Looking Glass Rock, located in Brevard, North Carolina is famous for classic Aid Climbing routes like Glass Menagerie, as well as moderate classics such as The Nose. If you’ve never climbed there, the unique “eyebrow” features and classic slab climbing are well worth your time.
It’s also a great place for a new trad leader like me to cut my teeth. Moderate, but challenging, multi-pitch routes with generally great gear, bolted anchors (for the most part), and clean rappel stations allow for plenty of fun, challenge, and just enough fear to feel like a significant accomplishment.
Last Saturday was my first time leading a significant objective with my new female partner, Amy Glenn. It was also my first time leading where I am the most experienced climber and there is no Ben (my crusty trad-master fiancé) to bail me out. Amy and I targeted Sundial Crack, a classic, 3-pitch, 5.8 line located just to the right of The Nose. I have led The Nose with Ben, so I have some experience at Looking Glass, but I had climbed that route twice before leading it. Sundial Crack would be an onsite (meaning I’d never climbed it before). After a read-up on mountain project, and studying the route description in the guidebook, I felt ready to take it on.
Saturday proved to be one of our first fall days to FEEL like fall (or maybe even winter). Amy and I awakened at the crack of dawn to get our day started, and we got to the base of Sundial by about 8:00. At just over 40 degrees, and in the shade, the wind was howling and I was wishing I’d brought more layers. This was to be a consistent theme for the day!
I set out to lead the opening 5.5 pitch – which requires the same move over and over again as you move up the “eyebrows.” I felt super-confident — right up until I started climbing! Then, suddenly, I had a little of that scared feeling in the pit of my stomach. It felt good to get my first piece in, and I started to remember how to climb on slab (I hadn’t climbed at Looking Glass since May and it was October!).
The last section of the first pitch includes two bulges, and when I got to the ledge before the first bulge, I regretted that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to place another piece of gear right before that ledge. I had passed up gear because I had placed a solid cam about a foot below, but after looking all over the ledge for gear before the crux move – and not finding any – I was wishing that my last piece wasn’t 8 ft below me. I finally decided to pull the crux with the gear I had. Using the great handholds on the bulge, I went for it. Once I got above the first bulge, I was happy to plug a piece before pulling the second bulge.
At that point, I was about 10 ft from the anchors and it was easy “slabbing” from there. I was happy to clove hitch into the first bolt and call down, “Off-belay!” I quickly got on the other bolt as well, and began setting up my ATC Guide in auto-block mode to belay Amy up. While I pulled the rope up, I looked down and counted my pieces. I think I placed five pieces of gear on the entire pitch, but I felt like each piece was really solid. I was feeling like I was starting to get into the “Zen” of leading, and just in time, too.
Amy joined me at the P1 belay after uneventful climbing, and she asked if I’d looked at P2 (the crux 5.8 pitch). I laughed and said, “Hadn’t even glanced up yet!” I got her tied in to the belay system, re-racked the gear she had cleaned (did I mention that Amy is a meticulous second, re-racking the draws as she climbs – Ben says I could learn something from her!), and began looking at P2. I was super glad I’d kept on my Nano Puff over my expedition weight jacket, because the wind was crazy and it was COLD!
P2 traverses up and right at a 45-degree angle until you reach the bolted anchors. It looked like pretty tame climbing leading off the anchor, so I clipped into one of the anchor bolts as my first piece on the route and headed up and right. I felt like I was moving efficiently, placing good gear, and ignoring the wind. At about the halfway point, I made a couple heady moves up with no hands, and placed two bomber tri-cams. I called down to Amy to tell her she’d need her nut tool for them.
Finally, I reached the crux, a point about 20 ft below and slightly to the left of the anchors. My last gear placement was about 5 feet below me and to the left. I could see the next spot for good gear, but, unfortunately, I had to make some hard moves through blank slab with little feet and no hands to get to the next gear. I made the first hard move and stepped up to a decent stance. I was still too far from the eyebrow crack I needed to reach to place my next piece of gear. I had to step up one more time.
