Sunday, May 1, 2011

Red Rocks 2011, Part 2

After our first two days in Red Rocks, I felt like the trip was going well. I was getting back into the swing of climbing, and having fun. I wasn't pushing my trad leading into much new territory, however. And I couldn't help but be a little disappointed at the hand we'd been dealt by the elements. Adrian and I had to abort climbing Solar Slab because of extreme wetness, and only got three pitches up Ginger Cracks because we were caught in a sudden snowstorm.

But things were looking up. The weather was forecast to be wonderful for our final two days. And I was determined to get to the top of something.

Day 3: Jubilant Song

On our third day we got up and moving pretty quickly because we really wanted to have no issues finishing Jubilant Song (5.8), our big objective for the day.

Jubilant Song is a well-regarded moderate classic, climbing all the way to the summit of Windy Peak in eight sustained pitches. Despite its stature among the many wonderful moderate climbs in Red Rocks, Jubilant Song has a reputation for being less crowded than many other climbs, for two main reasons. The climb sits in Windy Canyon, which is well outside the paved Red Rocks loop road. The canyon is approached by a confusing patchwork of dirt and gravel roads that are challenging for a compact rental car to navigate. And once you make it to the trailhead, it is a steep hour to hour-and-a-half hike to the base of the route.

I felt like our luck had changed for the better as we carefully eased down the gravel road in our rental car, searching for the trailhead while doing our best to avoid hitting large axle-bending stones. We were the first ones to arrive at the little parking lot, and the weather was perfect. The hike to the base was much easier to follow than I expected; in fact, the trail up and down from Jubilant Song was the best-marked trail we experienced on our whole trip. And although the hike was no joke, and quite steep in places, we made it to the base of the route in just over an hour. We were trucking, on a mission to get this one done.

Pitch one was my lead, a generally easy 80 foot pitch with a 5.7 roof in the middle. It is a fun pitch and though the roof is easy I nearly took a lead fall. I placed great pro at the roof level, and then I grabbed a couple juggy holds to the right, thinking they were so good they had to be part of the climb. As I searched vainly for some more jugs above, my left foot suddenly cut loose and I was surprised to find myself swinging backwards, attached to the rock only with my hands. I held on, though, and once I got my feet back on I saw the obvious holds on the left wall with which the roof is easily surmounted.

(Photo: looking down from atop pitch one of Jubilant Song.)

Pitch two is a much more sustained pitch, also graded 5.7, but more involved than the first. There are some wide sections, but no real crack or off-width technique is required. Still, there are lots of interesting moves in this 150 foot pitch, and Adrian took his time about leading it. As I belayed him, a team of three climbers started up the route and their leader caught up to us. This Gunks-like proximity to other climbers was a first for us on this trip; on Solar Slab, there was a party well ahead of us, bizarrely soldiering on through the wetness, but we never came close to them, and on our second day we were the only party on Ginger Cracks. The trio behind us on Jubilant Song seemed like a very competent crew. We learned at some point that they were travelling around in a camper and climbing. In other words, they were LIVING THE DREAM. Also, they were a dude and two women living in a camper, which brought to mind all sorts of interesting situations. But I digress.

These guys were raring to start leading behind me as I followed pitch two, so I tried to be quick about getting up that pitch and also my next lead. They would catch up to us on each of the next couple pitches, but after pitch four we didn't see them again, so I hope they didn't regard us as much of a problem for their day. I noticed at least one other party coming up the trail to Jubilant Song at some point while we were on the route. If our experience is representative, then the days in which a climber can find him or herself alone in Windy Canyon may be a thing of the past.

Pitch three was my lead, a long 5.5 up a fun and easy chimney, and then up the face into a corner below a gigantic, dramatic roof. Perched at the belay, waiting for Adrian to come up, I was jealous that he'd get the next lead, which appeared to be a spectacular 5.7 traverse under the huge roof to a notch beneath a smaller, triangular ceiling. I hoped that he would do the traditional hanging belay at the notch and not continue as many people do these days, because I really wanted to lead pitch five, which begins with 5.8 moves over the triangular ceiling and up around a corner.

