Thursday, August 19, 2010

Captain Kirk at the Needles

Before leaving on my previous climbing trip to Tuolumne I emailed Dima, the guy who originally taught me how to climb cracks two years ago, for beta for that trip. He mentioned his school year was about to start for earnest but that he barely had time for one more trip, and we concocted a plan to head to the Needles for two or three days. Dima flew into LA and we were going to meet in Kernville on Sunday afternoon. As it turned out, not one but two rental cars crapped out on him, so he was running a couple hours late when I arrived at Kernville and parked my butt at the Kern River Brewing Co. I was wearing my new Supercrack t-shirt, and a couple of folks at the brewery had apparently just been talking about the Supercrack, so we struck up a very pleasant conversation. Between reading my book, catching up on beta and drinking, time flew and Dima arrived. We had dinner and took off for the high campground, where we had a quick ceremonial libation and crashed asleep.

The next morning found us not too hurried. While I had only climbed on Voodoo Dome, Dima had been to the top of the Needles before and gotten hopelessly lost trying to find Magic Dragon. So he had decided that we should start by trying to climb Igor Unchained, the shortest, but also hardest of our objectives, since he expected we'd spend part of the day lost. As it turned out, we didn't get lost at all. We hiked in to the base of the tower, then took the trail that traverses the North side of the Needles, then dropped down the notch between the Witch and the Sorcerer, and BLAM! Igor on the left! Atlantis on the right! Figurative climber hard on!

Igor Unchained looks as beautiful and intimidating from the bottom as it does in pictures, but steeper. The backstory is short and sweet: in spring 2009 I was looking at Needles pictures on Mountain Project when I noticed Igor. He took my breath away. I wanted to climb him. So I made a date with my then partner to go to Igor in May 2010 and lead all three pitches of him. In November I was stronger than ever, and it all seemed like it might work out. But then Ben and I stopped climbing together, and in February, and then again in March I tore my rotator cuff and labrum. So my plans to climb Igor, or to climb anything, really, were put off for months. Fast forward to Monday: Dima is rearing to go, and I am at the base, having promised to follow him up anything he cares to lead (and thinking, based on prior experience, that that was a safe bet). I am shaking in my boots in the presence of Igor. What on earth is 5.9"+"? I've researched this climb extensively and I know that people say the "+" is for sustained. To me that means strenuous, and I'm out of shape. We're at high altitude and it's supposed to be hot and I haven't climbed with Dima in two years and I'm thinking, I better not break down and cry, or worse, pee myself now...

Dima racks up and off we go! The first pitch is a left-facing dihedral that requires the leader to make the same move over and over. Dima luckily has doubles, even some triples, in the right sizes, so he slowly-slowly makes it almost all the way up the pitch. Instead of belaying in an alcove, he is forced, through lack of appropriate gear, to build a hanging belay a little lower. I start following and I'm learning quickly. Lesson #1: Dima actually believes he might fall, because he's setting the nuts *really* well. Every time I have to remove a nut I lose skin off one, sometimes two, knuckles. Lesson #2: what is happy hands for Dima is a little wide for me. I'm sometimes on the verge of slipping out of the places where he's placed a #2 C4. I'm camming my wrists in that shallow crack in new and painful ways. About two thirds up that interminable dihedral I have to hang. I call a take and try to catch my breath, massage some blood back into my right hand, recover the use of my left Achilles tendon. Then it's back at it, and I arrive, panting like a dog, at one of the most uncomfortable belays in memory.

The next pitch goes even slower for the leader. There is a bizzarre tiny roof with a wide crack to get over, then some more wide stuff, then a fingers dihedral. Dima overcomes them all methodically, though I can't see him from my vantage point for the second half. In the meantime I'm devising increasingly more acrobatic ways to hang in my harness. I finally start up. It turns out that the beta for me to get over the little roof with the wide crack is completely different from Dima's. Where he could jam his thigh, I can fit my whole hip. I come up with a way to do it that seems like a child's solution to a boulder problem. It involves a heel-toe-hook, the bastard lovechild of a heel-hook and heel-toe jam. By then Dima is insistently providing "belay assistance", though I haven't asked for it, so the whole exercise is a little ridiculous. I get to the dihedral and I finally relax. Fingers dihedral, I know how to do this. Turns out that was the part that had sketched out Dima. Go figure. We're on a ledge now, and there's a place to sit in the shade. It's practically palatial!

