Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Couldn't Catch a Cat

George and I set out on Sunday, November 16th, the last day of my second trip to Red Rock, to climb Schaefer’s Delight on Whiskey Peak. We got to the base to find a party of three just starting, so we headed a few yards right to Ballentine’s Blast, a 400 foot 5.7 that gets two stars in Handren’s book. It was the first time George and I had climbed together since he broke his ankle on our attempt to do Tunnel Vision last February. I described in an earlier post his tough, determined self rescue from that mishap. I was glad to learn that he is enthusiastically back to climbing.

Bill following George's lead up the first pitch. Photo by George Wilson.

George did a very efficient lead of the first pitch of Ballentine’s, about 120 feet up two nice inside corners to a double bolt anchor. My lead came next and was supposed to go up to and over an “overhang,” but all I saw above our belay was a slab ending in a short vertical wall. No overhang, at least to my Gunks-educated eye. So I racked up and went searching for the missing ‘hang.

I didn’t see anything to the left, so I went right up an inside corner that ended in a roof. If that roof was the “overhang,” we needed someone a lot better and stronger than I to climb it. I looked farther right and saw a possible route: a pretty white pillar with rounded holds on its slabby face. That pillar did not look very hard and would probably be easy for many climbers. But climbing it turned out to be one of the most intense experiences I have had on the rock. The following, present-tense description is my attempt to capture how I felt.

Heading right toward the pretty white pillar. Photo by George Wilson.

I put a cam in the 3 inch crack in the back of the corner, climb up a bit farther toward the roof and step right across a 2 foot wide chimney onto the white face. There are holds, but rounded ones with nothing positive on which to get a reassuring grip. The bits of lichen all over the white rock strongly suggest that no one has climbed this way, at least in quite a while. But it looks like the slab will go on mostly friction holds up to a 12 foot high verticle bulge 60 to 70 feet above. I think I can turn the bulge on its right corner where there are small patches of desert varnish that should offer some positive holds and (I hope) some pro. Above the bulge the face eases off again to a slab that looks doable. We have a 70 meter rope that I think will be long enough.

I look around for a place to put another piece, but don’t find anything. I move gingerly from one rounded, sloping hold to the next, easing my way up the white slab. I see a horizontal crack about 30 feet up where it looks like I can put in a cam. I work up toward it, focusing hard on each movement of hand or foot and each weight shift. The lack pro and of anything good and solid to stand on or wrap a hand around is making me nervous. The friction on slopers is good, but what if a foot blows? Ah, there is the crack; not all that I had hoped, but still enough for a cam placement. More cautious smearing and I am just under the verticle bulge, 30 or so feet above that last cam. Not a good time to fall.

Fear rises from my belly through my chest and shoulders to my throat and arms, trying to take control and prevent me from climbing effectively and making good decisions. A contrary force of concentration and will forces that fear back down where it can’t interfere. I focus narrowly on one climbing move at a time, each taking me a foot or two higher. I am getting to the patches of varnish now at the bottom of the bulge. I'm breathing. There are some small slots between patches where I can get in a couple of small nuts. If I equalize them, maybe they will hold a fall. Oh, whom am I kidding? I remarked later to George that they were surely good enough to hold a fall by my cat; he weighs 9 pounds.

I haven’t yet climbed up anything I could not down-climb. But I don’t want to come down. The corner of the bulge, although loose and quite friable, looks like it will go. I move up, searching for the most solid hand and foot holds, testing each before weighting it. The last two moves up the corner are the trickiest, not really hard, but spooky due to the fragile rock and poor protection. I avoid using knobs and ridges for fear they will break. Instead I smear on little, rounded bulges and use my palms on slopers. At the top, just as I am starting to think I may not be able to finish the corner, I see a short, hand-size crack that will be perfect to jam. That’s just what I need. No, it’s formed by a boulder that is quite ready to jump off and fall 250+ feet to the ground. Instead, I test a pointy nubbin on the top of the corner, the hand hold I need to pull the last move. Except, it breaks under mild pressure. Fear is rising again. I find a rounded hold that gives me just enough purchase to make the move over the lip onto the lower angled slab above. Whew!

More friction moves on sloped holds take me to the top of what turns out to be a pretty white pillar. Just as our 70 meter rope is about to run out, I climb onto a nice, big ledge and build the most bomber three piece anchor ever. George comes up and calmly leads us up the last pitch to the top at Lovers ledge.

Bill rapping down the decent gully. Photo by George Wilson.

Later study of Handren’s guidebook, particularly the picture of our route, shows that I was seriously off-route on my lead. I should have gone up over the first vertical wall, which is what Handren referred to as the overhang. But I am very glad I did the pitch described above. It was one of the best experiences I have had rock climbing. But why is that? I’m not sure, but I think the answer lies in the mental/emotional state I was in during the lead. I felt a tension or struggle between my fear on one hand and my will and concentration on the other. My key to climbing effectively was to push the fear away by concentrating on each move, each decision to the exclusion of fear and distraction. What hold should I use for my right foot? How much weight will it hold? How should I shift my weight? Can I use that flake as a handhold? Maybe just for balance? The feeling of committing all my mental and physical effort to just one task -- moving up another few feet of rock – was exhilarating in a way almost no other experiences are for me. Was I scared? Terrified might be more like it. But it is the fear and the very real possibility of disaster that makes possible the complete, exhilarating concentration and sense of mastery of myself.

I have only had these feelings a few other times while climbing: once on Whitehorse slabs doing friction in the rain, once leading a steep 5.7 at Seneca rocks, perhaps a time or two at the Gunks. But none of those experiences was as intense or prolonged as the white pillar next to Ballentine’s.

Climbing With Marc

One of the constants of a climber’s life is the search for partners. In this, my second climbing life, I have had very good luck finidng people to climb with, largely thorugh the internet. Some of the best have been Jean and Annie (see post below about the Magic Purple Cam), Peter, Carolyn, Don and Jon. Marc, Las Vegas/Red Rock local, is another really good, solid partner. When he and I climb together things just seem to go smoothly and efficiently. On my recent, second trip to Red Rock (November 7-17, 2008), we did three excellent routes. He wisely insisted we start early. He picked me up each morning at my hotel and always brought route photos and beta from Mountain Project. We climb at about the same level and seem to like the same kind of routes: long trad moderates. We are starting to talk about our very different world views. I really enjoy the time I spend with him.

Our first climb was Cookie Monster on the Mescalito formation. It is a three pitch 5.7 with some very good climbing. From its top, Marc found a way to climb up a nice face to the bottom of the last pitch of Cat in the Hat. I led that last pitch, which finishes up rounded friction holds, past a very controversial bolt. It is rated only 5.6, but I was sketched on the run out above that bolt to the top. Marc agreed it was though. In all, though, it was a typical Marc and Bill climb: smooth, efficient and fun. He took these pictures.