I studied the options carefully, and then moved to step up on my right foot. I had really no hands to speak of to hold on with – just some slabby slopers for balance. I got my weight up on my right foot and realized that I had put myself in “no man’s land”. I looked down and left at my last piece of gear, and assessed the fall potential. If I took a fall, I would swing about 10 ft down and left to below my last piece – not pretty. I could feel that process starting in my mind where you start panicking, and I told myself to pull it together. I managed to step back down and left back to my stance. I studied the moves a while longer, stepping my weight up a couple different ways and backing down again. I finally made a waist-high step up with my left foot, using my left hand to grip a side-pull and pushing down with my right hand on a high sloper. I felt my right foot smoothly drag behind me and got it up even with my left foot on the ledge. Yes!!! I had made it! I placed my gear, and was super relieved to clip into it!
Looking up, I had two easy moves to the anchors. I made the moves and quickly got clove-hitched into the bolts. Whew! I yelled out a “Whoopee!” as I called down to tell Amy I was off-belay.
I set up the belay for Amy close to the bolts, and gave myself enough length on my rope that I could sit sideways and get my weight off my feet, which were killing me! Slab climbing is super hard on your feet, and with the cold everything was stiff and my heels and toes needed a break. I huddled into the rock wall while I belayed Amy up the pitch.
Amy was slow going up P2, but made it pretty efficiently to the crux move before the anchors. She spent some time studying the moves after making the initial hard step up to the first stance. Finally, she made the moves and joined me at the anchors! Two pitches down, one to go!
P3 of Sundial Crack starts out with a 20ft crack just to the left of the P2 anchors. What’s cool about this route vs. The Nose is that you totally switch gears on P3. You move from slabbing up eyebrows to a full crack climb (unless you cheat and just climb the face to the left like Ben does).
I clipped the anchor bolt as my first piece, and easily traversed left into the base of the crack. Like many cracks, getting into it was a little challenging. The crack was about my fist width (I have small hands) and took yellow and red cams beautifully. I felt really confident making the crack moves, as I always was able to get gear placements above me before making the next step up. At one point, I hung off a fist jam to move both my feet up, and once I got higher, I walked my last cam up the crack. I even pulled a piece out below me once I had good gear placed above to conserve gear for the belay I had to build at the top of the pitch.
To me, the crux of the P3 was at the top of the crack – as the crack ended, the slab blanked out and you had to make two steps up with no hands. I did place a bomber little offset cam in the eyebrow above and to the right of the end of the crack. I did the first hard step up, felt my foot slip, and weighted my piece as I stepped back to my last solid feet – also known as “an aggressive down climb”. Finally, I made the two steps up, starting with a high right foot and a little mantle move. Then I was finally moving back in the eyebrows.
The top of P3 is a gear belay in an awesome horizontal crack that sits on top of a bowl. I kept looking for it as I moved up and up the eyebrows, placing sparse pieces as my gear dwindled and I knew I needed at least 3 solid pieces for the anchor. Finally, I saw the spot just 10 ft above me and I carefully made my way there. I plugged my red, green, and yellow cams in the crack (for some reason the color coding works better for me than the sizes – maybe it’s a girl thing?). I felt like I got three bomber placements, ran a cordelette through each piece’s carabiner, pulled the loops between down to equalize, tied them off in a knot, and clipped into the power point with my locking biner. I called down “Off-belay” and felt super psyched to have made it all this way. Just one more half pitch to the parking lot where the rappel anchors sit between The Nose and Sundial, and we begin the descent.
I got to work pulling the rope, setting up the belay using the “shelf” above the knot in my cordelette, being sure to clip into a strand going to each piece of protection, and called down to Amy to begin climbing. Each time I set up the auto-block, I made sure to test that the line running to the climbing would correctly auto-lock if pulled down. This is a critical step for a new leader – as setting up the auto-block wrong can be really dangerous if the climber takes a significant fall.
Amy took a little fall on the crack, barely weighting the rope, but I felt good knowing I was hanging on the anchor I had built with full confidence and that it had easily held her weight as well. I watched my pieces as she climbed up and they stayed solidly engaged in the rock.
Amy finished the pitch in good style, and joined me at the belay. I got set up to lead off toward the rappel anchors, and took off to the left. I placed a piece in the crack to the left of the anchor, so if I fell I wouldn’t put my entire weight on the anchor, and moved left. I chose to go left and climb up the crack toward the rappel anchors. I was super tired of slabbing up eyebrows with no hands, and even though the crack might have required some harder moves, there was a great layback flake to hold onto all the way up!
