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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Yesterday (Monday, February 18) I climbed again with Marc. We did a relatively new climb called Rawlpindi (sic), a 4 pitch 5.7 that ends at a two bolt anchor almost 600 feet above the canyon floor. The first two pitches go about 300 feet up a steep, narrow gully. I got to lead the first. I thought it was the better (more sustained) of the two. The third pitch was spectacular. It climbs 170 feet up a steep, thin face and ends in an airy hanging belay.

Marc kindly offered me the lead on pitch 3, and I said, “Sure” with more confidence than I felt. I organized our rack just the way I like it and moved up. None of the individual moves was hard, but the whole long face was quite thin, with none of the comfy, reassuring ledges I am used to at the Gunks. Many of the holds were those little ridges of sandstone I have not yet come to trust. They look and feel so fragile.

These factors, combined with a lot of exposure, had me concentrating hard on every move. I was in my own little world: just me, the rock, the gear I could place and the rope. It was leading at its best, at least for me. My brain is jumpy, always bouncing from one thought to another and on to a third or fourth. One of the attractions of climbing (as well as driving my race car or teaching a class) is the singular focus it imposes. The pitch ended in an exposed, hanging belay.

Marc did a very nice job leading our fourth and last pitch, another pretty thin face deal.

We rappelled off without incident, no small achievement at Red Rock where the cracks and knobs are famous for snagging rappel ropes and forcing unplanned, overnight bivouacs. Our descent took us into Pine Creek Canyon, where a pretty mountain stream provides enough moisture for a nice stand of pine trees. Quite a contrast to the scrubby desert vegetation in most of the rest of this area. I spent a lovely half our soaking in the mountain feel of the place while Marc explored up the canyon to scout out another climb in which he is interested.

My plan has been to climb every other day in order to give my old body a day to recover. But, I have managed to pull a muscle in my left calf and it feels like it is going to need an additional day off. I have had to postpone tomorrow’s planned trip to St. George Utah for sport climbing. Grrrrrr! Tori is distraught. She did not much fancy Rawlpindi: not enough bolts, and that hanging belay was not her thing.

I’ve now been on the road, living in Ezzy for a little over a week. So far, so good. Most things have worked out as I planned. The bed I built is great; I am keeping nice and warm and sleeping well each night. My Coleman stove heats dinner each night. I type these reports on days off while sitting in a big soft chair at Starbucks (where I can plug the old computer in to the AC power) and post them from the local climbing shop (Desert Rock Sports) which has free a free internet connection. Desert Rock, by the way, is a great place. A real climbing store, with tons of gear and friendly folks to help you. I shower at the local climbing gym. Life is good. But I do very much miss Lois, even though I talk to her via my cell phone at least once a day.

Photos from top: Approximate route of Rawlpindi; Bill leading pitch 3 (photo Marc Jensen); Marc following pitch 3; Two Canadian climbers at hanging belay on Birdland, the next route over (Photo Marc Jensen); Marc leading pitch 4; Pine Creek Canyon.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Johnny Vegas

Wednesday night, my first in Red Rock, was cold and windy. To paraphrase an old Irish/Australian song,

Twenty-three hundred miles I come,
To freeze my ass like a climbing bum.

Someone later told me that winds of 78 miles an hour were recorded near here. My expedition parka barely kept me warm as I heated canned stew over my Coleman stove. I retreated quickly into Ezzy and spent a fitful night listening to the wind and feeling my little “home” lurch and rock as the gusts hit her. Next morning, I asked three climbers how it had been spending the night in tents. Two tried to put a good face on it saying it had been “OK.” The third just said, “It sucked.” What was it about this trip that had seemed to me like a good idea?

Despite the wind and still cold temps, I set out Thursday morning to hike in to the base of Johnny Vegas, a four pitch 5.7 that gets three stars in the Hendren guide.

Marc, a local climber I had met through, and I planned to do it on Saturday. It would be my first Red Rock climb. I had been warned that the approaches and descents at RR can be hard to follow, so I thought I would prove to myself I could navigate around the place. And, I might try the first moves on Johnny just to bolster my climbing confidence.

Well, the expedition can best be described as a fiasco. I managed to lose my new guidebook, strain a muscle in my left calf, and bushwack around for several hours without finding the route. That night, despite somewhat diminishing winds, I was wondering if, maybe, I should just turn Ezzy around and head back east. I persevered, though, and spent Friday getting clean and nursing my injured leg. Saturday morning at 7:30, I met Marc. Fortunately, he knows the approach route, so we headed out to JV.

