Friday, March 25, 2011

BACK IN THE BLACK

STORY BY OLAF MITCHELL
As best as I can recollect and don't hold me to any of this cause it's been a while.
It seems like I can remember a faint but distinct buzzer going off, I look at my watch it’s 4:00am
I don’t want to get up, but I force my self.
It is so dark and very cold (on the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison) at this hour.
I light the stove.
The water is already in the pot and ready to boil.
I shake Buc “he’s my long time friend and partner on this adventure”, gesturing that he be very quiet.
The water begins to boil. In a few seconds strong coffee is ready.
My cobwebs clear after two sips of the strong stimulating beverage.
On the flour board of the truck I find another of our used 7/11 cups. I fill it and hand it to him. Buc, still in his sleeping bag and is grateful not to have to move, just yet.
There are no human sounds in the small camp ground at this hour.
We power down as many calories as possible, with extra on the liquids.
We have been hyper/hydrating for the last 48 hours and I feel bloated.
I hope that I am up to the grueling task ahead.
I sneak over to the outhouse but my timetable is off.
“Oh well, I tried”.
(It’s still very dark)
Back in camp Buc is ready to go.
I’m dressed for success, as well. My hands are taped. My knee pads and climbing shoes are on. I even have my harness on.
Since we aren’t carrying a pack, anything that we wear on the climb has to be worn on the approach.
Having meticulously assembled every detail last night, all I need to do is grab my half of the rack and a rope, and hit the trail.
We are the first out of camp and have our pick of any route on North Chasm View Wall.
A brief stroll through the high desert forest is proves to be just what I need for my eyes to adjust to the faint predawn light as my other censers tune in as well, I inhale the earthy scents of sage and juniper and absorb the symphony of nature acknowledging the eminent dawning of this new day.
We’ll be descending “The Cruise Gully” from the rim of the canyon down to the Gunnison River almost 2000 feet below.
Our leisure hike has turned into easy scrambling and now we want a rope.
Right when we need them the rappel anchors appear. They are already in place so we wont have to leave any of our own climbing gear. We thread our maliciously coiled ropes through the resident anchors and toss them into the predawn abyss.
We use our belay devices as repel brakes we are able to control the speed of our decent down our two 165’, 9mm. climbing ropes.
We are making fast time on the decent but we are being very careful not to dislodge any loose rocks or hang / snag the ropes as we pull them behind us. Two long rappels and we’re back to steep down climbing and scrambling with no further need for the protection of a rope.
In the far distance we here the muffled sounds of voices and the clanking of gear.
We have a good head start and should have no trouble staying way ahead of who ever they are. We have no idea if they even intend to do the same route that we have chosen but we aren’t taking any chances.
By now it is full daylight.
The route we have chosen is still in the shade and will be pleasantly cool for some time.
A few more minutes of steep hiking through a jungle of what we identify as “poison ivy” and we are at the base of our climb

.

“The Cruise” is a 1500’, 5.10 free climb. It’s very steep and strenuous with exceptionally solid rock. (For “The Black” that is!)
Buc and I feel that we are in good climbing shape and technically well within our abilities.
We flip for who leads the first pitch.
This sets the sequence for the climb.
We intend to trade leads all the way up unless one of us gets really tired, or freaked! (After all}. It’s always DESPERATE in the Black!
I win the toss.
I arrange the rack while Buc makes since of the ropes and puts me on belay.
I charge up the first pitch.
It’s moderate and goes smooth and swift.
The second and third pitches are off width and chimney climbing, their strenuous but reasonable and really fun.


