Climb: Snake Dike in a Day

The tale of the tape

Total hiking (approach plus descent): 14+ miles // 4,000′ vertical gain/loss

Total climbing (roped and final 3rd class slabs): 1,400′

This climb is often called Snake Hike, and for good reason – you spend a lot more time walking than you do climbing! Going car-to-car is a long day on your feet, and a great way to tune-up for longer days in the mountains.

The approach is found in plenty of guidebooks and websites, so I’ll spare repeating it. The only piece of advice I’ll give is the final bit: walking towards Little Yosemite Valley (perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile before the LYV sign), there is only one place where the trail meets/crosses a solid granite slab descending from the small ridge on walker’s left. Turn left here, slip through the notch, gain a highpoint, and sight Lost Lake. Work towards Lost Lake – in general losing elevation before you begin to traverse. From Lost Lake the trail becomes more distinct until you hit the talus. For my money, the slabs are the way to go from here. If you’re wearing approach shoes, just pick a low-angle-looking section and gun it. If you’re wearing boots or trail runners, it’s worth putting on climbing shoes.

Half Dome from Lost Lake - Approach slabs are seen on left

At the top of the obvious slabs, choose either a leftward traverse on a well-defined climber’s trail, eventually turning back on itself to gain the final 100′ or so to the base (easily sighted from a distance as the cluster of trees on the shoulder of the dome) – or climbing some easy 5th class ledges directly up and towards the aforementioned trees. The start of the route is obvious as it has a few trees on the right side and a small (2′) roof.

The route itself is straightforward except for one section: the 5.7 friction stepacross. At the second belay, you need to gain the LEFT dike – DO NOT continue straight up towards the right dike. There will be a very small dike about 15′ above the belay moving up and left towards the BIG dike you obviously want. This small dike, as a further enticement, has a bolt quite near it. DON’T get suckered in to clipping this bolt and taking this dike (that is if you want to climb the 5.7 – feel free to go for it if you’re feeling frisky). Instead, stay well below the dike on semi-obvious small dishes for a friction foot traverse. There’s a bolt about 1/3 of the way across to the big dike that’s easily missed, so keep your eyes open.

Runouts? Honestly, I’m no hero, and I never noticed them in the two times I’ve done this climb. You would have to be totally inattentive or actively let go in order to fall on any of the dike pitches. Pay attention and don’t let go.

Seconding up Snake Dike

From here on out you’d just about have to try to get off-route. Follow the dike up. Efficient parties will unrope after the first seated belay – your feet/achilles are likely to be screaming and this will be a MAJOR milestone on the climb.

After this, all that’s left are several hundred feet of seemingly endless 3rd class slabs to the summit. I think this is the crux of the whole day! People seem to talk a lot about wether to stay right or left, but I just go with whatever looks low-angle and it’s always seemed to work out well.

3rd class slabs above Snake Dike

View downvalley

We were lucky enough to hit the summit just after the cables were closed because of rain/lightning danger and literally had the whole summit to ourselves.

From here, you take the cables down – totally surreal to be the only person on the cables when the number is often >100 – and start the knee-brutalizing trip back down to the valley.

View down Half Dome Cables

Questions?

Climb: Mt. Whitney – East Buttress

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Best laid plans and all that… The trip was slated for Mt. Russell’s Mithril Dihedral. Day one was the LONG drive from SF to Lone Pine’s multiagency center to secure (we hoped) a much coveted Whitney zone permit. Fortunately my luck with walk-up permits continued and we were set.

After picking up the new(ish) Bishop area guidebook, we walked in killed the rest of the day with  our first climbing at the Portal. Short story: not much easy rock in these parts. The majority of the routes come in at 5.10 or better, so buck up. Afterwards, we headed back to the car to sort gear, thankful for late light, eventually bedding down in the Backpacker’s campground at the portal (elevation: 8,300′). For the first time, I heard no sign of bears during my stay here – they’re notorious in this area: blame it on a steady supply of ma and pa kettle backpackers coming to “do the big one”, lax with their food storage practices.