Photos from the top: Marc belaying; Bill leading; Bill following.

Bourbon Street, an 800 foot long route on Whiskey Peak that, Handren grades 5.8+, was our second climb together. That little “plus” worried me and Marc. So he brought along a couple of rope guns, Mark (avoid confusion by noting the “k”) and Nathan. See, Marc is always prepared. Mark and Marc made one rope; Nathan and I, the other. The whole route is quite good, but the first two pitches are the best. We swung leads. I took the first pitch, so Nathan would get the second, which is the 5.8+. That pitch turned out to be very fun, but not terribly hard. The crux is a finger crack about 15 feet long. I got some of the best finger locks ever in it. They felt very secure, and together with small foothold on the adjacent face, made the climb something I would be very comfortable leading. Here are some photos Marc took of the climb.

Photos from the top: The brave mountaineers at the top of Bourbon street: Bill, Nathan, Mark and Marc; Bill leading a corner high up; Nathan and Bill at a belay; Mark Leading the 5.8+ finger crack.

For me, the best thing about this climb was the feeling of accomplishment from doing a long rouĂ© near the limit of my ability. Most of the places I climb in the Northeast simply don’t have many routes this big. I felt I had really gotten to the top of something.

I have wanted to climb Purblind Pillar (950 feet, 5.8) on the Angel Food wall since seeing some climbers on it while I was climbing Group Therapy last February. On Saturday, November 15th, Marc and I set out to do it. As we walked in and started up I was focused on the size of the route and a feeling of adventure generated by tackling a big objective. Again, things went very efficiently. We swung leads, each getting one of the two 5.8 pitches. We started the climbing at about 8 am and were on top just after 12 noon. Four hours! Looks like we are ready for even bigger and better climbs. Marc took more great pictures.

Photos from the top: Bill (2), Marc, Las Vegas seen over the Calico Hills.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lessons from Gunks 1965

The time was late August, 1965. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. A gallon of gasoline cost well less than a dollar and fueled my father’s Volkswagen Beetle for 33 miles. Bob Dylan had recently plugged in. A Kansasan named Jim Ryun was about to become the first high schooler to run a mile in less than four minutes. “Transistor” radios were popular; personal computers were a thing of the future. In a couple of weeks I would begin my last year of high school.

The place was the Gunks, where Jim McCarthy was the leading climber and we all hammered pitons into the rock for protection. The shoes (mountain boots and kletter shoes) still had hard rubber soles, but the carabineers were made of aluminum and the new nylon ropes of core and sheath design stretched to absorb energy in a fall. The Art Gran guide book, the area’s first, had been published the year before. The hardest climbs Gran described were grade 5.10; there were only a few.

John Parker, a student at Yale, and I were spending a week climbing. We started with Gelsa, a great 5.4 in the Near Trapps and worked our way up the grades. 5.7 seemed to be our limit: about what John could lead and I could follow. One day, John suggested we try top roping a 5.8 called Jacobs Ladder. It is a thin face climb put in near the Uberfall by Phil Jacobus. We spent a full afternoon trying, but neither of us could climb it. I couldn’t get more than a few feet up. It seemed impossible. There was no question of needing to be just a little stronger or a bit more flexible. I simply could not imagine how a human being could climb it.

John and I went back to easier things, including my first trad lead (the second pitch of Baby). But the lesson of Jacobs’s Ladder stuck with me: there was no way on God’s green earth that I would ever be able to climb Gunk’s 5.8. In succeeding years I climbed the Grand Teton and Mount Rainier. In winter I did Mount Washington and the three main peaks of the Northern Presidentials. I led 5.8 cracks in Yosemite. But I never again tried a Gunks 5.8. I had [over] learned my lesson.

When my older daughter Karen got me back into rock climbing two years ago, I happily decided I would spend my second-time-around climbing career doing those wonderful, easy 5.3s and 5.4s which abound at the Gunks. But as I climbed and my skills developed, I led a few slightly harder routes. By the spring of 2008, I had, much to my surprise, led a few 5.7s, a couple on sight. I had noticed in the latest Dick Williams Guidebook that my old nemesis, Jacobs Ladder, was not a 5.8 after all. Williams now rated it 5.10b. Richafrd Goldstone explained that Gran tended to rate the climber, rather than the climb. He thought Jacobus couldn't climb harder than 5.8, so Jacob's Ladder had to be a 5.8. Nonetheless, I stayed true to the lesson of 1965 and kept off Gunks 8s.

Then my friend Don suggested we do Arrow. He had previously followed it and assured me that he would lead the harder second pitch and that I would be able to follow the 5.8 crux move at the top. I reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Don led without trouble. I took several tries (and falls) to figure out the crux move; but I got it! At age 60, 43 years after I had failed on Jacobs Ladder, I had climbed my first Gunks 5.8. But, after the excitement of my achievement wore off, I decided that Arrow couldn’t be a “real” 5.8. I had climbed it, so it must be over rated. I went back and led it with my good friends Annie and Jean. That convinced me: Arrow can’t be a true 5.8, not if I could lead it.

[My younger daughter Valerie seems to have learned this habit of mind from me. A very good college rower, she is often heard to opine that any team she can make (e.g., the University of Pennsylvania's first varsity boat) can't be very good. She is quite wrong.]

On subsequent trips to New Paltz, I tried a few more Gunks 8s. After our misadventure on Columbia/Madame Gs (see below), Carolyn and I spent a day top roping on the Herdie Gerdie block. I got up Dirty Gerdie (5.8) and ¾ of the way up Herdie Gerdie (5.8+). I also did Red Cabbage (5.9-); but I think I cheated around the crux. A couple of weeks later, Lois kindly agreed to belay me on top rope attempts of the first pitches of Columbia and Hyjek’s Horror, both rated 5.8. I succeeded on both. Hmmm? Maybe, just maybe, I can climb Gunks 5.8 after all. But after a bit of quiet reflection, I decided no, I probably can’t. Hyjek’s and Columbia must be over-rated also.

Carolyn led me up City Lights, a 5.8 on which I took a couple of falls before turning the crux. She and I top roped the first pitch of Son of Easy O, a beautiful, thin face 5.8 I had been wanting to try for a while. I climbed it in good style without falling. Can all these 8s be over-graded? The same day we returned to the Herdie Gerdie block where I got all the way up Herdie Gerdie (5.8+) and Carolyn fought her way ¾ of the way up Dogs in Heat. It is a (gasp!) 5.11. That girl can climb!!

