Well, it happened. My biggest fear since committing to ice climbing full time this winter. I got hosed by a particularly nasty ice fall on a climb and one of the footbal-size chunks flying by landed on my shoulder. The ominous “woosh” and I felt a sharp pain on my right shoulder. I let a scream out but managed to keep my hand on a belay. Moved my arm – the shoulder felt fine, “Shit, this will take forever to finish the pitch”, I thought. As I fed out the slack of the rope, I felt some familiar sharp pain. “You have to clean on a rappel”, I yelled out to my partner. I would have loved to have had heroically followed the 60M WI4+ pitch despite the smashed shoulder, but it was getting late, we just finished the two most magnificent pitches of ice I’ve done in the SW Colorado and the prospect of messing up my one good shoulder for the rest of the winter and most of the spring, cooled down my adrenaline-fueled impulses – there was no summit to attain or pitches to lead – I was content going down without finishing the climb
It happened on Ames Ice Hose, a gorgeous 3-pitch five-star classic outside of Telluride. My partner Grant and I had been planning to do it for a long time, but had found other objectives close to Ouray. We left Ouray at 6.30am and got to an old mining camp of Ames an hour and half later. As we pulled in closer to town, the striking line of the Ice Hose came into a view from the Highway 145. You could barely see the skinny first two pitches from the road, but the third pitch loomed over in a huge and fat flow eventually choking into the barely visible chimney of the Pitch 2. The last pitch looked somewhat steeper than the WI4 grade the guidebook gives it.
We got to the parking lot and found to our relief that we were the first party of the day – we ended up having the climb to ourselves for the rest of the day. As soon as we got on the trail we found out why – the snowdrifts even on leveled portions of the approach were at least a foot deep. The approach that usually takes about an hour, took us over good two hours fighting snowdrifts sometimes waist deep.
After over two hours of what Grant calls “character-building” snow slog, we finally got to the base of the Ice Hose:
Pitch 1 in normal years is usually a poorly protected mixed climb. Reportedly people climb it in rock shoes and switch to the boots and crampons once they reach the ice. This day it was a thick smear of steep overhanging ice that even took normal size ice screws. Grant styled it in a fast manner, pausing just a couple of times to shake out “screaming barfies”.
Soon as I followed the pitch, I knew what he meant – the pump set in and I felt that familiar nauseating feeling once you drop your hands below your waist to shake out. My first screaming barfies on an ice climb since I arrived in Colorado this winter! I had had a somewhat similar feeling on a mixed climb and on a wide hand crack (seems like sinking hands up to your wrists cuts your blood circulation akin to overgripping ice tools above your head), but not on an ice climb up to this point (the weather has been pretty mild in SW Colorado compared to New England). The climb was all picked out and I moved up on bomber hooks, but it was so overhanging, a couple of times I was pumped to the point I thought I was about to drop my tools (with around six feet of snow at the base – I might as well kissed my Nomics good-bye if I dropped them).
After pulling the final overhang, I arrive to the semi-hanging belay, happy to having hold on to both of my tools. Grant offers me to lead the second pitch. From the belay, it looks like the crux is the first 10 feet and then the angle eases out, plus it’s a chimney – how hard could that be, right? I rack up and pull the first overhang – stout! Nervous, I sink a screw into an existing hole and move another body length. “You are the queen of hooks, it should be easy!”, my partner encourages me. After I clear what appeared like the steepest section of the pitch, I find no place to sink my tools into. All I see is a patch of snow that could be covering ice or rock, as my feet are resting on tiny holds, and I am not sure if I could muscle my way through to get to the next set of sinker hooks. Plus, what appeared like a lower angle ice from the belay is an overhanging bulging string of ice! Fear takes over me and I don’t feel like I have it in me to pass through this patch of snow to get to the safe patch of ice. I sink in a screw and down climb back to the belay. “You pulled a hard part, placed a screw and down climbed it – might as well punched through”, Grant resonated my thoughts. For some reason, I didn’t have a good feeling about this climb from the start, so relinquishing my lead was not a very tough decision. Turns out the pitch was in a way stiffer condition than we’d thought. The ice was steep and not as picked out as the Pitch 1, and the rock on the sides is not as featured for good stemming rests. It was probably in a full value at least WI5- shape – what I was thinking? Just a couple of weeks ago, I was nervous on taking a sharp end on easy WI3s. Following, I find the climb steep and pretty technical – one of the most interesting pitches I’ve done since arriving in Colorado.
