(Photo: Pitch one of Crescent Crack (5.7).)
On day three of our Cottonwoods adventure Adrian and I headed back one more time to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Our objective was the Crescent Crack Buttress, which sits very close to the mouth of the canyon. We hoped to do the multi-pitch classic Crescent Crack (5.7), the single-pitch Monkey Crack (5.10a), and if we had time a few other climbs as well.
I expected to find on Crescent Crack (5.7) the same kind of high-quality moderate climbing we'd been doing for the past two days. I thought the crux would come at the climb's unique feature: the off-width crack on pitch two. I generously volunteered Adrian to lead it. My plan was for him to cruise the off-width and then I would pray that I could get through it on toprope. Internet posts about the route suggested that people without off-width experience (like me) suffered on this pitch. But other posts from seasoned climbers suggested it was not a big deal for those (like Adrian) with the slightest bit of off-width acumen.
I led pitch one and it was a good time, following opposing vertical cracks up to a fun easy chimney. After a few jitters on the smooth face at the start I settled comfortably into the lead.
From the belay atop pitch one I couldn't see the off-width. But as Adrian climbed up to it, I could hear his reaction.
"This thing looks awful!" he said.
Then he moved up into it.
After what sounded like some kind of struggle, he had to take.
He started up again with the same sad result.
I still couldn't see him, but I heard him say "I'm not sure I really want to do this."
Luckily there were two bolts atop a different climb next to the off-width. I suggested Adrian bring me up, and when I finally got to see the wide crack I didn't really feel like leading it either. So we decided to bail. We knew a single rap with our double ropes would get us to the ground.
I now regret bailing. I could have led that off-width. I knew what to do. If I slid my right side into the crack I could have used the lip of the crack as a handrail. But standing there at the time I doubted myself, and I figured if Adrian couldn't do it then I couldn't either. Only when we discussed the climb later did I learn Adrian was facing the wrong way. (Someone we met later said that facing the wrong way made the off-width a 5.10a.) If I'd spoken up at the time Adrian likely could have led it, or better yet maybe I would have done it.
Abandoning the climb led to a karmic breakdown. During our raps somehow our two ropes twisted around each other dozens of times and became so tightly wrapped together that we couldn't unravel them (or move them at all) from below. I have never seen this happen before and I don't know the reason for it, although naturally I do assume it was in some way my fault.
We tried for what must have been an hour to move the ropes, with no success. Then we decided to walk back to the road. Maybe we could go to town and buy another rope so we could continue climbing. Or maybe we'd see some other climbers who might have a better idea.
I didn't expect to see other climbers, however, as we were climbing on a weekday and hadn't seen a soul all morning. I thought our day was pretty much ruined.
But then our luck turned. As we started to put our gear in the car, another pair drove up planning to climb Crescent Crack! They were more than willing to help us get our ropes back. All we had to do was wait for them to climb up to the off-width and untangle the ropes from above.
In the end our tangled ropes cost us a few hours, but at least we didn't have to leave them behind. And the next pitch was probably the best of our whole trip.
Mexican Crack & Crack in the Woods
(Photo: A leader late in the day starting up the awkward, pumpy dihedral at the beginning of Mexican Crack (5.10a). We saw this party after we'd climbed it and came back for our packs.)
Once we had our ropes back we trooped uphill to the base of Mexican Crack (5.10a). The start looked tough, up a steep corner. Although the guidebook rates this section as 5.9, the climber who helped us get our ropes back described it as the crux of the route.
Adrian got through it with some wide stemming I wasn't sure I could replicate. Then he went out of sight and almost made it all the way to the anchor, taking a lead fall very close to the end before finishing the route.
When it was my turn I approached the corner differently. I ended up sticking my shoulder into the corner as opposition for the good footholds out left, until I got high enough to get my right foot onto the right wall. (This was similar to the way we saw a leader do it later, see the photo above.) After a few moves some juggy holds got me to the stance. I was happy to have made it through this section without falling, because I did not want to do it again. It was steep and strenuous.
The rest of the climb was a joy, up a face with a couple of big moves, and then the crowning glory-- a perfect handcrack going up and diagonally left to the anchor. I was mystified by the lack of footholds until Adrian suggested I stick a foot in the crack (duh). It was very enjoyable but steep and relentless. I had high hopes of making it to the anchor but I got pumped out just shy of the finish and took a hang right where Adrian fell while leading.
I would be thrilled to come back to Little Cottonwood Canyon just to lead this pitch. Such great stuff.
After Mexican Crack, we finished our day with Crack in the Woods (5.9). We were hoping to continue with Hand Jive (5.8), but there was another party on it. By the late afternoon the Crescent Crack area was full of climbers. The easy, short approach makes this a good after-work crag.
Crack in the Woods was pleasant. The crack-climbing part is a bit short. The only really notable thing about it is that I should have led it but I did not. I handed the lead over to Adrian then found it very straightforward as the second and cursed myself.
We tried to toprope the adjacent Crank in the Woods (5.11d) but both of us failed to find any way to make it over the roof.
Big Cottonwood Canyon: Outside Corner
(Photo: Getting started on Outside Corner (5.7).)
On our final day we finally made it to Big Cottonwood Canyon. We had to be at the airport by mid-afternoon so we chose a limited objective: Outside Corner (5.7), a four-pitch route often done in three.
I led the first two pitches together and it was like a homecoming for me. This 5.7 felt like a romp because even though the quartzite in Big Cottonwood Canyon is slippery, unlike granite it has HOLDS. It has EDGES. This was the kind of climbing I could relate to. After the first few minutes I felt very comfortable on the rock and had a wonderful time.
I don't have much to say about the experience other than that the route was really enjoyable. Great climbing, with tremendous exposure, up a 400-foot buttress. I wish we had more time to explore other climbs in the canyon. Outside Corner ended the trip on a high note.
(Photo: Adrian starting pitch three of Outside Corner. This is likely the technical crux, with one committing move up into a short handcrack at the beginning of the pitch.)
(Photo: Climbing the beautiful twin vertical cracks on pitch four of Outside Corner.)
(Photo: Adrian arriving at the final overhangs at the top of Outside Corner.)