Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Visit to Little & Big Cottonwood Canyons, Part One

(Photo:  A view towards the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon from the top of Schoolroom West (5.7).)

Last week I got to spend four days climbing with Adrian near Salt Lake City.  It was a wonderful experience, but also a humbling experience. 

We were blessed with four straight days of bluebird skies and temperatures in the seventies.

The terrain in the Cottonwoods is glorious.  The canyons go on for miles and miles.  They feature steep rocky walls interspersed with tree-filled slopes.  Larger snow-capped mountains are visible above the ridge line.  The air is filled with a wonderful fresh aroma, as if the creator sprayed a giant can of piny Febreze over the whole area.  During our visit beautiful purple and yellow wildflowers were everywhere in bloom.

The climbing is great.  So great, in fact, that the Cottonwoods caused me to question some of the bedrock assumptions of my climbing life.

We Gunks climbers hold certain truths to be self-evident, and we repeat these bits of wisdom to anyone who will listen.

We claim that the Gunks has the best moderate climbs, and that Gunks ratings are tougher than everywhere else.

At some level I've always known these dogmatic pronouncements to be the product of chauvinism and regional pride, but the Cottonwoods really opened my eyes to how ludicrous such statements are.

There are fantastic moderate climbs in the Cottonwoods.  We did several of them.  It seemed like we constantly hit the jackpot, like we were picking the very best options in the canyon, but I know the reality is that there are many other classics.  We were only scratching the surface of what we could do. 

And these climbs are hard.  They aren't easy romps with one good move.  To the contrary, the climbs have consistent challenges, and all too often (it seemed like it happened on every one of my leads) the climbs we tried featured at least one total puzzler of a crux that had me cursing about being sandbagged.

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Three of our four days were spent in Little Cottonwood Canyon, climbing on granite.  (Technically it is quartz monozite but everyone calls it granite.)  Prior to this trip I had just one day's experience on granite, on Moby Grape (5.8) at Cannon Cliff in NH in 2010.  During our time in Utah I always felt outside my comfort zone on the slabs and vertical cracks that characterize this kind of stone.  I spent the first day backing off of leads when I got scared, but by the end of our time in the canyon I must have improved at least a little, since I left feeling I was being too conservative about leading harder climbs and wishing I'd gone for it a bit more on our last days. 

Satan's Corner (5.8+)

(Photo:  Adrian past the first crux of Satan's Corner (5.8+) and into the second; there are two more cruxes to come.)

We started our first day looking for Pentapitch (5.8), but discovered when we parked at the power plant that there was no longer a bridge across the stream.  With no way to get to our climb, we drove back downhill to the nearest lot and, seeing climbers above, decided to just hike up and ask them what was good. 

After a somewhat sketchy "third class" approach, we were informed that we were in the Beckey's Wall/Tingey's Terror area.  The climbers we spoke to suggested we try Satan's Corner, which they described as a sandbagged 5.8+, ascending a broken crack system to a horn and then following a ramp up to a final exposed traverse to the anchor.  I assumed I would be fine leading it.  After all, I can hop on any 5.8 in the Gunks without worrying too much.  (I've been dipping my toe in Gunks 5.10's, for goodness' sake.)  But I started up Satan's Corner and upon arriving at the initial cruxy wide vertical crack I felt immediately uncomfortable.  This climb was actually more Gunks-like than most of the climbs we did in Little Cottonwood Canyon-- it had footholds outside the crack and the occasional jug.  But the texture of the granite freaked me out.  It felt unfamiliar.  I had no confidence in my feet.  After eyeing that flaring vertical crack a while I reluctantly asked Adrian to lower me and take over.  He led it just fine but it didn't seem easy for him.

(Photo:  Arriving at the top of Satan's Corner as the second.)