When I get to the top of the Pitch 2, Grant asks if I want to take the last pitch – 60M of WI4 ice. Since it’s getting pretty late, I let him lead it so we could get out the climb before dark. We move the belay to the far right side so it’s out of the line of fire. As I climb out of the chimney of the Pitch 2 to move the belay, I get a better view of the Pitch 3 and regret my earlier decision giving up the lead.
My partner starts out the pitch what looks like a casual hike. Turns out it is covered in an unstable eggshell of thin ice that keeps dinnerplating with every tool or crampon placement. One of particularly nasty ones landed on my shoulder. “Great”, I thought – “now I have two bad shoulders” (in addition to my left shoulder that has a SLAP cartilage tear in it) and who knows for how long I can’t climb in the upcoming weeks, ugh! Grant cleaned the pitch on rappel and we quickly got off the climb. The pain in the shoulder has worsened as I could barely undo my locking biners and taking a glove off and on to warm up frozen screwgates on my lockers sends up a shooting pain. “I really hope it’s not broken!” Getting back to the car was not as easy as we’d thought it would be – our tracks were windswept and covered in a foot of fresh snow. At some point, we had to break through a waist deep windswept slab – totally unexpected. We got back to the car as the darkness enveloped the town. The usual apres-climb beer was not celebratory, but rather pain-dulling slash consolatory drink, but still it was a good day!
UPDATE: 4 days later with a help of some icing, hot springs soaks and NSAIDs, I can lift my arm with not much pain. I’m staying put, away from swinging tools or climbing rock. I’m hoping to get out soon!
Here I am sitting in the coffee shop in Moab, Utah and trying to gather my thoughts through the fog of head cold about my month-long stint in Colorado. It’s only been five days since I left there and arrived in Utah desert, but the explosion of visual, sound, smell and social stimuli of Indian Creek have trampled my Colorado memories into the distance. A few fragmented recollections of my stay in the Front Range of Colorado are as follows.
My first impression of the Front Range Colorado as we first crossed the stateline from Wyoming on I-25 was an immediate sense of an increased density of population. Traffic on the highway swelled out of nowhere and endless plains gave way to uniform subdivisions, railroad tracks and industrial buildings. It was akin to driving from hilly desolated Vermont into industrialized Massachusetts. The population density is not necessarily a bad thing as we enjoyed a month of catching up with friends, checking out night spots and brewpubs and getting our ethnic food fix.
First stop was Denver, where my friends former New Yorkers Gavin and Tiffany have been living since January. Gavin’s mother, sister Celine and Celine’s boyfriend were in town, visiting from New Jersey. In between gorging on delicious Gavin’s Mom’s Canton homecooking and dim sum outing (my first one ever up until now), we got to play the Rock Band (I sucked at it, btw) and go for a hike in the Flatirons in Boulder.
After Denver, we headed to a little town called Nederland. The irony is that the town is at near 9,000 feet of elevation but is called Nederland. Nederland, CO is all I wanted Boulder, CO to be – a quirky little mountain town with an eclectic mix of lumberjacks and hippies, not overrun by Priuses and posh coffeehouses yet. For a small town it has a great supermarket, a microbrewery with excellent barbecue, a coffee shop with fast wi-fi and at least two vet offices. While staying couple of days in Nederland, we climbed in Boulder Canyon, both days at Castle Rock. A traditional crag in Boulder canyon known for stiff grades and a super easy approach (you could literally belay from the car). On our second night in Nederland, we got hailed and snowed on and when the next day we got to know strange fishy characters at our camp, it was clear that it was time to leave the lovely town of Nederland.
Next couple of weeks we spent between Golden and Boulder. Climbed on gear in Eldorado Canyon and Flatirons and bolts in Clear Creek and Boulder Canyons. We also took a side trip to South Platte and climbed at Turkey Rocks – amazing crack climbing on coarse granite in a spectacular setting. Since I already wrote about climbing at Lumpy Ridge, I’m only posting photos of the above mentioned areas. Some of the climbing and non-climbing highlights of the trip:
1. Maiden in Flatirons – the most bizarre climb I’ve ever done. The climb starts at the top of the hill, then rises up an unprottected slab to downclimb a jagged ridge, traverses on the side of the cliff, climbs up a slabby face to the summit, from which you make a wild rappel (by wild I mean a 100 foot free-hanging rappel that you need to land onto a two-foot wide tiny platform in crazy winds), then traverses the knifeblade ridge back to finish at the top of the hill where the climb had started.
