The Sickening Taste of Defeat
The three towers. In my mind, they are special. They motivate me to press onwards in my quest to become a better climber, especially on difficult desert towers. No, they aren’t the roughest beasts in the desert, but they must be met head-on in order to get where I desire to go. Independence Monument is the easiest among them and an ideal starting point. With this logic stored in our minds, Aaron and I decided to tackle the Monument this past April….and we got our butts kicked. How did this happen? Let me explain.
In the previous five months we had teamed up to climb four desert towers as a team in Southern Utah. Yes, none of them were harder than 5.7 with the debatable exception of one 7-foot 5.8 section, but Aaron had climbed the Monument previously, and even led the crux summit capstone by aiding off his ladder. I wasn’t sure, yet he oozed confidence and I have unconditional trust in my friend so I went along understanding he knew something I did not.
Everything started well. The initial section looked welcoming and I gladly led the 5.4 crack to a sandy ledge before deciding a backpack was a horrible idea. After returning my pack to the desert floor, I climbed another 20 feet to a second sandy ledge at the base of a 5.6 dihedral, made possible by John Otto’s chipped holds, and brought Aaron up. He gladly took my three tri-cams and started his way up our second pitch. This pitch was easy enough yet the airy position could be quite unnerving so Aaron took his time and placed plenty of protection along the way. Following(something I don’t do enough of!) was loads of fun and I joined him at the first set of chains in no time. On this thin, potentially deadly ledge, Aaron belayed me around the corner to safer terrain where I returned the favor. From our freshly gained position, my trying-to-be optimistic view of our climb dampered.
Above us was the lower crux on the Monument, the 5.8 off-width, slightly overhanging butt crack. It looked oh so hard, and I immediately doubted I could climb through this obstacle. But if Aaron could get the rope through….
Aaron was game for the challenge, but it wasn’t his day. Once, twice, three times he began muscling his way through only to fall on the #3 and 4 cams he placed at the base of the crack. Between each attempt, we discussed different strategies yet nothing worked. I even took a stroll to the base of the crack before deciding this was over my leading skills. Before descending, we watched the other group of three on the route effortlessly waltz through. It was deflating.
The drive back from Grand Junction was miserable. Defeat isn’t my forte but the path to winning this battle wasn’t visible to me.
Upon returning home, finals came to the forefront of my life and by the time the dust had settled, it was Mid-May. We decided it was getting too warm for a sane attempt and put a hold on round two until the fall. I went back to training in the Flatirons, and slowly my mind began to drift away from thoughts of Independence Monument. Gone but not forgotten.
In mid-August I returned to Boulder from a Tetons expedition and immediately shifted my focus towards what I wanted to accomplish this fall. Aaron Johnson’s post for an October SP Gathering in Arches made a great starting point, but I highly doubted I’d be able to wait that long to kick off my desert season with a pair of books loaded with towers holding prominent spaces on my kitchen table. Once the calendar flipped to September, I could no longer resist the pull of the desert. Everyday I diligently checked the weather waiting for the cue to head west. Then it happened.
Last Tuesday, September 14, the forecast was calling for 82 degrees at 5300’ in Colorado National Monument that coming Saturday. I was hoping for a lower number, but that’ll work considering the positioning of the route. I called Aaron; he thought I was nuts. We talked about the weather and the overall situation a bit and decided if we approached the Monument in the early morning cool we would be fine since the entire route lies in the shade, outside of the final pitch above Lunch Box Ledge. Hiking out could suck, but who cares? He agreed to give it a go and we were up and rolling once more. One major change we made was deciding to go as a threesome. Mike gladly accepted our invitation. Grand Junction was a nice, short drive from his place after his recent vacation to hike ultras around Salt Lake City.
As the week progressed, I began getting nervous about the climb. Anticipation about a climb beforehand is typical for me, but something didn’t feel right in my mind. We needed a change, a major one, yet I didn’t know what that was. The feeling of helplessness ate at me for two days. I couldn’t lead if push came to shove. What do we do?
