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Rainbow Dancer


Submitted by okieterry on 2005-12-30 | Last Modified on 2014-09-25

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by Terry Andrews


RAINBOW DANCER

Names have been changed to not make anyone mad.

The first time I saw the Shield, I was hooked. Corndog and I were at a comp in Albuquerque, New Mexico in December 1992. Being from Oklahoma, I had heard about the Shield as an aid wall but I didn’t know anything about its free climbing possibilities. As I stepped outside the gym to get some fresh air, I looked up at the Sandia Mountains and was entranced with the sight of the big shining cliff sticking out of the snow-capped mountain range that dominates the eastern skyline.

Re-entering the gym, I asked the owner and several experienced looking local types about the cliff. One of them looked me in the eye and told me that “Rainbow Dancer” was the route to do. He said that he had recently done the route and that it was excellent. The rest of the group knowingly agreed. I was stoked. A big free climbing route only eight hours from Norman!

Later that day, Corndog, Les, and I hiked up to near the northwestern edge of the Shield and camped below it in the snow. The Shield looked massive and impressive. Facing south-southwest, the wall is about a mile long and averages about a 1,000 feet in height. The rainbow wall area of the Shield is located on the eastern end of the wall and appeared to be about 1,500 feet tall and very steep.

The wonderful thing about the Shield is its position. Although you are really in the wilderness, you are always within sight of the sprawling metropolis of Albuquerque. The lights from the city are amazing.

Unfortunately, the southern exposure of the Shield makes it a perfect breeding ground for perigrine falcons. The entire Shield area is closed every year from March through August. Since we didn’t have time that winter, we would have to wait.

THE FIRST ATTEMPT

After reading about the “popular” route in several magazines and guidebooks, Mike and I attempted the route in September 1993. Accompanied by Mike’s girlfriend Cindy, we drove from Oklahoma and arrived at the parking lot at the base of the mountain in a thunderstorm. After quickly throwing stuff into our packs in the downpour, we started hiking to the base of the Shield. This was Mike’s and Cindy’s first real backpacking trip and they were not having fun. We lost the trail after the first 10 minutes. Mike had a huge pack with sleeping pads strapped to the sides. It was hard going, slogging uphill, fighting through thorny brush, squinting upward through hard rain. As we reached the bottom of the wall, Cindy broke down and began to cry. It looked pretty bleak. Then we found an amazing cave at the base of the wall and before you knew it, we had a fire going. Although the storm continued late into the night, life was good in the cave.

The next day dawned clear, Mike and I slogged to the base of the route through the wet vegetation and Mike set off on the first pitch. The route looked hard and scary. Especially high on the route where the route follows the right edge of two “rainbow arches”. After getting his feet about 10 feet off the deck, Mike ran into problems. “Can’t find any pro” he mumbled, and then “I don’t like this next move”. After a couple of minutes of standing there he climbed down. “This must not be it”, he said. “It has to be”, I replied. We both scanned the topo and then gazed at the rock above. It seemed to fit the topo but it sure was dirty and mossy. It sure didn’t look like a trade route.

I took over and moved up to where Iron Mike had stopped. Using my cleaning tool, I cleaned the dirt and moss out of a few small cracks and found some good stopper placements. “Hmm, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone has climbed this in a while”, I thought. I then fought through a bush around an overhang, and then ran it out over a short slab to a small ledge at the base of an easy looking dihedral. As Mike came up, I told him that this was our kind of climbing because it seemed just like the rock and vegetation that we are used to back in Oklahoma. Mike didn’t seem that excited but he cruised up the second pitch as the sun hit the wall and I followed quickly.

Grabbing the rack, I started up a steep corner that starts the third pitch that is named “Last Years” on the route topo. As I rounded the bulge, I was confronted with a thin looking, vertical slab. I could see a bolt up and left about 30 feet away so up I went. After about 15 feet of 5.10 face climbing, I started to get really worried. I was about 20 feet out from my last pro and didn’t want to downclimb the crumbly granite edges that I had just climbed. Looking ahead, it looked grim. Thin crumbly edges and no pro. I could see the bolt about 10 feet up and left. It’s so close! I started back up and climbed about ten feet higher on tiny little holds. I could not see how to get to the bolt about six or seven feet to the left. I stood here awhile not knowing what to do while my forearms and calves burned. I was very scared. I was probably 30 feet above my last pro, no where to go, and there was no way I could downclimb! Frantically, I worked a runner off of my shoulder and positioned it around a small flake to the right of me. It was hideous, but it would have to work. Knowing that I could not pull down on it, I pulled left on it with my right hand and worked my feet up. Then I clipped my rope to it and called for tension,. Slowly, I eased my weight onto it and slowly tensioned left a few feet until I got onto good holds next to the bolt. Whew, that was wild! After clipping the bolt, I looked down and realized that I had not taken the best route to the bolt. Once on the slab, I should have traversed about 15 feet left and then gone up. Anyway, I moved out to the left and traversed along the edge of an overhang and set up a hanging belay in a prominent crack system.

