I woke Dave and made the case for getting up a little early. I can't sleep, and...come on. Then we made breakfast with the last of our cereal and some tea, and crawled up the talus to the base of the route.
It was light by the time we reached the top, and cold. We took our time to survey the wall and find our route. We needed the day to warm enough for our fingers to be nimble.
With much uncertainty of the route start, Dave racked up and led towards a promising crack system. On our second pitch, Ivo and his friend traversed below, on their way to climb the Monzino Route.
Ivo had to leave Paine for work the day Dave and I did the Monzino. He said he cried having to leave on a calm, clear day. Then he saw the forecast for the big break in the weather, snubbed his work and returned with ten more days of food. We were glad to see him.
We yelled down as he passed below and asked if he knew where Taller Del Sol started. He called up in his broken English that he thought the route was further to our right, but he wasn't certain.
Dave and I decided to trend right when we could.
Then Marten and Gerka passed below us. Marten climbed Taller Del Sol on a previous trip, so we knew he would set us straight. "It's over to the right side of this pillar," he pointed, "but you're definitely on something, so you should continue if you can."
As they disappeared, on their way to climb Monzino, Dave reached a blank section on our line. We could go no further. He set a good nut and lowered to my stance atop the first pitch of easy slab.
It was a perfect day and here we were, all false starts and where do we go?
We pulled the bail rope and the tip got jammed in a crack above me. I raged in my head.
We rappelled our free rope to solid ground where I could throw my wrath into the line. I whipped, pulled and yarded. With some heavy bouncing, it came free. I took the minor victory, pulled myself out of my frustration and aimed to enjoy the rest of the day. As late as it was, we had missed our last chance to top out, but at least we could do some climbing.
I racked and started the first pitch of easy slab. Then there was a tricky pitch of 5.10 with a crux streaming with water. I didn't know if I was capable of the moves, but kept extending myself into the next setion and somehow succeeded from stance to stance. I was charged as I belayed Dave.
The next pitch was a little easier, 5.9, but still very wet. I took my time getting through the crux, then made good progress to the belay, ending the pitch a little short of the streaming wet fixed anchor. I was ready for Dave to take the next pitch.
Dave climbed the 5.10+ offwidth pitch with typical no-big-deal style. I figured offwidths are a matter of applying requisite energy, so I opened the valves and let it all come streaming out like a car lot blower man. Like the blower man, I didn't go anywhere gracefully. I'm sure it would have been easier without a pack, and I did follow clean in the end, but I'm not sure I would have led it smoothly as Dave had.
Now Dave was warmed up and he happily embarked on the next 5.9 pitch.
It is interesting how one's mood shifts between leading and following. You might expect worry to come under the pressure of being on lead, rather than while enjoying the safety of a belay stance. However, it is at the belay stance where you have the time and mental space to consider the commitment of your position. I suppose experience helps you recognize the swing and take it more in stride. I still get the unfocused dread, but it's starting to make way for in-the-moment excitement.
Dave's second pitch was superb. Almost the entirety was a three sided elevator shaft where you place your back on one side and an outstretched leg pushing on the opposite wall, in the ideal position to savor the exposure below.
On the sixth pitch--the second 5.10+ pitch I'd ever attempted to lead--I led with a fluidity I hadn't experienced before. It was as if I was too tired to worry if my interpretation of the next sequence was correct. Everything had worked out so far. I enjoyed my relaxed disposition, but thought I could be getting close to the edge.
Ahead of me laid a thin finger crack I should be able to lay back and then grab a large hold to regain composure. That's it? A couple 5.10 moves and I get that big jug to hang on? Easy.
I checked the micro cam I placed at chest level, slotted my fingers into the fold before me and pulled into the moves. I raised my right hand to the next gap in the crack, then matched with my left, foot shuffled and repeated until I could make a big reach up to the jug I spied from below. But it wasn't a jug! It was a marginal pinch.
Shaking with exertion, I tried to reverse the moves. The thought of the last cam flashed in my mind, but, before the image could fruit into a coherent thought, my world began to accelerate. Just as the feeling of acceleration registered, my stomach landed in my gut and I came to a very soft stop.
I was only a couple feet above my gear when I fell, but with rope stretch I fell 25'. I was okay. Just a little scrape on my arm. Woah! My heart pounded.
"I'm good," I called to Dave in a strange voice, "I'm going to batman up now."
I was pulling on the rope, walking myself up the rock when my forearm cramped solid and pinky curled tight on the rope. It was the adrenaline jamming my system. I beat the offending hand against my leg and thrust the curled finger in my mouth so I could pull it straight.
Just ten feet from the next belay stance and I was reduced to a cramping wreck and my ability to move with a modicum of grace was shot. So I did what I had to. I grabbed the highest piece of gear, pulled up on a shaky arm and plugged a new piece above. Then I grabbed that one and repeated. This "french freeing" thuggery seemed like more work than actually climbing, but it felt secure. Finally I clipped the anchor.
"I think it's time we start rappelling," Dave called up.
No! I cried internally.
We had come so far and had even completed all of the most difficult pitches. All that laid ahead were a couple 5.10 pitches, then easier ground to the top. Alas, it would take another four hours, probably five, to reach the summit. This was supposed to be our tour de force to capture the summit block. It would be so great to reach the true peak by such a direct and beautiful route.
I looked across the valley, upon the vast wall of Escudo. The sun was just beginning to dip below its edge. It was 930pm--two hours before total darkness.
But the weather is so fine! We could push into the night.
If we had more experience and fitness we could push it. Besides, if we were to continue, Dave would have to pick up my slack. I was cooked. It was time to go down.
I carefully rigged the rappel and cleaned the pitch back to Dave's stance. I was bitter about reversing our progress, but also psyched that we got so far. I had climbed only a few 5.9 and 5.10 pitches in my almost two years of climbing, but never in a sustained effort and certainly never in such a threatening environment.
Down we went into the dark.
When climbing, you feel in control of your fate, at least to some degree, but while descending, it's more like you're the sucker in a morbid game of dice. At the end of each rappel you wait in suspense as you pull the rope, hoping it doesn't jam on any of the myriad features you used to ascend the wall. If it does you're guaranteed an epic, and you may be forced into such dubious activities as ascending the stuck line, or cutting the rope and making numerous short rappels where you'll have many more chances to get the rope stuck. In the worst case you could end up stranded. Bait for the next storm. Combine this world of uncertainty with fatigue, dehydration and hunger and you feel a vertigo of boredom, horror, exhilaration, fatigue and that unfocused dread.
My mind tried to escape by thinking of family and girlfriend, and such pleasures as a warm pizza and a casual afternoon with friends.
1000' of rappels later, after a few scares from stuck ropes that eventually came free, we regained terra firma. What relief! But the relief was short, as we still had a two hour descent through loose talus in the dark.
As zombies we descended from the wall, back to our advanced camp where our last can of tuna and packet of soup waited.
We thought we were done with Paine.