Inhale. Exhale. Cough. Moan. Repeat. Despite the world class view, I’m in pain, and that’s all I can think about. Still, I’m happy that I can put the stress and fear of not performing under pressure behind me—now only a few more hours of suffering remain. It is amusing how the idea of ‘less’ suffering sounds so good right now. What’s wrong with me anyway? Why do I do this stuff for fun? I’m sitting down at least 1500 feet about the canyon floor on a mountain of sandstone. It’s 6:05 PM and the sun is setting. My lips are chapped, my feet ache, my toes throb, and I have a cough the racks my body every few seconds. I’m cold and I feel approximately like ones feels with a mild case of the flu—shitty. I have a militarized squadron of hell diving demon mosquitos constantly on the attack—they’ve been chasing me for over an hour now. I pull on a pair of pants and a jacket to keep the mosquitos off me and to ward off the cold. I then promptly curl up into a ball, let out a sigh, and tell myself, you can do this; you’re over the hump now. Likely story, all I want to do is *stay* curled up in a ball. I know far too well what sort of misery awaits me on the descent before me and I want nothing to do with it. Thankfully, I have a secret weapon.
It all started that morning. Bright and early I started soloing routes in Red Rock. The idea was to free solo as many easy routes as I could in a day. It just sounded so outrageous I had to try it. I left my car in Calico Basin at 6:47 AM and hiked up to Physical Graffiti, a two pitch 5.6 that’s a favorite of mine. I planned to do four laps on it. The first lap went quite badly. I’ve done this route quite a few times, it’s a favorite of mine, and I thought I had it wired. Hehe. The first pitch is super juggy, but the second is old school butt crack climbing that feels rather insecure if done wrong and only somewhat secure when done right. When it felt like the former, this shook me up a little until I figured out by the second lap the technique I’d forgotten. Feeling insecure while soloing is an experience you’ll never forget, I can tell you that. Thereafter it felt like it should have. Not easy, but not difficult either. Sometime around the third lap my left knee started hurting me some, though mostly on the down climb, not the actual climbing itself. This was to continue for the rest of the day. Lucky me, I try and go do something real hard and my body won’t give me 100%. This was to be a theme of the day.
Next up was Cat in the Hat. I drove out to Pine Creek and prepared for the first of the real approaches. That’s the nice thing about Physical Graffiti—the approach is short and easy. As I walked away from the car I suddenly realized I needed more stuff than I realized, because I’d save time not returning to my car between routes. As I crammed as much stuff in my small pack as I could, I realized a bigger pack would have been a good idea. It was hot and I could barely fit 2.5 quarts of water in my pack along with the necessary light cord and harness to rappel off Cat in the Hat (hereafter CITH).
The walk to Mescalito, the formation that CITH is on, takes 40 or so minutes. I eat as I walk out. I need a constant supply of food otherwise I’ll bonk. By this time it was getting hot. Every route I will climb today is a south face or otherwise sunny face. I know the heat will get to me. I’ve actually never climbed CITH. I’ve done the first pitch, but that’s it. I’m not entirely certain what to expect. I debated going to the summit of Mescalito, but I’d only pick up one more pitch of 5th class pitch of climbing and one hellicious descent of the formation. Sounded like a bad equation to me. CITH turned out to be probably the most enjoyable climb of the day. Really, the only unenjoyable part was the heat. For a Thursday, there was an impressive amount of people on route—I had to pass them all, but they were all incredibly friendly, kind, and very willing to let me pass. Thanks folks! I see now why CITH is a classic. The climbing is way fun for being 5.6—really it’s unusual to get that good of climbing for something at the grade.
CITH went fast and before I knew it I was rappelling off. I really was disappointed; I wanted it to be longer. Rappelling with my 60 meter / 7 mil accessory cord went quite well, certainly better than I expected. It got stuck once, but it was easy enough to solo back up and clean it. The second rappel required some mellow down climbing and I chose to forgo the third rappel in favor if a quicker down climb. Perhaps I should have down climbed the route, but I thought a combination of the two would be easier, faster, and safer.
Once on the ground I headed off for Geronimo, which was a bit of a hike. Again it was hot. I had hoped and planned to also solo Olive Oil, which is quite near Geronimo, but due to time constraints, the heat, and how quick I was going through water I realized this would be a bad idea. More importantly, given that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders I didn’t want to onsight solo a rather long 5.7 route. I’d likely pull it off, but this isn’t a gamblers game. Also, if I had soloed Olive Oil I knew positively I wouldn’t have the time for Solar Slab, so it wouldn’t help me gain any mileage.