(Photo: Pitch four of Jubilant Song.)

Adrian led the traversing pitch without incident, protecting both of us well with frequent, good gear placements. As I'd hoped, he decided to stop and belay in the traditional place below the ceiling. As I waited for him to finish leading the pitch I felt like we were finally having the exact experience I'd dreamed of in Red Rocks. We were hundreds of feet up a beautiful wall, in a very dramatic location, doing fun, varied climbing in comfortable conditions. Just standing at the belay beneath this gorgeous roof was a thrill. And the climbing turned out to be great too. It was generally pretty casual. Handholds were abundant, and for the most part little edges for the feet appeared wherever they were needed along the traverse. The crux of the pitch came early, as the traverse began, when there was a gap between the footholds. Adrian solved this section with a single, wide step from one crease to another, while I chose to do one quick smear-step on the blank slab before hurrying to the better feet. After the crux, the climbing seemed to get progressively easier as the pitch went on and it wasn't long before I arrived at the hanging belay, with Adrian handing me the rack in a hurry and suggesting I get some good gear in as soon as possible to protect the anchor.

(Photo: more from pitch four of Jubilant Song.)

With the hasty changeover I never really got a chance to inspect the gear he used for the anchor, so I never saw for myself whether he had any real cause for concern. I recalled some comments on suggesting that this belay really ought to be skipped, but the reasons cited by those commenters revolved around the awkwardness of the hanging position and the possibility of a lead fall directly on the anchor at the start of the next pitch, and not the quality of the gear for the anchor. Personally I found the hanging belay to be no more awkward than any other hanging belay, though of course it is not unreasonable to aim to avoid all such belays where it is practical to do so. And I found absolutely no reason to worry about falling directly on the anchor or the belayer. As I began the pitch, before I even made a move, I placed a solid purple .5 Camalot in the vertical crack running through the roof. And then as I grabbed the holds above the roof I stuffed a perfect blue #3 Camalot above the overhang. We now had enough gear to hang a piano, if for some reason we wished to hang a piano.

With such good gear, I had no worries about pulling the 5.8 roof that begins pitch five. It takes one big move but the holds are great. I actually thought the next move after pulling the roof was a little trickier, as I found myself in an awkward, balancy position above the roof. But with one step to the right I got a much more stable stance. And then it was a breeze up around a corner with a layback crack. Handren in his guidebook describes a tricky move with good pro in this part of the pitch, but if there was something tricky there I couldn't find it. In fact, I got so caught up in how well things were going that I blew right past the belay point for the pitch. Suddenly I realized I had climbed up a chimney I didn't remember reading about. I did not wish to downclimb the chimney, so I started to look around to get my bearings and saw that I was directly beneath the water streak with a bolt that is in the middle of pitch six. So I built a belay using the bolt and cracks in the slab beneath the bolt, and brought A up.

The last couple pitches were uneventful, with easier, pleasant climbing to the top. I confess that I took the 5.4 variation to avoid the 5.8 water streak with slabby climbing on pitch seven. I wasn't really that concerned about the climbing, as I found the 5.7 water streak on pitch six to be very straightforward. But in my experience when Handren says "limited protection" in his guidebook, he means that a pitch is seriously run out. And Richard Goldstone, in his somewhat famous Red Rocks pictorial on Supertopo, describes this pitch as a sandbag, perhaps really as hard as 5.10(a). So I figured why spoil a perfect day? I heeded the warnings and played it safe. Looking back, it seems like it was the right decision for us.

Day 4: among the crowds on Birdland, plus Cookie Monster

We had a few limitations on our final day in Red Rocks. We didn't want to tackle anything too long, or with too long an approach, since we had flights to catch in the evening. But we still had the whole day in which to climb, so we didn't have to limit ourselves to cragging or sport climbing.

