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May 30, 2009, 8:25 PM

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Jubilant Song, Red Rocks
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This is a story of my climbing fuckcess (read story to find definition of this word) from earlier this summer in Red Rocks. If anyone else also wants to share similarly gruesome and uncomfortable, yet also invaluable lesson-learning climbing experiences, please do so.

About two weeks ago a friend and I went to Red Rocks, Nevada to try our hand at our first multi-pitching. My partner, Molly, had never been multi-pitching before, and her only experience and point of reference was a basic run through we did one afternoon turning our school’s 25 ft. climbing wall into a 3 pitch mini-excursion. I have some brief multi-pitch experience, on both rock and ice, but had never led on a multi-pitch. I just started trad. leading this spring, so we both were viewing this week in Red Rocks as nothing more than a new and hopefully fun adventure.

Our first day in Red Rocks was spent at Romper Room in First Creek Canyon hopping on some very hot 6s and 7s warming up (no pun intended) for the rest of the week. After too much time in the direct sunlight on black rock, we decided the next day would be Dark Shadows all the way. I felt more than comfortable leading the 6s and 7s at Romper Room and the once intimidating Dark Shadows now felt more than reasonable. We woke up leisurely the next morning and slowly got the rack together and fixed some sandwiches for the day. Pulling up to the pullout at Pine Creek Canyon around 8:30 with the intention of doing all 9 pitches of Dark Shadows was a clear red flag for the adventures and misadventures that were to be had the next day. After bushwhacking far too much of the hike to the base of Dark Shadows after losing the trail, we quickly realized our plans of 9 pitches plus a demanding decent were out of the picture: there were 2 parties ahead of us that were not the speediest of climbers. In retrospect, I couldn’t be happier for this damper in our previous plans. We ended up waiting around for a few hours, then doing the normal first four of the same climb (although we consolidated the first 2 pitches into just one). The climbing was great and the people we met along the way were also quite entertaining. However, we didn’t get our adventure and we still wanted it badly!

Realizing our mistake of getting a late start the day earlier, we woke up at 6:15 on Wednesday morning ready to climb Jubilant Song on Windy Peak in Windy Canyon. We were out of the camp by 6:45 (still dragging our feet a bit) and on our way. The canyon was in a different part of the area than where we had been before and we got a bit mixed up trying to find the dirt road leading to the parking area. Once we discovered the turnout we found ourselves on the most pothole-ridden, boulder-friendly, cactus-hugging dirt road that either of us had ever driven on. The black Buick that had just that week been handed down to me by overprotective grandparents was certainly getting worked harder than it ever had before. If we had only been paying closer attention to these seemingly minute details of the day, maybe we could have anticipated what was to come…

The road went on and on and we couldn’t distinguish between the peaks outside our car and the pictures in the guidebook. After close to an hour of hunting, we were getting close to throwing in the rag and finding some other climbs for the day. Then, off in the distance we saw our Windy Peak. It was a tall beckoning mountain with a strip of green trees and bushes cutting across its middle. According to the guidebook, this is where our 8 pitch, 5.8 was to start. Not only would the climbing be a long adventure, we now realized the approach would be as well. We suited up and started hiking around 9:15. I was hopeful we could make it to the base of the climb in 2 hours. After quickly losing the trail and almost losing my partner lagging behind me, I reset my goal to making it to the base by noon. Not ideal, I knew, but I was optimistic and ambitious for what felt like would be my first real multi-pitch. The hike was long and hard and involved spotting rock cairns every 10-15 yards that blended in with the surrounding landscape all too well. However, we made it, and only 15 minutes past my second goal. We pounded down some lunch, harnessed up, separated the gear (leaving one backpack behind with food, water, and extra layers) and began up the first pitch. It was 1:10 in the afternoon.