Mike followed the pitch and started up the fourth pitch. This was a steep looking pitch where you climbed a crack and then moved right across a vertical, blank slab about 20 feet wide to some easy looking corners. Mike couldn’t find a way across the slab and finally tensioned across it using a slung chockstone in a crack. He then worked his way up and right across the easy corners until he arrived at the belay beneath an overhang that formed the right edge of one of the rainbow arches. I followed and when I arrived at the slung chockstone I yelled for slack to get some rope in order to lower myself across the slab. When none came after a minute or so, I decided that Mike couldn’t hear me and just went for it. Unclipping from the sling, I downclimbed a couple of moves to the edge of the slab and then pushed off and ran the pendulum out. I careened across the steep granite wall, running as fast as I could in a large pendulum. Only my experience on the King Swing and the Stovelegs pendulums kept me from falling and cratering!

After I reached the belay, we took stock of our situation. A cold, wet wind was blowing and ominous looking rain clouds towered over us. The next pitch looked steep and hard and continued to traverse around the next rainbow arch. We only had one 50 meter rope (I had foolishly insisted that two ropes were unnecessary) and getting down in a rainstorm was not going to be fun because of the lack of anchors and the steep traversing nature of the route. So, we decided to head down. We had to leave gear (mostly stoppers, hexes, and slings) and made four or five rappels to get off of the wall.

As we reached the ground and a happy Cindy, we kept looking up. Shit! It wasn’t going to rain! Although it rained all around the Shield that day, I don’t think one drop of rain fell on Rainbow Dancer. On the way out we tried to find a good path but only found discontinuous game trails and incredible snarls of thorny vegetation.

THE SECOND ATTEMPT

During the week, Mike and I decided we had to go back. This time we decided that we would approach the route from the top. We figured that it had to be faster and less thornier than the approach from the bottom.

Friday we launched around noon and drove straight to the parking lot on top of the Sandia Crest. Arriving around ten o’clock in the evening, we threw our bags out in the trees next to the parking lot and tried to go to sleep. It was tough because there were several parties going on in the parking lot. I remember at one point Mike got really mad and started yelling at them to shut the hell up.

Four o’clock in the morning came too quickly and it was time to get up and go. We packed up quickly and started hiking down the crest to the north. I had scouted this out on a previous trip and knew the way. We scrambled down through steep limestone cliff bands and then woods. After awhile we did a short rappel and third classed down a ramp system to the base of the route.

Climbing quickly, this time with two ropes, we arrived at the bottom of the “Last Years” pitch and I left most of the rack with Mike and started up. This time, once I reached the slab, I traversed left and then climbed easily up to the bolt. Mike started up the fourth pitch and still could not find a way across the slab. Finally, after a couple of short falls, he gave in and tensioned across the slab and headed up the easy corners to the top of the pitch. As I watched him lead the pitch, I noticed that he seemed to be moving very slowly. Something wasn’t right. After I had followed the pitch, I asked him if he was OK. He replied that he had a bad headache but was OK.

I led the next pitch. It went around the edge of a large overhang via a thin crack and then up a short steep wall. I must have said “watch me” a hundred times on this pitch as the exposure was intense and the protection marginal. The top of the pitch ended on a little ledge that was perched at the base of another overhanging wall. It was like being on a diving board as you had to look down and underneath you to see the 500 foot wall below. Perched on the end of the ledge was a flake that seemed to be completely unattached to the wall. It was about six feet high, four feet wide, and about one to two feet thick. The flake, which is called the impossible flake in the topo, seemed to be just perched on the ledge by its little base. For our anchor, all I could find was a small stopper placement and a loop of the rope around the flake. I got my legs braced as well as I could and yelled off belay. Mike came up and we both looked up. The wall was really steep here and the only way up was to stand on the flake to reach some holds. I was nervously laughing as Mike made the awkward and scary moves to stand on the flake. We both knew that if the flake went, we would both go. Once there he looked at me and said “I don’t know man”. I told him that I would try it and he slithered on down. Then he got to laugh at me as I struggled to stand on the top of the “impossible flake”. Once there, I reached up and placed a couple of small cams and just as I lifted a foot up onto the face, there was a loud crack of thunder.