It was wonderful! Given my injury and misadventures two days before, I asked Marc to do the leading while I “Got used to the rock here.” He agreed. As I followed the second pitch, it hit me: this is just terrific! The sky was bright blue, the sun warm, the rock solid and clean, and the climbing pretty easy. I was ginning, thrilled to be a few hundred feet off the ground, surrounded by gorgeous cliffs and peaks (photos coming when I get back home), with my hands and shoes on the rock. While we were transferring gear on the second belay ledge, my cell phone (which I had forgotten to turn off) rang. It was my daughter Valerie calling to tell me she had read my blog. That was a first for me!

We finished JV without further phone calls or incident (except for repeated exclamations from me about how “wonderful” it all was), and continued on up the first pitch of Solar Slab, which I lead.

We rapped off down Solar Slab Gully, a popular decent route (Gunkies: think Madam G’s, but without the exposure). A party in front of us got their rope stuck, so I rapped down it, and with the aid of a prussic sling, contrived to get it free. In all a wonderful day, one of my best on the rock.

Marc is a great climbing partner, safe and fun. He and I plan to climb again on Monday. Today (Sunday) is rest day for the Old Relic. Gonna take a shower, hit the Laundromat and hope my aches and pains succumb to extra strength aspirin.

Photos from top: Early morning views of the Red Rock Canyons; Approximate route of Johnny Vegas; Bill at the second belay ledge on Johnny V; Bill leading first pitch of solar slab; Marc belaying. All but first three photos courtesy of Marc Jensen.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Go West, Old Man

Red Rock Trip – Day 1

I am typing this at a picnic table in a KOA campground in Buffalo, Tennessee, 712 miles (by Ezzy’s odometer) from my house in Bethesda, MD. The trip so far has been smooth, Interstates all the way. I figure I have to make about 625 miles a day to get to Red Rock by Thursday evening, so I am a bit ahead of schedule.

The weather has been good: cold when I started (12 deg. F) but sun and blue skies most of the way here. I-81 took me southwest through the Shenandoah valley. Lots of fields and pastures covered with light brown grass and the occasional herd of cows. I think the black and white ones are the only truly bucolic ones; my wife disagrees.

Before I was really expecting it, one of those green highway signs announced the junction where I – 81 ends in I-40, the road I am now going to follow for all but the last 100 miles of the trip. It runs parallel to the path of the legendary Route 66. I was excited, both to be following the path of history and to be on my “road west.”

But, truth to tell, I didn’t see much of the country from the Interstate but a bunch of trucks (two hauling new Corvettes north to dealers), a couple of accidents, lots of cars and may road signs. Most of the signs just told me of places like the Davey Crocket Museum, Loretta Lynn’s family home and the Cumberland Gap, that I didn’t stop to visit. A few were intriguing. One advised that I was passing “Hungry Mother State Park.” Was it named for a voracious lady, or perhaps a mother bear with a big appetite for picnic hampers? I’d love to know. Another, on a stretch of road where the speed limit was 65, warned truckers that they must stay in the right lane unless they are going more than 65. Huh? Trucks are allowed to change lanes only when they break the speed limit? Go figure.

I don’t have internet access here, so I will have to wait at least a day to post this. Now, off to bed for my first night sleeping in Ezzy.

Photos from top: On the road at last, I-81 through Virginia; Sunset in Tennessee on the first day over a truck stop and the highway.

Red Rock Trip: Days 2 and 3.

Well, I made it! Wednesday night about 9 pm PDT, a day ahead of schedule. I drove about 850 miles on Tuesday and the same on Wednesday. The two days are a bit of a blur, so I’ll just relate some of the images that stuck.

Wednesday morning I drove for several hours through Eastern Oklahoma in hard, sometimes blinding rain surrounded by 18 wheelers. They get one's attention. There's a lot of freight moving west. By afternoon the rain stopped, the sky cleared and the horizon started getting farther and farther away. I saw a sign for Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie’s sometime home; I had to stop. It’s a tiny, one street town on a cold, wind-blown hillside. There are a few newish buildings, including a large Ace hardware store. But many of the store fronts were probably there when Woody was. I drove through town on Main Street (it took about 4 minutes) and imagined a dust storm blowing in my face. I snapped a picture of an ancient Ford truck that could have come right out of Steinbekck’s Grapes of Wrath. I found a small park with a statue of Woody, a couple of murals and bricks with the names of many of his songs. More pictures; I’ll post some when I get home.

