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Date: 16 May 2019
Route: Durrance Route, Devil’s Tower WY
Team: Patrick Vickers and Peter Regan
If you ever decide to go climb in Wyoming, let me give you some advice: When you and your partner cross the state line, stop the car and punch each other in the face. This serves as a warmup for the ass-kicking that is ahead of you.
There’s no one else on the road as I race north from Champaign to pick Packy up in the suburbs. It’s 5:30 AM on Wednesday, May 15th and for the first time in a week, things are quiet. I can’t wait to see Pack, but I appreciate the time to myself. I graduated from college over the weekend, so it has been a rush of family, photos, and parties. I should be happy, but graduation signals more than just diplomas and tassels. I’m staying for grad school, entering the old guard of climbers in the area. I’d told my parents, though perhaps mostly to convince myself, that only three or four of my friends were leaving Champaign-Urbana. I was telling the truth, but it ignores the most important fact. Sure, only a few are leaving. But my closest and most cherished friends are among them. The goodbyes hurt, each containing a variation of a phrase that drops my heart into my stomach:
“See you later!”
“We’ll plan something”
“Till next time!”
The best part of graduating is how free you are – possibilities abound. Yet this is also the part that terrifies me. No matter what is said, I may never see these people again. I don’t want to face that reality – that the last four years of my life might just be temporary. It keeps me up at night. It breaks me into nothing.
I’m proud of my friends’ successes. I’m excited for their futures all over the country and the world. I don’t worry about them, and for the most part I don’t worry about me. I worry about our bonds, our friendships. I don’t share this with any of them. We’re all stressed out enough as it is. So I push it deep down into my mind. Just another thing unsaid.
These notions swim throughout my mind as I pick Packy up, as we crawl through traffic in Wisconsin and fly down the reads in South Dakota. I try to explain myself to him, but I can’t find the words. He understands anyway.
By the time we reach Wyoming, the thoughts have extended throughout my body. My stomach is tight, my fingers are cold. This trip is supposed to be a celebration and an escape from the darkness. So far it hasn’t felt like it, until we see the tower.
Even in the blackness of midnight, Bear Lodge (Devil’s Tower) asserts its dominance over the Black Hills skyline. Google Maps is no longer needed, instead I just keep the car pointed towards the towering monolith. Excitement and nerves bubble over me, and I feel freedom from the chains of worry as Packy and I set up our tent. My mind is still overwhelmed, but at least for a while it is about opportunity instead of loss.
4:45 AM – Campsite
I had just slowed my racing thoughts when the alarm went off a mere four hours after we went to bed. I stumble out of the tent to make breakfast while Packy savors the remaining few minutes of sleep.
6:30 AM – Approach Pitch
Packy racks up and leads the approach pitch. The moves are easy, so he runs it out to set the day’s mood. I follow and continue over fourth class to the base of the first pitch of Durrance.
Pitch 1 – Leaning Column
I rack up and take off up the first official pitch of the route. Ten feet of face climbing leads to a low angle crack. A good size for my hands, I feel confident as it steepens to vertical and pull the awkward mantle that signals the second half of the pitch. After placing a solid nut in a dihedral, I ascend the space between the tower and the column with squeeze technique. Two pitons protect the 25 foot chimney.
Now is probably the time to give a short history of the Durrance Route. It was the second technical route on the tower and is the most popular route due to its relative easiness and large belay stances. This means it has seen thousands of ascents since it was first put up in 1938.
Three feet from being able to reach the top of the column, I feel myself slipping. Thousands of butts have scuffed up these moves, polishing the features into oblivion. No amount of thigh squeezing makes me feel secure. Not wanting to take a fall onto a fixed piton at the beginning of the route, I frantically shove a #4 cam into the crack and pull myself up on it to make the finishing mantle.
Packy flies up the pitch, even while trailing our pack. My shenanigans have made the #4 difficult to remove, so I lower down and work on it for a minute before retrieving it. The party ahead was still climbing the second pitch, so this isn’t lost time, but I punish myself anyway.
Pitch 2 – Durrance Crack
Durrance Crack is a 70-foot system of two parallel cracks. The left one is hand-sized, while the right crack is an offwidth. It is the hardest pitch on the route, but luckily for me it is Packy’s lead. He runs up the start, which mixes hand jams with greasy face holds. Towards the top you are forced into the offwidth, made difficult by the three-foot face separating the two cracks. Packy hangs, works the moves, and is on top at the belay as quickly as he started. I follow with our summit pack but have trouble with the face moves and the transition into the offwidth. I commit the cardinal sin of multipitch climbing and take longer to follow than Packy took to lead. As I pull up onto the belay ledge, Packy looks at me and says “I’m not feeling too well” before immediately leaning over the edge of the column and vomiting.
Base of Pitch 3 – Discussion
Once Packy finishes voiding the rest of the morning’s bread and cheese, we discuss what to do. The route traverses climber’s right, so rapping down the belays is not an option. The meadows rap line is somewhere below us but locating it will be difficult as our descent beta is in reference to the first station up and climber’s right of us. Packy assures me that he feels good enough to continue, though possibly just because he knows the safest descent is to get to the meadows. Either way, he has some time to rest while I lead the next pitch. From the looks of it, he’ll have plenty of time.
Pitch 3 – Cussin’ Crack
Cussin’ Crack begins with a 20-foot squeeze chimney. Just looking at it felt like staring into Bob Scarpelli’s hardened soul. Hoping to find some kind of gear, I rack everything like a fool. There is a fixed nut eight feet off the ground, so I clip that and bump a tipped out #6 cam the whole way up. The weight and shape of my failure to commit to the gear beta pulls me down, useless #3s getting caught on every lip. I’ve climbed too many offwidths to excuse this rookie mistake. I pull up onto a ledge and place a #1. A wider offwidth continues up, but the route description mentions traversing a ledge right to a well-protected hand crack. Unsure, I consult Packy, and the leader of the (much more competent) party below says to keep in the offwidth. I bend down and awkwardly retrieve my #6, hoping that it will fit. I leave everything but a #1, #2, and #6 clipped to my last piece. The #6 hardly holds its own weight, so I run it out over my #1 until I reach a hand crack. I plug a #2 and run it to the anchors. On top, I realize that I wasn’t supposed to climb the second offwidth, as I see the aforementioned hand crack below, mocking me. Oh well, it kept things interesting. Packy follows up, and even with the summit pack and nearly the entire rack, he makes quick work of both squeezes.
Pitch 4 – Flake Crack
As Packy steps up onto the belay ledge, I ask how he is feeling. He says he feels a little better, but we decide to wait a bit for him to prepare. Eventually he admits that although he can follow, he doesn’t want to lead anything. Shit, now I have to lead the last four pitches of the route.
I suppose I should give some context as to my history with Devil’s Tower. Two years ago, I came here with friend and mentor Nick Tripp and climbed Pseudo-Wiessner (5.8). I wasn’t leading trad at the time, so Nick lead the whole route. I was out of shape and by the end of it, nearly delirious. We rapped in the dark and hardly talked to one another. Two weeks later I was admitted to the ER and diagnosed with Adrenal Insufficiency – my body was missing the hormones that allow it to manage physical stress. In addition, I was unable to uptake sodium and so was constantly hyponatremic.
Being diagnosed sucked, but at least I had an explanation as to my performance on PW. I didn’t know how to tell anyone, but when I finally did Nick immediately understood.
That climb was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. I am probably the only person with AI to do something like that without medication.
I still feel weak, and I expected Durrance to be really fucking difficult for me. The prospect of leading all the remaining pitches scares the shit out of me. But Nick did it for me when I was sick, so I’ll try my best to do it for Packy.
I look up at the pitch looming overhead – an eight-inch crack separates a flake from the tower. This crack is filled with smaller flakes and plates. This comes together to form the kind of climbing that scares me most – little to no jamming, polished face moves, and sketchy gear. I fucking hate it, but we’re not going anywhere until I start.
As I pull up onto the holds, the words of Roger Hubank in North Wall circulate through my mind.
Always it must be like this for someone, somewhere. And perhaps the time had come for him to suffer what all men must have suffered since the beginning.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a weak face climber. The fear generated by this pitch brings the anxiety of losing friends back to the front of my mind. I’m standing on good feet and good hands, but I don’t move. The instability of the climbing above melts into the instability of the life ahead of me and paralyzes me completely. It’s not the climbing that scares me, it’s the feeling of being alone in a difficult place. This pitch and everything I have been dealing with are the result of the same insecurity – one that has followed me across years and places. Realizing this, I allow Hubank to guide my hands forward.
As I move up above my first piece, my mind remains fragile but clears of all extraneous thought. The stress of graduation, of watching good friends leave, the fear of loneliness all fade away. All that exists is me and the stone. Packy is a vague presence below me, shouting encouragement. I place a nut next to a hollow flake, think about removing it, but instead sandwich that plate in with an X4 on the other side. Though my head is empty, my mouth chatters the whole way on autopilot – mostly apologies to the group below for being slow and agreeing to let them pass at the next anchor. I pull into the offwdith that guards the last five feet of the pitch (to quote the MP description, “go figure”), plug a #6, and scoot up onto the luxurious belay ledge. This is the only pitch on which I don’t pull on any gear, mostly because I don’t trust the rock. I set the anchor, belay Packy up, and extend my tether to let the group below pass us.
Pitch 5 – Chockstone Chimney
As the threesome from below lead up the next pitch, I scout it out. Chockstone Chimney is 30 feet of offwidth and chimney moves on glassy walls. There’s not much gear – a solid nut 15 feet up followed by a 0.2/0.3 X4 offset at the chockstone 25 feet up. I scuffle up, taking expert beta from a guide below that severely reduces the pucker factor. The finish is to surmount a large boulder covering the top of the crack. It has bomber hand jams, but to reach it I have to pull my waist up to my hands on an undercling. It feels sketchy, and my gear may as well be miles away. I quickly stuff a jam and beach whale onto the belay stance. I laugh and high five the father of the party ahead of us as he congratulates me on finishing the last pitch of technical climbing. I bring Packy up and receive beta on the traverse.
Pitch 6 – The Jump Traverse
The Jump Traverse is a short pitch that traverses between two sets of columns. The first ascent party bridged the six-foot gap by jumping. We are not so brave. I crouch and waddle under a roof. I reach blindly around a corner and clip a piton. Pulling on the draw, I slip my feet onto a dish and inspect what’s before me. It is supposedly 5.6, but outside of the piton all I see is a sloping horizontal seam. 5.6 my ass. I place a 0.1/0.2 X4 offset in the seam and yank on it, testing its strength. It holds, so I place my faith in Black Diamond and tension off it to reach the opposite column. I throw together a gear anchor just next to the traverse and bring Packy over. Hell yeah brother.