Geronimo went quickly and fairly easily, despite the fact that I couldn’t remember exactly where it was right off the bat. I ran into a couple from the bay area half way up. I took some photos of them and them of me, so maybe I’ll get a decent picture out of the deal. While I was down soloing Geronimo the female member of the couple abruptly asked me if I was married, and what my wife thought of how I was spending my time—I laughed my head off. She thought I was totally deranged. A little further down I soloed by several groups of young people climbing the route. Keeping with the goofy spirit of the game GNAR (this is for you Neil) I told one of them, “Just so you know, I’m the best climber on the mountain.” The guy seemed unimpressed. I don’t think he got the joke.
By this point I was sunburnt and tired. By the time I got back to my car I was even more so. For the first time that day I sat down and took a proper rest on the pavement next to my car and ate a bunch of food. I contemplated ending the day right then and there. Instead I drove to the Oak Creek lot and headed out to solar slab—a longish hike. I was tired and I felt similar to how you feel when you have a cold or the flu. I’ve soloed solar slab before, but I took my time and it’s BIG, something to the tune of 1200 feet. I knew I wouldn’t have much daylight to play with. I knew I was fatigued. I got scared. I kept on thinking of quitting. Thinking the odds had become too steep. Thinking about how scary I’d be to solo that far off the deck, with my fatigue level in the dark. I shut out my fear and it came back.
Minutes away from the base I passed by a party coming back from Black Orpheus. Ironically, I had exchanged facebook messages with one of them, but didn’t recognize the guy. Turns out he knew a climber who I’d done Black Orpheus with who’d mentioned me to him because we both are Christians and because both of them are from North Carolina. Climbing is a small, small world. Sorry we didn’t get to climb together bud!
At the base there was a three person party of seniors who had just rappelled Solar Slab. As I caught my breath and put on my shoes I chatted. They had just done solar slab, with a rope, and they emphasized the rope part. One of them asked me if my mother knew what I was up too. I answered honestly that I wasn’t sure. She said it would probably be for the best if my mother didn’t know. I laughed, wished them a good day, and began climbing faster than I’ve ever climbed before. I had barely more than an hour of daylight to cover 1200 feet of 5th class climbing. It felt more like running than climbing, but thankfully solar gully is really easy. Once I hit solar slab itself, I caught my breath again and slowed down a bit. I swear that I almost hucked up a lung. Last time I soloed this route I got quite scared at two spots and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The route went by surprisingly fast. A time or two I had to study things a bit to figure out where I was going and stay on route, but I never got very scared. I was too busy trying to outrun the fast approaching darkness and all the mosquitos intent on their strafing runs. The hard move that I had remembered from my last time on the route didn’t materialize, which was nice. I’m not sure if I did a harder variation last time I soloed the route or if I’m just that much stronger. It’s hard to say. I wish I knew. I remember that move feeling 5.7+ / 5.8 so my money is on the variation theory. Finally, I topped out just as the sunlight died.
I uncurl myself and begin slowly walking up the 3rd class ledge systems that will lead me back to my car. A massive system of ledges, cliffs, slabs and a creek bed filled with boulders the size of buses is between me and my car. It’s a joint murdering multi-hour proposition. I’m assuming that having done it twice before I can pull this descent off, in the dark, via a headlamp that only reveals 100 feet of world around me at a time.
Doing the descent in the dark without having prior knowledge of it would be really difficult. I remind myself how thankful I am for a talent I see to possess on third class stuff and a sense for the easiest way through terrain. Even my old experiences trying to navigate on alpine starts up on Mount Shasta comes into play. Navigating in the dark when you can’t see the more than a short distance around you can be really unnerving when you haven’t done it before. I find it intriguing how quickly I absorb new skills sets and forget that I didn’t always have them. When you can’t remember how ignorance felt it makes teaching much harder.
Thankfully, I purposefully brought along a pair of Carhartt pants so I can do the semi-mandatory butt sliding that can really save your joints. I of course promptly wore the seat right out of them—so much for tough pants. Over the next 3 hours I struggle down the descent finally making it to my car by 9 PM. In a 14.25 hour day I climbed over 4,000 feet of 5th class rock, hiked who knows how many miles (probably between 12 and 16) and gained a lost all kinds of elevation not reflected in the 5th class climbing. By the end of the day I was wrecked and badly in need of a rest.
I went climbing again the next day.
As I reflect on the day I’ve realized it really wasn’t that much fun. Typically I revel in my rare solos, so that was unexpected. I’m guessing it was my rushed pace that killed the fun of it all. A really enjoyable solo is a truly amazing experience. I quite honestly hope the heaven itself is much like an enjoyable solo. It’s nice to know that I was generally right on about what I was going to be capable of doing. It pretty much turned out like I thought it would. It is rather amazing to look back and realize all you can pull off on that sort of an endeavor. Actually, it feels just a little bit like someone else did it and I was just along to watch the show. Too bad that’s not true. That’d be preferable to the truth.