I climbed with Don again in early October. Among the routes we did was Main Line in the Near Trapps (thanks to Dick Williams for the new “Purple Dick” guidebook). Its first pitch is a tricky corner that Williams rates 5.7. I led it. Don led the second pitch, the crux of which is a 5.8 overhang. I found that overhang relatively easy. A week later, Don and I did Alphonse, another Near Trapps route with a 5.8 overhang crux on the second pitch. Don led and I found it very do-able. We also climbed Te Dum, a 5.7 I remember struggling to climb back in 1965. This time it was well within my ability.

After we finished Te Dum, Don left. I met up with Jean and Annie, newly arrived from Vermont for a week’s climbing. As evening fell, I watched Jean do a very impressive lead of Handy Andy. I think she did the 5.8 variation. Annie followed. We had dinner with Carolyn and spent Saturday night at the Creekview Campground, J and A in their very nifty VW camper van and I in my somewhat less spiffy, but much beloved, min-van Ezzie.

Sunday was a beautiful fall day with bright blue skies, cool temps and a quilt of red, gold, green and brown foliage laid out at the base of the cliffs. I was happy to spend a day doing mellow climbing with good friends. Jean did a nice lead of Te Dum; as sometimes happens, I found it harder the second time than it had seemed the day before. I often take a climb too casually on a second ascent and don’t focus as I should. Annie then led us up Gelsa, for me another repeat from the day before. She handled the lead well, effectively solving the problems posed by getting off-route and having to down-climb on the second pitch. The climbing was good, but the day stands out in my memory for the good friends and the airy ledges that let me feel a part of the beautiful sky, sun, rock and color. Gunks magic.

On the 7 hour drive home (bad traffic) I had time to think. Maybe I got it wrong back in 1965. Maybe I can climb Gunks 8s. I’ve done a bunch of them, even led one. Surely they can’t all be over-rated. Slowly it sank in: I’m ready to start leading gunks 8s. I think my next 5.8 lead will be Son of Easy O. I’ve done the first pitch and looked hard at the second from below. It looks very doable.

In the overall scheme of things, and even in the narrower world of rock climbing, leading 5.8 in the Gunks is not a big deal, certainly not in a world where kids are sent to kill and die in Iraq and teenagers with a year or two of climbing experience are leading 5.12 and harder. But for me it is a big deal. To be able to do a physical activity better and harder at age 61 than I could do it at ages 16 through 22 astonishes me. To be having more fun climbing now than I did 40 years ago is a gift. I feel almost as if I have been given a second chance at life. I can’t know how long this will last. But I am loving it while it does.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Red Cabbage Gap

My father liked pickled red cabbage. On the rare occasions when my mother served it for dinner, he would talk about something he called the "Red Cabbage Gap." I never quite understood what the Red Cabbage Gap was, something I suppose about folks not eating enough red cabbage. But I always think fondly of my father when something reminds of red cabbage. He was the kindest human being I have ever met.

I thought of him last Tuesday. Carolyn and I spent the day top roping some climbs on the Dirty Gerdie boulder/slab near the Uberfall at the Gunks. After, Herdie Gerdie (5.8), and Dirty Gerdie (5.8+), we did Red Cabbage (an interesting crack climb that Williams rates 5.9-). I managed to get up it on my second try. It was the first 5.9 I have ever done in the Gunks. I'm glad it made me think of my father and the Red Cabbage Gap.

One thing the day showed beyond doubt is that Carolyn is a stronger climber than I. She climbed Herdie Gerdie without any observable problem and got up Dirie Gerdie with only a bit of struggle. I on the other hand took innumerable falls before I figured out how to do the cux on Herdie Gerdie, and managed to make it only about 2/3of the way up Dirty Gerdie. On the latter I did at least solve the tricky mantle move. In fact, I did it repeatedly because I kept falling off above and going back up to try the upper part again.

To my surprise, Carolyn tried a 5.11 route called Dogs in Heat. Despite repeated tries, she couldn't quite pull the crux, but I think she was close. I was proud of her. She'll get it next time.

This was the hardest climbing I have done since resuming the sport 2 years ago. I am very sore today (arms and shoulders, particularly). But, if I keep spending some of my climbing time doing similar and maybe even harder routes on top rope, I think I will actually be able to increase the difficulty of what I can climb. Kind of cool for an old man.

Ironically, of the three routes I tried, Red Cabbage, although rated the hardest, was the least difficult for me. Could it be that I have a bit of crack technique left over from Yosemite in 1972? Or was it just my dad's influence, encouraging and supportive as always? He was, after all, the one who drove me to the Gunks for my first rock climbing weekend when I was 13 or 14.

Day after tomorrow Lois and I leave for Honduras on a trip with her church. We are going to be there for about 10 days helping to finish a school the Episcopal Church has been trying for several years to open. We have a heavy suitcase full of parts for a jungle gym the group is going to assemble for the school playground. This will be a real adventure: neither of us has been to central America before.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bad News, Good News

I’m thinking I need to bring things up to date climbing-wise. First, the bad news. I cancelled the trip to the Tetons. It’s a weird story. I’ve had pain in my Achilles tendons for many years, since I was training for and competing at the mile run in high school and college. In the last few months (since January), the pain has gotten worse, but I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve been climbing a lot, so of course my ankles and feet hurt. I didn’t think it was more than an annoyance to be tolerated.

But, a few weeks ago, I read in the newspaper that the FDA had just issued a warning that the powerful antibiotic Cipro and related drugs sometimes cause tendonitis leading to ruptures, particularly of the Achilles tendon. I freaked because starting in January I have taken several courses of treatment with Cipro for an intestinal infection. All of a sudden my increased tendon pain scared me. Am I about to rupture an Achlles tendon? The FDA web site said that if someone taking Cipro develops tendon pain, he/she should stop taking the drug and cease all physical activity. It also said the ruptures can occur months after one stops the drug.

Being miles up Garnet Canyon with a heavy pack on my way to the Lower Saddle on the Grand Teton didn’t seem like a very good idea. After consulting a doctor friend I trust (not the one who prescribed the Cipro) I decided to bail on the Tetons. I reluctantly told Marc, with whom I had been planning to climb the Grand. He was a good sport, and we are now planning to climb in Red Rock in November.

Of course, I haven’t followed the FDA’s advice to avoid all physical activity. I’ve been working out at the exercise gym as much as I can without putting too much stress on my tendons. I’ve been to the climbing gym. And, best of all, I’ve been to the Gunks several times, which brings me to the good news.

With my ankles well taped (a skill I learned from the trainer at my college who used to tape my ankles before every track practice) I’ve been able to climb without much pain. Right now my tendons don’t hurt at all when I walk, which is unusual.