Pitch four is Buc’s and I can tell by his apparent anxiety, he would rather I had drawn it. It’s a thin finger crack in a very steep dihedral and is arguably the technical crux pitch of the climb.
I take a moment to re stack the rope (so that it plays out smoothly) and make my semi- hanging belay stance as comfortable as possible. Buc arranges the rack so that the smaller wired pieces are close at hand and can be accessed with a minimal amount of effort.
I give him the nod that tells him that I am ready. He reciprocates with the same gesture and makes the first moves off the belay stance.
It’s hard right away. He is placing gear at every opportunity. I think that if he keeps this up he will be running out of the smaller sized pieces before he gets to the belay stance more than 130’ further. At one point he gets an especially good #4 stopper and asks me to tighten up the rope.
It’s his lead and I do what he asks. He takes tension not for a rest but lowers down and reclaims the gear from below. I’m thinking that he has made a wise decision and am comforted knowing that he will have more of a selection when the climbing gets harder further up the pitch. Placing small wired wedges for protection and using mostly thin finger jambs while stemming on the tiniest of edges on both sides of the corner he makes slow but steady progress. All I hear from Buc is heavy breathing and the occasional requests for more or less rope. I try to be encouraging knowing that he is desperate and most likely at his wits end.
At one point he commits to a sequence that he can’t reverse and slips. It really isn’t a very long fall but still it was a fall. (At the end of every fall there is a rest). He takes a moment to regroup. With rejuvenated stoke he charges up the rest of the pitch with out any hesitation at all.
Moments later I hear him shout “Off Belay”!
I’ve exhausted every possible body position at that stance. I have been anchored to it for the past half hour but it seems much longer. My feet are numb and my legs are cramped. I look forward to moving again.
Climbing is way easier with a tight rope pulling straight up. The moves although thin are actually fun when the fear of falling is taken out of the equation. The hard part is pulling the many desperately placed protective devices, on my way by.
The belay stance at the end of the 4th pitch is very exposed. It’s a bit sloping but fairly comfortable.
This is the point where “The Cruise” and its sister route “The Scenic Cruise” converge.

Photo: borrowed from Allen Hill collection

I am rested after my long belay and anxious to get underway.
The 5th pitch is nothing like the 4th and requires totally different climbing styles and gear selection.
The pitch starts off through several giant chalked boulders that are so precariously set that it seems as though the pressure of my body’s jams and locks could dislodge them.


I find this section unnerving so I move as swift as possible while placing a minimal amount of gear. Although, I do get a few secure pieces through this section.
The exposure is wearing on me. I‘m getting very pumped in my arms. This pitch is getting steeper and more strenuous with every move I make.
I’m hand and fist jamming through overhanging sections with two or three sequential moves between (sound?) gear placements.
I’m getting really gripped! In fact, I’m pumped out of my mind!
The fist jambs are getting wider and it takes way too much strength to maintain a comfortable level of security. I feel that I could fall! I really don’t have a substantial piece close by!
In all this desperation, I find a brief moment of clarity. I notice a knee lock!
As soon as I place it I am allowed to exchange one of the strenuous fist jams for a #4 friend. This takes me out of the eminent danger that was haunting me only an instant before.
Sigh!! My mind eases!.
Looking down I see Buck as he intensely watches my drama unfold. He knows that if I do fall from such a precarious position that it will be a hard to catch me. From his angle he has no idea of my “god sent, knee jamb/semi-rest”
At this point I lean away from the rock I look down at him and with a grim look on my face and say “SAUCY!!”
My face then turns into a grin from ear to ear.
With that display, I feel Buc’s tensions ease a bit. But I’m not even close to the end of this, intimidating, overhanging exercise in mental and physical gymnastics.
Powering through the crux roof, I make a last desperate reach for what looks like a good hand jamb.
And it is!
This solid hand jamb allows my confidence me to rally.
(In most cases, where there is a good jam, there is good gear placement).
This is no exception.


Although everything is still extremely steep, I have two sound gear placements and a reasonably comfortable stance. I can put a lot of weight on my feet and I‘m able to turn loose with one hand and shake it out and then the other. It feels good to shake out my cramped forearms but I know that I am really not resting.
I am only a little over half way up this pitch. I am very pumped, yet I find this section enjoyable, in a morbid sort of way. When I frantically placed the gear on that last desperate crux section it caused the rope to drag. This extra tension is wearing me down drastically. It‘s turning this technically moderate hand and fist crack, into a nightmare.
It feels like I’m hauling a bag of cement up the climb behind me.
I know that I have to do something about this rope drag!
I place a really good piece and take tension. I lower my self back down the pitch.
This really confuses Buc. He hadn’t been able to see or hear me since I turned the roof!. It is so steep that it takes my breath away!