2. Eldorado Canyon Classics. I have heard not from just one climber that Eldorado was their favorite crag, and that it was super friendly to Gunkies. While I enjoyed climbing in Eldo, I found that slippery rock, slanting edges and scary loose rock on the ledges were not up for my taste. I got to lead classic pitches of Bastille Crack (5.7+), Rewritten (5.8 via Great Zot start) and swing leads on Yellow Spur (5.9). The highlight of my climbing in Eldo was that I got to lead my first 5.10 (with hang at the crux) – Five Ten Crack (5.10a). Marat thought it was within my capability – not very hard and well protected. I found out that “Not very hard” meant sustained 5.9 climbing leading to a 5.10 crux move and “well protected” meant micro wires and offsets. You can imagine what was going on in my head after having had a bad fall earlier this summer on a directionally pulled nut, not to mention that I’d never placed offset nuts while balancing on tiny edges and never had to trust a blindly placed gear that happened to be a tiny wire! Luckily, I motored through the moves on wires and fell on the first more bomber (in my opinion) gear which was a .4 camalot. After hangdogging trying to figure out the roof move (I still have a serious mental block climbing above especially small gear with bad feet), I finally pulled the move and in 15 feet was at the chain anchors. Not in a good style, but nevertheless my first 5.10 lead. I have yet to lead any 5.9s.
3. Turkey Rocks and Turkey Perch in Southe Platte. The South Platte river valley is strewn with numerous crags varying in style from granite domes to spires and splitter cracks. We chose to check out Turkey Rocks for it is known for excellent crack climbing. The style of climbing and the rock were a bit similar to ones of Vedauwoo, but climbing is a bit easier and the granite is not as coarse. We climbed varying cracks from 5.7 to 5.10. I got to lead a 5.8- crack Reefer Madness, a 5.8 hand crack with a roof traverse (Eastern Fiend) and top roped a couple of 5.11s and a 5.12.
4. Extracurricular Activities. Outside of climbing, staying in towns put me in touch with the civilization and spruced up my social life. We checked out Reel Rock Tour in Boulder, a ski movie at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden and the sport climbing World Cup in Boulder. Watching amazingly strong athletes performing acrobatics on plastic was entertaining, plus I got to meet Lynn Hill and have my American Alpine Club coffee mug autographed. In addition, got to check out watering holes around Golden/Boulder and even a night club. Turns out all “normal” by average American standards citizens of Boulder whose body fat percentage is higher than 10% and who don’t look like they send 5.13s on their lunch breaks, come out of their hiding holes after midnight and congregate at the spot called “Around Midnight”. Boulder is also a huge adult playground that draws middle-aged divorcees and bachelor/bachelorettes. The town gave me a feeling of a college campus where everyone is way past their college age. Good news is that that the male to female ratio is on females side. If it was closer to ski and ice climbing and didn’t resemble goddarn New York with its type A personalities, I’d move here in a heartbeat. Like someone said “The Odds are good, but the goods are odd”. Another great thing about Colorado is that I get ID-d all the time – puts a smile on my face every time!
“Don’t forget your headlamp” I tell Marat as we rack up in the parking lot. “If we need a headlamp after five pitches, we’re in a serious trouble” casually dismisses my partner. I shrug, after all we are just out for a day of cragging even it’s in the proper of the Rocky Mountain National Park some 9000′ above the sea level and despite the fact that we are heading out from the parking lot at 1.30 pm.