I’ve been working my way through the Gunks 5.7s and have recently led Classic, Thin Slabs (5.7 direct start) and Handy Andy, in addition to Limelight and Bloody Mary which I did earlier. I’ve also led Arrow twice, making it my first and only Gunks 5.8 lead.

I’ve done most of my recent climbing with a new friend, Carolyn, who lives in New Paltz and works for both EMS and the Mohonk Preserve (the outfit that owns and manages the trust land on which most of the Gunks cliffs are located). We seem quite compatible as climbing partners and have had some very good times on the rock. One of the best was about 10 days ago on Carolyn’s birthday. She wanted to celebrate by leading High Exposure for the first time. We set out on a bright sunny morning and found the climb available. There was a fellow rope-soloing Directissima, a 5.9 next door, but no one on our route.

High E is THE 5.6 Gunks climb, put in by legendary climbers Hans Kraus and Fritz Wiessner in 1941. The first pitch is pretty mellow and leads up the left side of a large buttress to a very big, flat belay ledge under a large roof. The second pitch begins with a one-of-a-king move out from under the roof, onto an incredibly exposed, slightly overhanging face. The route follows that steep face to the top. To pull the MOVE, one must crouch down under the roof, work out right over the abyss, and find hold on the face above. Exhilarating, shall we say?

After some understandable hesitation and and a bit of moving up and down to the roof, Carolyn pulled the move and led up the steep face to the top. I followed her and we celebrated a great birthday achievement with photos at the top. While on the big ledge, we had met a very nice couple who joined us that evening for Carolyn’s birthday dinner.

Carolyn’s and my latest adventure involved an attempt to climb Madame G’s, another great Gunks 5.6. Carolyn had no problem leading the first pitch to a comfy belay at an oak tree. But that is where the trouble began. Even though I have climbed the route twice before, I managed to direct Carolyn into the wrong corner at the start of the second pitch. This error put us on the second pitch of a climb called Columbia, a pitch that is rated 5.7 by Williams and 5.9- by Swain (go figure). In any event, we both managed to climb past the crux. Carolyn led it and then, not seeing where to go, came down. I went up to take my turn. Thinking I was on Madame G’s, I sought in vain for a viable traverse right to the little semi-hanging belay that I remembered as the end of the Madame’s second pitch. After trying a few traverses that petered out, I managed finally to get to the belay, but only by climbing up much of Columbia, across a sketchy traverse, and down the face about 20 feet to the belay. We agreed that it made no sense for Carolyn to try to follow that bizarre route. So I had to reverse the path to get back to Carolyn at the first pitch belay on Madame G’s. I took a harmless fall trying to down climb the crux on Columbia (those new-fangled cam thingys hold really well, and they are so much easier to place and clean than were pitons!). We ended up climbing a nearby 5.2(Southern Pillar). From a ledge part way up SP, Carolyn lowered me down Columbia so I could retrieve our gear. I then climbed Columbia for the third time (counting my down-climb adventure) so we could finish SP and rap down from the Madame G’s chains. The whole thing was actually more fun than it sounds; but I don’t want to repeat it any time soon.

Tomorrow I am going back to the Gunks for one more day of climbing. It’ll be my last for couple of weeks because my wife (Lois) and I are leaving on August 2nd for a trip with a group from her church to help finish work on a school there. No climbing, but I am really looking forward to traveling with Lois: we always have fun together on trips. And, we’ll be seeing a part of the world we have never before visited.

Photos: Top -- Carolyn at the High E belay ledge. Bottom -- Carolyn pulling THE move on High E.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Oh, but we were so much older then,
We’re younger than that now.

There is a website (www.tetonclimbinghistory.com) where you will find digital images of the summit registers for the Grand Teton from 1898 through the 1980s. I couldn’t resist. After hunting for a bit, I found, on the page for August 4, 1971, the following entry: “Bill Hutchins, Philadelphia, PA, Petzoldt Ridge.”

Yep, on that day, 37 years ago, I and a fellow also named Bill whom I had met at Jenny Lake climbed the Grand via the Petzoldt Ridge. My partner was a very good rock climber from the Gunks, but had little experience in the mountains, so most of the planning and route finding fell to me. I spent a sleepless night in a wind buffeted tent on the crest of the Lower Saddle worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong, from not finding the start of the route to being hit by a monster thunderstorm on the summit. However, and despite a few disagreements about Bill’s belaying me without gloves (we used hip belays then, kids) and my tendency to run out moderate rock, we made it to the summit without problems. My cunning plan to follow a guide party down the Owen Spalding descent route (which the guidebook warned could be hard to follow) fizzled when the guide got lost and we had to find our own way down, followed by the guide and his two clients.

I talked Bill into glissading down from the Lower Saddle into Garnet Canyon, but forgot to warn him to wear long sleeves. He rubbed his forearms raw doing an ice-ax self arrest part way down. I wrapped his arms in gauze, which stuck to the open wounds as they dried and was very painful to remove the next day. Bill was not at all happy with me. Nonetheless, that climb of the Grand was one of the hi-lights of my thoroughly undistinguished mountaineering career.

As the years have gone by, I have thought often of that climb. A proud achievement, yes. But one that belonged in a different lifetime to a younger, stronger person. In the several years before my retirement last fall, I walked past a beautiful photograph of the Tetons with the Grand in the middle (of course) as I made my way down the hall to my office each morning. I remembered my climb and tried without success to imagine myself again climbing to the summit. No, that kind of adventure, requiring real physical strength and stamina, was behind me. I was old and far too weak to do anything like that again.

But as I have gotten back into climbing in the last two years, thoughts of the Grand have stayed with me. I asked for, and received, the photograph as a retirement gift from my colleagues in my old office. They framed it beautifully, and I look at it in my bedroom every day. I bought the latest edition of the Teton guidebook and then a topo map of the Grand Teton National Park. As I studied both, the idea grew: maybe I could climb the Grand again. Sometimes I think its possible; other times I think its beyond me. But I've decided to try.

My Red Rock friend and climbing partner Marc and I have arranged to meet at the Teton Climbers Ranch in late July of this year. Our tentative objective is the complete Exum Ridge, a wonderful Grade III, 5.7 right next to my old friend the Petzoldt Ridge.

I am doing everything I can to prepare. I’ve been working out regularly, with a particular emphasis on cardio-vascular conditioning to try to get ready for the strenuous hiking and climbing we will have to do at altitudes up to almost 14,000 feet. I have been climbing a lot, including leading quite a few Gunks 5.7s and one 5.8. I am climbing as well or better than as I was in 1971. I will be spending a week climbing at Seneca Rocks shortly. Then, Lois and I are going to take another week to hike through New Hampshire's Pemigewasset wilderness.