Without any interruptions I felt almost rested when the alarm went off, and a 5 AM start had us on the trail at 6.

We shouldered packs, mine coming in at 45 lbs. This weight would be terrible if I was just backpacking, but was actually pretty reasonable considering it included half of our rock climbing gear: twin ropes, full rack of protection (including triples of .75-3.0 camalots for the neverending handcrack of Mithril Dihedral, and harnesses, helmets, etc.), 1.5L of water, and I even had the tent – hey, I AM getting more efficient.

White Montains Sunrise

White Montains Sunrise from Whitney Trail

The trip starts along the main Mt. Whitney trail – the superhighway to and from the summit, but pretty quickly branches off to follow the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (note: this junction is now signed). This year’s snowpack was huge and the river/stream crossings of the North Fork were BANGING. Mandatory shoes off stuff, if you were interested in dry feet, and the infamous waterfall was going to get you no matter what you did to avoid it. Up higher, the Ebersbacher ledges were well clear of snow and and routefinding continues to get easier above the ledges these days as the Forest Service consolidates various use trails. Snow was intermittent from Lower Boyscout Lake to Upper Boyscout Lake. From upper Boyscout we were on continuous snow. Fortunately, the snow was solid and we avoided postholing. No crampons needed, but the ice axes were useful in two places: the ramp up (SW) from Upper Boyscout and the final steep incline to Iceberg Lake. I wear trail runners for 90% of my approaches (which is a big step – I used to wear Chacos on everything up to a few miles), and got VERY tired of having cold wet feet on this trip…

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Day one was to be a bonus climbing day, but the effect of the 6 hour walk in dampened spirits somewhat, and I resigned myself to a day of reading under the incredibly clear and sunny skies. Iceberg lake, our solitary camp, sits at 12,700′, which isn’t exactly the top of the world, but plenty high if you live most days at sea level. I had the benefit of having spent a fair number of nights at elevation this season and felt great.

Ryan Running Barefoot

Running barefoot through the snow (time to quarry some snow to melt).

The sun sets behind Whitney at about 6:30 during June, which makes for a long, cold, dark spell if ambient temperatures dip down. We had no reason to be out and about, and shut ourselves in for the night at 7:30 after running our stoves in a head-to-head race for dinner and snow melting. Iain’s MSR Windpro was the clear winner over my Jetboil (for those that care about such things), which I attribute to the Windpro’s ability to run in liquid fuel mode (inverted). In any case, this was the LONGEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE, laying in my bag, letting the minutes tick by during hours of the evening that most geriatrics would be embarrassed to find themselves in bed. Low temperatures were probably in the low to mid 20’s overnight.

We both awoke to voices at 5 am – basically one phrase repeated over and over: “is your carabiner locked? Yes. Is your carabiner locked? Yes.”… after hearing this five or six times I came to two realizations: 1) this was a guided group and 2) they had left someplace at some ungodly hour to arrive at the base of the mountaineer’s route at 5am. Sadly 5 am feels like time to get up when you’ve been in your sleeping bag 10+ hours, and I once again dug in to my book, desperate to kill time until we had sun on our tent and all of the warmth that would come with it.

7:30 ended up being the hour of salvation, and we made a slow morning of it – boiling water, sorting the rack, etc., as Mithril Dihedral is well known to be a cold route – we wanted every bit of sunlight we could get while climbing.

After weighting the tent, we set off for the Whitney/Russell pass with both crampons and axes. This section is mellow snow climbing, ending in a large windscoured col where one immediately gets a full frontal view of Mt. Russell.

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Awesome. Mithril dihedral looked… well, very vertical, to say the least.