The pitches were fun and I felt great leading. We were quite slow, taking up to an hour on each pitch. The fourth pitch of the climb was incredible, undoubtedly the highlight of the climb. A large blank roof sweeps over you, with a 5.7/5.8 traverse under it and with incredible exposure and extremely fun moves. The pitch can end at an awkward hanging belay, or with good rope management can go up around the corner and out of the belayer’s sight to a more comfortable small ledge. We decided to skip the hanging belay and try to make it to the further ledge. Making it up to the ledge and pulling the rope to get as much stretch out of it as possible to make it all the way, I built an anchor, and put Molly on belay. Molly slowly dissembled my all-nut anchor and began the traverse. With zero visibility of Molly below me and the rope drag being so significant I needed both hands to take out the slack (my invaluable reverso made this maneuver possible) I was left to entertain myself and imagine how Molly was doing down there. My high from the incredible climbing of that pitch slowly wore off as minutes and minutes passed and Molly seemed to have barely moved at all. I saw off in the distance the sun make longer and longer shadows that crept their way toward our parked car off in the distance and the busy highway past that. Because of the large roof and our current positioning, communication between Molly and I was quite difficult. Shouts had to be loud, clear, and repeated multiple times for any understanding to be gleaned by the other party. A few times the rope got tight fast, and my heart skipped a beat as my all trad. anchors had yet to be tested by a genuine fall, ever. The pieces seemed unbothered by the added weight and Molly kept inching along, rope tug by rope tug. She finally made it up to me, a bit bruised and scraped from a few falls, but in one piece nonetheless. By this point the sun was ready to set and we had 3 pitches to go, including another 5.8, which Molly was now a bit nervous about.

We moved on up, eager to make it to the top, but still enjoying the rock in front of us. On the last 5.7 pitch of the climb, I found myself in a water-smoothed gully trying to make my way towards the only bolt on the climb. The holds were small, and the feet were awkward. Quite nervous about falling I pulled through a few hard moves and shook my head in disbelief. I quickly realized I had gotten off-route and had just done my hardest moves on trad. lead to date (10 range?). I shouted down to Molly to let her know that she should find another way once she made it up to that point. I continued up on jugs and big ledges to a big belay ledge in a corner. I had skipped the bolt somehow, was confused as to where the route went next, and was getting worried about the time. Molly started making her way up and after a bit got to the crux I just described. She cleaned the cam I had placed, then traversed to the left and grunted her way up a roof pull. All of a sudden from the belay ledge I saw her head, shoulder and elbow pull up over the lip of the roof and I saw her panting trying to get herself up. She looked worried and said she was about to fall. I quickly realized falling would not be a good idea as the rope was literally below her now, wrapping under the roof and up and around through the water-washed gully I had just climbed. “Molly, you got it! Stick it! C’mon!” I shouted, hoping those words would be enough, but Molly, already nervous about roofs, had had enough and let go. The rope tensioned quickly and a loud “Fuck” emerged from the rock below me. “What happened? Are you alright?” I shouted down to Molly. She responded, telling me she hit her ankle hard and was having trouble moving it. Shitshitshit, I thought. Its dark, we have at least another 2 pitches of climbing, and a 3 hour+ descent and my partner just broke her ankle. This couldn’t be worse, I thought. Molly continued nursing her ankle for a few minutes then told me she was ready to jug up the rope through the crux. With somewhat impressive coordination, Molly was able to get up through the crux and through the remaining 25 feet of the pitch to me at my ledge. As I pulled in the last few feet of the rope, I saw the always worrisome white poking out from my rope’s red sheath. A core shot, no doubt. The rope must have found an edge as Molly swung under that roof, a feat not hard to do I imagine. As Molly looked at her ankle more closely I rearranged her knot so that she was no longer climbing on the section of rope with the core shot. With our headlamps now on, I nervously looked at Molly and asked her how she was doing. She was surprisingly calm (undoubtedly calmer than me) and told me that her ankle hurt, but it wasn’t broken, most likely just sprained. This was a relief, to say the least. However, time was ticking and we needed to get ourselves off this rock.

I started up the jug-ridden corner that bordered our ledge, unsure if this was the way the route normally went or not. After only 40 feet or so, around the corner and out of view from Molly down below, I reached some low angled rock that looked to lead to the summit. Worried the rope wouldn’t make it all the way up, and not wanting to be so distant and out of hearing range from Molly once again, I built an anchor below the slab. Molly climbed up to me, talking to me the whole time upon my request telling me what she was doing. I then led up to the top, somewhat unwisely placing no gear, and then anchoring Molly to a tree on the summit. Molly hobbled her way up under the light of her dim headlight and met me at the summit. It was 8:30 PM.