I am going to go out to the Tetons about 10 days before Marc to get acclimated to the altitude and to reconnoiter the approaches to our route. I am hoping to be able to do a couple of warm up climbs as well, which should give me a good sense of whether my fitness is up to the Grand. If not, I’ll call Marc and give him the bad news that we need to scrub the climb. But I am hopeful we can do it. If so I’ll post pictures and a trip report here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Lazy Retirement

What happened to all that free time? To those long lazy mornings when I was going to loll about in my PJs sipping coffee and petting the cat? To the problem of not having enough to do in retirement to stave off boredom?

Forget about it!

Since getting back from Red Rock I have been one busy Relic. Granted, for the first couple of weeks, I chilled, recovering from the trip. But since then, my schedule seems to be designed to test how much activity it will take to wear me out.

I climbed at Rock State Park here in Maryland with daughter Karen, who was visiting on Spring break from grad school in Boston. We top-roped several climbs and, for the first time, I was able to get up a couple of routes, one rated 5.8 and another 5.9, that she couldn’t. When we were done she complained, “I don’t much like being smoked by my 60 year old father.” I replied with a philosophical grin, “I kind of like smoking you. But remember, time is on your side.” Indeed, it won’t be too long before she is visiting me in the nursing home and regaling me with stories of her climbs and races and swim meets, while I wonder how I am going to get out of the bed and into the wheelchair.

My regular climbing partner Peter and I made a trip to Seneca where we confirmed the received wisdom that weather forecasts for that valley are worthless, at best. Saturday was predicted to be wet, but turned out mostly dry. On Sunday, when the weather was supposed to be sunny, it poured. We managed only a couple of routes on the South End (which has a nice short approach that avoids the, by Bill, dreaded Stairmaster).

I’ve also been to the Gunks several times to climb with Peter, my friends Jon the air traffic controller and Don the mortgage broker, as well as Jean and Annie, who were on their annual trip south from Vermont to get a jump on the rock climbing season. On one of these trips I met Carolyn, a New Paltz resident-climber who is preparing for her guiding certification. We climbed together one day.

The Gunks climbing has been pretty interesting. I am working on stepping my leading up from 5.6 to 5.7, and to that end have managed to lead Limelight, Bloody Mary, and the 5.7 second pitch of Morning After. I even led Arrow (5.8), after following it. But, Gunks 5.7s do not appear ready to surrender the sharp end of the rope to me without a fight. I failed miserably in my effort to drag the rope up Handy Andy, a one pitch, thin-face 5.7 near Brat. I went up, and backed off. I went up, and fell. Twice more I went up; twice more I backed off. Finally Peter, apparently tiring of watching the fiasco, took a turn and climbed right up. Grrrrrrrr! By this time I was so discouraged that we had to enlist the services of a passing boulderer (who came walking along the carriage road complete with crash pad strapped to his back) to follow Peter and clean our gear. I whined all the way home in the car. On a subsequent trip, I followed Jean up the 5.7 direct start to Thin Slabs. As I struggled to stick to the sketchy holds, I decided I was in no hurry to come back and lead it. Worst of all is Laurel. How in the world does one start that climb? I have no idea; the foot-hold are non-existent.

There does seem to be a pattern here: the thin face climbs give me trouble, and many sevens at the Gunks consist of tiny, sloping holds on slabs. I decided the problem must be my shoes. Yes! I need better shoes. So, I went from shop to shop trying on every pair of climbing shoes they had to fit my long but skinny size 47 feet. Each pair promised miraculous edging, smearing, jamming or heel hooking (whatever that is). But slowly I confronted the awful truth: my La Sportiva Mythos shoes are just as good as any of these others. The problem may not be the shoes. As Pogo might have said in my situation, “I is met the enemy, and they is my technique.” Damn!! So now I am reduced to practicing my footwork and strengthening my hands. While climbing for two days with Jon, I consciously tried to use only the tiniest footholds available. I’ve dug out my grip trainer and am squeezing away. I’ll let you know if any of this helps.

Speaking of Jon, we had quite a soggy adventure. As seems to be standard practice when I climb with him, on the way north from Maryland I drove through a hard rain in New Jersey, only to find the sun shining on the Gunks. But it had been raining pretty hard in New Paltz the previous couple of days, which meant a lot of water was still draining down the cliffs, particularly in the corners. These conditions gave us a good chance to pretend to be fearless alpine climbers mastering wet rock on some of the easy routes. Jon led us up through the water on Tipsy Trees; and then I did Northern Pillar, with water running down onto my helmet and across the holds on the top, corner pitch. Not really the North face of the Eiger, but still fun.

Jammed in among these climbing trips, were two excursions to South Carolina where your Relic taught at the Department of Justice training center in Columbia, and a trip to Boston to visit Karen for her birthday. I’ve been home for only a very few days in the last six weeks.

Next week I am off to New Hampshire to climb with Karen on Cathedral Ledge and visit my Mother for her 97th birthday. The following week I am going back to New Paltz to climb with Jon and Carolyn. Lois and I are talking about a week long hiking trip through the Presidential range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and I am hoping to organize a climbing trip west in July, maybe to the Tetons. In August, Lois and I are going to Honduras to help build a school.

I am starting to have second thoughts about this retirement business. Maybe I need to get a nice office job, so I will have someplace to rest up from all this activity.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

George's Ankle

I got an email from George, the young Las Vegas climber who fell and injured his ankle when we were doing Tunnel Vision on the Angel Food wall at Red Rocks. He has been to an orthopedic specialist and reports that his ankle is broken in two places, not just sprained as his first doctor thought. This news leaves me even more amazed than I was originally that George was able to clear our stuck rope, rap down off our climb and hike out without assistance and with nothing more than my ace bandage and a little tape supporting his ankle. One tough, level headed dude! Here is a pic of him working up the squeeze chimney on the third pitch of Tunnel Vision.

He has relatives in New Jersey whom he visits from time to time. I am looking forward to climbing with him in the Gunks next time he comes east.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Last Shall Be Best -- Birdland

I extended my stay here a day so that Marc and I could do Birdland, a highly touted line right next to a route we climbed earlier, Rawlpindi. It was a great day. The weather, the route and the companion were wonderful. Birdland has 5 pitches, with two crux pitches (3 and 5), both rated 5.7+.

I lead one crux and Marc, the other. But the whole route from top to bottom was very fun. No bad pitches and terrific, exposed face climbing up top. This was my best day here.

By the time we got back to the car and were driving away from the cliffs (for my last time, at least on this trip), it was nearly dark. My old body was very tired and sore.

I have had an even better trip than I imagined I would. Good new friends, particularly Marc (who really made the trip the success it has been for me), Johnny and George, excellent weather and some really fun climbing. Mixed in were the trips to places like the Grand Canyon and Zion that I had never seen before. I have become quite fond of the desert landscape, and am already trying to decide when would be the best time to come again.