Pitch 7 – Meadows Fourth Class
Packy and I hike over to the start of the fourth class. I take all the gear except for the doubles of #3, #4, and the #5 and #6. The climbing isn’t too hard, but still feels closer to 5.3/5.4 than fourth class. I struggle to find the right route and begin to get stressed. I’m pulling face moves 25 feet above gear, unsure of where I’m going. Packy is out of earshot, and I am no longer sheltered from the wind. It whips all around me, leaving me feeling extremely exposed after six pitches of relative protection. American kestrels dive bomb all around me, simultaneously beautiful and panic-inducing. As scared as I am, I repeat a phrase from an ice climbing guidebook Rich Weston showed me:
Somewhere there’s a poor bastard sitting on a beach with a margarita
I climb 100 feet before building an anchor. I want to discuss things with Packy and rerack, but mostly I just want to regain human contact after thirty minutes of only me, the birds, and the wind.
Pitch 8 – Summit
Packy clips into the anchor and I rerack to continue. I’m stressed and nervous, but Packy’s encouragement guides me forward. I continue on in what I think is the right direction and find that I was only forty feet from the second-class scramble to the top. I find a stance and hip belay Pack up and he continues to the top. We crack open the summit register, eat, drink, and then start the search for the rap station. It is 3:30 PM.
After Packy finds the rappel station and guides me down the exposed scramble to it, we get to business. We pull out our tag line and overhand it to our climbing rope. Packy coils the lines into saddlebags and takes off for the meadows below. Once we are both down, we start to pull the ropes. We pull to climber’s right, attempting to keep the ropes from getting stuck. Unfortunately, we soon learn we should have pulled to the left as our climbing rope gets wedged ten feet from the anchors. We pull on it with everything we’ve got, but it is rooted firmly in the crack. We are no faced with only one choice – lead back up the fourth-class pitch, but this time using our 7 mm static line. Packy bravely volunteers, but as he begins to rack up I hear voices from below. Being after 4:00 PM, we didn’t expect any other groups to be summiting. I yell down to find a guided party on Pseudo-Wiessner. I explain the situation and the guide agrees to free our rope when they summit.
We wait and hour and a half for the group to finish and start the raps. With our rope free, I set up and the next rap station. I toss both lines, but fail to throw hard enough and they land, tangled, on a column ten feet below me. Embarrassed, I fumble with untangling and recoiling as Packy, the guide, and his two clients look on. By now we are basically in a cloud as the weather sours. With beta from the guide I find the next station and Packy zips down. I launch off again after we pull our ropes (this time without issue) and am told by the guide that we should be able to reach the ground. Stupidly, I take is word for it and sail past the last rap station to find our ropes only reach the middle of the approach pitch. Luckily, I land on a spacious ledge, build an anchor, and guide Packy to the station above me. He pulls the ropes, sets up the rap, and tosses the ropes all on his own while I twiddle my thumbs 20 feet below, unable to assist. Packy raps past me and begins to collect our things while I rap down and pull the ropes. On the ground, physically destroyed, mentally exhausted, but safe. The light rain that had started during our raps is no longer threatening but refreshing.
Devil’s Tower by Durrance Route
Start: 6:30 AM
Summit 3:30 PM
End: 7:30 PM
This would have been much, much harder without the help of several people:
I’m still not sure how I feel about this time in my life. I came back to Champaign to three less friends, two of whom left while I was in Wyoming. Things are still hard, but if I learned one thing from this trip it is that we are the ones in control. The climbing was hard and scary, and it pushed me, but I never felt held back by my adrenals. Those promises to meet again don’t have to be shallow, but you have to move on them. Nothing just happens.
Eventually, I sickened of people, myself included, who don’t think enough of themselves to make something of themselves – people who only did what they had to and never what they could have done.
Mark Twight, I Hurt, Therefore I Am
Jungle Beat (5.9+, 2 Pitches)
Rated traditionally at 5.9+, one is left to wonder, "Plus what?" I say, plus one.
"Newer leaders should bring doubles from .3 to 3" said the beta on Mountain Project. I took the advice and racked up along with a set of nuts and tricams. I doubled checked my gear to be safe. It's been a long time since I had this much stuff on my harness, and with about 10 pitches of trad leads (and very little crack climbing experience) under my belt, I still consider myself somewhat of a gumby.
I looked up at the roof and worked my way down to figure out how to start out the climb, leading me into this large crack that went deep into the wall. I gave Mihail the fist bump and ventured off, slowly working my way up the awkward chimney. I was about 20 feet up and started to get nervous, it was a pretty uncomfortable position to not have any pieces in yet. I shimmied a couple more feet and found the first lip which marked the base of the main dihedral. I stared at the crack in the lip, trying to remember how to gauge sizes from a glance. Out came the 0.75, fitting pretty nicely in a section of the crack, though on hindsight, a #1 would have fit better further back in the lip. I yanked hard on the cam to test it; if the 0.75 popped while I was on the main face, I would be looking at a 35 foot deck. That's something I could afford to do without. I clipped in and headed out into the open air.
Luckily, going over the first lip and up the lower dihedral was my style of climbing; good old stemming action. I've never been one to shy away from using my flexibility, and this route had a good amount of that. With stable positions for the next 20 feet I added a few more pieces of pro in the crack and layers of confidence in my placements.
However the dihedral began to narrow in, resulting in some sections of chimneys and off-widths in order to place pro. Thankfully Nick gave me a taste of that during our trip in Yosemite; nothing a bit of grunting and excessively loud breathing exercises couldn't handle. Before I realized I had reached the main roof where the first belay ledge was, and it definitely took me a minute to decide if I was ready for it. I placed my last piece in the dihedral and traversed out under the roof.
From a squeeze chimney the crack flared out to about 4 feet wide, and despite the section being technically easy, having 80 feet of nothing dangling below you made it pretty frightening. But I managed to stem 10 feet out from the roof and beached-whaled myself onto the belay ledge. It was a bit of a squeeze as the roof over the ledge was only 3 feet tall, but having a secure platform to sit on after that first pitch, I wasn't going to complain. I struggled a bit making the anchor due to the awkward position, but eventually I figured it out and set Mihail on top rope.
The initial plan was for me to lead pitch 1 and then swap leads with Mihail. But considering that trad opportunities are few and far between, I doubled down and decided to face the crux head on and lead both pitches. Mihail scooched over on the belay ledge and he helped change up the sub-par anchor I built. I leaned out as far on the ledge as I could and placed a #3 up in the horizontal crack beneath the roof before clipping in.
"On belay Shao".
I took a deep breath and went out into the open. Hand jams were never my thing, but I knew that was no running away from it this time. True to my style, I stemmed as far out as I could below the roof to stabilize myself in a triangular stance, cranked hard on the crimp below the roof and shoved my left hand into the crack. I recall how Nick Tripp described the hand jam being so bomber you could hang off the roof with just that one hand jam in true "Cliffhanger" fashion, but I wasn't having any of that. I popped up a high foot and stepped hard, scrambling to find something else to grab. I don't remember what it was, but it was good enough for me to pull over the roof. Still conscious that I could ill-afford a fall past my belayer, I carefully re-positioned myself and got a good second piece in.
From there, I don't remember too much, but I was on autopilot. Back on the sandstone dihedral, I cruised the rest of the climb, finding excellent stemming almost the entire way to the top. I ran out a couple of sections without realizing, but I was solid throughout and topped out on the ledge shortly after. Anchor building was again a bit tricky but eventually I figured it out and not much longer Mihail joined me at the top. We spent a good couple of minutes soaking in the great climb we just did, reminiscent of the last time we did a multi-pitch together, back in El Potrero Chico. I laid back against the rock and looked out at some of best views of the gorge I've ever seen.
It pays to be on the sharp end.
Trip Report by Shao
Photos by Conor
We awoke in a wooded cabin with a gentle snow falling outside. We were warm for the first time in over 24 hrs thanks to Sean Dòmhnaill who worked on the propane heater for an hour, the rest of us too exhausted and hungry to bother. An unexpected find, spending the night at the cabin meant we had to do the 4 mile march through snow across Lake Superior 3 times yesterday, going back to town to retrieve our sleeping bags and resupply on food. A small price to pay for the unbelievable adventure we were experiencing. Now, warm and well rested, we are only a mile away from world class ice climbing.
I won’t bother describing the breathtaking scenery, my words cannot do it justice, but Jeff’s pictures get pretty close. As we walk I’m trying to absorb my surroundings, it’s not every day you can say “I’m living the dream” so I try to hold onto the moment for as long as I can.
As we arrive at the ice wall I begin to scope out the line I want to take to the top. As imposing this massive 120 ft tiered wall of ice is, despite the fact I only have 6 screws and 1 previous lead behind my belt, I am not in the slightest nervous. Inspired by tales of great climbs and my own yearning for adventure, I had visualized myself in this situation many times before. There are times in life where you have to put your fears aside and get shit done. I had made the decision to climb before I even set out on this trip. Thus the difficult part, the mental battle, had already been won. Now it was time for the easy part, and the fun part, climbing the thing.
I shoulder the rope and stake up the snow ramp with the shaft of my tools. I get into the rhythm instantly – jab, step, step – quickly reaching the base of the vertical ice. Too quick, I was rather enjoying that. My mind is blissfully calm as I cut a belay stance for peter into the side of the slope. It is rare to have the consistent stream of thoughts that normally occupy my mind subside.
Peter joins me as I’m finishing up digging with the adze. We tie in and do safety checks just as in any ordinary climb. We exchange a fist bump, the most important part of safety checks, and I start climbing.
The first crux is transitioning from the snow ramp and establishing myself on the vertical ice. Where the snow meets the ice, there is a crust of hard snow that my feet break through and sink into the powder underneath. It makes it impossible to kick into the ice, and clearing the crusty snow would be quite labor intensive. I place my tools as high as I can and pull myself up out of the snow. Arms locked off on the tools, I kick my feet into hard ice. Establishing a wide stance, I gradually ease my weight from my hands to my front points. I rock my right tool out of its placement as I scan the ice above. I look for irregularities, the concavity between adjacent ribs of ice, the rounded tops of subflows, regions that more easily give home to the pick of an ice tool. I stick the tool higher up. It responds with a reverberation down the shaft that indicates it was a good placement. Now the other tool. Now kick the feet higher up. Scan the ice. Repeat.
At a stable stance with 2 solid placements I clip a draw to the spike of one of my tools and clip the rope to it. It’s a little trick that gives some peace of mind as I let go of my tool and reach for a screw on my harness.
Those Petzl screws cut into the ice like butter. Climbing gear, especially ice climbing gear, has advanced so much from the days of hammering nails into ice that it is no longer the same game. The boldness and daring that the label of ice climbing signifies was earned by great climbers of the past. Climbing vertical ice with modern gear should not be confused as carrying the same prestige.
Everything has been going as smoothly as can be. Halfway up the pitch however I began to notice that numbness has gradually been creeping up my fingers and is entering my hands. I elected to put on a thin pair of running gloves for better dexterity. They became wet from brushing snow off the rope before I even started the climb. I did my best to remain calm. With numb hands it is easy to over grip the tool because you can’t tell if you’re actually holding on. I fight my instincts and relax my grip. Squeezing too hard will make the cold worse and lead to pumping out. I have thicker gloves on my harness, I just need to move quickly and finish the pitch.
