifle through the car, I asked him if he thought he had any weed in the car. “I’m not sure, maybe.” Even hearing this, I wasn’t too worried about things until I realized the contraband that I had been carrying.
“Damn it!” I said. “I left the articles we printed out about climbing Ship Rock on the seat! And they’ll see our rack in the back!” Climbing has been outlawed on Spider Rock and the Totem Pole since 1962 and the entire Navajo Reservation following an accident on Ship Rock in 1970. Many clandestine ascents have occurred over the years, but there was nothing clandestine about our efforts so far.
Franky was sure we’d end up in Navajo-Pound-Me-In-The-Ass prison for drugs, and I was sure we’d end up there for having climbing gear and information on Ship Rock. As it turned out, we were sent along on our merry way, unscathed. We voiced our concerns about the legality of the search to an Arizona State Trooper that pulled over to join the fun, he went and talked to the Navajo officers, and they let us go before they could find the weed the first cop was 100% sure he had smelled. We left a little leery of the police presence and got to Ship Rock just before the sun went down. Our little hour plus detour to the side of the highway had cost us any chance as reconnoitering the route. We saw a fantastic sunset, cooked some dinner, and tucked into our sleeping bags in the back of the truck for a long, cold night.
Climbing Ship Rock
We awoke to very cold temperatures outside and frost all over the inside of the truck. We decided that 800 fill down was more appealing than the arctic air outside and hunkered down until the sun hit the truck. This was barely enough to convince us to get up, eat a little breakfast, and start walking. We heated up pretty quickly as we climbed the talus to the base of the route. It starts with a very bouldery move from a pile of stacked blocks to a gear placement after the tricky climbing is done (of course). Some more scrambling led us to the base of the black bowl that we figured would be an easy section of the route.
Plaques in memoriam of fallen climbers are not my favorite way to inspire confidence before a climb, and Bernard E. Topp’s didn’t make me feel any better about the shattered wall of black basalt that lay ahead. I got a few bad pieces of gear in, put screamers on all of them, and still wasn’t very happy about this section of the climb. Franky wasn’t happy either when I nearly domed him with a baseball sized piece of basalt.
“Sorry, the rope knocked that off!” I said in an effort to calm him down. He said some choice things about my routefinding ability before I found a couple of fixed pins and then followed these to a bolt anchor at the top of the steep section.
From here we unroped and scrambled through the loose stuff to a flat spot where we restacked the ropes and simulclimbed up to what we think was Sierra Col. This section was covered in snow and was slippery in rock shoes. From the col we had a nice view of what we were pretty sure was the summit, as well as Longs Couloir, which we would follow for the descent. We traversed over to what we were pretty sure was Colorado Col and Franky led up a face of kitty litter to the top of the rappel gully.
I went first off of less than inspiring bolts (at least there were three of them!) and at the end of the 60m ropes found myself above an abyss on an ice covered slab. “Damn, I wish I had stopped and rapped off the single bolt above,” I told myself, but there was an overhanging chockstone that would be a lot of trouble to go back up and try to deal with to get to that anchor. Instead, I downclimbed to a single bolt on the face, clipped it, and told Franky to make two rappels to get to me. He did, and as we pulled the ropes on the rappel we didn’t need to mention what we both knew: we were committed to finishing the route, as the only reasonable chance of escape at this point was the rap route that allegedly began from the summit.
From here we began a couple of pitches of wild traversing. I am very impressed that David Brower did this in 1939, well before the advent of sticky rubber climbing shoes. Just finding this traverse was a masterpiece of routefinding and, combined with the rappel, was the key to the route. The ancient bolts on these pitches were less than ideal, and we were once again happy to have brought so many Screamers along.
What we found after the traversing was rather horrifying. The pitches that were supposed to be 4th and easy 5th class slab climbing were swathed in a thin coat of snow. Knowing we were committed to the route at this point, I led up the first pitch of this heinousness. It was rather low angle, but slippery as all hell and above a giant cliff. A slip here would probably send me over the abyss. I moved slowly and when I was well past the halfway mark on the rope, decided it was high time to find an anchor, as this was not the place to be simulclimbing with no gear between us. “Frank…” I said, ready to call for him to tag up the hand drill and bolt kit we had brought along. But then I saw a white sling sticking out of the snow, and, like buried treasure, found a solid two bolt anchor attached to it.
