Friday, September 23, 2011

Alpine Starts and Classic Climbs

...Just not in the same place.

That's the magic of the Front Range. Too much ice on the route? Retreat to Eldo. Heavy rain? Down to Eldo. Numb toes? Eldo. High winds? Eldo. Tired? Eldo.

No wonder there are so many accidents there.

On the menu were Pervertical Santuary (IV 5.11a), Syke's Sickle (III 5.9+), The Barb (III 5.10-), and Directissima (III 5.10b). Pervertical had us excited for its hard climbing and prime setting. Syke's won over our aesthetic sense with its direct line up the center of a gorgeous piece of rock, but it left some technical challenge to be desired. With The Barb next door on the same piece of rock representing a classic 5.10, maybe we could ride perfect weather into a link-up. Directissima would be a shorter day option and offer a foray into wide crack climbing. Thus, objectives were formed.
Micah topping out Yellow Spur on its immaculate knife edge
Weather and success would dictate our selections. For Saturday, with a marginal forecast (30-40% chance of precipitation), we would try the least committing: Syke's with The Barb link-up option if time permitted and weather cleared. We made this decision on Friday after my intro to Eldorado Canyon, first the mega-classic Yellow Spur (5.9 6 pitches) and then a bonus, Calypso/Raggae (5.6/5.8, 2 pitches). I took the 5.10 variations on P1 and P5 on YS (the first one I recommend, second one I don't) and smiled widely with the excellent climbing and abundant stopper placements. In preparation for an early start, we left Eldo by 6pm for RMNP. A few campground shinanigans later we were racked and inflating pads.

Just before sunrise in our boulder lounge
We woke at 3am to ugly skies. Half way into the approach the clouds made their intent known and we lost faith. We found a small cave before sunrise to hide from the rain and wait it out - maybe 30 minutes and daybreak would offer some hope? May as well try. We managed to snooze a bit in scrunched seated positions and woke to the first daylight and worsening rain. Our sneakers were soaked as we continued around the final outcrop blocking our view of Spearhead -- we wanted to at least finish scouting the approach and see the face. Low, dense cloudcover broke only occassionaly to allow a view, and what we saw enlivened our curiosity. "Tomorrow is the day!" I proclaimed, thinking back to the Columbian team's endless optimism almost 4 years ago in Patagonia -- they would begin the approach every day without pause, putting themselves in a position to be lucky. In the end, if I remember correctly, they did not get their window. I felt proud to tirelessly apply myself to the mountains once again, even if we would be bailing, even if it was only a long weekend. Yes, we would return Sunday morning, under clear skies, and climb...

That afternoon we descended to Eldo and put ourselves on Blind Faith (5.10a 2 pitches), so named after its onsight free solo first ascent. The line was gorgeous. I got the money, pitch 1, a great angling crack to a fun broken bulge, then the crux finish: a short but overhanging hand crack in a smooth corner. The topout was tough, and I belayed Micah up in some wind -- the clouds remained threatening. Micah took off on the next pitch, 5.9, and the sky spat on us intermittently. We topped out on the Bastille, eating up the view for a few minutes in the wind, then we scrambled off. By then it was 5pm, time to go back to the park to get in position for Sunday. Clouds still stirred, but stars projected as we went to sleep.

"No way..." Heavy clouds loomed to the west at 3am. Where was the clear weather? It was colder too; above, thin clouds raced past. Again we were on the move at 3:45 in order to arrive at the base around sunrise. This time, half way up, instead of rain we found ice on the trail. Everything from the final talus field and up was under a crisp smattering of snow -- the west face of Longs seemed to laugh at us as it took the brunt of the frigid winds and dispelled nasty streamers into the sky. We looked at our route, displayed clearly for the first time, and saw ice everywhere. We ducked into a bivy cave mid-talus to eat and discuss. Our hopes were thrashed, but we ascended to scope the first pitch and really assess the ice. Sure enough, the 200' beginning section to the first ledge was mostly covered. I couldn't even concieve of jamming my numbing toes into climbing shoes. No smearing at all on the verglassed face. For a moment we surmised that we were on a big mountain, stumbling upon this pitch mid-route -- how would we operate in this condition? Part of me wanted to try, but without an axe to clear ice from the crack, even the gear would be hopeless.

Back to Eldo. Since we did nothing in the Park, we would get on something a bit spicier, Outer Space (5.10c R, 3 pitches). Honnold's free solo photo in Alpinist 35 inspired me, but the R rating scared me off when we considered it Friday. Since then, however, we'd talked with a team who said the protection was actually fine -- the R must be a relic of the early ascentionists who lacked small stoppers and cams. Pitch 1: the fist two pitches of the Bastille Crack. Top quality, hard 5.7 climbing. Pitch 2: Micah on 10b, where his hip unclipped the single piece protecting the crux moves, above a ledge. He understood the situation and cooly climbed through. Pitch 3: mine, the crux, with the supposed R section off the ledge, traversing out into space. Fantastic! Protection was fine, moves were easy for 10c (I give it 10b), and the rest of the pitch was an exposed hoot. Topped out again on the Bastille, we sat in the sun, wondering how Spearhead fared; high, whipping clouds gave us comfort in our decision.
Three days, four classic Eldo routes, and a dose of alpine inspiration -- not bad for a double bailure.

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