One of the defining moments in my life – After 15 years of tangling black mane to perfect a French-braid that conforms with uniform regulations in the Marine Corps – “do I cut it all off?” I stood before the mirror doe-eyed and pondered.
Three weeks earlier - Thanksgiving leftover lunch was sitting heavy in our gutts as Kevin and I assaulted the eternal switchback approach to Tahquitz Rock, sitting statuesque above the quaint little town of Idyllwild. After two days of first-time on rock training at Big Rock in Lake Perris and a dreary rained-out trip to Joshua Tree for some trad climbing, I felt that he was up for a very simple 5.4 multi-pitch in the spectacular alpine setting.
When we arrived at the base of the rock, I was amazed to see patches of snow; having not been familiar with the area previous winters, I was a bit taken back by my ignorance on the recent weather events. I also had not been aware that a couple of climbers were rescued off Tahquitz Rock just 3 days prior, Thanksgiving Day, after spending a frigid windy night on the summit when they lost contact with friends and were unable to descend in the dark. Their misfortune would not have deterred me from climbing this day, but I may have planned smarter had I known of the conditions. After completing the 45 minutes of steep switchbacks to get to the rock, we were ready to be rewarded by enjoying the exceptional granite.
Dressed in long climbing pants, thermal top and my signature A16 “dead-cat” hat, I geared up light for a confident quickie on The Trough, an all-time Tahquitz classic; thoughts of the usual après-climb buffalo burger treat at “JoAnn’s” was already making my mouth water. It was a beautiful sunny day with temps just over 40 degrees in the shade, fortunately no breeze, but the sunlight wouldn’t hit us until we reached the 8000’ summit as we were starting on the west-facing wall. With daylight lasting another 4 hours, it seemed that we had plenty of time for a leisure climb to the summit, take the friction descent off the rock and hike around the base back to our packs at the start of the route before darkness.
A few last minute commands were barked to the newbie on belay, and I began a smooth, albeit soggy, ascent through a series of fitted hand cracks and stellar footholds. Pro of choice at Tahquitz for me are nuts and hexes. Granted, I didn’t place much gear, as the going was extremely simple, but it was more fun to set the nut with force and take pleasure in knowing that Kevin would have a hell of a time removing it.
Within minutes, my hands were so cold that I donned my lightweight gloves and gingerly reached into the cracks wishing not to soak up water. I was annoyed with the dampness but not worried about the conditions ahead. I watched my feet with interest in how much they would slip through the driblets trickling in the cracks; all seemed well.
As I reached the slab mid-pitch, I was faced with a 15-degree 12’ traverse of ice-slicked granite, no handholds, and the smallest piece hanging on my harness, among the fistful of nuts, was a .75 Camelot. I yelled down to Kevin that I had run into ice, his response was something unintelligible, I assumed that he understood and was watching for me closely. At this section on the climb, the leader and belayer are separated by about 60’ and cannot see each other. Communicating is sometimes sketchy when one cannot muster enough bass in the voice; I tried not to squeak but I sure hate slab and seeing it glistening with ice was nearly enough to choke me.
It just occurred to me that The Trough was probably looking a bit wintry in its shadier recesses, but I rationalized that this was the “crux” considering the conditions. No cold, or wet crack, was going to stop me from making upward progress, but this slab was not very attractive to the C4 on my feet.
After placing a bomber nut in the far right corner of the left-facing arête, stretching my 5’5” frame as far left as I could while my right hand desperately clutched an under-cling, I jammed the Cam into the horizontal crack that normally goes unnoticed when traversing the slab in summertime. It was shameful how I clung to that Cam while stepping across and my feet were slipping from under me like a Keystone Cop.
With gloves off, I clawed along the near corner wall until my fingers caught a lip and pulled myself free from the “ice field.” Relieved and elated that I did not have to rely on my belay and could continue with some happy crack climbing, I reached down across the rock face to free the abused Camelot and watched the rope slap against the slab in a disgustingly deep loop. “What the hell is he doing down there?” Then I remembered my bomber piece in the far corner, “holy cow there is going to be a lot of rope drag!” Not to worry, as long as I could pull lots of excess before moving, the rookie would not yank me off the wall.
The remainder of the climb, all three ran-together pitches, was uneventful, save the constant tugging of the rope and the furry wet cracks I slid my hands and feet into. At each belay, I reiterated safety issues, rope handling and commands. I played “musical gloves” the entire way, hands cold, hands warm … and felt myself growing taller reaching for the sunlight beaming across the summit of Tahquitz Rock while I belayed, or nearly drug, Kevin up the wall on the final pitch.