Eventually I reach the belay I had eyed from the ground. It is at a ledge, the top of a tier of ice that seeps out the porous sandstone cliff behind. At my face icicles chandelier down from the ice tier that seeps out 50 ft above. I think about slinging some of these to serve as part of the anchor. I want to save on screws. If I leave two at the anchor I’d only have 4 pieces of protection for the crux pitch that follows. Hmmmm… two tool placements counts as one screw, right? Add a slung icicle for good measure and I should be able to save a screw.
I shout down to Peter, “hey, you cool if I sling a couple of icicles for an anchor?” Hesitantly he places his trust in me and agrees. I pause for a moment, place the last screw on my harness and equalize a solid two screw anchor. I don’t want my personal climbing decisions to jeopardize other people’s safety. If I’m not prepared to run out the next pitch on 4 screws I should have no business being here anyway. “You’re on belay Peter”, and sometime later were hanging of the same pair of screws together. Clouds cover the sun so no need to worry about the metallic tube conducting radiation and melting the ice around the threads. “Hell yea man, we’re out here fucking getting it done”.
A quick transfer of gear, a flip of the rope, and it’s time to face the crux. Literally. Immediately to my left is a 20 ft section of pure vertical ice with no rests. For a moment there is a hint of nervousness as I debate whether I should just run out the whole thing. I stick my tools, get established on the vertical ice and calmness returns. I try to stay to the left and be gentle with my right foot. At the belay I saw the right side is thin and freestanding. Nearing the top I glace down to spot my foot placement. The rope drops from my harness directly to peters hands. I just need to top out on the crux section and I’ll have a good stance to place a screw. I swing my right tool. It is rejected as chunks of ice are liberated from the face and hit peter below. A few more swings and I get a marginal placement. Cracks emanate from the pick in all directions. Fearful of causing even bigger chunks of ice to fall, I accept the marginal placement. I place a screw lower down into better ice, feeling warmth in my left forearm. Concentrate on not dropping the screw as the teeth bite into the ice. If I fumble my forearm arm will surely pump out. The screw goes in and I reach back for my right tool. As gently as I can, I shift weight onto it, hoping the cracked ice holds. I reposition my feet stand and up on my front points. One more move and I’m past the crux.
The rest of the pitch is slabby ice with the occasional vertical step. I top out on the ice section and place my last screw. Leaving my tools behind I scramble up a short choss ramp to get to the nearest tree. I throw a sling around it and enjoy the view as I belay Peter up.
“Living the dream.”
Trip Report by Mihail-Iceman-Krumov
Photos by Jeff Urbahn
It was bitterly cold early Friday morning, January 25th , as I pulled out of Champaign and onto the interstate and aimed the old Subaru south. I don’t mind this simple, reliable car, but, like me, she’s showing her years. I was thankful the cargo area and roof-top box held a full load of survival gear and a large bag of tools. Both would prove useful. Ten minutes into that day’s 15-hour drive to my sister Erin’s home in Denver the car’s temperature gauge needle started to dive toward C. The frigid temps made even lower by wind-chill across the radiator, and the heater siphoning off BTU’s, were too much for the little engine. Some variable had to change or this trip was stopping before it started. I turned the heater blower off and slowed the car to 70 mph. The needle climbed toward H as my feet became C. I stayed bundled up in my puffy, gloves, and beanie while I repeatedly adjusted the speed of the car and the heater blower, until, near St. Louis, the outside temps rose above 10 degrees. From then until I reached Denver that night I luxuriated in adequate warmth and a thin cotton t-shirt.
Staying at my sister’s house in the south suburbs of Denver is always nice. Erin is an attentive host who has a large comfy basement. It’s easy for me to get sucked in to the ease of it all. During my two-day stay I did a couple tapering hikes on the hill behind Erin’s house. I was pleased with how strong I felt at 5,600 feet. All the stair running and rowing erg sessions paid off. I also spent a happy three hours at the flagship REI store in Denver gearing up. It is a visually interesting store with almost every item on my long list. Late Monday morning I managed to extricate myself from the Front Range vortex that is slowly sucking in the entire country. I headed southwest toward Ouray. I should have left on Sunday as originally planned. What is normally a straightforward and pleasant 5 ½-hours scenic tour from the Front Range to the Western Slope turned into a 7-hour trip with long periods of white-knuckle driving. There were 5-6 inches of snow on the roads around Denver and it was blowing like mad in the flat open areas. I witnessed numerous cars off the road and one near miss in front of me that would have ended badly but for the quick evasive action taken by other drivers. Worst of all was the 30 minutes in the whiteout being tailgated by an impatient fearless local. As I progressed conditions slowly improved. When I reached Ouray around 5pm it was clear and still.
Ouray is a quaint mountain town (they call themselves a city) of about 1,000 residents in southwestern Colorado. The city is located on U.S. Route 550, aka the Million Dollar Highway. This area is the stuff of climbers’ dreams where the countless turns and rises reveal attention grabbing mountain vistas. Ouray sits at an airy 7,792 feet cradled in a steep-walled valley and ringed by jagged, snowy peaks. The entire Main Street, with it’s interesting buildings from the 1800s, is listed as a National Historic District. I saw no Starbuck’s, no Mickey D’s, no cannabis dispensaries, and no Chipotle or Jamba Juice in this home rule city (i.e. they retain a lot of local control and limit state intervention). The only national chain businesses I saw were a True Value Hardware and couple budget hotels of some sort. There were a few low-key bars, a liquor store, and several naturally fed hot springs and spas, soaking being a popular evening activity. The local gear shop was fully stocked and rental gear and guide services were available in town and widely used. The town seemed to go quiet around 10pm. My hotel was on Main Street and traffic noise was never a problem, mostly because there was so little of it. The local PD kept enough of a profile to make sure drivers adhered to the slow speed limits. The whole vibe was slow paced but still energetic. While it is a town that attracts tourists and the businesses that cater to them, this was not a significant distraction or hindrance to the peaceful experience I sought (bear in mind the widely popular annual Ouray Ice Fest had ended the day before I arrived). It’s an old community that is committed to maintaining considerable control over local development. I saw mostly locals and outdoorsy types, these oftentimes being one and the same person. There was a mix of generations, mostly middle to upper income level, and it was almost all White. I checked in to my economy room ($77) at the more than one-hundred-year-old Hotel Ouray. The room and hotel were small, clean, comfortable, and unusually quiet. The hotel has a basic kitchenette that allowed me to prepare simple meals and good coffee. I was feeling behind schedule already so, though it was dark, I took a recon drive around and out of town trying to get the lay of the land. Specifically I wanted to figure out the approaches or locations of my two potential objectives: Mt. Sneffels and the Ouray Ice Park.
Mt. Sneffels (14,150ft.), in the San Juan Range, is always beautiful and sometimes fearsome, depending on season and aspect. Climbing it in winter was my original motivation for this trip. While I’ve climbed some peaks in winter-like conditions, I’ve never done a fourteener during the calendar winter. Several years ago during my quest to do all four of Colorado’s great traverses (one fourteener to another) I did a link-up of the three fourteeners in the nearby Wilson group. Somehow Mt. Sneffels, despite its striking appearance and numerous quality routes, was not on my radar. The mountain first came to my attention while reading super-alpinist Steve House’s training manual (House & Johnston, 2014). At the time the authors wrote the book Steve lived just north of Ouray in Ridgway and apparently liked to run up a couple Sneffels north face routes for training. For more information I went to Dawson’s Guide to the Colorado Fourteeners and that author listed Mt. Sneffels as his favorite fourteener. Dawson noted that the approach to Mt. Sneffels, Camp Bird Mine Rd., is plowed higher than many during winter. That sealed it. I had to go check it out. When I presented the idea to super-psyched, all-around badass climber Mihail Krumov, he jumped on board as he always does. Then Mihail remembered he needs to eat which requires money which requires showing up at work. Unlike last Fall’s Long’s Peak/Casual Route blitz that we completed from Champaign and back over a long weekend, Mt. Sneffels in winter would require more time. It was not feasible for him to leave Champaign for that long, especially with his upcoming Chamonix trip. Could I handle a winter ascent of a fourteener alone? I doubted it. Still, I’ve learned over time not to make judgements about routes from too far away. It’s best to get up close, preferably on the route, before deciding if it can or can’t be done. I would at least go and see. Besides, if Mt. Sneffels was not feasible, I had an exciting Plan B, the Ouray Ice Park.
The Ouray Ice Park is located in a box canyon less than a mile from the center of town. A bridge on Camp Bird Mine Rd. spans the ice park so you pass over it on the approach to Mt. Sneffels. I overheard a local say something about 200 ice and mixed routes in the park (visible from the roads around town are many more huge backcountry ice and mixed routes in the mountains). Apparently nothing in the park is taller than half a 70m rope and the entire place has been developed for easy top roping with canyon-top walkways and bolted or tree anchors. Running along the rim of the canyon is a large water main pipe serving the city of Ouray. Before the park was formally developed climbers would take advantage of naturally occurring ice in the canyon as well as ice that formed from leaks in the water main, leaks they sometimes enhanced or caused. Now the water main is legally tapped by a system of pipes, valves, and spray nozzles to create the ice park. The ice park is maintained and used extensively by the local guide services, though the city owns it. And it’s free! Climbers are encouraged to support the park through a membership. Though I drove over it twice the night I arrived, I did not locate the park. I also drove the four miles up Camp Bird Mine Rd. to the gate barring further car approach to Mt. Sneffels. On the way I stopped to chat with a hardy young couple as they set up their tent in a plowed-in Forest Service campground high on Camp Bird Mine Rd. I was impressed. It was frigid.
Tuesday I awoke early, nervous and excited. After many years and experiences in the woods I’m fairly comfortable as a rock climber and general mountaineer. While I’ve done nothing special in climbing, I’ve tried to consistently challenge myself while climbing in the best style I can. Ice not so much. I’ve only climbed ice a half-dozen times and only in our lovely little Starved Rock State Park on the same four modest formations. I have been reading, hearing, and thinking about Ouray ice climbing for nearly 25 years. These were experienced ice climbers on substantial ice and mixed routes. I felt unsure, and sort of like an awkward beginner again. I also felt an urgency to get climbing but I wasn’t sure exactly what or how. Again, I drove around the town and south toward where the park was located. I drove up Camp Bird Mine Rd. and did not see the ice park. I did not yet realize that it was too early and the climbers had not started arriving in the parking lots for the 8am opening. I went back to my hotel and prepped my ice gear. I adjusted my crampons to my gorgeous new yellow boots, sharpened my tools, made a thermos of coffee, and packed plenty of ice screws and even some rock gear. I hoped to find a partner and lead climb. This time through I located the park and began to explore. My usual strategy for enticing a stranger to partner with me is to locate someone at the base looking bored and offer to lead a route if they will belay and second. It’s generally been effective. However, I did not account for the fact that most people here were either top roping or being guided so putting up a rope had no particular value. I was SOL. Determined not to have another day go by without touching tool to ice I soloed briefly on the kid’s practice wall. I was feeling a little dejected after so much training and effort to get here. I needed a new strategy.