I lower my self over the roof. I swing in and pull out the derelict gear.
Buc can see me now that I’ve lowered over the roof and fully understands what I‘m up to.
Now I have the task of re climbing the strenuous roof but this time I have a top rope.
I‘m back to my high point in no time and with newly found energy and flash the rest of the pitch.
Buc has very little difficulty seconding the pitch after I had already taken out most of the gear from the crux. He has some trouble removing one of the pieces that I placed at a desperate moment. Other wise he fluidly powers through the whole thing and is at the belay stance in no time.
  

We both feel relief that the two crux pitches are behind us but we still have a lot of rock above of us.
The cool shade of the morning is a thing of the past and the sun is out in full force.
Its intense rays are penetrating deep into the white pegmatite quartz and radiating through the granite. My feet are burning and swelling in shoes that are too tight in the first place.
The next two pitches are with out a doubt “world class/ text book” hand and fist jamming. The sort of cracks climbers dream of and seek out their whole climbing careers.
Once again we are making progress with rejuvenated enthusiasm. We are at a point now where the exposure isn’t affecting us, as much as it was, several pitches back, although believe me, it is still there.



We savor these two pitches of moderate though sustained movement. After the difficult terrain we had been through they were a vertical walk in the park.
We come across a good ledge at the end of the two luxurious crack pitches we decide that this is an excellent place to take a short break. We remove our painful climbing shoes and eat a little and try to hydrate some. We have gained about 1000’ from where we stepped on to this rock. We are tired and ready for it to be over and if we keep up the pace it soon will be.


While eating energy bars and sipping water I hear sounds from below.
They’re getting closer.
It was the sound of gear rattling and heavy breathing.
From out of the void a head appears and then a body.
The climber looks familiar to me, but I can’t quite place him.
He put in some gear and yells “off belay”!
He takes up rope and shouts to his partner that he is on belay.
Nonchalantly, Buc says to the climber, “ Hay Olaf, I thought that you were surfing these days and had given up rock climbing.”
The climber turns his head around and says “ Hi Buc, Fancy running into you here.”
“Guess who is at the other end of this rope?”
Buc says, “It has to be Mad Dawg of coarse”. Just then Steve’s head appears from below with his usual giant grin.
Olaf says,” I got a call from Steve the other day and he wanted to do some routes. He offered me some of his flier miles and I just couldn’t refuse.”
Steve says,” Yeah, We climbed Moses last night!”
They both started laughing, as if this was some sort of inside joke.
Buc points to me and says, “ Guys this is Henri.”
We all share nods of acknowledgment.
Olaf says, “It looks like you two are in a comfortable spot. Do you mind if we climb through. I promise that if you give us a ten minute head start you won’t see us again until tomorrow morning.” He went onto say, “ We have to meet up with Noel and Ken in Montrose this afternoon to return some gear we borrowed for the dessert. They are going to do a route on the other side of the canyon ‘The Flakes’ I think?”
Steve says, “We want to be back over here in the morning to see Strappo, Crusher and Lee when the finish the Hallucinogen Wall.”
Olaf says, “Yeah, We’re going fishing for Brits!”
Steve says, “Let’s catch up with each others adventures then. OK?”
I knew that we had lost some time with those two hard pitches, but these guys were motoring. They had caught up to us even with the giant head start we tried to give ourselves.
Buc told me that both Steve and Olaf rarely climb any more but get off the couch occasionally and do some fairly impressive stuff. For a couple of old guys, that is.
I was suspect over letting them pass but they were moving so fast that they would be breathing down our necks the rest of the climb. We would have to share belay ledges and feel pressured.
I agreed that they should pass though. This would give us an additional rest period witch we could defiantly use
Buc is worn out! I can see it in his eyes. And his movement is slowing.
Respectfully, I ask, “Buc, do you mind if I do the leading for the rest of the climb?” “We’ll each get more rest between the climbing.” Looking up at the sun and then at me he says, “be my guest”. He knows that the rest of this climb is truly going to be a ‘cruise’ for him.
I give the over taking team a ten minute head start and before I put my shoes on and organize the pile of gear. Buc is looking better but I make sure that he drinks an extra ration of water. Heat and exertion can turn the strongest of warriors to mush and I need him to be on top of his game. My life depends on it!
The next obstacle is a giant detached flake. It isn’t very technical; it's more of a nuisance than anything else. I take a few moments to see if I can go straight over the thing but get griped with the exposure and the absolute lack of protection that this variation offers. Prudence being the better part of valor I down climb and move around to the right and climb up the easy chimney between the flake and the main wall. There is no way to avoid massive rope drag in this section so I just bite the bullet and endure it. Like so many of life’s nuisances, it is over in a short time. I belay Buc up and we sort gear and re stack the rope so that it flows in an orderly fashion.