I am sad to be leaving but looking forward to getting home to Lois, whom I have deeply missed. And, Karen will be home next week on spring break and says she wants to do some climbing. Is this good or what?

Photos from top: Bill leading pitch 3 (photo Marc Jensen); Marc leading pitch 4; Bill about to do the Pitch 5 finger crack (photo Marc J.).

Monday, March 3, 2008

Almost Done in Nevada

Monday, March 3. Just back in Las Vegas from overnight trip to Zion NP. The place is spectacular. I took many photos but none could capture the scale or power. It made me think a lot that there are forces in this world that dwarf me.

Tomorrow Marc and I will climb again, maybe Birdland. Then I will head back east. It's time. I've missed Lois so much and am starting to think more about home things like my own bed, my favorite chair and MARRS (the orange cat). I likely won't have a chance to post anything more until I get home.


Photos: Cliffs of Zion Canyon.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dark Shadows Almost

Saturday, March 1. Dark Shadows is a truly spectacular 5.8 route. It rises 400 feet up a large, dark, almost black corner in Pine Creek canyon.

A clear mountain stream runs around pine trees and big rocks right at its base. The first move is a step from a boulder, over the creek and onto the face. Since doing nearby Rawlpindi, Marc and I have been talking about Dark Shadows and trying to work up the courage to attempt this intimidating climb.

We persuaded Johnny Ray to joins us in the effort. We got an early (5 a.m.) start because Marc had to be back by mid afternoon for a Church commitment. The faint first rays of the sun were hitting the Red Rock walls as we racked up in the parking lot. I was not feeling very spry, so I told Marc and Johnny they could split up the leads.

Marc led the first two pitches, which we all agreed were more than a tad harder than their 5.5 and 5.6 ratings. So much for those “soft” Red Rock ratings my Gunks buddies told me about.

Pitch three (5,8) is one of the best I have ever climbed. It feels like one of those awesome alpine corners often pictured in the glossy climbing mags. It’s the real deal. Johnny did a very nice lead about 150 feet up the huge black corner, placing plenty of good pro. Marc followed and then it was my turn. The crux is a flaring off-width crack near the start. I proved my wisdom in not leading by falling out of it. On my second attempt I made it without much trouble, wondering all the while how I had contrived to fall on my first effort.

The last pitch is a nice featured crack with a flaring off-width pod about half way up. Johnny led up to the pod and worked on it for about 30 minutes, before deciding he was not willing to lead it. Neither Marc nor I jumped at the chance to try, so the intrepid trio rapped off. It was quite windy and we were afraid our ropes would get blown across the adjacent face and stuck. Marc solved the problem by showing us how to make saddle bags of coiled rope that hung on his hips and paid out as he rapped. I had never seen this technique before, but it worked great.

Frustrating? A bit. We sure would liked to have climbed the last 40 or so feet. But just to try a route like Dark Shadows makes for a rewarding day. We were up against some big rock, and today did not have quite enough for it. That is one of the things that makes this sport so addictive. The rock is just there. It was here long before we were and was not made for us to climb. It is a force of nature against which we are privileged to test ourselves. What would be the joy in succeeding if we never failed?

It looks like Marc and I will get out for one more climb on Tuesday and then I will head home.

Note for Jean and Annie: Tori seemed subdued today. No whining or complaining. She even seemed to enjoy the first pitch, which is 70 feet of thin face climbing protected by two bolts. She asked me, "What is an equallette?"

Photos from top: Approximate route of Dark Shadows; Marc leading pitch 2; Bill following the pitch 3 corner (photo Marc J.); Johnny working on the pitch 4 crux; Johnny Ray; Marc, Bill and Johnny.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Group Tunnel Grope

Friday, February 29. Yesterday I got out on the rock again, this time with Johnny Ray and Luke, both of whom are local. Johnny, who often styles himself the “Trundlebum,” is a refugee from the 70s climbing scene in the Valley and an endless source of great stories about the old days. Luke is an 18-year old transplant from Alaska who excels in the gym and is rapidly developing into an excellent trad leader. My first thought on meeting him was “rope gun.” We set out to do an interesting 5.7 called Group Therapy on the Angel food wall. It runs just to the right of Tunnel Vision where my partner George fell and hurt his ankle earlier in the week.

Johnny explained that when climbing with a three person team they like to tie the second and third climbers into the same rope (about 25 feet apart) and have them climb simultaneously while the leader belays both of them from above. I had never climbed this way before, but said I was game to try it. We climbed the first four pitches of Group Therapy this way, sharing the leads without incident. But when we looked up at last two pitches from the fourth belay ledge, my companions were distinctly unenthusiastic about the off-width crack that skirts a big overhang on the final pitch. Both agreed they wanted no part of climbing it. I might have been willing to give it a go, but was not about to try to overrule my local partners who are stronger climbers than I and know this sandstone well. So I said little.

We debated for a while the best alternate course, ultimately accepting Johnny’s suggestion that he try to lead a traverse across a 40 or 50 foot face to the tunnel pitch on Tunnel Vision. The plan was to finish on that route. In concept it was a decent idea. In implementing it we hit a couple of snags.

The traverse was a lot harder than it looked at first. Solid holds soon gave way to tiny slopers and there was almost no place to get in any decent protection. Johnny spent quite a while fussing, grunting, starting, stopping and complaining about the lack of pro. From my spot belaying him, I couldn’t see what was happening, but Luke looked out from a dubious perch on a little tree and gave me reports on Johnny’s progress or lack thereof. Very slowly, sometimes ten inches at a time, the rope paid out. After way more than enough time for me to wonder seriously about the wisdom of the “Trundlebum Traverse,” Johnny made it to a good ledge at the far end. I later realized what a damn fine lead Johnny did. I greatly admire his skill and cool.

It occurred to me that this was the perfect moment to abandon our practice of having the two followers climb simultaneously tied to the same rope. I found something disconcerting about the image of Luke and me smashing into the big corner at which the traverse ended if one of us fell and dangling there while Johnny tried to hold our combined weight of 400 pounds on belay. I also pointed out to Luke that if we climbed across one at a time, I could belay him from behind while Johnny did likewise from in front. That way, even if Luke fell, he would not swing far. He liked that idea and we broke out the second rope we had prudently brought. In the event, Luke crossed without problem.