On my way into the ice park that day two guys, upon seeing I was alone, asked if I was planning to rope solo. Though my hope of scoring climbing partners right out of the car was not realized, their comment stuck with me. I had not planned on soloing as a primary strategy but I reconsidered after I realized partner scrounging was going to be difficult. Soloing would insure I climbed, even if it was not the preferred swapping leads with a partner. Paradoxically, I also hoped soloing might help me break the ice with other climbers. Whether out of pity or curiosity, a solo climber is approachable. I’ve rope soloed a few times on rock and ice but the Silent Partner device I own is not made for wet or frozen ropes so I was off to the gear shop. They had many self-belay options and it was somewhat overwhelming given the potential consequences of getting it wrong, not to mention the cost. I avoided the impulse to buy, even though it would delay my arrival at the ice park the next day. I also needed to decide if I would try to summit Mt. Sneffels or abandon that plan. The weather was clear and holding, but it was forecast to deteriorate later in the week. It was now, or not this trip. I needed to commit to either rope soloing the ice park or a Mt. Sneffels summit bid. The gate across Camp Bird Mine Rd. left several miles of walking to get to the mountain and the start of a route. I didn’t much doubt my lungs or legs, but after three knee surgeries involving both knees, and decades of wear and tear, I no longer take those particular body parts for granted. What if I couldn’t walk out on my own? Trapped on a fourteener alone in winter is no joke. A former UIUC Climbing Club member paid with body parts when he and a group of buddies got trapped overnight in similar circumstances. They were Navy Seals. The avalanche risk was also a major concern. No partner, no one to dig me out. On the other hand I hate to back off any goal I set. Yet here I was in ice climbing heaven. I’ve climbed a bunch of fourteener routes, but relatively little ice. Maybe I should take full advantage. I did a lot of psychological tossing and turning that night as I wrestled with the two options. The ice park won and, in retrospect, I’m glad.
I was outside the gear shop when it opened at 9am on Wednesday. With luck I got a different, but equally knowledgeable, salesperson. A second opinion was important to me since I have little of my own experience or knowledge with this climbing medium or these devices and techniques. The young man walked me through the options and helped me understand how to rig and dial-in the two-part system: Petzl Micro Traxion and CAMP Lift. He showed me how to tie a safe chest harness from a sling. We had a funny and poignant interaction when I busted myself for repeatedly and reflexively reaching to help him do his job. He had one arm. Solo trips encourage interactions with strangers and fond memories may be the result.
With my new top-rope solo system in my pack, and a vague and fading idea of how to use it in my head, I raced off to the ice park. I hustled to the beginner’s area known as the School Room. I was so excited I didn’t care how goofy I looked. I was greeting strangers and giving them verbal high-fives. It took nearly an hour of fumbling and checking and rechecking my system before I was confident enough to climb up any ice. But as I dialed it in and gained that confidence, even taking one small unexpected fall on the system, it was on. I did nine laps on three routes, each about 80 feet tall and slightly slabby to near vertical in places. Time was short so I set a goal of stepping up the difficulty with each successive route. Six hours passed quickly and blissfully, in that state the behavioral scientists call “flow”, where skill and challenge are perfectly matched. A five-minute walk to the car and a three-minute drive got me back to my hotel. After coffee and a small meal I crashed. As I was settling into sleep I jerked awake from a dream of falling unroped.
On Thursday I was on my usual game. Up early and beat the crowds to the ice. I passed through the still empty School Room on my way into the harder Mixed Alcove area. The Mixed Alcove area, though close to the School Room, is somewhat hidden from view and it has a rope and warning sign stretched across it’s entrance. It is also taller, steeper, and offers fewer rests. I was sticking to my commitment to up the challenge with each new route. The creek rushed by noisily underfoot, mostly invisible, appearing occasionally through melt holes in the ice; holes you didn’t want to fall in. I had glanced into this area the day before but retreated a little intimidated. Today I got right to work and spent an amazing seven hours climbing numerous laps on variations off two rope lines. I was alone in my private frozen grotto most of the morning. A couple climbers needing to pee ventured in and then quickly departed. I could hear people next door in the School Room and we could see each other when on-route. But when off the rope I was hidden. It was a cool spot. From time to time I would venture out to visit with the climbers nearby. Their interest in my climbing and my increasing confidence helped me push past my reserved nature. I inquired about their knowledge of solo systems generally and my set-up specifically. We chatted briefly about ice climbing gear, routes, and “where ya from”. In the afternoon a few guys joined me in the Mixed Alcove area. Two were friendly novices who were almost as excited as me. The other, a local guy, was a fit-looking, well-equipped, alpha dog type who was planning to rope solo as well. Initially he seemed like a prime candidate to ask about my system as he had a solo device too. Err, no. Alpha Dog took my questions as an opportunity to throw a couple condescending and crappy verbal jabs at me. I took a deep breath and let it slide, barely. This minor negative interaction aside, it was another amazing day of climbing.
Back at the hotel I crashed as soon as I hit the bed around 5pm (the ice park is open 8-4). When I awoke at 7pm my left knee was on fire. I had been doing more gymnastic moves that day but I had no specific recollection of injuring my knee. In their current depleted condition it does not take much. I was bummed. I had hoped to get another half-day in on the ice and even had a long, challenging route selected. But this really hurt. I was limping noticeably and there was only me to notice. To ease the pain I propped up my leg with a pillow while I slept. Friday morning was a challenge. I was physically drained and the time alone was wearing on my motivation. The pull of home and family was growing stronger even though it would take me several more days to get there. My knee hurt to the point that I cried out when the weight of my climbing boot caused the leg to twist slightly. I invoked the “Don’t decide about climbing a route from a distance” rule and went back to the park. I’m so glad I did. It was the best day.
If you Google the ice park you will see images of a tall ice-covered canyon wall with a small house on the rim. This is the Pic O’ the Vic wall and the Lead Only area and the photos are taken from an adjacent bridge spanning the canyon. The routes here are among the tallest (120-130 feet) and steepest (WI 4-5) of the ice climbs in the park, though more difficult mixed routes exist in other areas. I had walked past this area each day, stopping on the bridge along with the rest to watch mostly top ropers and the occasional leader tackle these sustained and intimidating routes. I had watched one guy lead a particularly dark, broken, and thin route downstream near the bridge foundation. It looked scary as hell on lead. To survive the frozen bombs the leader unleashed, the belayer hid in the mouth of a cave fronted by huge fangs of ice descending from the overhanging wall. Even with the top rope, that route would be pushing my commitment level and fear factor. On day one it seemed far too hard; on day three I wanted to climb it.
As I rigged an anchor I focused on maintaining a slow pace. It was nice not to hurry this last morning. I would be climbing routes that had no crowds rushing to them. As I threw my fixed rope toward the dim canyon floor I was politely informed that I was in a lead only area (hence it’s name Lead Only Area) so unless I wanted to ditch the rope and free solo, I had to move. Though initially irked, this turned out to be a good thing as I then moved to two superb routes at the upstream end of the Pic O’ the Vic wall. Both routes were vertical to slightly overhanging through most of their length. They were each over 120’ tall. The routes were somewhat hidden between two arêtes and in a particularly narrow section of the canyon. Huge sheets of ice, ice pillars, ice daggers of every size, and large rounded hummocks of ice were suspended everywhere. The rushing water drowned out most other sounds, resulting in a place that felt enclosed, isolated, and just a bit menacing. On both routes only the first few meters were visible from the top. I didn’t know if the routes touched the ground or if they would require transferring from rappel to soloing on the rope. I had not practiced this. Were they solid routes or chandeliered choss piles? What were the rests like? Fairly confident I would work it out I tossed my rope into space and watched it disappear.
The first route was steep, long, challenging, and fun. So fun I ran two laps on it, nearly forgetting about my lame knee by the second burn. The final route was the icing on the whole damn cake. As I peered over the edge of the canyon I could see 25 ft. of slabby rock with a thin veneer of clear ice smeared across it. Below that was a hummock of ice, the overhanging head of a large tapering ice pillar. My view of more than 2/3 of the lower route was obscured. I was giddy. Technical mixed climbing, (i.e. climbing rock, snow, and ice on the same steep route) has long been a goal. While the top rope was a minor buzzkill, having no leashes, no partner, no backup tool, and no knot connecting me to the rope kept me focused. I was stoked to drop in and see what lay below the glassy rock. As I cleared the ice hump and the lower route became clear I was not disappointed. The canyon was less than 20 feet across near the bottom and the creek bed was a mix of frozen waves and open swirling holes of latte colored ice water. The area acted as a giant funnel for ice debris from the walls around it. The bottom of the route was a long icicle that tapered as it neared, but did not reach, the ground. Six feet above the canyon floor my rope bag swung free in space. It overhung! I lowered as far down the slender ice shaft as I dare, clumsily switched from rappel to rope solo, and began climbing out of the narrow, cold slot. It was good. Long, steep, consistent, and less beaten out than earlier routes. The bottom and middle sections were delicate, gymnastic, and vertical to slightly overhung icicle climbing. Then, after pulling through nearly a hundred feet of steep ice, I reached that glorious rock section. It was good that it required slow and precise climbing. I wanted this moment to last. I pecked at thin ice, I hooked some crimps, I cammed a pick, and I stood on front points gently placed on thin rock edges. I laughed out loud as I teetered just in balance. What a blast! I pulled onto the canyon rim breathing hard but feeling full of calm power. Perfect time to head for home.
The trip back to Denver from Ouray was relaxed. I had a good post-climbing high going. I spent Friday night at Erin’s and began the 15-hour grind back to Champaign about 4:30am on Saturday. Animal sightings are always an important part of any road-trip. This time I saw a bald eagle in flight, a herd of 15 elk calmly walking near town, and a small herd of Whitetails including a couple multipoint bucks. By far the best sighting was in western Kansas on the drive home. Out on the Great Plains they roll hay and stack the bales into long tall prism shaped piles. At the crest of one particularly massive pile, basking in the morning sun was a gorgeous large red fox. It sat upright and still with its bushy tail wrapped around its haunches. Its burnt red coat was a small flame atop the straw colored peak. The mouse hunting must have been good in and around the hay mountain. My reverie was soon broken however.