Mithril Dihedral

Mithril Dihedral

Our first thought, though, was the incredible wind. Back at camp there was little to no wind. Up here on the pass it was whipping – probably gusting to 40-50 mph. The rest of the approach is easy, crossing talus and a well-tracked scree field. Closer to the base of the route, we agreed to stop and take shelter behind a huge boulder, waiting for the route to come in to full sun. 20 minutes later, we stood back up from behind our improptu shelter and were nearly blown over. The wind, if anything, was picking up.

Still, this is why we had come here, and we decided to make the last bit of the approach before making a go/no go decision. In the end though, our fate was sealed. This would be a tour de suffer – we were both wearing plenty of insulation, hats, and gloves while moving. Sitting at belays would have been miserable at best and dangerous at wost. It was decided: we’d go for the fallback route – the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney.

We tucked our tails and headed back over the Whitney/Russell pass, dropped back down to the tent, dropped off 2/3 of our rack (bringing singles of BD 0.3-3.0 and a single set of nuts), and began the climb up the snow finger leading to the roped first pitch of the East Buttress.

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

For some maschocistic reason I volunteered to take both ropes (2 x 70M 8.8) for this approach – probably thinking I was tough and wanted the conditioning. Oops. The approach to the base of the route proper honestly felt like the hardest part of the whole trip for me, and Iain agreed. Just a sloggy bit of vertical gain, I suppose, but it had us both sucking wind.

After a short discussion about how best to approach ropework – we decided to pitch it out with simuling when it looked favorable – Iain was off. I love alpine climbing because you’re lucky to see ANY of the features noted in the topo, and this climb was another great example of why an adventurous spirit is required to go beyond cragging to alpine rock climbing. Iain said a number of times, “this isn’t in the topo”… and each time after noting that, simply kept going. In the end, this is one of those routes where, once the grade is established (5.7), the guidebook might simply say “don’t climb anything that’s harder than 5.7”, because the possibilities are endless. I imagine there are places you could get yourself in to trouble from a routefinding perspective, but we quickly abandoned the topo in favor of discretion and judgement.

The one section that felt, to me, sketchy, is the section marked “tightly packed cracks” in supertopo. There is a LOT of very loose rock in this section, all sizes – a veritable sampler pack of lethal gravity’s rainbows waiting to rain granite on you, your rope, and your belayer. Avoid this in favor of the alternate path noted in supertopo (to climber’s right, I believe). Otherwise the route is casual, with as little or much difficulty as you choose. The final two ropelengths (200+ feet) were the only place we asked aloud: “where do we go”?, as we were getting a bit of summit fever. Why? Not because of any particular yen to stand atop the highpoint of the lower 48, but because we were FREEZING OUR ASSES OFF.

By the time we had finished our Russell out and back, touched base, and made it to the base of the East Buttress, it was noon. My one piece of advice, and you’ll find it in all the guidebooks, is to start the East Buttress early. The upper half goes out of the sun at around 4pm in June, and it is a cold, cold, little slice of the world once in the shade. It’s been a long time since I’ve shivered uncontrollably. I was glad to have most of my insulation and wind layers with me, and would have brought a full-on belay parka if I’d known what the overall feel was going to be, with wind and ambient temperatures combining to be, well… low.

Being cold adds a dimension of “epic” to a climb in the high and wild. Big wind (it was catching up with us) always ups the perceived drama of a climb. We had both in spades.

We summitted a little before 6pm (not terrible for 1400 feet of roped climbing), realized we were really the only idiots up there in those conditions, coiled ropes in the now gale-force wind, and started walking around the perimeter of the summit looking for the entrance to the Mountaineer’s route: our descent. After one false alarm, we found it.

Ryan on Summit

Ryan on Summit of Mt. Whitney

Whitney Summit Plaque

Whitney Summit Plaque

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Iain, being British, is always describing routes in terms I don’t understand. His accent lends an incredible amount of credibility to whatever he says, though, and this first section was apparently Scottish grade II… whatever that means. What it meant to me is that I wouldn’t have minded a second ice tool, given angle and conditions (quite firm at this relatively late hour).