The day had been long thus far, neither of us would have contested that, but if we were to guess that the end was near, then we deserved what awaited us. Molly had the food and water on her the entire climb, and other than sips and nibbles taken between pitches, I practically hadn’t eaten or drank in 8 hours. I downed our last 2 candy bars, sharing half of one with Molly, and killed the last of our water. The decent to the base of the climb was supposedly quick (30 minutes according to the guide book) and our other backpack awaited us there with more food and water. We hung around at the summit for 30 minutes putting the gear in the backpack, wrapping up Molly’s ankle, bandaging her cut knee, and attempting to take a picture of us with the Las Vegas city lights behind us with our battery-dead camera (unsuccessful). When we began our hike down it was 9:00.

The cairns were hard to see in the dark and we kept losing them. Hoping we could improvise our way down I led the way, jumping from rock to rock looking for the way as Molly limped along behind me. I found nothing and after more than one dead end at a cliff face we found ourselves back on the summit facing the Las Vegas lights in the distance. As I looked at all the lights, I thought of how normal all the people in those houses and hotels and cars and casinos must have felt. For them, it was just a normal Wednesday night. What would they know of being stuck on the top of some mountain with no idea of how to get down and no preparations for spending the night? How odd it felt to be so close to civilization, yet so unmistakably far away.

The next thought that came to my mind Molly most definitely felt as well. “Dan, if we can find anything soon, we should think about taking a break for a bit,” she shouted, practically reading my mind. Molly was suggesting to me what I was thinking myself: I think we’ll have to spend the night up here. We sat down together and looked into the distance at the blinking Las Vegas lights. Molly was tired, and in pain, and we fished out an Advil from the first aid kit we had been smart enough to bring up with us. We decided to sit there in that spot for a bit and just look at the lights until the Advil kicked in and Molly felt up to finding a more sheltered spot where we could huddle up for the night. When we finally got up to find that spot, it was about 10:30. This was the last time I think either of us looked at a watch that night.

We found a flat spot next to a tree, and following Molly’s wishes I uncoiled the rope and laid it out so that we could sleep on it (clean rock, not much sand/dirt). To me it seemed ineffective and uncomfortable, but Molly thought it was a good idea. I was in a T-shirt, and Molly in a tank top, and it was cold enough that we were shivering. We were huddled for warmth, and I dozed off briefly. I awoke after what felt like no more than 10 minutes. I couldn’t do this: shiver on the ground in the cold waiting for the sun to come up. I got up and told Molly I was going to walk around a bit, but I’d be back. I went to where we had summated and found the first few cairns Molly and I spotted a few hours back. I wanted to see if I could find the cairns we couldn’t find before. Soon enough I was back in the same spot we lost the cairns last time, but I looked around a bit longer this time. There it was… the missing cairn. So, cairn by cairn, I began traversing Windy Peak. I found maybe 10 more cairns than what Molly and I had found earlier, but then they were gone again. However, this time I was in a gully that looked promising. I started making my way down with the intention of turning back as soon as it got either too steep or too overgrown. After what felt like at least half an hour of descending the gully I realized this would lead me the rest of the way out. I hadn’t found the established way down, but I found a way. I made my way back up to the top and found Molly. 2 hours at least must have passed since I had left. Molly was awake, although she told me she had slept some while I was gone. She was shivering and was very appreciative of my body heat after climbing back up that gully to find her at the top. I told her I had found more cairns and a way down, and if she wanted we could start the hike tonight. She said she’d think about it. We cuddled up again and made a go at a nap. It wasn’t long before Molly’s voice whispered from behind me. “Dan, I think I want to start hiking,”

We coiled the rope back up, and saddled up for the hike. Retracing my steps, we started at the first cairns by the summit of Jubilant Song, and cairn-hopped for a while. But I couldn’t find the gully I had found earlier. After maybe half an hour or slow hiking we came to what seemed like a pass between Windy Peak and whatever mountain lay behind it. It wasn’t where I was before, but it was another gully that I was sure would bring us down the mountain. We began making our way down. Rock hopping at times, and smearing across low angled slabs at other times. The process was slow, and progress seemed even slower, but I knew we were going in the right direction.