After stepping back down, we looked around. Once again, the rain seemed imminent. We looked at the stopper placement and the flake that we would have to rappel from and hoped that it wouldn’t rain. But it did. Drenching and blowing everywhere and cold! We rapped down in the rain, leaving more gear, and found a cave at the base of the wall to get out of the downpour. Mike curled up in a ball on the floor of the cave. He was definitely sick with altitude sickness. I knew he was really feeling bad when he just threw the cams onto the muddy floor of the cave. A normal Mike would never let his cams get dirty. After an hour or so of rain, it stopped and we packed up. Knowing Mike felt really bad, I placed all of the gear and ropes in my pack and we headed out of there. It was a long, hard slog up to the crest. Once to the parking lot, we loaded up and started down the switchbacks. Mike managed about two of these before he said “Pull over!” and he started throwing up.

We then drove around Albuquerque for a few hours in a futile effort to find a motel. Apparently, the State Fair was in town and every room was taken. So, we headed back to Oklahoma. By the time we reached Texas, Mike felt fine, although I don’t think he wanted Rainbow Dancer anymore.

THE THIRD ATTEMPT

February 1994, I called Corndog on Thursday night and asked him if he wanted to climb Rainbow Dancer on the Shield. Corndog said “Sure!”, and the next day we headed out at noon. We were on the highway later that night, driving through the Texas panhandle, when I noticed something white on the side of the bar ditch that looked like snow. All of a sudden I had a thought and said to Corndog, “Hey, you know what? There could be snow up there, a lot of snow! You go by a ski resort on the way up Sandia Mountain!” Corndog laughed and said we’ll just have to see and I laughed too.

We slept at the base of the mountain that night because I figured that sleeping on top had probably had something to do with Mike coming down with altitude sickness last time (although Mike insists that it was all my fault because I had been in too much of a hurry in the morning and had not let him eat oatmeal). Since there was deep snow all around we slept in the car.

Three o’clock in the morning arrives too soon. We drive to the top and start walking on the snow down the crest to the Shield. At first it seems like we are going to make good progress because the top crust of the snow is frozen enough to hold our body weight. However, as soon as we drop off of the ridge, the crust gets softer and we start breaking through. I get really mad because little skinny Corndog isn’t breaking through nearly as much as I am and my shins are really hurting from hitting the crust as I break through. Finally, just as the sun comes up, we arrive at the base of the climb. My shins are a bloody mess.

Since this is Corndog’s first time on the climb and we have to go fast (only about 9 hours of daylight) we decide that I will lead the first five pitches. So, up we go. Kinda cold at first but we are moving fast and the sun is nice and warm. Every pitch goes smoothly until the fourth pitch, where I spend about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to free climb around the slab that had forced Iron Mike to tension across on our previous attempts. I can’t figure it out and we have got to hurry so I finally tension across. I lead the next pitch and Corndog arrives at the “impossible flake” about 11:30 AM. It’s Corndog time.

Corndog mounts the flake and tentatively starts climbing the steep face above. After a few minutes he is out of sight. Time passes and the rope moves very slowly. After an hour or so, Corndog calls down that he doesn’t know where to go. I yell the route description and describe the topo and he says he’ll keep trying. Another hour passes and not much rope moves. What is he doing? Finally a gripped Corndog says he’s coming down and to lower him very slowly as he is lowering off a couple of small wired nuts in marginal placements. I lower him slowly and soon he joins me on the ledge.

“I don’t know where it goes”, he says. I reply that he probably was too far left. He expresses bewilderment. “You want to try it?” he asks. We evaluate our situation. Here we are at 2:00 PM, only three hours left to darkness. We have no bivy gear and we definitely don’t want to be spend the night on the wall since it will probably get really cold and windy as soon as the sun goes down. We have at least five pitches to go.