While in Ouray I had noticed a loud squealing noise coming from the front of the Subaru and the ABS light came on. It seemed to correct itself after pumping the brakes and I thought it might be related to all the ice building up around the wheels. About four hours into my drive back to Champaign I began to notice some looseness in the steering and a faint squealing noise. At first I was not sure if it was the combined effect of wind, cheap tires, the roof-top box, and rain grooves in the pavement. But as time and miles passed I became certain something serious was wrong. I was in the middle of nowhere eager to get home, or at least close to human habitation and an auto parts store or mechanic. I pulled in to a truck stop when I became concerned I would be pulled over for DUI with the car lurching around so much. I inquired about local mechanics but none were to be found on a Saturday at 3pm out on the Kansas plain. I crawled under and around the car looking for the problem. I pried off one axle nut cover, all good. A loose axle nut seemed like a far-fetched idea anyway. I should have removed the other three covers. Getting somewhat desperate now I jumped back in the car and pulled out onto the interstate. Less than two miles down the road the loud grinding and severe wobbling started. Luckily I was approaching an exit and I quickly got the car slowed and off the roadway before it ground to a stop. She was done. A quick inspection revealed a cockeyed front wheel. When I popped the axle nut cover the nut dropped into my palm. The front wheel was disconnected from the car. This was a sobering moment when I imagined losing a wheel on the treacherous roads around Ouray, or worse, injuring someone else. With a major assist from Kim and Will in Champaign, Bill and his flatbed tow truck were there in less than 30 minutes. For $120 Bill towed me ¼ mile to a nearby auto repair shop along a rural highway on the edge of Topeka. I appreciated the extra care he took to not further injure my wounded car. A real pro. In our short drive to the repair shop we shared our dream of someday leaving the big flat for the mountains of Colorado. Unfortunately, the shop Bill towed me to was closed until Monday. It was Saturday around 3:30pm. Kindly, Bill loaned me a large block so I was able to jack, level, and stabilize the car. I dumped the bag of tools on the pavement and tore down the damaged front end. Wheel, hub, steering knuckle, CV shaft, ball joint, steering linkage, ABS lead, and brake caliper; everything but pressing out the failed wheel bearing. By 5pm I was degreasing myself the best I could with Bronner’s and my limited water. Rees, a friendly local, was driving by, saw my gear spread around the parking lot, and checked in on me. Though he offered a lot of assistance, I didn’t need much, and I was unwilling to leave the car and its contents. Rees came back later with a large jug of water that was clutch for making coffee and muesli. Understandably my scruffy, rough, and slightly desperate appearance did not make a great first impression on the family members Rees had in his car. I was touched by their generosity and concern.
Around 9pm that night I crawled in to the back of the Subaru. By positioning myself cattycorner I was barely able to fit my 6’ 2” frame. I blocked the windows with gear bags to diminish the bright light shining in, arranged my pillows and pads, and passed out. I was so spent I slept better than I usually do at home. I crawled out around 7:30am Sunday, late for me. With Rees’ water I washed up and enjoyed a hot breakfast and a couple strong cups of coffee as I packed my gear. A rental car was coming at 11am. After transferring a small mountain of gear into my little rental, I bolted for Champaign, finally arriving home at 8:30pm Sunday. On Tuesday, with my sore butt only partially recovered, I drove 16 hours round trip to Topeka to drop the rental car and retrieve my repaired Subaru from the shop. Is $586 for installing one wheel bearing set highway robbery? The parts were worth about $50, I had already done most of the disassembly, and the shop was right next to a highway. None-the-less, I departed Topeka for Champaign grateful for the relatively small price paid for my serious DIY screw-up. I was the last one to have installed the axle nut before it spun itself off. That was on me. To make sure I didn’t get off too lightly I drove through a heinous ice storm between KC and Columbia, with many smashed-up and spun-out cars and semis littering the interstate. It’s good to be home.
Trip Report by Rich Weston
Long’s Peak Summit via Stettner’s Ledges to Upper Kiener’s, Descending the Keyhole -At 4 am on August 22, 2018, under a black sky full of stars Mihail Krumov and me, Rich Weston, headed back up the trail for a second attempt to summit Long’s Peak via a 5th class rock route. We had turned back the previous morning just an hour into the approach facing rising rain and wind. At 14,255 feet the summit of Long’s Peak is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s steep, nearly 1,700-foot-tall east face, were most of the harder climbing is located, is divided into upper and lower sections by Broadway, the long ledge cutting across the face about half way up. The sheer 900-foot-tall upper east face, the famous Diamond, was visible from the UIUC Climbing Club group camp some five miles away. Our working plan was to ascend Long’s lower east face via the 800-foot-tall Alexander’s Chimney (Grade III, 5.2-5.6) to Broadway. A short traverse along Broadway would connect us to Upper Kiener’s (II, 5.2-5.4). Upper Kiener’s continues for about 1,000 feet from Broadway to the summit of Long’s while avoiding the nearly vertical Diamond by climbing along its lower angle edge. Mihail and me would descend the popular Keyhole route (II, 3rd class). It was our “working plan” because we had experienced significant rain since the Climbing Club arrived in RMNP and more was possible during our climb. The prospect of being trapped in a massive funnel like Alexander’s Chimney during heavy rain obliged us to consider other options. It took about 2.5 to 3 hours of moderate, steady hiking under approximately 35 pound packs to reach Chasm Lake at the base of Long’s where we rested briefly and replenished our water. The steep east face of Long’s Peak, crowned by the Diamond, dominates this quintessential alpine cirque. After a break of 20-30 minutes we resumed picking our way over and around the jumble of granite boulders that fill the space between the frigid lake and the orange, grey, and black walls from which they fell. The obvious changes in the morning sky told us that the pre-dawn stars were not harbingers of drier weather. We were racing the rain clock already. When Mihail and me reached the steep snowfield blocking easy access to our planned route, we stopped to examine and discuss our options one final time. To our far left was Lamb’s Slide, the moderate snow slope ascending right to left for 1,000 feet to join Broadway. During a previous Climbing Club trip to RMNP I watched a climber on Lamb’s Slide lose his footing, slide and tumble down out of control, crash into the boulders at the base, break his hip, and earn a helicopter ride. Lamb’s Slide was out of the question as we had neither axe nor crampons and we wanted a more challenging route. To our near left was Alexander’s Chimney. We could not see all the way in to it, but what was visible appeared wet, claustrophobic, and depressing, not to mention truly dangerous if rainwater runoff collected there. Alexander’s is a popular mixed route (III, WI4, M4) so the risk of significant water flow was real. Straight in front of us was the 1927 classic, Stettner’s Ledge’s (III, 5.8+ via Hornsby’s direct variation), a route I climbed about 10 years ago, although then we did not continue to the summit. I was torn. Having climbed both Alexander’s and Stettner’s previously I knew the climbing would be easier and faster on Alexander’s and time was becoming a bigger factor as the clouds continued to build. But the wet, dark setting was unappealing and the risk of hypothermia worried me. Stettner’s offered drier rock and a more aesthetic and exposed climb. But it would be a slower, more involved undertaking. The route finding is trickier, the grade is higher, and the amount of climbing at the grade is greater. Finally, we had a skimpy rack we had selected for Alexander’s, an “easy” route we did not anticipate would require a lot of protecting. We had failed to bring more protection should we decide to switch to a more gear intensive route. Mihail jumped at the challenge of Stettner’s and we began a sketchy, crab-like, ascending traverse across hard, sun cupped, steepening snow that left us about 150-200 feet above the boulders. It would have been a nasty scraping, tumbling fall. But, without incident we reached and crossed the small bergschrund, soloed some easy rock, and eventually identified a reasonable place to build an initial anchor. It had taken about 3.5 to 4 hours to reach this point. We spent the next several hours, sometimes confident and sometimes confused, swapping leads on the nearly 900-foot-long system of ledges, cracks, and flakes that is Stettner’s. Our route information consisted of a brief written description torn from Gerry Roach’s Guide to the Colorado 14ers that we consulted only once or twice. We stopped using it after we went astray early in the route. Instead we tried to read the route, the terrain, the tat, and other “climber sign”. Predictably we got slightly off route a couple times resulting in more challenging climbing and slowed progress. Mihail led the more difficult Hornsby Direct variation onto Broadway, an impressive pitch at 13,000 feet with a pack on after an already tiring day. As I pulled onto Broadway happy for the toprope it started to rain, going from a sprinkle to a soaking rain in about 10 minutes. Though we were relieved to be done with the steepest and most technically challenging terrain before the rain hit, we had about 1,000 feet of wet 3rd, 4th, and 5th class rock to cover before we could summit and begin the hours-long descent of the Keyhole route. Not cool. We stayed roped as we hastily traversed about 150 feet across Broadway and the base of the Notch Couloir to the start of Upper Kiener’s. We made the well-known move around the boulder blocking Broadway that forced us to low-crawl inches from an 800-foot-drop off our right side. That was a particularly focused moment given Broadway’s nightmarish history of climbers dying in huge falls from it. After this last bit of roped climbing the gear, rope, and climbing shoes went into our packs for the duration and rain gear came out. The wind and rain intensified, but never got severe. Mihail and I each donned our floppy hiking boots and turned toward Upper Kiener’s as the lowering clouds reached our heads and rolled into the chasm below. For much of the length of Upper Kiener’s the climber is exposed to the awesome, steep drop down the east face of Long’s to the Mill’s Glacier a thousand feet or more below. The first two pitches are listed at 5.2-5.4. At that moment with my soaked gloves and Mihail’s cold, bare hands, our loaded packs, wet, sometimes smooth granite, and less-than-ideal footwear, it felt harder. The knowledge that a slip could result in a monster fall down the east face kept us mentally locked in. In challenging conditions, on worn legs, Mihail and me quickly soloed up the opening technical pitches of Upper Kiener’s, through the 4th class staircase, and around the open-book dihedral that appears to block access to the summit. The time and deteriorating conditions dictated that we move as quickly as possible but the thick cloud we were in made it difficult to identify major features on the route. At times I could only be certain of the correctness of my position by returning to the very edge of the route bordering the Diamond and peering down into the kaleidoscopic mix of rock, cloud, and space. I felt that in my gut. After the dihedral it was just a few hundred feet of 3rd class staggering over boulders to reach the expansive, flat summit of Long’s. We were alone on top of the most frequently attempted 14er in Colorado, it was socked in with clouds, the wind was blowing, and it was alternating between rain and sleet. I’m guessing temperatures were in the lower 40s, although, with wind chill, I really don’t know. With all my layers on I got cold fast once I stopped moving. My fingers were going numb inside my extra pair of dry, insulated gloves. We had seen snow on the summit for several hours a day or two before, so we knew it could get colder still. We checked the clock for the first time since leaving the car. We were concerned when we saw it was almost 5pm. It was later than we had hoped. Mihail and me had been going steadily for 13 hours and we wanted to rest. But we still had more than seven miles and 5,000 vertical feet of wet, sometimes difficult terrain to descend, and we had less than 3 hours of daylight remaining. We were in clear violation of the mountaineering rule of “get on top early”. It was important that we begin descending as soon and as rapidly as possible. After less than 15 minutes on top Mihail and me started down the Keyhole. This circuitous route involves hiking, boulder hoping, and easy scrambling along ledges and in gullies. Under good conditions it is a tiring, moderately dangerous, but technically easy route. A fall is not likely, but the drops are big. Only about half the people who attempt the Keyhole succeed and, of the 60 folks who have died on Long’s, most were on the Keyhole. For us, at that moment, it was indeed a moderately dangerous, frustrating, and tiring slog made worse by rain, thick clouds, and our growing fatigue. We slipped and slide down the Homestretch. We staggered along the narrow, wet ledges on uncertain legs. We cursed and complained, but mostly we retreated into ourselves and suffered quietly. We felt considerable relief as we passed through the odd and amazing Keyhole feature and onto the broad expanse of the Boulderfield. Technical difficulty, weather, daylight, and route finding were no longer serious concerns. Now fatigue and injury were the biggest threats to reaching the car that day. We endured a final 2 to 2.5 hours of monotonous, painful, and exhausting boulder hoping and hiking before we wobbled to the car by headlamp at 9pm, 17 hours after we started, beaten down but intact. One final crux for me was getting in my old Subaru 9 hours after flogging ourselves on Long’s and driving solo for 17 hours back to Champaign-Urbana with no cruise control, no AC, and just AM/FM radio. That was some serious suffering.
