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.