Fast forward five hours, we are hustling to clean the last pitch of the day Inside Straight, a monstrous offwidth crack that according to MountainProject.com is “in-line with Vedauwoo ratings at 5.9″, i.e. 5.veryhard. The sun is setting and we only have one headlamp between us, so I voice my concern to Marat and suggest him to clean the pitch on rappel. Turns out there is no direct anchor above the route and the nearest anchors are on Melvin’s Wheel, about 40 feet to the left. This means I have no choice but follow the pitch to retrieve the gear, and do it quickly before dark since the descent involves some low fifth class downclimbing down a sketchy gully. As soon as I hear “Off belay”, I quickly put my climbing shoes on, get my headlamp on and start climbing. Style is out of the window, speed climbing is the name of the game, i.e. yank on a gear of needed to and lieback the offwidth. I make it up to the last piece of gear just as the sun disappears over the horizon and get lowered off. By the time we are back down on the trail, it’s already 7.50pm and pitch dark – some moonlight could have been helpful. Thankfully, the trail back to the car is somewhat leveled, so forty five minutes later we are back at the car, drinking not so cold beer, relieved and hungry…
The day started pretty slow that morning. We had gone sport cragging in the Clear Creek Canyon with Paavo and Holly the day before, and while we had talked about doing something with a longer approach the next day, neither of us felt compelled to set an alarm. Plus on top of that, we are staying at my friend John’s house, whom I met last summer in Tetons. I’d called a shotgun on the guest bedroom with a queen bed, and for the first time in over a month of sleeping on thermarests and air mattresses I got to sleep on a real bed with a proper mattress, linens and a down duvet. Who knew I had these little bourgeois hangups? Here is a formula that can sum up how I felt that day: lim(x→ ∞) f(x)=0, i.e. as the comfort level of the bed approaches infinity, the motivation to climb approaches zero while the desire to curl up in the bed with a book and a cup of tea and not answer any calls (including climbing partner calls) approaches infinity. Unfortunately when you are traveling together, bailing on the partner is not an option. The forecast was calling for mid-80s, so higher elevation climbing sounded like a good idea. We were hopelessly late for anything alpine unless we wanted to bivouac, but cragging at Lumpy Ridge sounded like a good idea.
Quick shower, routine breakfast and a loooong online session of checking Mountainproject.com for the best routes to climb at Lumpy Ridge, we are finally out the door around 11.00 am. Hour and half later we are in Estes Park, a touristy town that serves as a gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We got to the Lumpy Ridge parking lot a little bit before 1pm. Racked up, had lunch and set on a hike. The heat is oppressive and having spent over a week around 5000-6000 feet in the Boulder/Denver area, we are feeling the elevation in our steps.
Our first objective for the day is Melvin’s Wheel (5.8+), a 3-pitch 3-star hand crack classic on Bookmark, one of the crags at Lumpy. As I start up the first pitch I feel a little lightheaded and wonder if it’s the altitude, twenty feet up from the ground the adrenaline rushes in as I focus on climbing and I don’t feel the weakness for the rest of the day. First pitch goes easy – it’s a nice corner finger crack that has enough features on the face that you could stem off. The rock on Lumpy is a nice smooth, but featured with water grooves gray granite and the angle of the climb is pretty low, so I felt that pitch 1 was more like 5.7, even it was 150 feet long. Confident from the the first pitch, I decide to give the second pitch a go. The face is less featured than the first pitch, so you have to rely on the crack more for your feet. Luckily, it’s a hand crack – not as painful on the feet as a finger crack!
We skipped the third pitch which is a chimney since we had decided to avoid off-widths for the day and had left the #4 Camalot back in the car, and toproped a bolted line to the right of Melvin’s. The topo on the book has it graded at 5.11c — it starts on a very thin finger crack that vanishes away to a slabby face protected by bolts. We both felt it was way easier than 5.11, later I find out it is called Goose and Mountainproject gives it a 5.10b/c rating, which I still find soft.
After we run up Goose, the plan was to get on Fantasy Ridge (5.9), another 3-star classic, however we descended to the right of the big leaning buttress which meant we had to go around it to get to Fantasy Ridge, and since we were short on time we decided to do something right where we were. Immediately we recognized the wide crack of Inside Straight. Reading the MP.com descriptions earlier that day we had both crossed it off our ticklist, plus we had left the wide gear at the car. Marat decides to give it a go, hoping to find smaller gear placements deep inside of the chimney… Turns out, whoever said “Vedauwoo 5.9″ was right especially when the biggest gear you have is a #3 Camalot that is fired in at the first 30 feet of the crack, well before the crux. Luckily, Marat found a shifting flake inside of the upper chimney where he slotted a large nut, which in turn due to the shifting nature of the flake was a bitch to clean later on, but at least I was on a top rope…
Well, we didn’t do five pitches but did four amazing long 3-star pitches and got home just in time to catch John before bedtime and share the details of our “adventure”. I’m hoping to do more stuff at Lumpy – it’s some of amazing climbing in a spectacular setting (the entire time you have a view of snowy high peaks). I will try to take more photos next time and add them to the post.