Dima agonizes a little about how to rack up for the third pitch, but the printed beta is pretty clear, fingers and hands, so off he goes. I'm belaying him seemingly forever. He runs out of rope and I yell up at him, but I can't hear his response. I don't take him off belay until I can tell he has me on. I break down the anchor and off I go. This is the pitch that had me nearly peeing myself at the base. It's completely vertical. I'm climbing and it's really strenuous, but really really good. After I seem to have climbed a pitch's worth, I start thinking, this may be the best pitch I've ever climbed. But then it keeps going. Another of what seems like half a pitch later, I'm starting to bargain in my head: if you end now, I'll still call you the best pitch I've ever climbed, but if not... It's vertical, so I can't see over the top, and I don't know how much further. I'm having to stop and de-pump my hands every chance I get, which is not often enough. Man! What is this?! I slip and I catch myself. Damned if I'm taking a fall now! Finally, the angle eases off and I pant to Dima. Holy shit! We are both mumbling in ecstasy, telling each other about our mental process, him leading, me following that pitch. We agree that it may be the best pitch we've done. And it's *exactly* 60 meters long.

The view from the top of the Witch, whom we've now earned the right to call the Bitch, is spectacular. We spent a lot of time up there taking pictures and enjoying the breeze. We rapped down and started on the trail back, and somewhere about a quarter of the way back to camp my internal battery ran out of juice. I had to scramble and hike back extremely ... very slowly. But we made it, of course. We headed out to Ponderosa for beers & burgers, but found it had just closed. We drove down to Needlepoint Creek, our bivy on the low road, since the plan for the next day was to do White Punks on Dope, which is on Voodoo Dome. On the way we saw two beautiful brown bears. Over dinner we looked up at the Needles in moonlight.

The next morning we got up at 6, and probably left around 7. We coudn't find the trail, eventually made it to the base of Voodoo, and then followed the base around to White Punks. The heat and bushwhacking misery of this could not be overstated. We got there at 10am, and the sun was already beginning to bake the world. We were destroyed from the approach, and decided we no longer had enough water or time to do the climb and get back with the desired margin of safety. We turned on Dima's GPS tracking and followed the cairns downhill, making a track to the base of the climb on the way -- a little community service, if you will, and a pre-requisite for a future successful attempt.

View White punks on dope approach trail in a larger map

With Dima gone to points North to climb, and the camera with the photos of our trip still with him, I returned home. I've slept at home for two nights since the trip, and I have never slept so soundly in my life. I did not know such depths of exhaustion could be plumbed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

First time in Tuolumne

Much as I hate it, I think this trip report is going to disappoint everyone who has been looking forward to it. We didn't get as much climbing done as I'd hoped, we didn't get to climb Cathedral Peak, as we'd planned, and logistics was a nightmare because of how crowded the park was. We had fun nevertheless, but I was barely sore when we got back.

Night #1:
Michelle and I left for Tuolumne on Thursday evening at 6pm. We'd made it to Hilltop hot spring, south of Mammoth, by 1am. There was only one a small truck parked there, with a dude sleeping in the back, so we were clear to go for a dip and crash. I proceeded to navigate left and up the hill instead of right and down, and we'd given up on finding the hot spring when we returned to the parking lot and the dude kindly pointed us in the right direction. Poor guy, I bet he was tossing and turning for hours after we woke him up. Sorry, dude! We found the spring, took a dip and admired the Milky Way and then crashed hard hidden in the lee of the car -- a dubious move, as camping is not allowed there, and if we got caught it would make it worse for everyone coming after us. It was a freezing cold night, and I woke up with lots of frost on my very warm and comfy down sleeping bag. I think Michelle had it somewhat worse in her thinner synthetic.

Hot ropegun
Originally uploaded by slampoud

Day #1:
We woke up, breakfasted quickly, and headed up to the Park. We found no camping spots in the Inyo campsites outside the park, endured the traffic jam at the entrance, and stopped at the Wilderness Permit Center. It was midday, hot, and we had no place to stay. We stashed the food and went to climb at Puppy Dome. Michelle led Puppy Crack (5.7), which wasn't much to write home about. We then went around the corner and Michelle led Battle of the Bulge (5.8R, but she got a tri-cam in the R section, so not R). That was fun to follow, and had a move on the bulge that tested my shoulder. It all held, and we were feeling strong, but at that point our anxiety about where to crash that night was mounting. We decided to get a backcountry backpacking permit and rent a bear box, and headed up Murphy Creek (that being the closest hike) to camp for the night. Murphy Creek, by the way, was nearly dry, and the lake supposedly at its end... well, let's just say we never found it. We camped on some gorgeous dry water-polished slabs, had a nice dinner, and crashed early. I slept outside, using my silk sleeping bag insert as a mosquito net, while I read Shackleton's "South", the story of his expedition to Antarctica, by headlamp.