Eventually Adrian sold me on doing Birdland. It wasn't on my original list because the hardest pitches are 5.7+, which I thought was a little too easy. And at 5 pitches it wasn't the kind of big objective I dreamed of when I thought of Red Rocks. But Adrian had done it before and he swore I'd love the climbing. I knew it to be a very popular, sunny climb, with an easy approach by Red Rocks standards. Maybe on a Monday the crowds wouldn't be too bad? I said okay.

There were easily a dozen cars in the Pine Creek Canyon lot when we arrived, but this was no surprise, given the numerous classics (Cat in the Hat, Dark Shadows, Crimson Chrysalis, and the Rainbow Wall, just to name a few) that are accessed from this lot. As we began to hike towards Birdland, we could see one other party almost to the base of the climb. I hoped they might get up a pitch or two before we even arrived. But when we got to the base, we found this group of three had not even finished getting ready to climb. I should have taken the initiative at this point and said to them, truthfully, that Adrian and I were already totally racked up and ready to fly up the route. I'm pretty sure if I'd asked them they would have let us jump on the route and go. They were totally nice guys, and didn't seem territorial at all. But stupidly I didn't do it, the moment passed, and as a result we were stuck behind them all the way up and down, which seriously hampered my enjoyment of the climb.

I want to be clear that I liked these folks and don't blame them for the situation. As Adrian repeatedly mentioned through the day: if you don't like crowds, don't climb Birdland. We could have gotten up a little earlier. There was no point now in doing anything but going with the flow. But I couldn't help but feel let down. During the many times we had to wait I kept dwelling on the climbing we were missing, and it killed me a little inside.

Luckily we were only the second party of the day. Within minutes of our arrival, three other groups showed up to do the climb! I knew this was a popular route, but the crowding we experienced there approached weekend Gunks madness. I can't remember ever seeing a situation like this in the Gunks on a Monday, even on High Exposure.

Once we finally got to climb Birdland, it was great fun. I thought the whole climb was basically an easy romp, perhaps because it involved mostly face climbing, which I always find easy for the grade at Red Rocks. The two standout moments for me were the two crux 5.7+ pitches, which Adrian was kind enough to let me lead. On the third pitch, a fun, delicate traverse (with a protection bolt) is followed by steep juggy climbing to the anchor. And then on the final pitch, a great finger crack through a smooth, varnished wall makes for a dramatic finish to the climb.

The real crux for us, however, was getting finished. Those nice guys ahead of us? They got their ropes all tangled atop pitch four. And then it happened AGAIN on pitch five, and I stood for a while at the base of the crux finger crack, waiting for what seemed an eon for them to get it all worked out so that at least one or two of them could rap off, making some room for me on the little triangular ledge that marks the end of the pitch.

When we finally got down from Birdland it was verging on 4:00. I was feeling frustrated with how long the climb had taken, and I also wished we'd chosen something a little more challenging. I suggested to Adrian that we run up something else before leaving. I wanted Dark Shadows but Adrian had done that one before, and didn't much care for it. Then I thought of Cookie Monster, a three-pitch 5.7 route on Mescalito that doesn't get much press. Handren gives it no stars, but the threesome we were stuck behind all day had mentioned that they'd really enjoyed climbing it. It was nearby and if we hurried, we could surely get it done. It probably wouldn't satisfy my desire for more challenging climbing, but doing it quickly would require real effort, and probably there would be no one else in our way. Adrian agreed and off we went.

Cookie Monster is just okay. The climb ascends a huge, imposing corner system that sits on one of the shady sides of the mountain. The first two pitches, which are graded 5.6 and 5.7, respectively, have almost no moves on them that justify their grades. For the most part the climbing on these pitches is ladder-like and not particularly interesting, and the huge huecos and shelves in the corner are generally dirty and sandy.