Well after dark Wednesday night I pulled into a campground in the Texas panhandle. When the sun woke me the next morning, I discovered just how flat the country there is and how huge are the Jackrabbits. I mistook one for a small deer until it started hopping away.

I have two things to say about NewMexico: the shapes and colors of the rocks are gorgeous, and there are too many signs along I-40 advertising casinos, trading posts, junk stores, etc. One proudly proclaimed that Joe’s (or whoever’s) trading post was “Not Just Another Hole In the Ground!” I didn’t stop. But even this advertising barrage could not obscure the beauty of the rock: bands of red, gold, brown, whate and gray.

Arizona provided much needed relief from the roadside adverts and some thrilling decents into valleys. As night fell, I was tired, but too close to Red Rock to want to stop for the night. With great anticipation but also a tinge of sadness, I left I-40 in western Arizona and turned on to US Route 93, the road that would take me about 100 miles to Las Vegas.

Signs warned that “all vehicles” must stop for a thorough security search at the Hoover Dam 90 miles ahead. Hoover Dam? I hadn’t even realized I needed to cross it. Of course I went into worry mode. This isn’t 1969, so I had no illegal substances on me or in Ezzy, but I could see all my carefully packed (well, packed anyway) gear blowing across a parking lot while a mean-looking officer with a gun watched me try to collect it. A guy like that ran me out of Reno while I was hitching across the county in 1972. But, when I stopped at the check point, a friendly young female police officer smiled, said “Hello,” shone her flashlight into Ezzy and toldmeto drive on. When am I going to stop assuming the worst?

Hoover Dam itself was surreal. Imagine: I am driving tired through the darkness, having reached that trance-like state that comes at the end of long trips. Bright flood lights appear ahead, the road dives down aseriesof 15 mph hairpin turns carved out of the rock and huge metal and concrete structures appear around me. I had driven down into a 1930’s, art deco vision of the future. I got to see everything except the dam itself (I drove across the top).

After navigating Route 215 through/around Las Vegas, I found the Red Rock campground, figured out how to check in and went to bed in Ezzy. I am here!

Note for Annie and Jean: Tori says hi. She says the cross county trip was not quite as bad as she thought it would be, but she is dubious about this trad climbing stuff we are going to do. She was a bit disappointed we did not stop to shop at the trading posts in New Mexico, but she was glad I took a shower at the climbing gym yesterday. She is hoping I relent and we go sport climbing. Problem is, I can't climb 5.11 and 5.12 like she can. Oh well. She'll have to suck it up on Johnny Vegas tomorrow.

Photos from top: First 3 - Okemah and the Woody Guthrie Memorial; Next 3 - Sunrise over the Texas Campground, House and buildings next to the campground; Texas Panhandle is flat; Bottom - Sunrise over the Red Rock Campground.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Night Before

Sunday February 10, 2008. Tomorrow Ezzy the minivan and I start for Red Rock. From Washington D.C., we’ll take I-81 to Tennessee and from there, I 40 to Nevada. My month-long cross country climbing adventure is finally going to happen! The preparations are made. I’ve packed all the gear on my 7 page list, studied and re-studied the guidebooks, selected likely climbs, arranged via the internet to climb with half a dozen kind folks, and picked out the novels and CDs to bring. I’ve even located campgrounds all along the route and arranged to bring along Tori, the 6 inch tall climber girl doll who belongs to my good friends Jean and Annie.

I’m relieved finally to be going. It’s time. The preparations that intrigued and amused me for much of the last two months have become tiresome. The tipping point is here: enough with the preparation, I want to be doing. I am ready to get on the road, and even readier to get my hands on Red Rock sandstone.

I’m excited at the prospect of an adventure the likes of which I haven’t had in many years. Driving cross country is something I thought I had left behind in 1973 when I started law school. It’s tied up in my mind with all the epic travels of American history, from Lewis and Clark finding their way to the Pacific Northwest and the wagon trains of settlers crossing the plains, to the Okies packing their jalopies to head west out of the dust bowl to the “Garden of Eden” they thought they would find in California and life “On the Road” as chronicled by Jack Kerouac. I won’t be hitching (unless, of course, Ezzy breaks down), or walking or driving a wagon. But I still feel some connection with all the continent-crossers who’ve gone before.

