April 6-7, 2015
FA: Charlie Fowler & Eric Bjornstad - 1986
Partners: Dave Goldstein & Noah McKelvin
Having a baby is hard on the climbing lifestyle. It's not a bad thing by any means, but simply a fact. Our son was born this past August and between the sleepless nights and returning to school, I was amazed how quickly what little physical strength and lead climbing abilities I had developed evaporated. I packed on a little extra padding to my physique and was disappointed in my conditioning the very few times I was able to get out. Now I've never been a strong climber nor really driven to be, but I had always managed to get out on moderate stuff on a regular basis and it was frustrating how foreign climbing had become. As could be expected, time passed and baby life became more normal and got easier to manage. Although climbing excursions weren't happening, I began biking to work and made some Boulder-area hikes to regain some semblance of shape. As spring break approached and we made Easter plans with my folks in Grand Junction, I got the hair-brained idea to see if I remembered how to aid climb by making a solo attempt on something in the area.
Solo aid climbing is something I had done before but had never done anything major or challenging. Additionally, I had also not done any aiding since October of 2013 when I had taken a short fall on the crux aid section on Cottontail and it had scared me so badly I had not done any since. The thought of a solo venture being a terrible idea loomed in my mind, but I still wanted to try something adventurous. As I perused routes, I kept finding my thoughts drifting towards the route Zenyatta Entrada on the Tower of Babel in Arches National Park. Zenyatta Entrada is a beautiful line up an imposing fin of sandstone in the park and a route I had wanted to do for years. It's sits about a hundred feet off of the main road and I had peered up at it every time I had been in Arches. Trying to talk myself into the idea, I shot out emails to Derek and Dave asking for beta and their opinions on a solo venture. Derek replied quickly that soloing would be scary and not recommended, not the confidence boost I had wanted! Dave also got back to me stating simply that he had actually not done the route and asked if I wanted company. I was stoked to receive this reply! The chances of success went up exponentially with Dave's extensive desert experience and I had thoroughly enjoyed climbing Turret Ridge with him the previous fall. While making final plans, I mentioned the trip to my buddy Noah (who I now dub "King Dirtbag") and he cheerily asked to come along as well. A team of three was set and we all arranged to meet in the parking lot at the base of the climb.
Noah on our 1st climb together.
Dave on Turret Ridge
It felt good to make the familiar drive into Utah after having been so long. The roads always feel so lonely at night and the lack of traffic doesn't help. I pulled into the dark lot to find a single car that looked like Noah's but it appeared to be empty with the back seat overflowing with garbage. Seemed weird but typical, and Dave arrived shortly after I did. We quickly began chatting and bringing out climbing gear when Noah emerged groggily from the bushes completing our team. Mountains of gear were slowly gathered and we made quick work of the arduous 5 minute walk to the base of the route. Wind came in sharp gusts as I racked up for the first lead and it gave Noah troubles setting up his lawn chair. I tied in and eyeballed the supposed 5.4 start and decided to free the start without the weight of the rack and then tagging it up. The moves felt very awkward and it was obvious I was rusty as I scraped my way to the top of the block. It was weird to realize that this really was the only free climbing for close to 400 feet! I pulled up the monster rack and was immediately reminded what C1 in the desert can mean. Tricams in boxed out piton scars led into brass offset nuts in more scars and it took me a while to gain upward momentum. An awkward corner led into easier, lower-angled terrain and I tried to ignore the wind that had picked up considerably although it thrashed my aiders about. Several free moves put me at the chains and before I knew it Noah and Dave had jugged the lines and Dave was racked up for more.
Gearing up for P2
The second pitch continued up more steep terrain and Dave moved up continuously while Noah and I enjoyed catching up. Windy gusts blasted sand periodically into our faces and I was envious of Noah's big puffy jacket while sitting in the shade. Cars cruised by on the road below and it was entertaining to see the occasional person stop to get out and take photos of us. Eventually Dave called that the lines were fixed and Noah and I made quick work jugging up into the sun toward the belay. The crack system was beautifully thin and it was almost entertaining to see all the small gear tailored into it. Getting back into aid makes for slow climbing and we knew that the tower was not going to go in a single day of climbing. Soon as I was at the belay we agreed that we'd only have time for one more pitch and then fix and return the next day to complete the route. While jugging, Noah's line had become stuck in a crack below and I quickly volunteered to get it. My evil plan worked and I was able to rappel to the ground, unsticking the rope en route and sit in Noah's lawn chair and watch the third pitch shenanigans from the comfort of the ground. The sun was warm and pleasant and almost made me forget the 40 mile per hour gusts of wind that periodically swept across the desert. I passed the time by walking across the road to take some photos of Noah leading and marveled at the beautiful nature of the route. Noah made quick work of the pitch and soon they both rappelled back down leaving the majority of our gear up on the wall. We planned to meet early enough to jug the lines at first light and I drove back to Grand Junction to be with my wife and son while Noah and Dave did some peak-bagging/exploring.