We decide to go down. All of our rappel anchors are still in place so we quickly rap down the wall and start hiking out. Somehow, we lose our trail and have to break a new trail through the steep snow to the Crest. The crust has melted during the day and we sink to mid-thigh with every step. We are both exhausted. We know that we cannot stop or we will freeze so we force ourselves to keep going. I admire Corndog’s spirit and strength as he breaks more trail than me up through the deep snow. I am as tired as I ever have been. We get back to the car at 3:00 AM. It’s been 24 hours of effort.

THE FOURTH ATTEMPT

Late February 1999, I call Corndog up on a Wednesday night and ask him if he he wants to go back. He says “Sure!”. We head out after work the next day and make it to the bottom of the mountain around noon on Friday. We then hike in and spend a couple of hours building a sleeping platform near the base of the route.

I had previously climbed the route “Procrastination” on the Shield with Dave Mutz over the Thansgiving 1998 holiday. We had topped out late in the day and I had been unable to find the way down in the darkness so we had rapped the 600 foot wall that is just right of the rainbow wall area. I had left runners around trees for the descent.

Since I wasn’t climbing that strong, Corndog took the hard leads. I took the first two leads and then Corndog lead the “Last Years” pitch. He was spooked a little but otherwise cruised it. I took over on the fourth pitch and finally solved the slab part of the pitch. Corndog lead the fifth pitch and thought it was a lot harder than he had remembered on toprope six years ago. We were then at the Impossible Flake. The really strange thing is that on the way up I had collected the gear that Mike and I had placed for our rappels back in 1993! Wow, I guess no one had done the route since 1993.

It’s Corndog time again! Corndog re-mounts the flake and this time stays to the right, on the edge of the overhang. He does a cool balance move at the top of the overhang and then disappears from view. About 30 minutes later he shouts “Off Belay”. I excitedly follow. The moves are typical of the wall. Hard and steep and little pro. There is a bolt right before a thin little crux move. I try it once and then pull on the bolt to get past. We don’t have time for me to work it.

Corndog leads the next pitch and then we swing leads to the top of the wall. The last pitch is a memorable chimney with a thorny bush that you have to climb through. I take a short little fall while seconding this pitch. We finish the wall just as darkness hits us. Sweet success!!

We try to find the way down but in the darkness and with only one headlamp we can’t find the way to the ramp descent. We choose to bivouack because it is very dark and it doesn’t seem like a very good idea to rappel in the dark with only one headlight. So, we look around for a flat piece of ground next to a rock. Unbelievably, this is hard to find. All of the ground appears to slope next to rock walls. Finally we settle down in a poor place and try to get a fire going. It is very windy and the temperature drops quickly. We basically stay up all night huddled around the fire and trading my climbing shoes since Corndog’s shoes are too tight to get on his feet anymore.

The sun finally arrives and it is cold and cloudy and very windy. We look for the ramp descent and still can’t find it! We decide to use the rap descent that Dave and I had used only a few months ago. Although we are very cold because of the wind, the raps go smoothly until the next to last one. Leading the way, I arrive at a small tree that has somehow found a footing in the steep dihedral about seventy feet above the ground. Putting my weight of the tree, I reach down and clip into the new looking yellow runner that I hitched around the tree three months ago. I yell “off rappel” and Corndog comes down and clips into the runner. We start pulling the rope and feeding it through the runner and it falls down OK and hangs from the runner. I then reach down and grab the rope and put it though my rappel device and start to back off. Just as I turn loose from the tree, Corndog yells “STOP!!” I grab the tree with both hands. He says that he can see a burr on the sling. I grab it and pull it around to look at it. Underneath the hitch, where you couldn’t really see it unless you looked carefully, some varmit had chewed the runner in half except for one tiny little thread. I broke the thread easily by pulling it between my hands. I had come so close to falling!

As I rapped down off of a new runner, I shivered with fear more than the cold as I looked at the rocky ground where I would have landed and died.

As we hiked out, Corndog and I talked about the route. “You know”, he said, “I pulled on that bolt to get over the crux”.

Oh no! We have to go back.

Note: As of December 2005, we haven’t been back. A few months after our last attempt, Corndog began having problems with his breathing. In 2002 he underwent open heart surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that was located in his pulmonary artery and had branched into his lungs. Today he is fully recovered and is now climbing really strong. Maybe this winter we’ll go back to Rainbow Dancer and finally finish it.
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