Doing it as the second, I fell out trying to jam that scary opening crack.  Then I laid it back instead and the rest went fine.  What with the tough initial crack, some steep climbing with jugs, a tricky ramp and an exposed final traverse, this was a very high quality pitch.  And if this was 5.8 in the Cottonwoods, it was something of a wake-up call.  5.8 here was going to be no joke.

Tarzan (Sweet Jane variation) to Tingey's Terror (5.7)

(Photo:  Adrian leading the Sweet Jane variation (5.7) start to Tarzan.  His foot is on a jug I couldn't reach to start the pitch.)

Next we moved over to Tingey's Terror, a multipitch route that we hoped to take to the top.  We had to do an approach climb first (Tarzan-- Sweet Jane variation (5.7)), and again I felt unable to commit to the crack that started the pitch and asked Adrian to take over.  I led a second 5.7 pitch (finally, I led something!) that brought us to the real business.

(Photo:  Adrian very pleased to have clipped the first bolt on the runout slab of Tingey's Terror, pitch 2 (5.7)). 

The next pitch was what Tingey's Terror was named for:  a blank slab pitch with long runouts.  The guidebook claimed this pitch had been tamed by the addition of a third bolt, but from the belay I thought it still looked plenty dangerous.  A long traverse (we're talking 25-30 feet) led to bolt number one.  It looked bad for both the leader and the follower, but particularly ugly for the leader, who would pendulum hard into a corner if he fell just before the bolt. 

I was set to abandon the climb but Adrian had a good idea.  He proposed to downclimb a bit to where he could easily cross to a 5.8 variation that went straight up to the first bolt.  He could place pro on this variation, so that even though he'd have a bit of a runout to the first bolt, he would fall straight down if he blew it instead of taking an awful sideways swing. 

It was very smart and worked out really well for both of us.  The runout slab pitch turned out to be pretty easy.  The angle was low and there were lots of features to be found for the feet if you looked around.  Still, you couldn't pay me to lead it... maybe with a little more slab practice.

(Photo:  I'm leading a 5.6 bit up and over leftwards to a 5.8 variation crack/roof traverse finish to Tingey's Terror.  It felt easy so I may have skipped all the actual 5.8 on it.  It was fun with good pro.)

I got another lead in before we finished with Tingey's Terror and then we rapped down without incident.

(Photo:  Adrian following the variation final pitch to Tingey's Terror.)

Becky's Wall (5.7)

(Photo:  Setting off up Beckey's Wall (5.7).)

By the time we got down from Tingey's Terror I was feeling a bit more comfortable and was eager to lead something else.  Beckey's Wall didn't disappoint.  The guidebook says it is "probably the best 5.7 in the canyon."  It was definitely our best single pitch of the day (really the first two traditional pitches combined in one).  Following a superb natural line, the route climbs a corner up a low angle slab until the slab dead-ends at a perfect vertical flake that goes straight up for about another 50 feet.

(Photo:  Looking down from the top of the traditional pitch two of Beckey's Wall (5.7).)

Although the guidebook claims Beckey's Wall is hard to protect early on, I sewed it up with nuts and Aliens.  (Believe me, it was much much tamer than Tingey's Terror!)  The low-angle slab seemed pretty casual and the vertical flake was awesome, with no jamming required.  

The Green Adjective (Direct 5.10a) & Perhaps (5.7)

(Photo:  The Perhaps area, including Perhaps (5.7) and The Green Adjective (5.10a).  This photo was shot while on rappel from Schoolroom West (5.7).)

On our second day we went back to the same parking lot and walked a little further to the Perhaps area.  Adrian was really psyched to check out The Green Adjective, a well-known 5.9 slab with a finger crack and an optional 5.10a start.  Having gotten our bearings a bit the day before, we had no trouble finding the climb.

(Photo:  Adrian past the 5.10a start and into the 5.9 bit on The Green Adjective.)

This was Adrian's most impressive lead of the trip.  He opted for the 5.10a start and sent it onsight.  He had recently spent twelve days in Yosemite and it showed.  He was really solid.

