Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Little Taste of Eldo

(Photo: View of the 300-foot Bastille taken from the descent path down from the top of the Wind Tower. In the foreground you can see climbers atop the first pitch of the Wind Ridge, a point from which we traversed off the Wind Tower early in the day.)

I recently fell in love with Eldorado Canyon. I barely got to experience it, but I loved it nonetheless.

I was in Colorado for a week in August with my wife and kids along with two other families. It was my first time in the state. We were vacationing in Summit County, at least an hour and a half from Denver, but I made my friend Greg promise that for at least one day we'd make it to one of the world-class climbing areas near Boulder. Greg introduced me to rock climbing in 2006, and for this I will be forever grateful, but climbing hasn't really been his thing lately. The lucky bastard moved to Denver in July, yet by the time of our visit in late August he had yet to set foot in Boulder Canyon, Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons.... or any other Colorado climbing area. I saw it as my duty to drag him back from our vacation house to the suburbs of his new home city so we could both be introduced to the glories of at least one of the local climbing meccas.

Out of the wealth of Colorado choices I picked Eldorado Canyon because I wanted multi-pitch trad routes. A friend let me borrow his copy of the old Falcon guide written by Richard Rossiter, and I'm sure it would have served me well enough if I'd used it. But because I'm a sucker for guidebooks I went ahead and purchased Steve Levin's glossy new Eldo guide, and boy is it a beautiful book, an obvious labor of love filled with helpful, comprehensive information along with many entertaining historical pieces written by the great climbers of Eldo's past.

After poring over Levin's masterpiece, I had my heart set on doing either one of two classic moderates I felt I could lead comfortably: The Bastille Crack (5.7) or Rewritten (5.7, but via the 5.8 first pitch of The Great Zot). I was confident I'd be fine on either one of these routes. But as our Eldo day approached I started to feel I shouldn't push too hard to do them. I wanted Greg to enjoy the day, and I knew he wouldn't want to lead anything as hard as 5.7; he might not even be comfortable following climbs at that grade. I also worried that even if he was enthusiastic he'd struggle with the cruxes and we'd end up bailing.

And let's face it, I had doubts about myself as well. A climber on The Bastille Crack had decked off the low crux the week before, falling from 20 feet up at the extremely polished leftward step to the namesake crack. His protective gear, in the flexy flake to the right, had popped right out. I didn't want that to be me. And as for Rewritten, while I wasn't worried about decking, I knew the approach would take a while, the route would be long, the crux difficult to bail from, the traverse nerve-wracking for Greg, and the descent complicated. Having never been in the canyon before, I didn't want to wind up in an epic.

So at some point before we actually drove over to the canyon, I decided to shelve these ambitions, and just do something easy. I proposed to Greg that we do The Wind Ridge, a three-pitch 5.6 that goes to the top of the Wind Tower, one of the smaller formations in the canyon.

But nature had other plans.

We arrived in good time. As we drove in I was immediately enthralled with the canyon. The rock was gorgeous. The possibilities seemed endless. It was a weekday and we were only the third car in the lot. I couldn't resist looking at The Bastille Crack-- it is just a few steps from the parking lot-- and I thought to myself that we might get on it later if things went really fast and well. Then I forced myself to walk away from it, cross the bridge, and head to the Wind Tower.

We found our route quickly, sorted the gear, and started up. I loved the texture of the rock. The sandstone was so easy to grip; chalk seemed totally superfluous. I had been worrying about how comfortable I'd feel climbing in Eldo, about whether I'd need to adjust to the rock or the ratings, but this first pitch put my mind at ease. The climbing felt just like a 5.6 in the Gunks, and just as fun. As I finished the first pitch, I thought things were going quite well.

Then Greg came up and spoiled my reverie by pointing out that it was about to rain. I hadn't even noticed, but it had become cloudy in every direction. Then I felt the drops begin to fall, and I became infuriated. This wasn't supposed to happen. The forecast was for temperatures in the seventies with a zero percent chance of rain. ZERO. I looked around the canyon. Just over yonder a party had started up the Bastille Crack, but we could see they were now bailing. I looked to our left and could see what seemed like an easy traverse off the Wind Tower. This seemed like a better option than continuing upward into a storm. So, reluctantly, I agreed to abandon the climb.

Once we were back on the ground we decided to sit a while and see how the weather developed. The storm never actually got started. After those first few drops it stopped again and never really got to raining. The rock was still dry and other parties were going at it, climbing all around. Still, the sky was completely overcast and it appeared it could pour at any moment. So after sitting for a bit I proposed that if we could find an easy climb that we could be certain would be uncomplicated to escape from at the end of the first few pitches, we should just start climbing again. I opened the guidebook to check and immediately found a route called The Bomb, which is only 5.4 but which Levin gives three stars. It appeared easy to rap off after pitches one and two. And it was the original route up the Wind Tower, going all the way to the top. I was sold.