The upper third of the mountaineer’s route was snow, the middle third (including the notch crossover) was dry, and the bottom third evil, evil, evil, suncups and old postholes. It sucked.

On the descent, as much as I was not enjoying myself, more than anything I was just glad that I wasn’t going to be in bed as early as the night before (seriously, it was grim being holed up for so long. I do NOT know how mountaineers can deal with being tentbound for days on end). And after another stove race (again, the MSR killed the jetboil), we were off to bed with a good long day behind us.

The wind continued to pick up overnight, with big gusts (the NOAA had a ridgeline gust advisory that night, apparently)… the kind that tries to flatten even a burly mountain tent to your face, but I think we were both sufficiently tired enough to basically sleep through the straightline hurricane. Bummer, though, the next morning I awoke to many small holes in my beloved Awahnee tent. Off to Black Diamond – hoping their customer service lives up to their reputation and my expectations.

The descent from Iceberg lake to Whitney Portal was the only reminder I’ll ever need to NEVER again forget trekking poles, but otherwise uneventful. We did meet a number of parties headed up for Iceberg lake, but gave each of them our personal opinion: with the kind of winds we were feeling at the lake that morning, there is NO way that we would attempt for the summit. Something felt deeply unsettled in the weather, and our suspicions were proven when we saw that Mammoth Mountain, north of Whitney, got 3-6″ of new snow that day (June 30th!).

Climbers: Bring an incredibly light rack. We were glad to have brought the #3 BD, though, as there were numerous obvious and helpful placements for it. Overall, we averaged 3-4 pieces of protection placed per 200-250 feet of climbing – less a testament to our climbing (we are both low 5.10 trad leaders) than the nature of the route. There’s tons of 5.5-ish climbing with occasional 5.7-5.8 cruxes throughout.

Final analysis – yes, it’s a long walk for a rock route, but it really is a great package: high-quality rock, lots of it (1,4,00 feet of vertical gain on 5th class rock), and you get to touch the highpoint of the lower 48. I’d go back and do it again without reservation.

Climb: The Stumps

The Stumps is a small climbing crag near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

We had a day to kill before our shot on Bloody Couloir, and decided (more like I insisted) that we get a little climbing in on our free day.

The Lewis/Moynier guide’s directions were not quite as good as I’ve found them to be for other areas. I used the GPS and AccuTerra quad topos a few times to get us to where we were going, but we arrived only having mis-spent about 10 minutes in asutin powers-esque episodes of 20 point turnarounds. Roads are high quality, graded, USFS dirt, and passable in any car.

The Stumps

This area is interesting – essentially the beginnings of a canyon being eroded through the top layer of volcanic bedrock – with two main areas, one roughly north and the other roughly south facing, so finding or hiding from sun is easy. The approach, however, is short (<5 minutes) but highly sucky. The volcanic rock has created a pumice field that one climbs to gain the base of the climbs. Three steps forward, two steps back kind of stuff, and your shoes fill quickly with sharp little crystals and volcanic dust. I’d wear gaiters here next time.

Dusty Shoes

Climbs measure from 5.6-5.10, all trad, and some of the easier climbs have bolted anchors and a walkaround approach to the top, making toproping easy.

We started with  ZigZag crack (5.9), which the guidebook called “the stumps classic”. I would have called it “Illinois Crack”, but then again, I may be biased.

ZigZag Crack - Here a little foreshortened. About 60 feet of quality climbing.

It has two well-defined cruxes – one of which is the second move. A fun climb, but I had to get used to using the solution pockets in addition to the crack. While I came up climbing on limestone I now go years without touching something other than granite, and getting used to the techniques used on other types of rock always takes a few minutes. The top anchor on this one is awkward (2 x .75 BD is a good start) no matter how you slice it.