April of 2017, I came up with the idea of doing a Sufferfest, inspired by that of Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright where basically we come up with a big climbing challenge and throw ourselves at it. Taking reference from 24 Hour Horseshoe Hell, and the fact it was UIUC's 150th anniversary, our challenge was for a team to complete 150 climbs in Jackson over a weekend. People were on board with this idea, and several people expressed interest. I made it my responsibility to ensure this event got off the ground.
Fast forward a semester, we got several teams interested. The weather was not cooperative, people's schedules got busy, many bailed and things fell through. We postponed it another semester and again after planning for several weekends, we got rained out time after time (though a team of Mina, Dylan Walsh, Logan and Khory did attempt it but got rained out on their second day, solid attempt nonetheless).
Eventually we were left with literally the last weekend of school during finals week. Everyone else had given up on this, and honestly I felt really defeated. But a brave/foolish three warriors took up the call of the challenge. And so a team of four was born; Mihail-Iceman-Krumov, Logan-Dangercan-Dodd, Eric-Eric-Connelly and myself, Shao-Sketchyman-Hao. It was finals week, the weather was looking like trash yet again, and our window was looking slim. But I said fuck it, let's do this cause I needed to get this stone off my chest and finish what I started. With barely 5 hours sleep and a take-home final yet to be completed, we left on Saturday morning for Jackson with our objective; 150 climbs among the four of us, within 24 hours.
We stopped by Arby's for lunch and our last proper restroom break. Mihail packed on the calories with the double fisted Gyros, while I dealt with my slight panic attack of realizing I left my approach shoes on the side of the road in Urbana. But it was too late to turn back, so I could only pray that my $2 flip flops from a Mexican grocery store from Potrero Chico would protect my feet from the battering that was approaching. It is also worth mentioning that most of the drive down was learning more about Logan and acknowledging that we know so little about the man himself (like how he's a master morel mushroom hunter).
2pm, we arrived at Jackson main lot, geared up, started the timer and headed for Railroad Rock. Conditions were looking poor; there was no rain, but humidity was high, and there was a ton of groundwater seeping into the canyon from the past days of thunderstorms. Free standing boulders were still wet, and many walls were soaked. But we powered on nonetheless. Mihail and Eric started with a bang on Wild at Heart (5.11a), while Logan and I took it easy with Electrocutioner (5.8).
Two down at Railroad and we headed for Beaver Wall and Jimmy's. Knocked out most of the easy stuff there and slowly we raised the count, and a highlight for me was finally sending Spiders from Mars (5.10b). We also had a quick dinner there, which was where I realized unlike my other teammates, who came ready for this 24 hour ordeal with caffeine pills and energy drinks and real food, I was severely under prepared, with my god awful plan for food prep being 5 granola bars and a box of 12 butter croissants from Walmart. I should be a nutritionist.
As we clocked about 10 climbs each, the sun began to set and thus began our night climbing saga. I was pretty proud of sending Flinging Hog (5.10d) in the dark, but I was unsurprisingly going to be one-upped by Eric-FlashYourProject-Connelly later on. By about 10pm, we each bagged 13 climbs, a third our way through the objective.
We moved to Battle Axe Tower after, where we all got on The Sophomore (5.9) that was still dripping and that sucked. But honestly none of that mattered cause we got to see Eric do Viking Blood (5.12c) in the dark with only one take. How? Cause he's Eric. Why? Cause he's Eric.
The Gallery was up next, and honestly up to this point, the whole thing has felt pretty manageable so far. It felt like just another day in Jackson, having a good old time with friends out, climbing way past dark and having a blast. That crisp cool air that set in as we passed midnight, the light from the climbers' headlamps barely illuminating the crag, the starry sky barely visible behind the foliage of the forest. What a perfect scene. We felt great, and at about 10 hours in for 15 climbs, our pace was on schedule. It was going pretty well.
Haha if only
The Gallery for me was the turning point. I pumped myself out with the string of bulgy 5.10 climbs in that area; Group Therapy, Psychotherapy, Earthbound Misfits, Cut Throat, The Walrus, and that shitty 5.9 climb that I still dislike at the left end. By the end of the Gallery, my stoke tank was drained. I had a bunch of takes and a few whippers, I only sent one climb there, my skin was shredded from the grippy sandstone and flaking and pulling through probably half a mile of rope by then. I was hungry but I didn't want to eat another fucking butter croissant at 3am. I was sick of slapping slopers and pulling myself over those god damn bulges , I was tired of trying to look for footholds in the dark.
Boy the fun was just beginning.
We took a quick break at the main falls (which was raging, never seen so much water flow before) before arriving at Spleef's Peak. It was 3am and we were 21 climbs in. Our plan was to do Spleef's in the dark cause they were relatively easy climbs on slab which would give us time to recover from the pumpfest at the Gallery.
But honestly Spleef's broke me. The fatigue, the lack of light, my toes screaming from so much smearing and edging, my aching shoulders and dried fingertips, the increasing humidity, all of that accumulated and I basically fell on every climb at Spleef's, even the ones I onsighted in my very first year of climbing back as a freshman. I was just so frustrated and tired and in a whole lot of discomfort. And this is probably where my Sufferfest really began.
At about 5.30am, we only just finished our 4 climbs each at Spleef's. The sun began to rise and we tucked our headlamps away. We proceeded to Lovely Tower where I barely managed to send the notorious Fine Nine (5.9) which was soaked along the right side, so the final bolt was extra spicy and quite a challenge. Who Let the Snakes Out (5.10b) was also wet but we made it work, though back cleaning that was a pain.
With 27 climbs in, we were about 10 climbs away from our goal. But at this stage we were all feeling it (maybe except Mihail). We barely pulled through two easy 5.9s at Rainy Day Roof, and at that point Eric kinda just crashed and so Logan and I went ahead to Hidden Peaks while he caught some shuteye.
While Logan took his morning dump, Mihail got on the runout Monument (5.9) and I did Stubborn Swede (5.8). When it came to Logan to do Stubborn Swede, he was struggling. Mind you this is the guy who sets the 12s at the ARC and I have never seen him fight so hard pulling on jugs. Eric made the call that he felt it was too unsafe for him to continue climbing, and judging by the state we were in, it was clear that the rest of us were on the same page. The risk of us getting injured at this juncture was relatively high and so we bailed in the end. On the way out we met a couple of familiar faces and eventually clocked back in at 20 hours since the start. We proceeded to Marion for lunch of which I only remember about 3 minutes of a car ride. Given how exhausted we all were, Mihail did the smart thing to catch some sleep (on the grass in a Cracker Barrel parking lot) before heroically driving us all the way back home.
I always tell people - You never have a bad day in Jackson. I think this still stands: Sufferfest was not a bad day at all. Would I ever do this again? No. Was it a painful experience? Yes. Incredibly exhausting? For sure. But at the end of the day, I still had a kick ass time full of Type II fun with a bunch of great friends who were mad enough to join me on this, raising money for a cause we believe in, and pushing ourselves to the limit because we relish in the suffering. We gave it our all, and we left Jackson with stronger friendships, a whole lot of pain, and one heck of a story to tell.
I'd call that a pretty good day.
Buckle up kid's I'm back from Mexico and it's TRIP REPORT TIME. As usual there's a TL:DR section at the bottom.
EL POTRERO CHICO (THE LITTLE CORAL)
I first heard of EPC two years ago when a bunch of people from the club went during winter, and I sorta had my eyes on this place for a while now. Feels so surreal to have finally gone there and matched the places from those pictures to my own eyes being there in person. Anyway a group of us went to EPC this winter at different times, and for the most parts I'll be talking about my part of the trip.
The climbing at EPC is right outside town. If you see the photo above, past the "Potrero Chico" sign along the road you will reach the crag. Most of the campsites are right along the road leading into the crag, and town is about a 5 min drive from the crag along this road.
EPC is just outside the town of Hidalgo, about an hour away from the nearest big city of Monterrey. To get to Monterrey you have a few options
From Monterrey, you can either take a bus into town. I heard it's rather cheap but I didn't get details on that. The more common option is take a taxi service (in our case, Sean) who will be able to pick you up and drop you at your accommodations accordingly. This costs about $35-50. There's a Facebook Group where people post about accommodation options and also ask about sharing a cab or something, probably worth checking out and just asking questions if you have any.
Generally as pretty economical (or broke) climbers, many people at EPC opt for camping out. There's a variety of options to camp, and most of these campgrounds have better accommodation options such as a hostel room or even a house for rent (albeit more expensive). All campgrounds have a communal kitchen where you can use boxes and refrigerators to keep your food and booze, toilets and showers, and usually a restaurant as well.
The following are the main campgrounds that we know of/have stayed at. There are more options that you can research on.
Mexico isn't exactly in good light when it comes to safety, and the city of Monterrey has seen an increase in crime rates recently. That said, it is unlikely you are a victim as long as you take decent safety precautions. Also it is possible to avoid the city almost entirely during your visit to EPC. As for Hidalgo, it is much safer, and the climber-centric community is really friendly there. The locals are also super awesome friendly people. You can probably hitch-hike in and out of town for the most parts (we got a ride from a nice local driving along the main road, and two years ago Amanda hitch-hiked THE POLICE). During our stay there, we walked out on the streets at night as a group and never felt like we were in any sort of danger per say, and we didn't really frequent town all that much. So anyway, at least from what I know, you would go into town for 4 main reasons:
You can get most of your essentials from the grocery store (marked on map). Selection is limited but I doubt you'll really need much more. There's a bigger supermarket further North but you'd probably require a car to get there. Groceries are pretty cheap and probably about half that of what you would pay in the States. Essentials from the store are mainly
There are a bunch of convenience/booze stores throughout town (there's like 5 that you pass by before even reaching the grocery store). You can get snacks and stuff there but there isn't really much. Only thing I can remember is that some stores will charge you a little more for beer and that's cause you have to return the glass bottle for recycling for them to refund you that extra bit. Also there are a couple of roadside stores selling food (in houses or in food trucks) but we never really tried any of it.