The climb protects well, although the initial pro is micro.  Thereafter (as you can see above) there are lots of placements.  The 5.8 start to the right seemed by contrast to have no opportunities for gear.

When it was my turn I thought the climb at first seemed impossible.  I expected a finger crack but the seam initially provided little more than a few slippery edges.  And there were no footholds at all.  But with sharpened eyes some bumps on the wall for the feet could be discerned.  I slid off once just a few steps into the climb, but after starting over, I made it through the hard part, and then all the way to the top without a fall.  Maybe I was finally starting to get the granite.  Adrian and I each took another toprope run just for kicks.  Great moves on perfect bullet-hard stone. 

(Photo:  I'm leading pitch two of Perhaps (5.7).  The climber to my left is toproping Gordon's Hangover (5.9).)

After The Green Adjective we turned to Perhaps (5.7), which goes in two or three pitches. 

The crux of Perhaps comes in pitch one.  It is pretty easy going up an initial corner, but then a thin slab traverse past a piton leads to a bolted anchor.  It is kind of a reach just to clip the piton, and then two or three really tense steps of pure friction get you to a good foothold around a right-facing corner, a crack, and some more gear.  I thought this slab was harder than anything on Tingey's.  It didn't feel much different than the Green Adjective to me, frankly, although I know it is much less steep.  I think I was fortunate to lead this because in my opinion the fall and the intimidation factor are worse for the second, who has to make the crux moves after cleaning the placement at the piton. 

(Photo:  Further along the Perhaps traverse, which is not as low-angle as it appears here.)

After the tense pitch one, the rest of Perhaps follows a beautiful and unusual natural line, which goes straight up a corner, then traverses far to the right, then finally downclimbs to the anchor above pitch one of The Green Adjective  (see beta photo above).  For much of the way you're underclinging while your feet are pasted to the slab.

(Photo:  Adrian following the final pitch of Perhaps.  He is still going up as he moves across, and will cross over my head before downclimbing to me at the anchor.)

I elected to stop at the optional belay, because the guidebook warns of the potential for horrible drag when the whole traverse is done in one pitch.  Also I could see the undercling crack widen as it continued and I wanted to make sure I had all of my biggest pieces with me when I got to the final bits before the downclimb.

Leading the entirety of Perhaps was one of my favorite moments of our trip.  It was such a different sort of climb, unlike anything I'd ever done before.  And I think it really helped me feel more at ease placing my feet on featureless granite slabs.

Schoolroom West (5.7)

(Photo:  Adrian on pitch one of Schoolroom West (5.7).)

We finished our second day with Schoolroom West, a five-pitch outing that we knocked out in three.  It has good climbing, but to me it lacked the standout moments and natural lines of the other climbs we'd done so far. 

Adrian linked the first two pitches to start, up discontinuous corners to a good stance. 

(Photo:  Adrian nearing the top of pitch three of Schoolroom West (5.7).)

At the beginning of the third pitch came another one of my "Cottonwood 5.7 WTF?" moments, of course at the beginning of another one of my leads.  A blank face left of a wide crack led up to a piton, then a thin move to the right with no feet went around a shallow corner and into the narrowing crack.  It went fine but I think without the piton I would have backed off again, just because I would not have believed this was the correct, 5.7 way to go.

Adrian combined the final two pitches when I incorrectly insisted that the first tree he reached couldn't possibly be the proper belay yet.  After a fun double-tiered 5.7 roof the angle and the climbing eased to the top.  We had no difficulties scrambling over to the rappel line and, with ten pitches under our belts for the day we decided to head out.

We considered heading to a new area on day three, but we were enjoying Little Cottonwood Canyon so much we decided to devote one more day to it before heading somewhere else.  Watch this space for the second half of my report!

Coming up in Part Two:  Stuck ropes & Mexican Crack (5.10a) in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Outside Corner (5.7) in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful place! Wish I was there ;)