We also climbed a few of the moderates on Money Wall (the wall in topmost picture), including the 5.6 (name escapes me and guidebook is packed for a future trip) with a two-bolt anchor at the top. This was a COOL 5.6 and would be a great lead for the fledgeling 5.7 leader, as it has a few exposed but all-there moves. CAUTION: There are two VERY LOOSE blocks on this climb, and either would likely result in realllly bad outcomes for your belayer. They are avoidable, however. Test your holds and exercise caution.

Climb: Eagle Lake Buttress

The Falcon guide to Lake Tahoe climbing has a brief but intriguing mention of a formation called Eagle Lake Buttress. Multipitch granite with a backcountry feel near Lake Tahoe had me interested, and even though I couldn’t round up a partner for the weekend I decided to go in and check it out. I figured this way I could sandbag the approach with authority when we did decide to hump ropes and a rack back there.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake

The walk in to Eagle Lake is trivial and the lake itself is quite beautiful – so accessible and so beautiful this is no doubt someplace in danger of being loved to death. Desolation Wilderness is the most-used wilderness area per acre in the United States, and I get the feeling that most of the impact is concentrated in a few areas; Eagle Lake has to be one of them.

After Eagle Lake, you get the pleasure of either making your way up some biiig slabs or gunning up a talus chute. I chose the talus, as the slabs looked nontrivial – 5th class in my estimate, though I didn’t investigate up close. I did meet two guys on my way out who had come up that way and they didn’t seem overly shaken. What do I know? Once the ridge is gained weave through the huge boulders, point yourself to the buttress, and pick a line.

Eagle Lake Buttress

Eagle Lake Buttress

After sitting and scoping the lines for a bit, I thought that I recognized the line described in the Falcon guide. After lacing up my shoes and telling myself that I would make no move that I wasn’t certain I could downclimb, I set off on my first real free solo.

Funny enough I had just watched “Return to Sender” at Mark’s place the night prior, and was at turns intrigued and made to feel ill by the guy who is profiled in the SoCal free-soloing feature. He talks about how when you’re soloing you exist within an egg – a kind of reduced sensory reality where your body and its immediate surroundings are the only things that exist. About 30 feet off the ground I realized he was right. It was a beautiful day in the high 70’s, a nice breeze, and I was surrounded by beauty on all sides, but all I knew in that moment was the way my hands, feet, heart, and lungs felt, and the possibility, security, and reality of each move.

I’m not sure I went up there intending to solo a 300 foot route, but I did bring my rock shoes, and that says something about intent. The route (takes the obvious line towards the blown pine tree, but stays vertical where the crack leading to the tree diagonals leftward) was well within my ability (probably 5.6 with the possibility to keep it easier if one chooses the easiest moves rather than the most aesthetic), and I never had a thought telling me to “keep it together” or “man, don’t fall”, and I think that there’s a lesson in there to be held even while leading harder stuff: just do what you can with each move.

The rock quality up there is great – granite with some Tuolumne-like inclusions and laser-cut cracks. The crux for me was the downclimb on the mountaineer’s route; a wrong turn or two on those slabs gets sketchy in a hurry.

Would it be worth it to head in with a rope and rack? If you’re in the Tahoe area and want to feel like you’re in an alpine setting, yes. I think of this place as a big crag with a less-than-ideal appproach, the kind of place you go with a friend when you can’t or don’t want to make a full weekend of climbing. And as I’ve thought nearly every day I’ve spent outside; it beats almost anything else you could have done with the time.

View from the top - Emerald Bay

View from the top - Emerald Bay

Climb: Scimitar and Labor of Love

Scimitar at Lover\'s Leap (courtesy SuperTopo.com)

First pitch is interesting with a bit of stemming, laybacking, and wandering from crack to face and back again. This pitch seemed almost harder as a second than as a leader, suggesting to me that there are a few ways to skin this particular cat, each one with pros and cons. As a follower I stemmed up the final the corner towards the p.1 belay. Leading, I moved back and forth from the face to the crack/dihedral (which is not all solid), and made a big final move left on the chalked up-incut about 10 feet below the p.1  belay. This felt more solid and better protected to me, as you can get a few good aliens in under the final overlap before the belay.