I put the rack together as fast as I can. Buc already has me on belay for what is known as the “xxxxxx Traverse”.

It was named after xxxxxxxx who is an old friend of mine. I was told this story by a reliable source but I didn’t validate it with xxxxxx but it is a good story, so hear it goes. (Some years back xxxxxx was guiding a client up the “Goss-Logan” route. The Goss-Logan connects with the "Cruise" at the point where we took the break and the beginning of the pitch that I was leading. There were once three 1/4” expansion bolts to protect this traverse. Well xxxxxx having climbed this wall many times figured that the difficulties were all but over.xxxxx had hauled a quart of beer all the way to this comfortable ledge.xxxxxx thought that it would be a good idea to have his beer at that belay. He finished the beer and climbed out the bolt protected traverse clipping as he went. He made a number of unprotected moves after the last bolt and got disoriented and fell off without warning. The bolts held but they each were hanging nearly out of the rock. I can imagine what his client thought as he was totally unprepared for the jolt of a body having fallen 30’ through. His stance is directly under an overhang so he was knocked senseless.)
I move out the traverse edging on thin holds to the first bolt It is hanging out from the rock so I place a wired stopper over it and clip in to that. The bolt looks as if it would hold body weight but I sure did not want to test it. Climbing on thin holds at a fairly stiff technical difficulty I arrive at the second bolt, it looks better, I thread a wire over it as well. Luckily I find a few small gear placements that help offset these utterly pathetic excuses for protection. Moving a few more feet to the right I find the third bolt to be almost completely out of the rock I thread a stopper around it anyway. At this point I climb straight up on solid lay back holds placing several small but adequate nuts that protected me the rest of the way to the belay ledge.
This belay ledge is a fairly comfortable place and I place some excellent cams for the belay ankour. I bring up the extra rope, put Buc on belay and shout, “ I‘m ready”
Buc moves through the traverse very cautiously, it’s just as intimidating for him as it was for me. (Seconding a lateral traverse can be terrifying!)
Once again, Buc switches the Belay while I organize the rack. I place a piece as high in the crack above, as I can reach. I clip the rope into it and off I go. What appears to be a few easy and straightforward hand jamb moves turn out to be much harder than I anticipated.
I nearly fall off!
My adrenalin is way up! With a greater respect, I negotiate these few desperate moves.
I climb moderate rock to a small, and very exposed belay ledge at the base of a gnarly, loose, and basically grim looking face. Vertically, we were 100’ below the rim of the canyon. I clip into the fixed anchors and put in as many extra pieces as I could find.
I realize as I belay Buc up to the tiny ledge, that we are very close to the top, but the climb isn’t over.
We are both extremely fatigued and dehydrated and our judgment is somewhat slowed or impaired.
Fortunately the sun has moved beyond the rim and is no longer sucking the life out of us as it was a while back.
For the last time, I organize the rack the rack while Buc re stacks the rope and puts me on belay. I climb straight up off the belay ledge to the bottom of a giant insurmountable roof.
At this point I’m forced to traverse right on small but surprisingly solid holds. I am pleased to find the rock on this pitch also accepts a variety of different gear.
I am placing protection sparingly for fear of rope drag. In fact I am running it out way past the point of safety. I am getting enough placement opportunities that I am confident that there will be more. I am actually enjoying these free form sequences of the moves on this pitch.


Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the angle of the rock had lessened a few degrees
I become so engrossed with the moves that I am making on this section that I’m unaware of the fact that I am more than 50’ out from my last protection placement. If I fall from this point it means a fall in excess of 100’. Buc’s belay will fail and we will both defiantly die!
Immediately, I put in two really good cam devices.
I’m safe again!
I climb up the short but very steep final jam crack section.
This has been an exceptionally long pitch. I am out of rope, and despite the long run outs with no gear placements; I am out of the equipment necessary to build a solid belay.
It takes some time and ingenuity but I finally put something together that can hold a fall.
I yell, “On belay!”

Buc flashes the final pitch and with a menagerie of disorganized gear hanging from him, is at my side in hardly any time at all.
Buc scrambles up the last fifty feet of rock and is on the rim of the canyon. He sets the last belay using the guardrail at the scenic overlook.
The climbing isn’t much more difficult than walking at this point but in my emaciated state I’m glad to be using the rope until we had actually reach the top of the canyon wall.
I hear the words “off belay” and I pull the gear and scramble up to the top.
It’s almost comical to actually climb over the tubular guardrail at the scenic over look. There are a number of tourists experiencing this airy spot. One of them asks Buc, “ Where did you come from?” He pointed and said, “Down there”.

After twelve pitches of sustained climbing few things feel better than sitting down and taking my climbing shoes off.

We limped (barefoot) through the high desert forest back to our camp.
With our arms loaded with uncoiled ropes and the gear hanging on us in a total mess.

The smart thing to do at this point was to consume as much water as we could but that wasn’t what we had on our minds.
We wanted a beer and then we wanted more beer!
The cooler was well stocked with crushed ice and our favorite beverage.

We downed the first one while we cut the tape off of our bruised and swelling hands. My feet were still hurting!

We actually made fast time on the route and there was a fair amount of day light left.
We took a slow stroll back to the scenic overlook where we topped out.

We lounged at the very edge of The Black Canyon with a beer in our hands and our bare feet dangling over the abyss.

I reveled in the act of not climbing!
I was at peace, without any since of urgency!

Evening is wondrous on the north rim of The Black Canyon!
As the angle of light crosses the narrow gorge it accents features that are totally invisible through out the day.
Every species of the local wildlife come out of their deep shaded shelters and roam about the rim of the canyon.
It’s a unique and diverse social hour devoted to worshiping the coolness before dark.
The birds sing in(seemingly rehearsed)harmonious chorale, as cricket and locust provide a rhythmic background.
The scent of sage and juniper is an almost visible fragrance.
Cactus radiates with vibrant red and yellow blossoms and briefly, their menacing thorns disappear.
Strange people appear out of nowhere to share this breath-taking extravaganza of sensory abundance!

We stared in awe of the magnificence of The Painted Wall with its white pegmatite dragon dancing across its expanse.

We could see the tourists on the south rim watching us as we in turn watch them.
The distance across the canyon at this point is less than the depth.
We silently reflect on the events of the day. Most of the thoughts were in a jumbled mess only to be sorted out at a later time.
We are humbled by the power in this canyon and honored that we were allowed safe passage.
As the evening turns to night, the warmth that we were enjoying fades.
I revel in the cold and welcome its chilling bite.
We become acutely aware that had any one thing gone wrong we could still be on the wall facing the bitter cold night without any food, water, or warm clothing.
We tremble at the thought of one us getting even slightly injured! Those thoughts are too harrowing and are dismissed immediately.