Day #3:
The next morning we made a quick breakfast, hiked out, and headed back towards the permit centers. We found a site at Tuolumne campground, and that significantly eased our anxiety over logistics. We moved the food from the Wilderness Permit Center to the site and decided to check out Lembert Dome's NW Books. When we got to the base, we found several parties already on the route, two more at the base, and one below the ramp. We had a lovely chat with the folks at the base of the ramp, while the shade ran out, and took the leader's advice to try some of the easier knob climbs. We drove to Low Profile Dome to do Golfer's Route, a 5.7 with a 5.7R second pitch. We proceeded to hang out at the base, where it was very very hot, while a party did laps on TR. When they cleared out, Michelle led it, up to the middle anchor, and decided she didn't want to do the R pitch, which could have been completed with the same rope. I seconded it and had a minor freakout at the start with my feet. It's hard to explain, but basically, my feet felt wrong in these shoes on this knobby terrain. My new Scarpa Technos are an improvement over my Mythos because I can make them tighter, and because they are a little stiffer, so they take off some of the strain of foot-jamming. On the other hand, they're more edging shoes than slab shoes, so a) I absolutely cannot "wrap" my toes around a feature, b) they have a lot of material between my toes and the rock, and c) when they fail to stick, they fail 100%, they don't slip gradually, like my old purple Mythos used to. So I stepped up and thought, "Whoa! this sucks!" Things got better as I moved up and got used to them, but I never got over the fact that the part of the shoe that's in contact with an edge may or may not have a toe behind it. This is what you get with board-lasted shoes, I guess... In any case, it was a fun climb, once I stopped freaking out about my shoes. We then decided to head to the Bunny Slopes, which we'd considered the day before, but couldn't find the approach to. We followed a gully up, and Michelle led a 5.6 knob climb, Hot Crossed Buns. I seconded it, and it felt a little more natural. Just as I felt I was getting the hang of knob climbing, I think Michelle's confidence was being sapped by the runouts between bolts on these climbs. We decided to call it a day, as the weather seemed like it was closing, got drizzled on the way back, and rounded off the day with a swim in the water hole bordering the campground.

Originally uploaded by slampoud

Day #3:
At this point, since the forecast for Sunday was looking about the same as Saturday, i.e. evening storms, we decided Cathedral Peak wasn't going to happen. We got up a bit earlier and headed back up to NW Books. This time we were first in line, but a second party arrived within minutes, and we let them go past. They were extremely fast, so that was a good decision. We roped up and I got to leading. I got to the bolt that protects the 5.6 mantle at the start of the route and decided the move directly above the bolt, which might have been a 5.6 mantle if you could get your hands on the ledge, was definitely not 5.6 unless you are 6'3'' tall. There was no way I was going to stand on featureless, vertical slab in my Scarpas long enough to get a hold of that ledge. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out a way to do that move, and it sapped my confidence. I started doubting whether I should be on the route, and feeling the pressure of the party behind us, who were waiting to start. I thought about coming down and letting Michelle try the move, but I wanted to lead the bastard. Finally, I decided another mantle, maybe 3 feet to the left of the bolt, was a lot more doable, and went that way. (As it turned out, both Michelle and the follower of the party behind us did it the same way, whereas the leader behind me went right. Nobody pulled the alleged 5.6 mantle, assuming I had correctly identified it). The rest of the route went easily, though it took me a couple minutes to regain my confidence. I must have fiddled with my anchor building too much, because the leader of the next party decided to start just before Michelle. I wasn't expecting to see him when a head popped up around the corner. We decided to let them go ahead of us for the next pitch, which proved to be a mistake, because they were no faster. I guess I was feeling guilty for having made everyone wait while I figured out the mantle situation. The second pitch wasn't much to write home about, and we stayed roped up for the last "pitch", which was 4th class slab stuff. The summit was beautiful, and by that point we, the party behind/in front of us (depending on the pitch) and the party even further back had become fast friends. We all walked off the dome together, talking science and philosophy, and took the longer hike around the North side of the dome back to our cars. After that we returned to the campsite to have some food, and headed out to Tenaya Lake for a dip. But the weather broke before we got there and it was cold and windy by the time we reached it. Michelle went in nevertheless, while I enjoyed the torrent. We stopped to watch two guys bail off Zee Tree (which I really really want to climb!) in the rain, and returned to the campsite, where it had barely drizzled, when they made it safely to the ground, only to find that the guys were actually our campsite neighbors when they drove up later. We told them we'd been watching, but I think that must have embarrassed them, because they didn't speak a word to us.

Pancakes for breakfast
Originally uploaded by slampoud

Day #4:
Michelle made pancakes for my birthday and we struck camp in leisure. We decided to drive out of the park via the Valley and 41. The Valley was awe inspiring as ever, and we resolved to return and climb something tall in the future. 41 was a nightmare, with three or four sections of one-way traffic. We must have waited over an hour total at those sections... The rest of the drive was uneventful, and we were home by 7, in time for a birthday dinner with Dan.