The second pitch 40-foot no-pro runout beta is as follows: go where the lichen isn’t, and don’t get antsy. Stay a little lower than you think you need to – or can – and make sure you’re hand traversing, not foot traversing when you go up and right. Otherwise this is trivial, and the gear is good before you pull that first roof. A little hand jamming technique goes a long way on this route, and this is the first real example.

The second bulge/roof is made much easier with a really long reach (and I have extra long arms) and more hand jamming. You can also slot a foot jam here so good you don’t want to leave it.

The third pitch is the business, though, in my opinion . The first challenge is the roof, dispatched through some “lateral thinking” as a second, and some pretty irredeemable groveling on lead. Just ooze it up that weird, weird, nearly horizontal layback. The second roof really isn’t, though my partner reports that it goes direct at about 5.9 in any case. The middle 50 feet is the attention grabber, though. You can go left, up, and then… wow. You have to go back right and it is exposed. Period. Underline. Italics, maybe. I didn’t like the gear in this middle stretch, but others I’ve spoken to don’t even seem to notice. I’m sure it all has to do with what kind of stances you prefer.

In my newly formed opinion, this and Traveler’s Buttress are the 5.9’s at the Leap. While Scimitar isn’t continuous at the grade, it rarely gets truly moderate, and the cruxes are substantial but well defined with good stances and gear before and after. The line is much more continuous, though perhaps a bit softer, as long as your head is on straight after the first 20 feet.

Also done:

Labor of Love: 5.10(something)

Labor of Love

Seems that there’s quite a range on this climb’s grade, depending on height. The person who bolted it was either on rap or quite tall. The dikes are all there, and positive, though the crux did prove to be very different for me (about 6’0 with a positive ape index) and my partner (5’8).

Note: the SuperTopo calls for a full trad rack on this climb (double cams from .6-2 and a single set of nuts). Be assured that you need nothing more than  the appropriate number of draws and double ropes to rap, provided you don’t want to leave a biner.

Run: Canyonlands Half Marathon

The site has been dark lately, principally because I’ve logged very few miles, hours, and pitches outside in the last few months.

Fully six months ago, my college friend Nate had asked if I would be interested in running a race in Moab. Sure, I replied. It was to be just a few weeks after a marathon (Napa) I was planning on running, so I’d be in great shape and the 1/2 distance would be little more than an afterthought, a vacation run.

Well, I bagged training for the Napa marathon not long after I started, have logged 30 thousand air miles in the meantime, and have been home about 1 day in every 3 so far this year. I have long contended that one “could run a fast 10k off the couch”. It looked like I was going to see myself, and raise the stakes to boot. I had managed to find myself staring down a half marathon with zero training. Not like “very little” training, or “neglected the run but have been on the bike” training. Nothing.

The flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City is basically nonstop beautiful, and the drive down to Moab is becoming almost comfortable. I find myself doing it every few years now. [Audiobooks are key] I rolled in to Slickrock Campground around 11pm and greeted Nate and the others from Boulder and Salt Lake City that had come out for the race. Oh and yes, I said camp. There’s nothing like sleeping on the ground the night before and after a race, but the group had spoken, so I acquiesced.

Morning broke after a freezing desert night and I focused on not admitting what lie ahead. The course heads straight down an incredible steep-walled valley (HW 128). After a long pre-race wait because of the shuttling required on a one-way course, we were off. The start was a bit clustered, as pace pens were limited to 6:00, 7:00, and “others”, which was quite as diverse group… Fortunately I had no intention of PR’ing or even getting beyond a fast shuffle, so the initial mob scene wasn’t an issue for me.

I told Nate I had one goal in the race: negative splits on every mile. To achieve that with the kind of shape I was in meant going out _slow_. Good sense, no pressure, and conversation, ll kept me from getting ahead of myself. The scenery was fantastic, and the course profile had its own beauty; rolling easy hills and net downhill.