And the climbing! I’m planning to spend a little over two weeks climbing those beautiful, long trad routes I’ve been reading about all winter: Johnny Vegas, Birdland, Solar Slab, and more. Some are over 1000 feet long. I haven’t spent as much time climbing continuously or climbed routes as long or exciting since 1972, my last summer in Yosemite. As recently as two years ago I could not have imagined making this trip. Now it’s about to happen.

As the moment to begin arrives, however, so do doubts. Some are trivial or silly. Will I be able to sleep in the bed I built into Ezzy? Can I find campgrounds? Others seem more serious. Can I really climb those routes I’ve been studying? Will I get along with my climbing partners? Can I stay awake to drive 6-700 miles a day? None of these doubts is rational: I have good reason to believe I can do all of the things I’m planning. Nothing I am going to do on this trip is as implausible as it was for me to take my race car out on the track for the first time or to go to the Gunks with daughter Karen to lead a climb for the first time in 35 years. I was right to doubt my ability to do those things. But everything I am expecting to do on this trip is a reasonable extension of what I have been doing for the last 18 months.

Having a solid basis for confidence reassures me at a rational, decision-making level. But at a deeper, more primitive place in my psyche, it doesn’t seem to matter. That child-like part persists, despite all contrary evidence, in claiming that I will fail. It tends to emerge shortly before any stressful activity: taking a final exam, trying a case in court, lecturing before a large audience, taking a climbing trip. Last night it reared up in the form of a dream in which I was back practicing law, trying but failing to get things ready for a big case.

Does everyone have such a doubting place? Maybe. Mountaineer Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void and The Beckoning Silence, describes his as a hooded crow that perches on his shoulder at night whispering doubts. But, it’s hard to imagine William the Bastard lying sleepless, tormented by self doubt, the night before he crossed the Channel to conquer England in 1066, or Napoleon having a crisis of confidence before he launched the invasion of Russia (although, as it turned out, he had reason to fear the outcome).

In any event, I’ve learned from years of experience that the antidote for my doubts is action. Once engaged in the task, whatever it is, I focus on the reality of what I am doing and my ability to do it. The irrational doubts recede. I’ll be OK once I get on the road and even better once I get my hands and feet on sandstone.

Yesterday, as I was sitting in my favorite chair re-reading an article in Alpinist magazine about the climbing history of Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, another emotion hit me: loneliness. I’ll miss that comfy seat, the view into the trees out my back windows and my little orange cat, MARRS. But most of all, I will miss my wife Lois terribly. The month I will be gone on this trip will be the longest period we have been apart in 32 years of marriage. She is everything. I must see her, talk to her and to touch her. No experience is real until I tell her about it. My day isn’t complete until I’ve heard about hers. There is so much that I share only with her; so many parts of me that only she knows, that only she can understand. I have a cell phone and will call her as often as possible. But it won’t be the same as being with her.

I am planning to post occasional reports on my trip to this blog. So, my computer connections willing, there may be updates here if you care to check back.

Photographs (from the top): Ezzy in forn of our house; Ezzy almost all loaded to go; My home ofr a month; MARRS; Lois.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Freedom of the Hills

The slightly paunchy, sixty-ish man and the tall, attractive woman young enough to be his daughter walked into the REI store and looked around. She seemed impatient; he, apprehensive. They wandered around until they found the rock climbing equipment. As the man was tentatively looking the gear over, feeling the ropes, poking at the carabineers and nuts, and glancing furtively at the cams locked away in a glass case, a sales person asked what they were looking for. “Well, we need a climbing rope,” the man said. “11 millimeters thick and 150 feet long.”
“I’m sorry, sir. But the thickest they come, is 10.5 mm. And we measure the length in meters these days, not feet. Will you want a wet or dry rope?”
Looking a bit confused, the man replied, “Dry, I guess. We’re not going to use it on a glacier.”
“What kind of climbing are you going to be doing?” asked the salesman with a slightly dubious frown.
“Rock climbing.”
“Yes, but what kind? Sport or trad.”
Now the paunchy man looked really puzzled. “Sport or trad? What’s the difference?”