I caught a glimpse of my watch as we scrambled up the last easy slab to the true summit and I had no cause for concern that it was now 3PM; the descent should take 45 minutes at most. Thankful that I was not feeling a nervous need for my headlamp, which was in the pack at the base of the climb, and proud that I was at least smart enough to bring a Camelback of water on the climb, I skipped along the summit feeling freed of his physical and emotional weight. We shared my water and snacks, as he brought nothing regardless of my instructions, and after reorganizing the gear, I trotted off to begin the friction descent off Tahquitz.
I don’t think I ever go off this rock the same way twice. When free-soloing, I find myself stressing my shoulders with Iron Crosses all the way down deeply rutted smooth troughs with some sketchy 5th class down-climbing mixed in, and trust me, THAT scares the crap out of me! With gear and rope on my back, I take a little extra care with the footwork but still end up “bob-sledding” through the various troughs for about 200’. There is still the 20-minute hike around the base of the rock to get back to point of origination of route that was climbed.
As Kevin and I hiked around the Summit Blocks to find the friction descent, I started noticing small patches of snow and ice here and there. “Eeeew, that would suck to see on the descent.” The descent is on the southern most wall and was now feeling its last rays of sunlight. Poking and hoping for the easiest route off considering Kevin’s limited skills, I kept running into sheets of thin ice. At last, I was getting the picture that there really was no way down without stepping in it. Right then I felt justified in panicking. It was 3:30PM, the sun was resting on the horizon, ice shimmered on every moderate slope, and Kevin stood with that barnyard animal look, you know the one who hasn’t figured out he’s going to the slaughterhouse yet?
A mental inventory of our gear and belongings began in my head – we’d already eaten everything, no extra clothing to ward off freezing temps, no equipment to start a fire, no headlamp, no whistle, but we did have enough water to last an evening. Well, he was chubby enough that he would stay warmer than I, but that was no comforting thought. Anger and fear welled up in me because he sat there so ignorant and I knew what misery could lay before us.
In full-fledge frantic mode, I scoured every possibility to reach the ground while Kevin soaked the pleasant rays of sunlight and picked his nails. Like Satan himself beckoning, the deadest little tree stump appeared in front of me pointing to a near vertical drop down the rock face. I yelled back at Kevin “I’m going to sling this dead tree! Come watch in case I fall.” He wasn’t serving much purpose so far, may as well make him witness to a horrific event!
We ran through a fleeting rappel class, I slung the 2’ stump and sailed down, hopelessly searching for a decent crack or another tree to anchor off and rappel a second time to the deck. The thought of that dead stump snapping into a hundred splinters no longer occurred to me, I was too worried about finding either a rappel anchor or clean rock to down-climb.
As I saw the knots on the end of my 60m rope racing toward me and a terrible vision of being left dangling against steep slab started to come to mind; my eyes focused on an 8’ lively fresh pine sticking out between two large blocks. I yelled back up to Kevin “This is not my day to die! I found a real tree!” My feet touched down on the sliver of a ledge next to the tree just as the knots fell against my ATC.
With so much joy, I came off rappel and happily stood next the tree while Kevin prepared to pummel his way down the rope. I surveyed the tree-slinging situation once I saw that he was confidently, however sloppily, rappelling towards me.
The tree struck out away from the wall at a 30-degree angle; it was sandwiched between two huge chunks of rock that squared off with over-hanging drop from the ledge. I could see the trail just 80’ below as the light began to fade.
On the tree trunk, there were already slings attached; judging by their bright colors and lack of wear, I reasoned that some poor fools recently had the same issue we were facing. “This is going to be easy,” I told Kevin with a smile as he touched down and wobbled next to me. Well, not so easy considering the awkward angle that bushy tree was sticking out over the ledge.
Kevin began pulling the rope free from our dead savior above and instead of a freely falling serpent, the rope bound itself somewhere obscured from our vision at least 50’ up. “Holy shit! What else is going to go wrong?!” I screeched and assessed the situation. There was no way I could climb back up alongside the rope to find the trouble spot. The slab was way too steep and some sections were iced; no, not a good idea at all. With our combined weight and toes precariously edging the ledge, we gave that sucker a few healthy tugs, finally it freed itself and came tumbling down.
“Yahoo! Now let’s sling this thing and get out of here.” Sunlight had turned to burnt orange, had I not been so intent on being scared and miserable, I would have enjoyed the view immensely. A pair of ravens squawked nearby, busy winding down for the evening. “Must be nice to have wings and just fly when you’re in trouble.” I was envious of their freedom at this moment. Any other day spent on Tahquitz, I’ve watched them in their splendor; soaring below me on drafts and the sound of their wings cutting the air made me think of rustling velvet of a Christmas dress.
Kevin held the end of the 4’ sling tied to my harness, while I crawled around the right side of the tree and through its lower branches, half-dangled over the edge to fish the rope end into the rings slung on the trunk. He helped pull me free from the tangle, and while panting with anticipation, I searched for the marked middle section of the rope, pulled both ends together, tied knots in them and flung them as violently as I could to fall free from the tree branches.