Canyonlands Half Marathon

In the end I did keep to my goal of negative splitting and ran a composite 8:45 – a duffer’s time for sure, but I ain’t that fast even when I’m trained. I’d exceeded my expectations, and, as usual, exceeded any notion of common sense at the after-race feed tent. Why, why, why, do I insist on taking one (and sometimes more) of everything on offer? Chocolate milk mixed with oranges mixed with energy drink mixed with bananas mixed with cookies…

The weather had cleared and a perfect high desert 70 degree day invited us to stick around for the post-race celebration, but what? No beer? That’s right. This is Utah. And the band, bless their hearts, was, well… they were trying their best.

Fortunately, Nate and Erin had brought some of Colorado’s finest: Mountain Sun Brewery Growlers. Growlers are just huge mason jars filled with beer. Delicious Mountain Sun beer. The rest of the afternoon was spent playing music, wondering aloud about Utah culture, and getting far more buzzed than is advisable directly after running for a couple of hours in the desert.

I drank about a gallon of beer before falling asleep that night, having taken no water since the race. At some point we were eating at a restaurant, though that is hazy, and we also at some point ended up at what was clearly a locals-only saloon. I also woke up in the middle of the night from a dream in which I was at a work party, shirtless and eating grapes. Funny how the brain gets these messages across: YOU ARE TOO HOT AND DEHYDRATED. The next morning the I and the group were far less hung over than we deserved. Maybe it was for the best that we all passed out by 9pm.

Easily sleeping 12 hours is one of those mysteries of camping that I really don’t want to solve. I remember my dad would always wake up at some predawn hour on canoeing and backpacking trips. When I finally stumbled out of the tent he would have already read 100 pages of his book and have breakfast ready to boot. I’m not there yet; I’ll fall asleep with the sun and wake up 10-12 hours later if I have no alarm set.

The rest of the group was on the same wavelength, and after breakfast Nate and I set off to do a little climbing.

I can summarize the main points quite succinctly: I do not like Entrada sandstone. <End>

I had found a fun little climb in my pre-trip googling. Wilson Arch was close to Moab, moderate, and, well, that was all we needed. About 10 miles south on 191, there she was in full view of the road. We roped up and I promptly got scared. The first moves off the deck didn’t seem hard, but the exposure and angle of a fall meant about 25 feet if you blew it. And climbing prowess wasn’t the only determining factor – chunks of rock broke off in my hands under less than vigorous climbing. [there is a crack to protect the first moves that takes .3, .4, .5 camalots] This was like climbing a vertical sandbox. Handholds evaporated, feet slipped on the sand, and nothing, NOTHING, seemed trustworthy. The climb is essentially a free-solo. Fortunately most of it is very low angle. We broke the climb in to two pitches. The only protection on the first is at the first moves, and the only protection on the second is [.75 camalot] halfway up. The leader and the second are both equally exposed on this thing. I realized as I was bringing Nate up the final pitch that if he fell, he was going for a loooong ride off the side of the arch.

Thank god that the beta about a rap anchor came true – three bolts, and all as solid as they’re going to get in sandstone. This was a lifetime rappel: a free hanging 100 feet through the center of an arch. I was giddy the whole way down and the truckers honking their horns added to the experience.

Wilson Arch

Full up on the taste of fear, we parted ways, Nate headed back to Boulder and me to SLC to catch an early-morning Monday flight. The drive back was stunning as ever, with the transition from high desert to alpine topography/geology one of those miracles that reinforces the natural vastness and diversity of the United States.

Race Grades:

Organization = B

Course = A

Post-Race = C

Overall = A- (tilted by an really good schwag bag)

Wilson Arch Climbing Grades:

Approach = A

Route = D

Rappel = A

Overall = C (probably better if you’re mentally prepared for a free solo)

Climb: Cathedral Peak

We drove up Saturday night and rolled in at 11p to freezing (literally) temps. Campgrounds are closed for the season, but with a late arrival and early departure, we just threw bags down a bit off the road and set our alarms for 6:00. Damn. 10,000 feet in late September is cold. Clear and cold. No matter what I do, I can’t get my bag tight enough around my face to keep my nose from freezing.