Driving was uneventful and allowed me to unwind after the climb, but I have to admit that driving back the next morning was a bit tiresome. Thankfully the wind seemed to have died down a bit and before I knew it I was back in the parking lot putting my harness back on. The morning jug up the first three pitches was a nice way to forget the chilly morning air, and Dave and I "quickly" made it to the previous day's highpoint while Noah took his turn waiting on terra firma. This belay was supposedly the least comfortable of the route and was a hanging stance with a sandy sloping plate for feet. Soon as I was racked to begin, Dave pointed out that we didn't have the tagline ready to continue leading. Noah would have to come up so we could use the other rope for me to tag up the pitch. Not wanting to waste time, I asked to begin leading an get through the trickier C2 section right off the belay to the solid bolts above and then deal with getting the extra line to me. Tricams right off the belay led to a fixed pin and two more iffy placements where I was able to top-step up and reach the final bolt to pendulum from. Glad to have that C2 section over and easier aiding above, I took photos and admired the view while Noah jugged up and Dave reorganized the ropes. Not wanting to lower back to the belay to get the rope, I asked Dave to try once to throw it to me. He gave me a suspicious look, but coiled up the free end and to both our surprise tossed it directly into my hands on the first try. We had a good laugh about it and I began to figure out how to manage reaching the crack 10 feet to my left. Thankfully Dave talked me though it, lowered me down and I managed to stick the pendulum on my 3rd or 4th try. Great cams let me backclean my way upward and after turning a short roof, I was able to french-free my way up easier terrain to the anchor and a nice ledge. The crux looked bleak from below but I knew Noah had a tremendous aptitude for anything climbing related, so I tried to relax while the others jugged.
They both arrived quickly and Noah cheerily racked up and began his lead. We knew that a large hook was a key piece off the belay so I had brought a Fish Captain Hook along for the climb. Unfortunately, Noah discovered that our hook was not even close to big enough to fit over the ledge. This forced him to make a series of scary placements to reach the bolt and I couldn't help imagining how nasty a fall would have been at this point on the pitch. After clipping the bolt, I breathed a sigh of relief and Noah moved steadily up the thin corner into the roof. Dave and I chatted as Noah grunted and swore his way upward and before we knew it he was fishing tricams over the roof to make the final transition into the pin ladder to the anchor. As soon as Noah clipped the first pin I lowered my alertness and went back to chatting with Dave and taking in the views. The occasional rope was fed out and I assumed that Noah was at the anchor when suddenly a big drop of slack came from the tagline and I said "What the hell just happened?". Dave simply replied "I don't know, but he is a lot lower than he was a minute ago." Noah had blown the last placement before the anchor and taken a relaxed and casual fall into clean air over 300 feet of nothingness. Without breaking stride, he ascended the rope back to the piece and stick clipped the anchor. Dave began the tedious work or jugging the traversing pitch and I cautiously lowered my self out onto the free hanging tag line. Gusts of wind tossed me around as I grunted my way up the exposed line and every creak of gear made me paranoid that something was going wrong. Trust in your gear was apparently something that goes away when you don't climb often enough! The final belay arrived shortly and I couldn't help bu laugh that it had been called a ledge. Our feet sat on a small shelf that sloped downward toward space at a 50 degree angle, hardly a spot to relax. While Dave reaided though the horizontal section at the end, I quickly whipped out my belay seat and scoffed at Noah's attempts to sit on the so called ledge.
Final traverse to anchor.
Dave arrived and the tourist spectacle below reached maximum force. Car after car either pulled over, yelled as they passed, or simply stopped in the middle of the road to crane upwards. Gravel trucks transporting materials to somewhere in the park honked at the mid-road pedestrian traffic and we probably were getting more entertainment from them than they were from us. Dave didn't waste time on the last pitch and crawled over us and launched upward. Bolts and studs led into a thin seam and before lone he was working up the final reachy bolt ladder in gusty winds. Suddenly the rope stopped moving and we assumed he was the anchors. The wind was now howling and Noah and I wondered if Dave had called something but we simply couldn't hear him. After what seemed like a long time he called that the lines were fixed. Jug, jug, jug. Noah cruised up the lead line while I rigged another lower out onto the free hanging tag line. We reached the anchor at the same time and were unhappy to discover than the wind was raging over the summit shoulder. Dave had said he ended up stick clipping the anchor from the last bolt because, "I didn't want to climb 5.4 in a hurricane!". It made perfect sense to me and I crawled over the mess of what once was a giant, but organized rack of our gear. Finding a few cams and slings so I could lead the last pitch took a while as everything had become a tangled mess, but I soon was scrambling across the exposed should onto a welcome flat ledge below the summit. A great bolt allowed me to top-step up to the final anchor and I soon belayed Dave and Noah up to the final stance. Thankfully the winds died down a bit and the short, exposed scramble to summit went smoothly. The views of the surrounding formations were outstanding and I was surprised to see the highway going north toward I-70 was clearly visible over the bluffs. It had been a year and a half since I had been on a desert tower and it was a glorious feeling to be up on such a unique formation. The climbing had taken much longer than expected so we soon made for the descent. A short rappel and belayed scrambling put us back at the previous anchor, and Noah carefully coiled the roped so they didn't get hopelessly tangled in the wind. The two long rappels back to the ground went smoothly and we soon were back on the ground. In typical fashion, the rope got stuck in a crack on the final pull but thankfully we were able to force it out without a ton of effort. The walk back to the car was quick and I was very glad that this was the shortest approach possible. This had been a great outing and exactly what I needed after taking such a long hiatus from desert climbing. Noah and Dave were both great partners and the climb would not have been possible without them.
Final pitch of the headwall
"How far do you think you would have made it solo?" - Dave
"Haha. Maybe one pitch..." - Me