(Photo: Coming up pitch two of Cookie Monster.)

We rushed through the first two pitches in no time, and the feeling of moving efficiently, without other parties constantly nearby, did wonders to brighten my mood. Then I got to lead the 5.7 pitch three, which follows the corner to its top, and I found that the climbing changed character, steepening towards the top and offering good moves with overhanging, juggy climbing. As I came to the end of the pitch I decided it was one of the best pitches of the whole trip. And at the exit from the corner system came the payoff, as I emerged into the sunlight and onto a beautiful ledge with great views up Pine Creek Canyon.

(Photo: Pine Creek Canyon from the top of Cookie Monster.)

The descent from Cookie Monster is a little more complicated than Handren's guidebook might lead you to believe. The book makes it seem as though Cookie Monster plants you directly on the rappel line for Cat in the Hat, when this isn't really the case. As of the time of our trip, the ledge atop Cookie Monster has a boulder with a single ratty sling around it which one may use to rappel down to one of the Cat in the Hat raps. I didn't really like the looks of this option. Alternatively, you can downclimb about 15 feet to another ledge that has a bushy tree with slings around it; this is the tree atop pitch two of Cat in the Hat. The second option seemed more appealing to us. The downclimb isn't hard but you may want a belay for it. From here a single-rope rap will bring you to the top of pitch one of Cat in the Hat, and then a double-rope rap (150 feet) will get you to the ground.

As we topped out on Cookie Monster, it was getting a little late. We needed to hurry down so we could get out of Red Rocks and head for the airport. But we knew our descent might be held up by other people descending from Cat in the Hat, another one of Red Rocks' most popular routes. As if on cue, we saw two pairs rappelling while we set up our own raps. These were no ordinary pairs, however. They were two pairs of young women speaking French and simul-rappelling. Now, I can't quite articulate why this is the case, but nevertheless I must insist that there are few things quite as enticing as young, French-speaking women who are simul-rappelling. The combination of these unrelated characteristics works a strange kind of alchemy.

Unfortunately we didn't have much time to chat with these fine young women, and in an effort to get down quickly Adrian actually rappelled right past them in midair and started setting up our last rappel ahead of them. As I rappelled behind Adrian and reached the ledge I said something apologetic to the girls about our need to pass them, mentioning our flights.

"Yes, eet is really quite rude," one of them said with a hint of a smile.

"It is true, why do you not give to us something to make up for it?" said another.

I am a happily married man, but I couldn't resist playing along with this joke just a little bit. "Well, ladies," I said, "I am at your service. What can I do for you?"

At this point one of them walked up to me and started to reach with her hand in the direction of my chest. All of a sudden it seemed to me that this exchange might get uncomfortable. I didn't want her touching me; I almost couldn't believe that she would. And yet it seemed she was about to do just that.

Then I realized she wasn't reaching for me. She was reaching for my gear.

She put her fingers around a $60 C3 and said "How about you give to us thees one; I lost one of these climbing just the other day. Or how about this?"

She was now touching my $70 blue #3 Camalot.

I beat it out of there in a hurry.

As we walked out, away from the rocks for the final time, I wondered if we'd chosen the right objectives for our final day. Perhaps I could have led some 5.9's if I'd tried. But then I was reminded of how timid I'd felt on 5.6 and 5.7 just a couple days earlier, which made me realize how successful our trip had been. In four days of climbing we'd knocked off a few classics. But what I'd really gained was a good base for the season. I was no longer feeling so rusty, and my confidence was back. Returning to the Gunks yesterday, I walked up to Pas De Deux (5.8) and sent it, onsight. It's one of those climbs that I've been saving, never wanting to follow it because I didn't want to taint my eventual lead, but never leading it either because the thin climbing off the deck seemed too intimidating. Climbing it felt like an early-season milestone, and a promising sign of what's to come this year.

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