The route turned out to be very good. I'd recommend it to anyone, but as Levin warns, you should be very careful of the rotten rock near the top of the Wind Tower. It is an unavoidable band of rock, really more of a pile of sandstone shingles, that is quite easy to climb but 100% loose. There is no acceptable pro through this section, and every piece of rock that you grab could be easily pulled out.

And while the rock was totally solid lower down the tower, I did begin to have some doubts about Steve Levin's guidebook and his notion of a "PG" protection rating. One pitch ascended a trench-like feature up the wall for 90 feet. I kept searching and searching for pro, but eventually found only two chockstones to sling and two cam placements for the entire pitch. I found the climbing extremely easy, and I tried to position myself such that a fall would take me into the trench rather than down the wall, but nevertheless four placements in 90 feet was not my idea of "PG." I think this pitch would make a new leader piss his or her pants. But since the climbing felt so secure it didn't worry me very much; in fact it led me to a tiny epiphany about what it means to be "solid" in a grade.

There have come moments in the last couple years in which I've decided that I was solid in trad 5.6, then 5.7, then 5.8, and for a month or so I thought I might actually be a 5.9 trad climber. Most of these moments came when I did a climb of whatever grade and things went well. Even if I found the climb difficult, I made the moves, I placed good gear, I didn't freak out, and it seemed like the best day ever at the cliff. Then I broke my ankle last October on a 5.9+ and after recovering and gaining a little weight I found myself uncertain of everything. This whole year turned into a one step forward/two steps back sort of situation, playing out over and over again. Nothing at 5.8 or above seemed to come without complications, and I could never decide if my physical or mental condition was the handicap.

Climbing The Bomb on the Wind Tower, I realized that I might have discovered a way to measure my own solid-ness in a grade, at least when it comes to my mental state. I decided I can say I'm solid in the grade if I can calmly go about my business, even when no pro appears, and not be falling apart inside. This is pretty easy to accomplish on a 5.4. But what's the highest grade at which I can perform like this?

I certainly wouldn't set out to purposely test my performance with no pro at higher grades, but I do recall one pitch earlier this year where I stumbled into the same sort of situation at a higher grade than 5.4. I was with Vass in the Gunks, climbing Airy Aria. Vass led the 5.8 first pitch. It was one of my first 5.8 leads last year, but we hadn't gone beyond pitch one and we were both excited to come back this year and finish the climb. Vass led pitch one well and I followed it with no issues, feeling good. I then took off from the bolts atop pitch one, planning to go all the way to the GT ledge in one pitch. I made the traverse out from the anchor with no problems, and may have deliberately passed up a gear placement just above the end of the traverse, thinking I'd soon find another placement and that I should conserve gear. I then entered the steep 5.7 crux portion of the pitch, and I couldn't find any pro until it was over. I kept stepping up, looking for pro, and finding none. At one point I looked back to my last piece and I was extremely unhappy; a fall would have been ugly, a long swing. But as I couldn't see any gear options I had no choice but to carry on, telling myself not to worry, I am totally solid in this grade. Eventually I made it to the little belay stance above the crux, slammed in two cams, and could exhale.

At the time this experience reminded me of the maxim that you shouldn't pass up gear placement opportunities if you don't know where your next piece will be. But looking back on it now, I think it gives me some clarity as to where I stand with regards to 5.7. I've led a ton of 5.7s this year, refused to lead one or two, and backed off a couple that I didn't like the looks of after a couple moves. But when push comes to shove, when there's no pro and no choice but to carry on, I think I'm fine at the grade. 5.8? 5.9? I have no idea. So as much as I hate to admit it I don't think I can say today that I'm solid in either grade. I haven't yet passed the test.

Back to Eldo: as we topped out on the Wind Tower, the clouds finally disappeared and we enjoyed brilliant sunshine for the rest of the afternoon. After we descended we did a couple of more easy pitches, then walked around the canyon a bit before heading back to Summit County. I got a look at the Whale's Tail and the giant Redgarden Wall, and felt hungry to return. Some day soon I have to make it happen. I trust the sandstone will wait for me.

1 comment:

  1. Be sure not to pass up BC if you get the chance again. I had some of the same concerns that you did, but there's great gear out in the crack to the left which is very easy to access from the flexy flake before you make the move. Also if you are reasonably resourceful it's not hard to get two pieces into the flexy flake with a sliding-x. It'd probably be easy to place a small cam there (.4 or .5) and have it blow, but I'm reasonably confident that the #1 I overcammed into there wasn't going to go anywhere. It's a beautiful climb on beautiful rock.

    I'm also not exactly sure that being solid at the grade requires you to be completely comfortable free-soloing it (I know I'm twisting your words a bit). I've never taken a leader fall, a hang or bailed on anything easier than 5.10 at the gunks after well over 100 leads there, 5.10 is certainly pushing it for me on lead, but free-soloing a 5.8 would not make me a happy camper.