Thursday afternoon Aaron called wondering if his friend Shawn, whom he climbed Needle Rock outside Telluride with two weekends prior, could come. He informed me that Shawn is a solid 5.10 leader and would be able get us through any section we couldn’t lead, or could lead anywhere necessary to keep the train going at a reasonable pace. This addition brought us to four, way too large for my preference, but the peace of mind Shawn brought with his presence would be well worth it. Now I couldn’t wait to get back to Independence Monument and the desert!
Friday afternoon I made the drive to Grand Junction with intentions of stretching my legs before heading for the TH to catch some Z’s. In the waning light, my pair of short peaks offered fantastic views but the valley up Monument Canyon remained hidden. That could wait for tomorrow.
~7am I awake surprised to find Aaron and Shawn already at the TH. Clearly I overslept, but that wasn’t a problem seeing that we were still waiting on Mike. He showed up moments later and we were off, headed for the challenge that lay ahead.
As expected, the hike in during the morning cool was lovely. Everyone was in good spirits chatting while the short, tame-looking from a distance Independence Monument monitored our progress along the trail.
The Beast Lurks
Just before reaching its base, Mike and I round a corner and gawk skyward as Independence Monument towers above us. Time to get down to business.
Better Perspective of Things
In order to get the climb kick started, Shawn free climbs to the first ledge in search of an anchor. When I’m ready, Mike and Aaron are still gearing so I climb the pitch behind him. I take the lead, climb to the second bench, and bring my three teammates up to my position. With the 5.6 dihedral above us, Shawn starts going to work. His speed over this kind of terrain is amazing, and he’s at the anchors in no time.
Shawn Working the Dihedral on Pitch 2
I’m still tied to his rope from the last pitch, so start climbing second. Everything is hunky dory until halfway up when I have myself facing the wrong direction. My left leg, jammed into the crack, is a main hold, and my major problem. I struggle to turn myself in the proper direction before getting bailed out by unlatching my left knee while pulling my right leg up. I finish the pitch easily from here, slightly embarrassed by the proceedings. At the anchor, I belay Aaron up using a big wall technique Shawn teaches me. It’s foreign and awkward to me, and I’m beginning to get a rhythm when Aaron pops out of the dihedral.
As we move off the small ledge away from the anchor my focus returns to the 5.8 off-width crack above us. I’m not apprehensive about being here this time as I went through my plan of attack numerous times yesterday evening while jogging down the trail from my last peak. I know we’re going to find success here.
Shawn offers Aaron the lead here, but he declines and says you should keep the group moving. Shawn’s not going to have any of this, and starts playfully ribbing Aaron about dragging him all the way up here, then backing away from the challenge. Grinning, Aaron takes the rack, ties in and starts up.
Plugging the Crack
This time proves to be the complete opposite of last time. After placing the #3 and 4 cams, Aaron’s steps up, places the #5 a few feet higher to back up those two before powering through to the cheers coming from his three friends below. On the small ledge above, he’s all smiles while taking a breather before plowing through the remainder of the crack as the difficulties decrease.
Aaron Cruising Easier Terrain High in the Crack
Attentively, I watch Shawn fly through trying to learn something from his movements before heading up myself.
When I’ve gained position at the base of the crack. I tilt my head, crack my helmet against the overhang(somethings never change J) and launch my attack on the left wall. Humming, I replay the moves in my mind, re-position my feet twice and pull through in my orchestrated series of moves, very proud of myself. While belaying Mike up, I feel him pause at my mind’s crux. When he gets up, he smiles and says he believes all four of us used different methods to climb through. Not surprising.
A little behind now, Mike and I squeeze over the boulder blocking the entrance to the Time Tunnel. The tunnel surprises me as it’s much tighter than I expected. Halfway through we see Shawn jump across the tunnel on his way up the fourth pitch.