We were making good progress, and soon I recognized that we had connected with where the gully I found previously spat me out. We continued inching along, but I knew that this gully wouldn’t bring us down past where our other backpack sat at the base of the climb. I guessed that we had descended enough to be about level with the bottom of the climb, so Molly and I agreed that she would continue down the gully, while I went up and out of the gully to look for the pack. I scrambled quickly, no longer needing to slow my pace for Molly following me. Rock cairns began appearing, and I was confident I had connected with the established descent. Very quickly I began recognizing shapes in the distance (the moon had been full a few nights prior, and we were lucky enough to still have most of its light). I was hopping down rocks and paying close attention to my surroundings. I ducked away from the cairns in a spot that looked familiar and there sat my pack, in all its slumped and not-quite-forgotten glory. I found the full Nalgene hiding in its pockets and took a quick sip. I continued down the slab we had climbed up earlier in the day and came to an outlook. “Molly! Molly!” I hollered, but no response. The same fear and anxiousness I felt atop of pitch 4 unable to hear her responses under the roof below me entered my body. Despite the familiarity of the path I had just found, I quickly scrambled back up the way I had just come down, and up to where I had last seen Molly. Still no response. We had agreed that she would keep hiking down while I searched for the pack, so I started the decent I was sure she had taken, stopping every now and then to holler her name. Finally I heard her respond in the distance. Despite the better part of me knowing she was probably fine this whole time, simply out of earshot, I was quite relieved to hear her voice. The images of an unconscious Molly with a fading headlamp pointing up and into nowhere quickly disappeared. I continued making my way down the gully as fast as I could. Soon Molly’s headlamp was visible, and I told her to stop and rest a bit while I made my way to her. When I finally reached her we both rejoiced in the other’s presence. Molly told me she had been shouting as well and had had similar images of an injured Dan unresponsive above her. We sat down and drank the water from my backpack. We were tired and beat up, but relieved to be making our way off this mountain and out of this mess. The water and some delicious chocolate covered pretzels replenished some of our energy, and we resumed our slow pace down.

Luckily enough, our sense of direction that night was on ball, and as we rounded a corner we began seeing cairns. We started following the cairns and soon enough we were back in the ‘meadow’ right below the climb that we had passed through earlier in the day. We knew where we were!

The rest of the story is quite straightforward. We made our way down, happy in our accomplishment. We continued finding the cairns, an experience I imagine that will stick with me for some time: looking carefully into the dark surroundings for those few rocks barely stacked on top of one another and slowly making our way towards them. As we reached the road where we parked our car, the sun was coming up. Molly sat down and waited on the side of the road as I ran the mile or so to where the car was parked. Although finding our way back out of that backroad was another hour-long saga in itself (with the unfortunate realization that those road-hugging cacti had left long scratches down each side of my recently acquired shiny black Buick), we had made it out safe and sound.

As I ran to the car and pondered the day’s adventure a word came to my mind: fuckcess. The trip had been a total fuck-up in so many ways with mistakes made and some dangers only barely avoided. However, as Molly and I had been expressing to each other towards the end of the hike down, we had learned so much, which could be nothing but a success. I shared my new word with Molly and she laughingly agreed. As I thought about it more and more, the word was perfect for the day’s activities.

So what were some of the lessons learned? Well, there were many. Each lesson could have a long explanation in itself, but these are the quick headlines in no particular order:

1. Be prepared for situations unexpected (this means bringing extra layers and possibly even a space blanket)
2. Know your partner’s abilities (I should have known 8 pitches of 5.8 is the very upper limit of Molly’s ability level)
3. Know the approach (this means both driving and hiking). I can see how this can be unavoidable at times when in new places, but if I had known what the road was like beforehand, I never would have driven the car down it. And if we had known how long the hike was going to be, we would have been up much earlier than 6:15.
4. Know how long it takes you and your partner to climb a pitch (starting climbing at 1:15 would have then seemed ridiculous).
5. It can be hard having little to no communication between climber and belayer. The hanging ledge under the roof on pitch 4 would have meant I could see Molly as she made the traverse and supported her as she struggled on the harder moves. I also wouldn’t have gotten as anxious as I did waiting alone up above.
6. Never forget, some adventures come with serious dangers and can be life-threatening. In certain areas of the climbing world this is a fact never to be forgotten.

There are more, and on that long, dark hike down my head couldn’t stop coming up with more and more lessons to be learned. While some I am aware of now and can reflect upon them in the safety of my home, some I know will be only be remembered and come in handy when I’m back out there in similar situations.
Despite the unpleasant consequences of our fuckcess adventure, I am grateful for it, as I know the lessons learned will serve me well in years to follow.

** To see photos from the climb go to: **

(This post was edited by danimaniac on May 30, 2009, 9:52 PM)

Edit Log:
Post edited by danimaniac () on May 30, 2009, 9:16 PM
Post edited by danimaniac () on May 30, 2009, 9:52 PM

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