However the one day that we did try the food in town was essentially their version of a farmers market, which happens Tuesdays and Fridays. The one on Tuesday is along a street about 2 blocks south of the grocery store. I did not go to the Friday one but I heard it is at a different location and is much bigger. The Tuesday market was just a row of stores that were set up on the street, selling things from produce to local foods to clothes and even had a bingo table you could sit and play. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND taking a rest day of sorts to go visit this market and try the street food, and also shop for groceries if you need, it took us no more than an hour to see everything so think of it as going to town for lunch. It reminds me a lot of night markets that you see in Taiwan or equivalents around Asia.
On of the few things I remember having were Sopes, where they had like flour tortilla dough discs about the size of your palm and they toast it then deep fry it and cut it open and toss a bunch of amazing toppings inside. IT IS SO GOOD and it's like a dollar each WHATTTTTT damn it now I'm hungry but totally try that it's so good. We also had freshly squeezed orange juice which was so tasty and also Walking Tacos which were basically nachos made inside a chips bag (usually Doritos). There's probably a lot more you can get but I also already bought like 3 large pieces of fried chicken so I was forced to stop eating.
When Mexico decide to start 2018 with some god damn snow you know that no one is going to be climbing, so everyone chills at the local cafe of El Búho Cafe. It's run by a bunch of climbers who are staying here for the long run (I believe it closes in summer when the climbing season is over though). The cafe's profits if I recall correctly go towards building a church for the local community. Pretty cool to see the climbing community and the locals having this symbiotic relationship. El Búho is where climbers go to chill and they have board games and books and pretty good food that is decently affordable (eggs, waffles, french toast, coffee are generally priced ~$1, stuff like a latte or hot chocolate ~$2). They sell coffee beans by the ounce, as well as merchandise such as stickers and t-shirts and also the latest guidebook (more on that later). This is a really nice place to hangout and the community is super friendly and cozy. There's free Wi-Fi but it's pretty much non-existent when there's a bunch of people. El Búho also hosts weekly barbecues every Tuesday night where they get a fire going and you can bring your food to grill and share and have a dope ass time with everyone. Highly recommend going too.
This is the last reason I can imagine you going into town, but basically if you need pesos you can withdraw from the Santander ATM in town. It's a little far away but if you go in the day time it shouldn't be a problem (I followed Kyle during the day and it was fine). At this point I'd like to mention to never change money at the US airport. The conversion rate was ~1 USD : 19 pesos and Las Vegas airport was only $1 : 16 pesos, plus a $10 service fee which was fucking bullshit. I basically paid like $50 more than I needed. If you have the time, you can go to a bank to request for a certain amount of foreign currency but that needs a few days of notice. I would suggest flying into Monterrey (or if you're driving, into any city), use the ATM to withdraw some cash using your US debit/credit card. The rate you get should be pretty decent based on the rate set by the bank. If you are unsure if the rate is good, you can always withdraw just enough to get you to Hidalgo then draw more money after.
Food in Mexico is both fantastic and affordable (just like South East Asia which you should totally go to). If you were staying here for a while and wanted to save on expenses, you can whip up a dope ass meal for less than $3 pretty easily. If you're buying from the local grocery store, most stuff are pretty standard but here are some recommendations for groceries that we enjoyed:
However if you do wish to eat out every meal, that's super affordable here too. You almost certainly can get by with less than $10/meal and it'll most likely include a big ass margarita. Also my impressions is that a good number of climbers are vegan or vegetarian and a couple of places I saw did offer those options which is nice. I didn't try all the places but here's a few that we came across.
Leo's Restaurant: Right next to La Posada. They serve this amazing red chicken in some dope ass marinade that tastes absolutely amazing. For~$6 you get a BUFFET, I REPEAT, A BUFFET. There's salsa and chips for starters, then the main meal of the chicken, rice, some vegetables and flour tortilla, and I think drinks are $1 each. Also for winter there's a nice campfire outside where people chill, and Leo's has a digital jukebox that has a good selection of songs. Really nice place to chill and hang out with people.
Checo's: Opposite Leo's. We had one meal there which was okay (I really like the guac tho). It's an indoors restaurant which is clean and has a nice toilet at the back but other than that the food is ~$5 per dish and drinks ~$1 each. Nothing too memorable but it's a nice place if you want to be warm and cozy indoors.
La Posada: Inside La Posada campground itself. Pretty Americanized, and honestly I didn't really enjoy the food. The restaurant itself looks really fancy and nice (while us people inside are probably dirty and don't look very nice). Service time was a little long, and the food itself was mediocre in my opinion. The desserts seemed nice but were limited, though that chocolate cake was the bomb. Average price for a meal ~$6.
Rancho el Sendero: In Sendero's campsite itself, beside the main kitchen. Didn't actually try any of the food other than the one day with the buffet but there seems to be a good selection at a reasonable price ~$5/meal, and drinks probably ~$1 each. The restaurant is not the nicest looking one but it has a sofa and TV which is nice. But huge selling point is the Friday night buffet, where it's all you can eat with chicken, rice, vegetables, chips, soup, and WOOD FIRED PIZZA, all for $6. It was honestly one of the best things I've ever had. Also there's a nice big campfire outside afterwards where everyone hangs out.
Face Burger: Didn't actually try this but there was a lot of hype for it. Burgers literally the size of your face. It's not really a restaurant but rather a house of one of the locals. Turns out everything's closed on Sunday so we didn't get to go, but it's one of the best places to dine out in town. Also get there early cause the other group went but at 7pm there were like 14 orders ahead of them so they gave up.
Arturo's Tacos: Serves some seriously good tacos. Can't remember what the options were but it's basically beef or pork, and you toss a bunch of cilantro and onions onto it along with some amazing salsa. The trompo tacos are basically meat tacos that are slowly grilled on a vertical cooker that roasts the outside of the meat (which is why in a big group this option will involve a bit of waiting). But it's so damn good, and each plate (which is like 5 small tacos I believe) is only $2, and soft drinks for $1. Bring some wet wipes or something cause it seemed like there wasn't a toilet you could use or even a tap to was the oil from your fingers, but hey it's so good you'll probably lick if off. The Google Maps location was not really correct but they may have updated it. It's in a small alleyway just East of the railroad.
Taco Loco: No idea what this place was called but it's basically a hole in the wall and they set up tables and chairs outside and serve like a burrito thing for dinner BUT they also have a big ass margarita. Nice place to chill with the outdoors seating and they also have a fire to keep you warm. Dinner and margarita is ~$6
Tacos Y Mas: This is the taco stand right by the entrance of the Potrero Chico sign that opens in the evenings where they'll put out a covered shelter and set up a fire outside. Good food, about $1 for a taco I believe.
Edgardo's Pizza: This is where most of the climbers seem to hangout. Edgardo has a trailer which sells pizza, climbing gear, guidebooks, and (apparently the best) margaritas (and apparently does shoe resole too). You'll know when he opens cause he'll blast music from his van which can be heard throughout the canyon (which is kinda annoying actually cause it can start pretty early when you're still on the climb). Lots of people hang out there by the fire which is nice and it's a great place to chill after a day of climbing.
There are definitely more options for food but you'll probably have to ask the locals. This website might help too.
Personally I have a stupid mistake that I made and I think it is important to share this. On the last day after topping out on the last climb, we got ready to rappel. Mihail went down first, and in the mean time I was in-direct to the wall while standing on a ledge. At some point, I realized I mixed up the biners I used and switched them out from my PAS. For about 5 seconds, I didn't realize that I had no points of contact on the wall at any point. When I was back in-direct, I was literally quite shaken by what I had just done, and even now thinking back on it, it really scares me. It didn't even occur to me that what I was doing was dangerous because I was on a ledge and the rope was right in front of me. Doing all those multipitch routes got me complacent and negligent on my safety procedures (I should have had 2 points of contact in the wall and at the very least 1 at all times). I didn't realize what I had done could have killed me. I don't mean to blow this out of proportion but I just hope that we never have to hear of an incident where someone we know gets injured or even dies from making a silly mistake that can be avoided.
EPC is basically just a canyon formed by two mountains (El Toro on one side and the other I don't know the name). One of the best things about this canyon is short approaches. Jungle Wall is literally right beside the road, and your approach to some climbs is literally two steps from the sidewalk. Even the more committing approaches took no more than 30 minutes and are steep but relatively straightforward (less the hike up to El Bobo which was a fucking nightmare).
The rock is limestone which isn't as high-friction as sandstone, but I found that this limestone was still decently grippy and full of features, which is great for an edgy boy like me who loves to edge. The rock can be sharp so get those hands ready to be bloodied especially if you're looking to hand jam. If you never climbed limestone before, it may be good to take a day to climb easier stuff to get used to it. I recommend using the first day to get used to the rock by doing single pitch climbs, because EPC boasts some solid single pitch climbs too. Another plus point for limestone is that it's really porous - most of the climbs dried out so quick we never worried about wet rock for most of the trip. Downside about the rock however is that there is still lots of choss and even large death blocks (marked with a big X) which are loose. Always be aware of the dangers and make sure you yell "ROCK" if there are any pieces falling.
For the multipitch climbs, note that there are usually rappel rings that are separate from anchor bolts. If you are climbing, use the anchor bolts unless you are the first party up or have a bad belay position, because you don't want to be using the rap rings of a party ahead of you. There's a bunch of basic multipitch etiquette that we had to learn (such as how much space to give a party ahead, or when to give up on a climb based on the queue), so make sure to not be 'that annoying party' at the crag.
Ok on a lighter note, here are a few climbs that we did and highly recommend doing. I'm sure there are more but these were all we could squeeze into our short trip to EPC. A quick point that you'll probably find beta on linking pitches, which would involve more draws and potentially a longer rope. Highly recommend bringing 24 draws (at least a few of which are alpine draws), and a 70m rope (some routes can only be rappeled with a 70)
Here are a few cool things that happened over the 10 days I was in Mexico
Man it literally hurts just typing this cause I have a blood blister on my index finger but who cares cause my stoke tank from HCR is still full and I am excited to write about this amazing place that I have fallen in love with so buckle up kids it’s time for another trip report. Also I'm still as long winded as ever so there's a TL:DR section below.
HORSESHOE CANYON RANCH (HCR)
Some basics and admin stuff about HCR first
Now that that’s out of the way it’s time for me to unnecessarily recount everything that happened in those four days chronologically in great detail.
Sketchy van left campus around 4pm on Friday and since we’d reach HCR pretty late we figured we’d save the $25 on camping and just sleep at a Walmart in Branson. The weather was oddly warm but pretty welcomed at this time of the year. None of us really slept all that well for those few hours but this is what we get of being cheap.
At the crack of dawn we left Walmart and took the windy road into HCR. Take note that the road in isn’t all that bad but there are some sections which are quite steep and if it was muddy the drive may not be all that pleasant (I think sketchy van may have had troubles getting out if it was raining). As with Jackson there are potholes in certain areas and you may want to keep your eyes on the road if you don’t have a decent amount of clearance.