Before I knew it, I was at the rappel anchors – meeting up with another party that was there, too. I clipped directly into the bolts, leaving the rappel rings free for them to rappel down first.
This is where I made my first serious mistake of the day. I should have clipped in, and just waited to bring Amy up after the other party had rappelled down. Instead, I set up my belay feeling pressure from the other team to hurry. As a result, I forgot to clip the locking biner into the auto-block slot on my ATC Guide, and as Amy starting climbing I felt the rope flowing a little too freely. I quickly grabbed a locking biner and fixed the problem, but I think I would have avoided the mistake altogether had I simply been patient and waited.
The other team rappelled down, Amy joined me at the belay, and we clipped in on slings (me) and using a personal anchor system (Amy) so I could untie from the rope, tie the rope to the extra 60 meter rope Amy had carried up the climb using two overhand knots side-by-side with a long tail, and run the rope through the rappel rings. I rappelled down first, feeling good about finally being on the ground soon and out of the cold and wind.
I got to the 2nd rappel anchor, clipped in to the bolts, and took myself off rappel. Here is where I made my second mistake of the day. I should have held on to the ends of the ropes, pulled them up and stacked them, running the yellow rope (which I’d already noted was the end to pull) through the rappel rings. Instead I just hung out there, freezing, while I waited for Amy. Had I done those things, we wouldn’t have had the consequences we were about to experience.
Amy joined me at the second rappel anchors, clipped in, and took herself off rappel, then proceeded to undo her prussik … and we both watched in slow motion as the wind whipped both ends of the rope away about 20 ft to the right. We were hanging out at the anchors with no rope. And, with no rope, you have very few options.
Luckily, Looking Glass, and particularly The Nose Area, is a high traffic area. There was a guy to the left of us starting to rappel down the first pitch of The Nose, and a party of two at the top of P3 of The Nose getting ready to rappel down the anchors we came from. We sent up a message asking the party of two to rappel down our rope, bringing the ends back to us. They did so, we were careful to secure it, and the last rappel was uneventful.
I made it to the ground, feeling a sense of accomplishment for what I had done well, and grateful for an opportunity to learn a couple crucial lessons in a situation where the consequences only meant hanging out while freezing a few more minutes.
On Sunday, I came back with Ben, Wes, (the Tattooed Teddy Bear) and Barry (aka the Nature Boy) – my regular climbing crew – and I led the single, 200 ft 5.8 pitch of Gemini Crack. The crux was much more strenuous than Sundial, but I was very proud to also bag that classic. I placed a bomber Tri-Cam on the top of the crux that the team left for each climber to observe – and Barry took a picture. They were so proud.
And so it goes in the life of a new trad leader.
The Disappointment Cleaver is the de facto trade route on Mt Rainier. The route has been etched into Rainier by endless trains of crampons being shuffled to the summit. Yet the route is still chock full of dangers despite the manicured trail to the summit. There are crevasses that will swallow you whole, the constant thunder of rock fall, and the ever present danger of tumbling thousands of feet. On my recent climb of the DC over Labor Day weekend I was acutely reminded that Rainier is not to be trifled with and should always be treated with healthy trepidation.
My soon to be brother in law Grant and I decided to climb Rainier over Labor Day weekend. We’d attempted the DC once before but conditions were awful and a summit bid from Camp Muir was out of the question. In contrast to the white-outs and whipping winds of last year, this year’s forecast was next to perfect. It was supposed to be sunny with a light breeze and in the 40’s. If anything it was going to be hot.
We planned a Friday-Saturday climb and on Friday we took our sweet time to get to Paradise. The weather was great and I was not in a huge hurry to get to Camp Muir just so I could wait around. I would much rather conserve my energy and enjoy the day hike up the snowfield. We got to Camp Muir around 4:30 and surprisingly the hut was relatively deserted. There were maybe twenty odd people there and we easily found bunk space. I was not planning on finding an opening in the hut on Labor Day weekend but I guess we got lucky.
Of those twenty odd people only three did not scare me, and one of those three was the ranger. There was a team of two girls that had one locking carabiner between the two of them and didn’t know how to put on their brand new harnesses. I overheard a random climber who knew just enough to be dangerous giving them a crash course in glacier safety. He scared me even more than the girls because he was making it sound like no big deal to pull someone out of a crevasse. There were also a couple Eastern European college kids wearing cotton sweatpants and tennis shoes that seemed intent on giving it a go but lacked any sort of plan. It was a motley bunch at Camp Muir and I am not saying that in the cutesy Sandlot sort of way.