Now came my turn. Of course, there was no one left to give me a second belay from behind, so I was a tad nervous as I set out. “How bad could it be?” I asked myself. “They both made it OK.” “Plenty,” I answered. “They struggled, and they both climb harder than you do old man.” The first part was not bad, but the last 15 feet got really thin: little rounded, sloping nubbins for both hands and feet. At one point I found myself honestly puzzled as to what was keeping me from succumbing to the pull of gravity. But I too ultimately made it without falling. The “Trundlebum Traverse” was quite a bit harder than anything else I have done here, certainly a grade or two harder than 5.7 and likely harder than the off-width we did all this too avoid.

But at this point we encountered a second problem. The “Trundlebum Traverse” ended half way up the tunnel pitch, in the middle of the said tunnel. Now, the thing about tunnels is that one can get into them at the top end or the bottom end, but not in the middle, unless of course someone has cut a window into the middle, like the famous window in the railroad tunnel on the north face of the Eiger. We looked, but alas, we were not on the Eiger (Alas? Probably a damn good thing, Relic.), and there was no mid point window in this tunnel. Luke suggested rapping down to the tunnel entrance and climbing up. We agreed and rigged anchors around a couple of big blocks at our ledge. I contributed my beloved equallette to the effort. Grrrrr.

Luke seems really to like the tunnel pitch. He proposed that we coil the ropes and just solo it. When I insisted on a belay (Hey, the guidebook rates it 5.6), he led it without placing any pro. Johnny and I followed, again simul-climbing. The next and last pitch is a nice corner, rated 5.7.

That, dear readers, is how we got up the Angel food wall. I have decided to call our mongrel route “Group Tunnel Grope” because we started on Group Therapy, finished on Tunnel Vision, and generally groped around in between.

At the top Johnny took and promised to send me a pic of Luke holding Tori. I think she has the hots for him.

The “walk off” descent, lots of scrambling and boulder hopping, really beat up my ancient joints. So I am hobbling today, but I had sooo much fun climbing with Johnny and Luke. They are great climbers and good companions. I wouldn't have missed the Trundlebum Traverse for anything.

Photos from top: Long shadows of early morning at the parking lot; Tori and her heart throb Luke at the top of the Angel Food Wall. Both photos by Johnny Ray.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Wednesday, February 27. Well, not really. But a few days ago I did get a notice on conspicuous blue paper taped up at my site at the Red Rock campground informing me that I would have to vacate the premises by 11 a.m. on February 27th. As I knew, there is a 14 day limit on stays, and mine would be up on the 27th. The notice emphasized that this limit is imposed by a nation-wide, not local, rule and that no exceptions could be made, not even in the interest of raising money to cover operating costs when (as now) the campground is mostly empty. In my former life, I represented the U.S. Department of the Interior in court, so I well know how inflexible its bureaucracy can be. I would have to move. But where?

A couple of local climbers very kindly offered to put me up. But Ezzy and I have gotten to like being on our own. I checked out the nearby Bonnie Springs motel, which gets decidedly mixed reviews on Mountain Project. Visions of a real bed, hot bath and cable TV danced in my head. But $65 per night, going up to $85 on the weekend, seemed a bit steep. So, I drove by the BLM visitor center to inquire if there were another camp ground nearby. There isn’t. But a helpful fellow explained that “dispersed camping” is allowed about 30 miles away in Lovell Canyon on the Tolyobe National Forest. There are no fees, no facilities and (I suppose) no cigarettes (apologies to Roger Miller). One can just camp along the dead end road leading in. I hopped into Ezzy to check it out.

I saw neither people nor vehicles on the first ten or so miles of canyon road. We turned around when the road got rough as it crossed a flood wash and passed a well-tended memorial, complete with cross, balloons and mementoes, to a girl named Danica who apparently died there at age 15 exactly two years earlier to the day. Drowning in a flash flood? Dehydration? Teen age car wreck? Foul play?

I have two daughters who were high school teenagers not so many years ago. I love them with all my heart. Imagine how sad it was for me to read the words "Danica - Daddy's Girl" on the rock below her cross. When I first saw the memorial on the second anniversery of Danica's death, there were brand new ballons and flowers there. Danica is still very much loved. I hope her loving ones won't mind my sharing her canyon for a few days.

I found two or three likely camping spots about three miles in. So, this morning I packed everything into Ezzy and left the RR campground for the last time. Tonight we’ll set up at one of the spots in Lovell canyon. I expect the stars will be brilliant, far from the lights of Las Vegas that light up the sky at the RR campground.

My left calf continues to be a real problem. It has not gotten appreciably better, so I did no climbing yesterday and will rest again today. I am planning to climb with Johnny and a friend of his on Thursday. We may do a little sport climbing, which will be a first for me. Assuming my calf survives, Marc and I will climb on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tunnel Vision -- Not an Epic

Monday, February 25. This morning George, a young local climber, and I set out to do Tunnel Vision, a six pitch climb on the Angel Food Wall. George works as a lead rigger for the Cirque du Soleil (sp?). He has a lot of experience working with ropes and has trained to handle emergencies. As you will read, his experience and training came in handy.

Tunnel Vision is an unusual route, having several tight chimneys and a tunnel, that’s right, a tunnel, that goes behind an enormous flake and exits on a different part of the face. The approach hike is short but steep and rugged in places, not the best for my bad calf, which seems to hurt most when I’m walking to and from the climbs. George had to wait frequently for the Relic to huff and puff his way to the roping-up spot.

I led the first two pitches, rated 5.7+ and 5.5, respectively, by the new Hendren Guidebook, which makes much of the “intimidating” hand traverse at the start of the first pitch. I found that section to be pretty easy, with good feet if you look for them. The second pitch had me grunting and groaning up an awkward chimney that ended in what I decided was a “wedge belay.” I clipped two bolts and then wedged myself into the chimney to belay George up with my feet against one side and my butt against the other. Uugghh.

Pitch three was George’s lead. It goes about 60 feet up a very narrow squeeze chimney with sparse protection and then exits left and up into a corner with a layback on a long flake. Although it carries the same 5.7+ rating as does the first pitch, it looked harder to me. The tightness of the chimney reminded me of that day a lifetime ago when Lois got her helmet stuck on the top pitch of High Corner at the Gunks. That girl can cuss! George worked his way up the chimney, managing a few creative placements deep in the back.

He exited up into the start of the corner where he placed a cam that would soon prove its worth. As he moved up into the layback, his foot slipped off a rounded hold. Not having anything solid for his hands, he fell about 25 feet back into the tight chimney, hitting both sides as he went down. The cam held, however, and my belay stopped him 30 or 40 feet above me.