6:00 came early.

Powering down the donuts and starbucks doubleshot can I brought was not the ideal start to the day, but it was caffeine and fat – both things I needed at that point.

Sunrise on the trail to Cathedral Peak


The hike in to the start is about .5 miles up the John Muir Trail to a use trail leading to the base about an hour and a half later. We only lost the use trail once, a minor victory, and ended up at the base around 9:00. Even so, we had two parties ahead of us. Fortunately, the route affords plenty of opportunities to pass.

A quick rack-up and look at the topo and we were off. The party to our left, of three, was kind enough, though fairly slow. The route is a classic pinnacle (see photos), so as we all neared the top, things started to cluster, even crossing ropes on one pitch. The climbing was straightforward and quick. So straightforward and quick, in fact, that I never looked at the topo again – the whole thing goes. Never a move harder than 5.7, I was actually a bit disappointed by the discontinuous profile. The views, though, were A+.

Cathedral Peak with moon above

The real story of the day, though, came after we summited. The actual peak is about the size of a card table, the wind was howling, and the midday temp with wind chill was probably around 40 degrees. In short, no place to hang out. We started down, thinking we understood the descent, but came to find out that we didn’t. At all. AT ALL. We fungled this descent so bad, we literally could not have fucked up worse. Instead of a fairly trivial descent down a sandy wash and talus, we ended up doing an additional nasty 2 hours of pure cross-country hiking ( i.e. no trail).

On the summit of Cathedral Peak

View Northwest from Cathedral Peak

We started playing the “how much daylight do we have” game, which is a pretty crappy game to play when you might die if caught out for a night in those conditions. Mark, in a brilliant coup, had left his headlamp in the car. Stellar… How does this math go? Two people divided by one headlamp equals…?

We were trudging along, one foot in front of the next, balancing calorie expenditure, respiration (the heavier you breathe, the more water you lose), and daylight. Oh yeah, and Mark’s wife was going to call YOSAR at 8:00p.

I was proud of my navigational skills, and we ended up back at the base about 2 hours later – around 6:45. We had 1:15 to get out. And it gets dark at 7:00. Rad!

As “not great” as our situation was, it paled in comparison to what we saw up on Cathedral: a team of two just below the chimney pitch (about 2/3 of the way up), and a soloist just above the chimney. Neither team moved in the nearly 1/2 hour that they were visible. We heard the roped team yelling, and I imagined the soloist’s internal monologue.

I’ve been damn-near benighted once, about 5 years ago while climbing in the Mexican desert, and I could vividly remember what the rope team was going through. The wind is howling, you can’t hear your partner, he can’t hear you, the frustration of the situation only adds to the already high stress, and the wheels just come off the whole operation. Teamwork turns to team recrimination, simple tasks take longer than they should, et voila – a frozen night huddled on a ledge (best case scenario) or standing in slings (worst case scenario). It ain’t pretty.

But Mark and I were on the ground, which was a fair bit better than being up on rock. Seeing these guys up there also gave me some consolation should Mark’s wife call YOSAR – at least none of those guys would die of hypothermia that night. 2 hours later, we had kicked the last root, tripped over the last rock, and shouted off the last noise in the dark, and were back at Mark’s car. Without the high near-full moon, this would have been an epic. I threw my backpack down in my apartment at 2:00am last night, 15 hours of sleep in the last three nights, 60 miles on the bike and a classic sierra summit all bagged in the meantime.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’ve done this route four or five times in total (though the above was the first): at least once under 3.5 hours car-to-car, simuled and soloed it, but sometimes it’s worth it to epic a little bit in service of helping a good friend learn to lead.