We left our camp in the warmth of the afternoon with only a cooler full of beer wearing only tee shirts, shorts and barefoot.
With no flash light and the absence of even the hint of moon light (this was compounded by dehydration and alcohol) the short journey back to our camp seemed as technical as any of the pitches we had climbed earlier that day. Those beautiful flowers of the Cholla Cactus were now villains waiting to attack!
We moved at a snails pace and all we could think of was our overpowering exhaustion.
Our potentially perilous journey down the pitch-black trail back to our camp seemed endless.
I hadn’t eaten so much as a morsel in longer than I could remember but in this emaciated state sleep was my only desire.

I slept soundly until I was driven from my nest by the unbearable heat of the mid morning sun.
I had an unquenchable thirst, and a ravenous apatite!
The coffee was already made and Buc had a full-blown breakfast in the skillet and it was only moments from being ready.
The acids in the ice-cold orange juice felt magical as it flowed down my raw throat.
Waiting for the call to breakfast I basked in the stimulating effects of the high powered French Roast while lounging in the soft light of the warm streams of sun light filtering through the canopy of Juniper.

A very satisfying breakfast worked wonders for my hang over.
My feet still hurt so I had no desire to move.

Buc was feeling much better than me and he was already down the way chatting and laughing with the two climbers that over took us on the route we climbed yesterday.
I rallied and strolled over to where they were.
There were also some other climbers that had done a shorter and easier route yesterday and were resting up for an assent of the route that we had just climbed.

Steve and Olaf were back on the north rim and they had plans to lower a bag of ice cold beer down to the three English climbers that were finishing “The Hallucinogen Wall” one of the hardest direct aid lines in the canyon. It finishes at one of the scenic over looks and is a perfect place to go “Fishing for Brit’s”.
Phil reported that he had heard the lads and thought that they were about an hour or two from topping out on their three-day vertical journey up the steep wall between Air Voyage and Goss Logan.

We felt no need to hurry as we slowly wandered over to the rim and lounged around telling jokes, swapping stories, and name dropping.

The resident park ranger came by and asked “what’s up guys”
Steve replied “we’re going fishing.”
The ranger said, “What?”
Olaf said, “Yeah we’re fishing for Brit’s”

We could hear the clanking of gear and muffled unintelligible conversation. With a British accent of coarse.

Not knowing just how much line we would need we brought along three 165’-9mm climbing ropes and started lowering the bait in a stuff sack lined with foam padding. We played out one with out a bite and then tied on another when we had the second one played out about half way Steve who was holding the rope looked over to Olaf and said, “ I’ve got a bite”
From a distance we heard in a British accent of coarse, “What’s this?”
Then the weight on the end of the line got light, so we hauled it up and sure enough they had stolen the bait.
We rebaited the line and this time Olaf lowered the line and once again he felt action on the line and thought that he had one but the same thing happened to him. They stole his bait. Everyone knows that patience and tenacity are important when fishing especially for Brit’s. So we hauled the empty sack up once more. There was a marked amount of audible activity down where we had been fishing and we were concerned that we might be getting low on bait when one of our neighbors showed up with some extra bait that we thought we had better test this new batch of Brit bait before committing it to the important task of “Brit luring”.

We tested the heck out of it for about an hour and decided that it would do just fine but we were once again running low on bait so an expedition was mounted to go to the store in the nearest town of Crawford for more Brit bait. This time we were sure that we would catch the sly Brits. Or at least lure them to the surface.

As we were testing the last of the existing Brit bait the new batch arrived we quickly baited up and lowered the line this time we only had to drop it about half a rope length and we heard one of them exclaim, “It’s about bloody time!” And in an instant the bait bag became weightless once more.

We tested the newly arrived batch of bait for a while and just couldn’t imagine why with this quality of bait, we weren’t catching anything when Lee’s face appeared from over the edge of the cliff. He tied off to the railing of the scenic overlook and shouted that he was on top. Steve handed him a cylinder of bait and he accepted it. We now had our first Brit in the bag!


Next, Crusher surfaced! He jumared up, dragging a lawn chair along behind him and obviously full of the stolen bait.
It wasn’t long before, the infamous “STRAPPO” topped out and joined the festivities.
(To Be Continued)
(or maybe not?)

NOTE: Several of these images were borrowed from the internet.

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