His first words were, “My ankle feels funny.” His pants were also quite dramatically ripped. After a bit of discussion, we decided his ankle was in no shape to continue; we would retreat. I lowered him to me and climbed back up through the chimney to retrieve as much gear as possible. I got everything but the top cam. As I was down climbing, the belay rope, which had slid down the cliff, got stuck 30 feet below George. Now, I was stuck too, because the rope had to be freed before he could pay out any more of it to allow me to finish coming down out of chimney. As I was forming a plan to untie and climb down to reach George, he went into action. He tied off my belay so I could hang out of harms way in the chimney. Then he rigged a rappel, which he used to make a one-legged descent to the point of “great rope stuckedness” (as Pooh might have put it). He freed the rope after several minutes work, and prussicked back up to the belay, still with only one useful leg.

I was soon back down with George at the belay. We held our breath as I pulled the rope down through that top cam; one thing we did not need was another of the stuck ropes for which Red Rock is infamous. It came down free! George wrapped his ankle with tape and an ace bandage from my pack, and we made two rappels to the ground. Easy for me; not so much for George, who had to balance on one for most of the distance.

I offered to go for help to carry George out or to let him use me for a crutch, but he would have none of it. He toughed out the rough, often-steep trail back to his jeep. Only then did he concede enough to his injury to ask me to drive; the jeep has a standard transmission and his left ankle was not up to working the clutch. I left him with his wife at their condo with plans to get an X-ray to make sure his ankle is only sprained, not broken. Assuming he heals quickly, we are going to return to finish Tunnel Vision next Monday.

George’s handling of the fall and its aftermath impressed me greatly. He kept his cool head, solved several problems and toughed out what must have been a very painful walk out. Thanks to him, our adventure on Tunnel Vision was “Not an Epic.” I’ll climb with him anytime.

Tuesday, February 26. I spoke to George this morning. His ankle is only sprained. We're hoping to get back to Tunnel Vision next Monday.

Photos from top: George; George leading the tight chmney; same; George after his fall working to free our stuck rope; George rappelling on one leg; Tori examining the injury (she has nursing training, you know).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Grand Canyon

Saturday, February 23. Due to a combination of weather and my injured left calf muscle, which is healing a lot more slowly than I had hoped, I have done no climbing since Monday’s ascent of Rawlpindi (sic). Grrrrr! I am having a pretty good time, nonetheless. I’ve had a chance to learn more about Red Rock Canyons, and to see a bit of the Southwest, a part of the country in which I have spent very little time.

On Wednesday evening I went to the meeting of the Las Vegas climbers’ coalition, a group of local climbers who are working to protect and improve climbing opportunities in the area. Most of the discussion focused on how the upcoming Red Rock Rendezvous, which will attract perhaps a thousand climbers over a long weekend in late March, can be used to educate climbers as to the importance of “leaving no trace” or at least minimizing their impact on the Red Rock environment. In particular, human waste (urine and feces) has become a problem in some very popular areas. The coalition plans to organize removal efforts and to conduct an education effort at its Rendezvous booth. The discussion was a good reminder to me to make sure to leave as little trace as possible as I pass through climbing areas.

The meeting also gave me a chance to meet in the flesh some of the local climbers I have gotten to know through the internet. Johnny Ray and Matt McMurray were there. I have plans to climb with both. I met and talked to several others, including Killis, who has created a bit of a stir on the internet with his opposition to the practice of leaving draws on sport routes being “worked.” I was glad of the chance to meet these folks and to get some sense of the climbing community here.

I decided to use Thursday and Friday to rest my leg and make a trip to the Grand Canyon, something I had never seen. At Johnny Ray’s urging I visited Christmas Tree Pass on the way, a side trip that required Ezzy to carry me over about 40 miles of rough but passable dirt roads. It was quite an adventure; the only other vehicles we saw were off road jeeps and ATV’s. But Ezzy handled the washboards, rocks and pot holes like a Hummer. The pass itself is a beautiful pocket of evergreen trees in this desert landscape.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon about an hour before dark: just time enough to find the South rim and scurry from one vantage point to the next snapping photos. None, however, do justice to the immensity and grandeur of the “big ditch.” Standing on the rim, I found it hard to believe it was real. Nothing I had previously seen comes close, not even Yosemite Valley: the depth of the empty space in front of my feet, the colors (reds, oranges, yellows, grays, black), the fantastic shapes of the rocks carved by the river, and the incomprehensible size. To complete the effect, the sun shone through small holes in the cloud cover, illuminating first one buttress and then another.

As dark fell I found a camp ground and figured out how to use my credit card to pay for a night’s stay ($15). Never paid that way before. There were a few inches of snow on the ground, due no doubt to the 7000 ft. elevation, and the storm clouds were thickening, so I picked a site near the plowed road. From there, if it snowed during the night, Ezzy would have less distance through which to struggle. I had left my stove at my Red Rock campground (the “Hosts” told me I had to leave something if I wanted to retain my site while I was away), so dinner was ham, cheese and salami sandwiches made from stuff purchased at the Grand Canyon Village.

I awoke to several inches of new white stuff. The clouds and falling snow obscured the canyon almost completely. The overlooks that yesterday had revealed thousand-foot drops and miles of sculpted cliffs now showed me only a few feet of rock disappearing into the mist. After being warned by a couple of Rangers that the South Rim road would be slippery and dangerous, Ezzy and I decided to take it. Being unable to climb, we needed some kind of an adventure. Ezzy handled the 20 miles of twisty, snow-covered road with aplomb, even passing some four wheel drive vehicles along the way.

We headed North-West over more snowy roads to Zion National Park. For many miles there were only two vehicles on the road: Ezzy and an 18 wheeler that followed us at a steady 300 yards behind for over hour. I think the driver figured that if there were a patch of particularly icy road ahead, we would slide off first, giving him a chance to slow and avoid a wreck. His concern was misplaced; we got to Zion without mishap. Given the weather and late hour, we drove through without stopping. I need to go back and really see the place properly. There is said to be terrific crack climbing there. The images I took away from yesterday’s quick look are of a narrow, sharply twisting road weaving among tall, red cliffs of cleanly fractured rock reaching up to a dark gray sky.

The surprise of the day came as we followed Interstate 15 back to Las Vegas from St.George, Utah. It runs through the Virgin River canyon, composed of mesas, ravines and cliffs of crumbly gray rock. Not much for climbing, but spectacular in their own way. I don’t think it is part of any National or even State park; it’s just there.

Toady was mostly sunny, an apparently perfect day for climbing. I had a plan to climb Dark Shadows, a very cool looking 5.8 in Pine Creek canyon, with Marc and Johnny. But it had rained a lot in the canyons yesterday and we adhered to the advice not to climb on the RR sandstone immediately after rain. The water weakens the rock, making holds liable to break. But it was frustrating to sit here in the sunshine not climbing. Maybe we were too conservative. I saw others climbing.

My next day to climb is Monday. I really want to have an ascent to report on Tuesday.