I know I still owe a post about Tetons, but I hardly took any photos there, so here comes my post on climbing in Vedauwoo, Wyoming.
Vedauwoo, located in the Southeastern corner of Wyoming, is a crag known for its gritty granite and wide cracks, and supposedly sandbagged grades. The drive from Jackson to Laramie – a college town 20 minute away from Vedauwoo, is about 6 hours and encompasses an entirely different landscape from what typical tourists to Wyoming are accustomed to. The mountains of Teton and Wind River Ranges got replaced by cattle ranches and eventually by vast plains of oil and gas fields where you could see an occasional pronghorn antelope grazing. Closer to the more populated Southeast, wind farms popped up.
We arrived in Vedauwoo on Thursday night just in time for dinner. There we met up with Marat’s friend and climbing partner Paavo. Paavo, a former Gunkie who lives now in Boulder is a gourmand, so the rest of the weekend revolved around meals, wine and chocolate. Funny thing is that both men proved to be greater chocoholics than I.
On Friday, Marat went to town to run errands and Paavo and I went climbing at Nautilus – one of the crags named after Jules Verne’s book. To tell the truth, despite my ownership of a brand new #6 Camalot and a set of Big Bros, I was a bit nervous. I asked Paavo to lead a pitch so I could get a feel for the rock, so we went to climb Captain Nemo. Pitch 1 is an excellent 5.8 hand crack which is really pleasant. Pitch 2, however, was a hard 5.10d hand traverse on slopers – which I gave up on half-way and aided through.
After cruising through the handcrack pitch of Captain Nemo and flailing through the traverse, I felt encouraged enough to go lead Mother 1 – the intro test piece of Vedauwoo. Sort of like local Shockley’s Ceiling. Graded at 5.7+ it is a known sandbag. First 50 feet are terrifyingly wide and awkward – I thought I’d fall out on the first move even. I went in with my left side in and had my right foot on the face, couple of times tiny crystal holds broke under my right foot and I grabbed the rope in panic. Luckily, my body was safely tucked in the crack, so I wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, after the 50 feet the angle of the rock eases and the crack narrows to hands. To get to the rappel bolts, one of the options is to climb unprotected 5.2 face of Parabolic slab for 30 feet – way more pleasant climbing than the OW!
Next, Paavo led Finally (5.9) and I followed. At first I tried off-widthing it, but it was way too awkward, so I just laybacked and stemmed it. The dinner of linguine with scallops with wine was well deserved that night!
On Saturday, reunited with Marat, three of us went to the Central Wall area in hopes of meeting up with Paavo’s Boulder friends. We didn’t find the friends, but found Edward’s Crack (5.7) which Marat led (wide, but way easier than Mother 1). On the rappel we set a top rope on a 5.9+ top rope problem called Mantle. The climb has a stiff old school 5.9+ rating and the first 40 feet of it are unprotected (crux), hence it is only top ropped nowadays. Both Paavo and Marat thought it was at least 5.10, I thought it wasn’t that bad – I love slabby face climbing! Then it came Paavo’s turn to lead. I turned down the lead as a) I felt like I was thrown down the bus the day before; and b) Mother 1 stiff grade thoroughly spooked me. Paavo led Satterfield’s Crack (5.8), a two-pitch climb, the crux of which is entering the squeeze chimney from the face at the top of Pitch 2.
Paavo had to work on Sunday and Marat and I took a day off then – two days of harsh off-widthing was a bit too much for me! On Monday, thoroughly refreshed we decided to do Tour de Wide. I started on TTR (5.6 hard!), Marat then led TTL (5.8), then I led Upper Slot (5.7-?), we top ropped Deep Throat (5.10a chimney) and Marat led Baalbek (5.9). I thought Baalbek was the best 5.9 I’ve ever climbed! Long, sustained and very varied. It had everything – wide chimney, hard stemming, hand and finger cracks and an overhanging chockstone.
Needless to say, after Baalbek (5 pitches of wide) we were pretty trashed, plus dark clouds rolled in, so we decided to come back next day for Friday 13 (5.10a) and me leading P1 of Captain Nemo. Friday 13 Pitch 1 is this excellent long sustained finger/hand/fist crack, which I found quite tough! Marat led it in good style, which I couldn’t say about my cleaning. = After struggling through the first 20 feet of the crux, I gave up to get my hands taped. Second time was better, but I still fell at every 5 feet, but nevertheless finished the climb. The third time was much better, I was surprised that I even went for it. After trashing my hands on Friday 13, we went to Captain Nemo – I thought it was quite tough on lead, plus my right hand was about to explode from all that jamming!