* * *

And that is how I got my first inkling of the wonderful branches of climbing that have developed in the 35 years I was away from the sport. The confused man was I and the young woman, my daughter Karen. We were shopping for gear for our planned trip to the Gunks. It would be her first time climbing outdoors and my return to the cliffs after 35 years on the couch. I feared, when we entered the store that, if our inexperience with modern climbing and gear were revealed, we might be deemed “unsafe at any cliff” and not be allowed to buy gear. I was wrong, of course, not having counted on the power of the profit motive. Despite my display of ignorance, the salesman helped us select a rope, biners, nuts, and (expensive) cams, and wished us good luck at the Gunks. He must have thought we were going to need it.

Our trip, about which you can read below in the article entitled “Return to Easy Overhang,” was successful (i.e., we climbed some easy routes, had a great time, and avoided any epics). I have done quite a bit of climbing since, and learned in the process not only that there is now a difference between “trad” and “sport” climbing, but also that there are indoor climbing gyms where some folks spend all their climbing time; “pad people” who never use ropes, but carry mattresses around to cushion their falls off incredibly hard boulder problems; and climbing competitions where male and female world champions are crowned. There is even competitive ice climbing. There are speed records for the quickest ascent of classic routes like the Nose on El Cap. Just today I learned there are two such records for the North Face of the Eiger. One is for ascent by a team, the other for a solo ascent. Solo up the Eiger?!

This eruption of diversity since my first climbing life ended in 1972 means there is a niche for virtually anyone who is at all interested in climbing. But I find myself attracted most strongly to trad. Perhaps that attraction stems simply from the fact that today’s trad climbing is the form most like the rock climbing I did long ago. Or, maybe I take refuge in trad because I can’t climb anything very hard. Bouldering is about nothing but climbing hard rock. In sport climbing the protection is already there, so it too is mostly about how hard one can climb. But trad climbing offers many elements to distract attention from pure climbing ability: route finding, gear placement, anchor building, rappelling, self rescue techniques, etc. Maybe I like trad because all this ancillary stuff distracts from my inability to lead much harder than 5.7.

As I have thought about my affinity for trad climbing, though, I think there is another, deeper explanation. I learned much of my climbing from reading and re-reading the first two editions of Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills, the climbing text put out by the Mountaineers of Seattle. Learning the techniques, skills and judgments of mountaineering, that book explained, is essential to gain the freedom to travel safely and reliably in the hills (i.e., mountains):

Freedom of the hills lies largely in the ability of a party, whatever the size,
to handle every problem of travel and living [in the mountains], including
emergencies, with nothing more than the members can carry conveniently on their
backs, using their physical resources and the knowledge and judgment they have
gained through experience.”

That is what I want, what I have wanted since I was 14 years old: the ability to travel and cope in the mountains, and to rely on myself to do it effectively and safely.

It was a summer day in 1971, the first I ever spent in Yosemite Valley. Two friends and I had just arrived and did a very easy 3 pitch climb. The guidebook described a walk-off descent, but somehow we got off-route and wound up stuck on a ledge a couple of hundred feet above the Valley floor. I started to get worried, thinking we wouldn’t be able to get down and might have to be rescued. Oh, the ignominy! Then, a strange thing happened: I thought to myself, “No, we’ll be alright because I’m here, and I’ll be able to figure some way out of this.” I did. I rigged a tension traverse that got us over to another ledge system which we could down-climb.

I can’t recall ever having had that “it’s-alright-because-I’m-here” feeling before that day, but I have had it since and it feels very good. Trad climbing allows me to recapture that feeling of being able to rely on myself and my partners to surmount a natural obstacle, the cliff, and deal efficiently and safely with emergencies that may arise without outside assistance. I want to be the one to find the route, place the protection, build the anchor, watch the weather, decide when to push on or to turn back, and cope with emergencies. In short, I want to keep on earning the freedom of the hills.

I do not mean to suggest that trad climbing is in any way ”better” than bouldering, or sport or gym climbing, or competition. Each has its own fascination. I greatly admire the athletic ability and determination of the sport climbers and boulderers. There is something pure and exciting about climbing the very hardest routes, making the most athletic moves. I could never match the difficulty of the climbs they do. But for me, for reasons tied up with my history and personality, trad is special because it is about the freedom of the hills.