Franky had the unfortunate pleasure of leading the next pitch. Even belaying him, I was probably as scared as I’ve ever been climbing. It felt like I was feeding out a few feet of rope every 5 minutes, and as Frank neared the end of the rope I yelled “30 feet…20 feet…10 feet…5 feet!” Once again, this was NOT simulclimbing territory. Franky yelled down and asked me if I could simul 20 feet.
“Do you have any gear in?” I asked.
“Then no!” I yelled back. I would have had to make a snow covered traverse across the steepest section of slab, and this was not a risk I was willing to take. “Drop the blue rope!” I yelled, and I tied both ropes together to belay him on one 120m half rope.
During this marathon pitch, I saw an 80s model black pickup truck hauling across the desert, kicking up a dust cloud and heading straight for us. I’m not sure if it was my pounding heartbeat, or just the truck smashing along the bumpy road, but I swear I heard the beating of a drum as it came closer.
I decided Franky had enough to worry about with what he was doing so I didn’t mention what I had seen and maybe heard. There are tales of smashed windows, slashed tires, and looted gear from past climbers of Ship Rock. At this point I didn’t care, all I wanted was to not have to catch a 700 foot slab slide off a cliff and for Franky to build an anchor and bring me up so we could finish this thing. Though this opinion was an easy one for me to take, seeing as it was Franky’s car, I’m pretty sure at this point he would have agreed with me. The shadow of Ship Rock was also creeping away from us across the desert floor 1500 feet below, a cruel reminder of the cold night that was about to befall us.
And then I heard those magical words: “Off belay!”
Franky took the rope up extra tight on me, and I was forced to climb up where I would have rather climbed down a bit to get into the lower angle section of the slab. I hoped he had a good anchor as I stepped across the slab, made a few moves, and then…
I began sliding down the snow after snapping a foothold. I went a long way on the single 120m half rope, and I briefly wondered if I had pulled Franky from his perch above as I hurtled toward the cliff below. The rope came taught with me maybe 20-30 feet further down from where I had started, my knuckles bloody, my shoes soaking wet, and me freezing cold. At least I knew I had a solid belay from above.
Apparently Franky wanted to make things more exciting for the both of us, because he missed this bomber three piece anchor less than one rope length above where he had started.
When I finally got up to him, he was drained, and I don’t blame him. He told me what I had already suspected: that this was the scariest pitch he’d ever climbed. Apparently I hadn’t even weighted his anchor with my fall, as he had a good stance. I can only imagine the fate we'd have met if I pulled him off his stance and down the slab.
One more 100 foot section of this heinous slab led to a short crack with probably the first solid gear placements I’d made all day. Atop this crack was the notch between the north and south summits, and I was greeted by the warm rays of the sun’s finale.
Above us lay the crux of the route (in dry conditions), the Horn Pitch. A couple of bolts and a couple of pins protected crumbly face climbing with unbelievable exposure down the West Face. Once again I placed Screamers on everything, and even then I’m not sure any of these relics would have held a fall.
Franky led yet another photogenic traversing pitch and stopped just below the summit, leaving the glory pitch for me. I decided to find the rap anchors in the fading twilight before summiting, and after doing so belayed Frank to the top as the sky blazed red, the already-set sun illuminating the high clouds to the west. We had hoped to find the summit register, but it was nowhere to be found. It is allegedly elaborate and strewn with the names of quite the cast of climbers.
The first four double rope rappels from the summit led to Longs Couloir. Within the first 50 feet I found a precariously perched VCR sized block, pulled up the ropes, and trundled it. Apparently Franky hadn’t heard my warning and screamed “Mike, are you OK?!?!!” from above. I told him not to worry and that I was just cleaning up the rap route for us. We touched down in the gully and made our way down, rapping every now and again and trundling whatever posed even the tiniest threat to us in the gully. At this point there was no way anyone within miles of the west side of Ship Rock wouldn’t know we were there, and with our headlamps already tipping them off, we figured a little extra noise wouldn’t increase the chances of our getting arrested. Trundling is also really fun, but everyone already knows that.
A little wandering in the desert led us to the completely intact car. Despite the late hour, we had already decided getting out of there that night was a good idea. We couldn’t be bothered to cook, so we stopped for some Burger King before heading back into Arizona.
Continually scary from start to finish, this route is poorly protected on poor rock. I don’t recommend climbing it if there is any snow in the upper bowl. There is nothing safe about climbing Ship Rock. Having said all of this, this is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, and would wholeheartedly recommend this climb to anyone willing to take on the challenges it affords. Thanks again to Franky for climbing it with me!