Oh, and on the morning approach to the crag, Magda, one of Marat’s dogs went after a cow moose and her calf. In turn the cow went after us – I never was so scared in my life! It is not everyday you encounter an animal weighing probably a ton five feet from your face, furiously trying to defend her offspring.
By the way, Vedauwoo rock formations very much reminded me of ones at Terelj National Park in Mongolia (just outside of the capital). Check out these photos that were published last year in Rock & Ice, and say it isn’t so: http://pullphotography.blogspot.com/2010/09/mongolia-in-print.html
Ten Sleep, Wyoming has been my home for the past two weeks since I arrived in the state. The 18-mile long limestone canyon in the middle of Bighorn Wilderness is home to some amazing sport climbing on a clean unpolished (yet!) limestone. The nature of climbing is very technical and steep – it is mostly face climbing on perfect jugs and finger pockets. The area has just been getting onto the climbers’ radar and here is an excellent video by Cedar Wright about climbing in Ten Sleep: http://t.co/MV0TRCZ
Most climbs in the canyon are concentrated around 7,000 feet above sea level and are accessed by 30-40 minute hike up switchbacks, so it was a great training before heading to the mountains I thought. I even went on a few runs from my camp on rest days or easy days when we only climbed half a day. The climate of the canyon is very desert like, meaning very hot and dry during the day in a direct sun, but cold at night. Once the sun moves over the canyon and walls are in the shade it’s actually pretty comfortable to climb – dry and cool.
Aside from a two-day trip to Rumney, NH, my sport climbing experience was equal to zero before this trip. Most of the times I have been feeling as Kelly Cordes in his latest humorous blog: http://www.thecleanestline.com/2011/08/trad-guy-sporto-tips.html. Here are my few lessons I learned as a tradie entering sport climbing:
- Pointy cambered shoes are a must on a pockety limestone – my trusty Mythos just won’t stick into those tiny monos (mono is a small pocket that’s big enough for an average guy’s one finger – I found that I could sometimes get my two fingers in those).
- Down climbing – what downclimbing? If you can’t figure out the move you might as well fall or take instead of wasting your energy on downclimbing. This is sport climbing, so you better preserve your energy for a redpoint.
- Falling – I have yet to master the art of falling. First week I have been here, I wouldn’t even fall on a top rope. I’m slowly testing waters by controlled falls on top rope and on lead – still super scary!
- Bolts are not always where you need them – most climbs are very well bolted in Ten Sleep and are usually body length or so apart, but unlike gear routes you still need to climb to them and overcome your fears instead of plugging gear wherever you feel like it.
- Cracks are not always your friends – I too often get sucked in into the cracks and find myself on scary thin traverses to the nearest bolt, yikes!
Camping in Ten Sleep is really good except for mosquitoes (sometimes could be a pretty big PITA). Most of the climbing area is on the National Forest land, and there is ample room for dispersed camping. We had a great site with our very own little creek (mostly used to keep the beer cold).
Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge, is what Lakota Indians call the unique rock formation that we now know as Devil’s Tower in North Eastern Wyoming. I was never interested in climbing at Devil’s Tower, as I’d heard that rock was rotten and climbing not very inspiring. But here, in Ten Sleep, we are just three hour drive away, and we thought we’d at least go up and gawk at it. We also wanted to tick off one of the 50 North American Climbing classics – Durrance route. Dottie was generous enough to offer watch Marat’s dogs, so with her help and blessings we packed our sleeping bags one of the mornings and drove 3.5 hours North East.
We arrived at the park around 2pm, the heat was oppressive – the temperatures were in mid-90s and and not a single cloud in the sky. The forecast for the next day looked even more of a scorcher – 98 degrees high, so we decided to give it a go Durrance route that afternoon, as we didn’t feel like getting to the base of the route around 5am (recommended start time) since it has a South Eastern aspect and most of it is in the shade around 4-5 pm. We registered at the ranger’s station, had lunch, sorted our rack and started hiking from the parking lot around 5pm. We were at the base of the climb around 5.45pm.