The sun was beginning to dip into the horizon, only moments of sunlight remained. I was set to rappel and felt the relief of the ground being just within reach and we’ll be on the trail before total darkness….as long as nothing else goes wrong.
My mood had lightened as success was near, so I made a couple of small jokes to get Kevin smiling as I stood to the right of the tree and kicked the remaining rope as much over the edge as I could without putting myself into the branches. “This damn tree is getting in my way.” I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to get below the slings while one hand clung to the rope and the other hatcheted through the branches for a clear view of the rappel.
“You got it made, go for it,” Kevin is so full of useless statements, I didn’t have it made. I couldn’t figure out how to get below the tree without just jumping, so jump I did. With as much slack taken up as I could, I still had about 8’ to catch me as I fell below the tree along the wall face. Having been sloppy with the extra rope on the ledge, the one loop around my left ankle went unnoticed until it flipped me completely upside-down and the left side of my body slammed into the rock face.
“What the…!” I couldn’t fathom what had just happened to me, but I knew my ankle was rope-burned, I was upside-down, my left hand felt a sharp stab, but fortunately my right hand never let go of the rope braking my fall. What seemed like eternity, I struggled to right myself until I was in tears and my right arm was near exhaustion. I couldn’t see Kevin’s face through the tree, but his voice was calm and comforting, “just calm down and think.”
I’m quite sure I whined a few dozen times and my body was aching from fighting itself in the awkward position. The thought that I had only one more chance to fix myself and then I would plummet to the trail below brought an angry fire to my chest. My feet were not able to touch any part of the wall, I was hanging free from any structure. Besides providing a useless counter-balance, my feet were just something to look at over my head…”nice shoes, Dumbass…”
My thoughts turned to my lovely daughter at home, she never voiced anything but grave concern every time I headed to the crags, I would always give her explicit details of where I was going and about how long it would take – in a perfect world. Then I would assure her the house would be hers if I did not return home in one piece. She didn’t think that was too funny, so I’d give one last stab at humor before heading for the hills, “What do you want me to do, lay on the couch all day?” At which point she would say “yes, at least I’d still have a Mom.” Well, that’s a tough one, but I’d leave anyway.
The clock was ticking in my head, the sun was disappearing and my left hand had lost most of its dexterity. All I needed to do was wrap my left arm around the rope to get enough leverage so I could sit up straight. It was now or never (another useless phrase). I gave one explosive heave with my abs and left arm to reach up and grab the rope at least 2’ above me. Interesting what a perceived life or death situation can muster from a depleted body; my left arm swooped behind the rope and I thrust my upper body violently forward to hug the rope – task achieved!
I sniffled and cussed a few times while Kevin verbally applauded my tactics; without checking body parts for wear I rappelled as quickly as I could in effort to relieve my right arm before completely failing. I hit the trail with a shakey smile and Kevin speedily got himself on rappel without a hitch. The second he touched down, we began looping the rope over his shoulders without really stopping forward progress. I didn’t care, let the damn thing drag in the dirt; I wanted to get to my headlamp.
Fifteen minutes later, I was reaching into my backpack for the headlamp while the rheostat of sunlight was visibly turning down; it was now dark. We packed out down the trail away from Tahquitz with a single beam of light; the going was fairly slow since Kevin couldn’t see much behind me and took a few tumbles. Once at the truck in Humber Park, we kind of laughed about our messed up evolution and agreed to make siege on “JoAnn’s” for a burger and beer, so off we went.
I hadn’t had time to feel anything different about my left hand until Kevin pointed out how swollen it looked as I raised a cold beer to my face. “Yea, that is kind of f’d up; doesn’t really hurt though.” Not so the following day and on for several weeks. Since my unit was getting ready to deploy in January, I didn’t take the time to seek medical aid and just let the pain, and the black and blue swelling, take its course.
It had become difficult to close my hand completely and my dexterity truly suffered in the morning, therefore my hairdo was more like a “hair-don’t” and I was the butt of too many jokes at work with that rat nest French-braid. I just couldn’t see being harassed with this hair on an 8-month cruise with the limited supply of hairspray onboard the ship.
Christmas Eve, as I stared in the mirror, my daughter’s voice reverberated through my skull, “Why don’t you ever do anything with your hair?” I shrugged my shoulders and conceded to relieving myself of the mess and stress. With a deep breath and eyes half shut “Well Merry Christmas Sweetie, Tally-ho!” A good sawing of the scissor blades and 8” of hair took the final plunge down the commode.
I have since tried to locate that dead stump I had rappelled from and can never find it. Leads me to believe that it did not “live” through another season; glad I caught it on the way out.
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