A little after sunrise we met up with the rest of the gang at the West Campground just up the hill from the Trading Post and bought our climbing passes to get ready for some climbing. We had quite a group (~20 of us) which I don’t know how it came to be but I just added a lot of people who said “I’m interested” and here we are. We were generally split in 3 groups; the big kids (Eric, Dylan, Mina and Logan) who were getting on some hard stuff, the crack boys (Peter and Mihail) who were getting crusty the whole trip and the rest who were a mix of regular and newbie climbers. I was trying to push myself and so I tried to stick with the big kids and I’m glad I did cause I pushed my limits trying to keep up with them.
Our first crag was The North Forty, which is the largest area in HCR and boasts over 100 sport climbs in the area, mostly in the easy to moderate range. I paired up with Eric and tried to knock out as many climbs as we could. Started out with Groovy (5.10b) which is just 5.8 climb with a 10a/b boulder start. We then made a bad move of immediately hopping onto Crimp Scampi (5.10d) which is supposedly one of the best climbs in the crag but personally I didn’t enjoy it all that much. Both of us pumped ourselves out more than we liked to and didn’t get the send so that was a bummer. A good thing however was that the route was popular enough to get permadraws throughout which was a pleasant surprise.
Then came the highlight of the day which was Circus Wall, a section of North Forty with a good concentration of quality climbs, and completely hung with permadraws which was fantastic. Eric convinced me to hop on Fat Hand (5.12a) which was a decently pumpy climb with ~V3 boulder problem start. The start is a little height dependant and it was quite frustrating, but checking off my second 12a was a great feeling. We then moved on to Big Top (5.11c) right to the left which I thought was much more fun and managed to clear with only one take. Also Dylan managed to rodeo the first clip of Fat Hand in one big swing and it was pretty cool.
After that we still managed to pack in a few more climbs. Some easier but quality ones were Green Goblin (5.8), First Normal Form (5.9), Season of the Storm (5.10a). We also did Sonny Jim (5.11a), a really good climb with a cool roof problem at the end of a nice slab. And perhaps the coolest route in that area was Lavender Eye (5.12a) which was very aptly named because one section had a lavender colored oval which looked like an eye and it was one heck of a roof problem. Eric managed to get it but I got shut down after a good half hour of fighting and swearing and ripping my fingers. It was so painful to get through the crux but run out of strength to make the clip right in front of my face. But nonetheless I’m glad I did try it and I’m waiting to get my revenge on it. Also Dylan finished the route but he may have left out some key details ;)
The climbing in the day was great and the night did not disappoint either. Perks of being in the middle of buttfuck nowhere is that there is minimal light pollution and the night sky is incredible. The temperature took quite a dip but we had a good fire going to keep us warm, good food to fill our tummies, and a whole bunch of shenanigans to keep us entertained. One thing about climbing in November was that sunset was ~5pm and it felt much later than it seemed, so we were out cold around 9pm and most of us slept all the way through the morning.
Boy I could feel my fingers throbbing but there was climbing to be done so I sucked it up and powered through. After some tasty pancakes in the morning the main group headed towards The Far East which had a good number of routes too. Eric and I started off on Gracie’s Eight (5.8) which had a huge bivvy ledge. We then got on a classic and my favorite climb of the day – Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (5.11a), which had a nice crux section down low and pretty cool moves. Eric then proceeded to fight it out on what was allegedly the best 5.12 in the canyon, Super Soul Sure Shot (5.12c), which featured a crimpy start and a crazy gaston crux in the middle. Eric crushed it and I made a mistake of thinking I could possibly do it too but simply ended up ripping the skin on my fingers and not even being able to do it (I TR assisted the starting crimp section and couldn’t even do the crux by French Freeing).
After a terrible defeat I proceeded to repair my ego by climbing Orange Crush (5.9) which was the tallest climb on the furthest part of the canyon, and it is famous for having the best view of the canyon which I agree. It is quite a view to take in and you should definitely bring a camera when going up. This route is also over protected so you can bring 14 draws or just skip a few close ones to get up.
To end off the day we headed to Roman Wall, which featured vertical faced routes up to ~40 feet up, followed by a pretty crazy roof past the ledge for a few climbs. We were all eyeing Maximus (5.12a), a 30 foot roof overhang up to a roof for the finish. You can get to Maximus via a classic arete problem Commodus (5.10a) to the belay ledge. Dylan, Logan and Mina went first so Eric and I got on Boronocus (5.11c) which was a less intense overhang but still loads of fun on a rather long route.
Eventually I went up Maximus but my skin was absolutely bare and chalk literally would not stick on my fingertips (plus I was still feeling terrible from Super Soul Sure Shot) so I couldn't stick the crux and it was quite a bad way to end the day, but well I think I was just happy to have tried. Eric subsequently went ahead to cruise through the crux and finish up the climb.
Jared's car had to leave early so after dinner they left for Champaign, while the rest of us cuddled by the campfire cause it was getting real cold. The major highlight of the night was Logan showing us that he could totally do Danger Can in one hit and said "It's cause you guys don't commit enough" and then proceeded to smash the can on his head and not break open the can. It was probably the best thing we saw all trip. Mihail and Logan proceeded to go late night bouldering while we all got an early night.
After a day of defeat I decided to slow it down with pushing myself on the hard stuff. We warmed up at Roman Wall again where I did Sybarite (5.9) and then lead Commodus since I top roped it the day before. Mina was feeling strong and so she led and almost onsighted Boronocus which was awesome. We headed over to Middle East area where I go on Nipple Stimulation (5.10a) simply because of the name.
We then headed to Titanic Boulder on the other side of the canyon and got herded by the dog and also saw a whole bunch of goats (including one with obscenely big testicles).
While passing by campsite we saw a bunch of trash and realized that the last group to leave did not clear up and left some food stuff and a load of garbage out. Not cool. Especially since the goats were so near our campsites they could have easily raided it and attracted other animals too. Plus it's a huge no-go for simply have bad camping etiquette so we cleaned it up and gave the group a lil trash talk that night.
Now for the highlight of the trip. Eric, Dylan and Logan got on Cradle of the Deep (5.13a) which was this crazy problem up this fin on the side of the free-standing Titanic Boulder. If you're wondering why it's called that, the next picture should do a good job explaining.
Watching the big boys get on Cradle of the Deep was pretty intense. It looked like it was way out of my reach but I'd be up to try it sometime in the future once I get stronger. If you're intending to do it, bring a stick clip because the belay ledge has a 15 foot drop off and it's not gonna be fun to fall off on lead. Logan and I managed to rodeo backclip the first bolt so we gave up. Also listening to Logan climb and get angry/excited on a climb is hilarious and I highly recommend everyone to climb with him just to listen to it.
In the mean time, Mina and I also got on two easier climbs, Ship of Fools (5.10a) and Portside (5.10d). Ship of Fools was a straightforward climb with a bouldery start, while Portside was probably the coolest climb I did the entire trip.
To end off the day, we went to Prophecy Wall which is where the only 5.14a of the canyon is found (The Prophet, FA by Chris Sharma in 2005). I jumped on Taliban Soup (5.11b) and managed to bump my hardest onsight grade which really made my day. Eric did Egyptian Airbus (5.12c). Both climbs were slabby up to the roof and had some pretty big moves, but nothing too difficult. Apparently Egyptian Airbus had a huge dyno move which Eric clearly didn't do so it was rather disappointing. Mina and Dylan also got on Learning to Fly (5.10c) which was a sustained slight overhung route and we finished that climb which was a great way to end the day.
We got back to campsite for dinner, and after some convincing from Logan about the best boulder problem he ever did in his life, a bunch of us decided to join him for late night bouldering at Idaho Boulders. Logan brought us to this problem called Make You Cuss (V2) that features super cool layback smearing which is great on a high friction day like ours. He then began to describe this incredible process of sending the problem after many attempts and how it will forever be his favorite route, making a bold statement that if someone flashes it he will start walking home.
Eric then flashed the problem.
Okay so Logan stayed but still it was one of the funniest things we ever saw (the title of this trip report also came from a conversation that night). I never got up Make You Cuss cause I suck at smearing but I think I'd like to try it if my fingers are in better shape. We also tried a couple of V0s around before moving on to another area, stopping by some classics along the way such as Grand Dragon (V7) and other boulder problems that are pretty much impossible.
Towards the end we were all pretty pooped from just climbing so much, but we all tried The Crescent (V3) which was a cool slabby problem with a huge crescent sidepull thing on the right. Eric made quick work of it and the rest of us struggled quite a bit. Logan eventually sent it but that involved saying "One Last Time" like 15 times and every attempt at a different beta was actually the same beta we were telling him. But it was still great that he finally got the send. Also throughout this Mihail was just sleeping on a root and didn't even care that he became a crash pad.
The last day was a slow one cause of the bouldering plus we had to pack up the site and that we had an 8 hour drive back. We packed up and left for Mullet Buttress near the north side of the crag where Eric and I got on Business in the Front (5.10b) for warming up and I hopped on Mixed Max (5.11c) which is pretty cool and I'd recommend Mixed Max if you're hitting up the area.
But the real highlight for the last day was Goat Cave, an area of overhung routes that due to low popularity, has been overrun by goats and since there are no plants on the ground in the cave, the sea of goat shit has been there forever. FYI this extends to free standing boulders being covered in poop it was horrible. But to make up for this, Goat Cave had some pretty amazing climbs. Huge plus points that they're all permadraws for convenience.
Mina got the ball rolling with Anal Sac Expression (5.10c) which is the easiest climb in the cave. This one starts on top of the boulder and you'd want to stick clip it to prevent some serious falls if you miss the first clip. Eric did some crazy stuff on Austrian Ass Attack (5.12a) which starts off with some serious hand jamming and leads up to a big roof, which Dylan also finished afterwards. I did Mexican Sac Pull (5.11b) that was rather straightforward overhang stuff too.
Eric's car had to run off afterwards so I belayed Dylan on what I believe was Man Junk (5.12b) and it involved a lot of climber-belayer love entanglement. The crux was definitely down low and it seemed like an intense start. Dylan then convinced me to do Ride the Short Bus (5.11d). This climb starts on the tip of a sharp boulder so stick clipping the first bolt is a yes. It was kind of frustrating because at the edge on my tip toes I barely reached the crimps before I have to campus to a jug and I was not able to do it, so I instead had to dyno for the jug, whereas Dylan kinda just reached for it. But once I got the first jug, it was pretty smooth sailing from there getting through the low crux and eventually the sweetest roof I've done so far into a nice juggy finish. Dylan hopped on after to send the route and it was dope.
With the climbing done we got some final pictures of HCR and set sail back to Champaign. Sketchy van stopped by El Sombrero in Lebanon, Missouri which I'd dare say had as good salsa and food as El Tequila in Vienna, and at almost a dollar or two cheaper. If Mexican food sounds good after 4 days of climbing, this is the place.
And that concluded my virgin trip to HCR! It was definitely an eye opening experience and I am grateful to have had great weather on some quality climbs with fantastic company. Kind of crazy looking back at my first trip report last year in the Red and realizing how much I've improved. I'm nowhere near being the strongest climber in my community (however I define that) but it's amazing to know that I have improved both physically and mentally. Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible and I can't wait to see what the next trip has in store for us.
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