Marat took the first two pitches, which include the namesake pitch of the route – Durrance crack that is notoriously sandbagged. Traditionally graded 5.6, nowadays people give it an ambiguous 5.7+ grade. The double crack of the route is known to spank ambitious face climbers and beginner leaders who are not well versed at crack climbing. In fact, the ranger had told us that the previous day a party spent 12 hours on the route and bailed from the P2, thus ruining everyone else’s chances to take a shot at it as they didn’t allow anyone climb pass them. Following the route, I thought the crack felt a tad harder than 5.6 for sure.
The next three pitches are easily linked – pitches 3, 4 and 5, which was my turn to lead. Pitch 3 is also known as a Cussin crack, for it’s an offwidth chimney. I sure have uttered a couple of expletives on the pitch. P4 and P5 were pretty straightforward 5.easy cracks. To finish, Marat led the Bailey’s direct finish which is not the way the original party went up the summit, but it’s more of an aesthetic and straightforward line – around 160 feet of pretty sustained 5.6 climbing. We both thought that this variation pitch had the best climbing on the route. We summited as the sun was hovering over the horizon to the West around 8.15pm. The top of Devil’s Tower is a grassy plateau which blends to the landscape of the surrounding plains and while standing on it, you don’t feel like you are on top of a roughly 1200 foot rock formation, but in the middle of vast plains.
After couple of haste summit photos and filling out the summit registry, we started our way down, and that’s when the adventure began. By the time we got to the first set of rap rings, it was all dark and we had to down climb with headlamps in pretty strong winds. Despite our best efforts, our ropes got stuck two times in the crack while we were pulling them (luckily I had carried my GriGri 2, and used it as a ratchet while pulling the rope). One of the rope tugs dislodged few rocks that barely missed me. And on the trail down I almost stepped on a rattle snake!
Day 2 at Devil’s Tower, we decided to give El Matador a go. According to some beta, while it’s graded 10d, it is not as hard and you can get rests by stemming plus you can get good gear in. I led the first easy 5.8+ pitch and Marat got on the money pitch – which turned to be way harder than was described. Half way up, the sun turned around the corner and there was no way we were going to even siege climb it as the highs that day were supposed to reach 98, so we bailed on 2 nuts and went down to the town for beer and lunch planning to return later that afternoon for some climbs in the shade…
Encouraged by the ease I got over the first 5.8+ pitch of El Mat, I decided to give Soler a go (5.9-) – a three star classic hand and finger crack that came highly recommended. The first pitch goes at 5.8+ and as most routes on the Tower is super long – 170 feet of sustained finger and hand jamming, but oh so awesome! This was the longest and hardest single pure crack I’d ever led and my toes and calves were burning. I had to take once mid-pitch as I could no longer take a pain in my toes, although hand jams were super positive, I regret on not pushing through and busting my OS. And then came the hanging belay… I found this the crux of the climb – taking up the slack of almost entire length of 60M double ropes while hanging off the harness, was the most challenging part of the climb. By the time Marat came up to the bolts, I was almost toast but still energetic to lead the P2 that goes at 5.9- (I think the difference between 5.8+ and 5.9- is that 5.8 has more hand jams and 5.9 has more finger jams – my favorite). Unfortunately while flipping our ropes we cluster-effed them and could not get them out efficiently, by the time we reflaked them third and fourth time, we lost all our enthusiasm plus it was getting dark and a possibility of another headlamp rappel, plus exposed scrambling down was not too appealing so we rapped off without doing the P2.
Day 3 at the Tower, we only had a half-day to climb – so we went over to the Northwest side to check out Assembly Line (5.9-) via New Wave (5.10a). Beat by two consecutive days of crack climbing in the heat, we moved slowly that morning and didn’t get to the climb till well past 10am. By the time we put our belay high up (instead of leading the 5.7 pitch we just scrambled up and decided to link pitches as other climbers recommended), racked up, it was probably around 10.30 when Marat started leading. The climb was a rope stretcher! I had to simulclimb the last 12 feet. Climbing was excellent – really varied climbing starting with few fingerlocks and thin face moves and laybacks, culminating in 20 feet of a perfect hand crack. It was around noon by the time I got to the belay ledge and another 160 feet of sustained crack climbing didn’t seem like we could be done by 2pm as we had planned so we rapped off from top of New Wave. Assembly Line looked super sweet though – I guess there is another Devil’s Tower trip in the future!