Our fourth pitch is much shorter than I imagined. Shawn is gaining Lunch Box Ledge, and a position in the desert sunshine, as I pull up a seat next to Aaron. We all cruise up the 5.7 wall, making full use of the lovely, deep holds Otto placed throughout this pitch. The open air beneath begins to creep up, but we’re able to ignore it, for now.
Pulling up onto Lunch Box Ledge is a fantastic feeling being out in the sun, and knowing we’re only one pitch away from topping out. Now it’s time to come face-to-face with the haymaker.
You’ve seen the pictures everywhere, there’s no secrets here. Runout, easy fifth-class chopped steps lead to the short, vertical wall and the overhanging 5.9 capstone hovering above a 400+ foot drop directly to the desert floor. This is the only realistic path to reach the coveted shelf feet below Independence Monument’s summit. As Shawn goes up, my eyes are glued on him.
Shawn Starting the Crux Capstone
He clips the first two pitons, rests for a minute, then heads up, clipping the final piton before cranking onto the summit. That looked easy enough.
Hang Ten Dude!
Then the mortals go.
Aaron’s already done this before, so I assume he knows the tricks and will fly over also. After unclipping the lower pitons, he attempts to pull through only to be lowered a handful of feet to rest up for a second attempt. His vocalization of doubt worries me, but I stand there repeatedly talking myself through my strategy while BS-ing with Mike to keep my mind calm. During his second attempt, Aaron uses the quickdraw still clipped to the upper piton to help pull through. Survival over style points, I like it. Maybe I’ll use that technique. I’ll go with whatever’s available to me on the fly.
Trying to be as calm as possible I take my position at the base of the pitch waiting for Shawn to call me up. I tell myself that the airy climbing to begin with is very easy and we’ll deal with the crux when we get there. Along the way, I amuse myself with the weird, chopped steps, almost platform-like. They’re nothing like I expected. Just before encountering the crux, the drop below me crossed my field of vision. Aaron told me before heading up not to look down, it’s spooky. He’s right, but it doesn’t matter if there’s 200, 400 or 1000 feet of air down there. I won’t let it bother me now, back to business.
Instead of replaying the moves through my mind, I start into the crux on instinct alone. The first few moves go smoothly. They’re not easy, but I’m fine. My mind stays occupied by making the closely placed pitons my markers for this 10 feet or so. Just below the final piton I decide to grab the sling with my right hand. Once this occurs, Shawn tells me I need my left hand in there in order to use an Otto hold to its right. Swapping hands is unnerving and takes me a moment to mentally pull through. Once my hands are situated, Shawn pulls me tight and I hang for a moment, refocusing and taking in what I need to do here. Regrasping my handholds, I inch towards the shelf as my unreliable footholds simultaneously give way. As my feet go flying out, I instinctively mantle onto the shelf, reach for the back Otto hold and pull my entire torso onto the ledge!
Me Pulling Over the Crux
The emotion of the situation rushes through me in jubilant celebration and I take a second to let that go before getting out of Mike’s way. Mike turns out to be the champ of the bunch as he unclips the sling before pulling through the crux.
Mike Working Through the Crux
The final headwall is nothing more than a stiff two-move wonder and we regroup on the luxurious summit. Our celebratory hoots and hollers draw the attention of a group of tourists on an adjacent peninsula, and we exchange woo-hoos back and forth as they echo up and down the canyon.
Our Independence Team
All too soon we start our way down. Shawn’s single 70m barely reaches the top of the Time Tunnel. As he descends I coil our spare rope and throw it on backpack style for the descent. Once he’s down, Shawn yells up to let not to veer too far left and dangle haplessly over open air. Mike, Aaron and I scoot down after him. Two more rappels bring us safely back to the ground.
On the way out Independence Monument shines brightly in the sun.
Kissing Couple draw our attention, maybe as our next objective here? That’s a little rough for our current skill level. I’m confident we’ll find something along the way.