Grant and I were a little uncertain as to what time we should leave Camp Muir for our summit bid. We were a team of two so minimizing crevasse danger was high on my list of priorities. If we started early we could cross any covered crevasses while they were at their strongest but we would be unable to evaluate their strength fully. If we started too late the snow bridges would be weaker but we’d be able to more fully evaluate their strength. We decided to leave the hut at 2AM which in retrospect was too late but it was the decision we made.
We moved methodically over the Cowlitz Glacier, up Cathedral Rocks and over to Ingraham Flats. From there I could see that all the guided parties were already high on the cleaver and an inkling of self-doubt arose about our departure time. We really couldn’t do anything about it but keep moving and that is what we did.
Shortly before getting on the cleaver we encountered the first spicy section of the day. In order to get to the cleaver we had to cross through what amounted to a mess of thin bridges through an ice fall. I’m not sure if it was technically an ice fall or just jumbled snow over a crevasse system but I do know that we were walking over an abyss and punching through was not an option. The guide services had attached hand lines through the Emmons Shoulder which were comforting but the area was still sphincter puckering scary.
Once we were on the Disappointment Cleaver proper we shortened up the rope and started scrambling our way through heaps of loose rock. The first time I climbed Rainier Ben and I were near the middle of the herd going up the mountain. I didn’t realize it at the time but having head lamps to follow through the broken up cleaver is immensely helpful. On this trip Grant and I were following the path of least resistance which on a few occasions resulted in back-tracking a bit to get on the ‘trail’. I could tell when we were back on the main route by the deep crampon scrapes on each rock step.
There was no fun to be had on the cleaver but we continued up and avoided being pummeled by falling rocks. Near the top of the cleaver we found some protection from the wind and took a real rest. Grant didn’t know it at the time but those last ~2,000 feet seem to take an eternity. For the remainder of the climb the summit looked like it was one hard push away but the altitude mocked any attempt of ours to speed up.
Besides a dali-esque sunrise over a red Little Tahoma wrapped in pink glaciers there was not much of note until 13,600 feet. Up until this point in my climbing career I had been fortunate enough to not have had to cross a crevasse via a ladder. There is something inherently scary about walking on a shaky aluminum catwalk over a gaping crevasse. With each awkward step the ladder creaked and rocked to-and-fro just enough to unbalance my cramponed feet. I crossed as quickly as possible while Grant kept the rope taught in case the unfortunate should happen.
The final 600 vertical feet was by far the most grueling. It was not because it was any more physically demanding than the other sections but rather it was because I knew the summit was right around the corner and damn-it I wanted to be there. I was excited and when I get excited my pace quickens but the altitude would have none of it.
The last time I summited Rainier the wind was hurling me around like a plastic bag in a midwestern parking lot. This time the sun was out, the breeze was tempered and when I reclined against my pack I actually dozed off for a minute. I was much like my dog laying in the sun without a care in the world. We could only enjoy the summit of Rainier so long though because with each passing minute the sun was slushifying the snow that much more. After a few obligatory hero shots Grant and I started what would be a very long descent.
As the sun rose higher in the sky the temperature shot up. I had stripped to a thin fleece and if I would not have been roasted by the sun I would have taken that off too. We plodded down the Rainier’s seemingly endless switch backs. With each turn the snow became slushier and the rapidly decaying quality of the route slowed our progress considerably.
By the time we reached the top of the cleaver the snow was getting dangerously slick. Instead of continuing on snow we moved to the choss that passes for rock on a volcano. We quickly regretted that decision but there was not much to do after we had committed to it. Eventually we made it down the cleaver but not until I made a silent promise to never again climb volcanic scree that is not covered in ice.
We had been out of water for a couple of hours by the time we made it to the bottom of the cleaver. My energy levels were seriously depleted and all I wanted to do was get back to my sleeping bag at Camp Muir. Unfortunately the most dangerous section of the route was still ahead of us and I needed to suck it up.
The Emmons Shoulder, with its broken up snow bridges, had scared me on the way up when it was still frozen from the cold night. By now the sun had been up for five or six hours and had considerably weakened the already structurally unsound crossing. I told Grant to keep the rope especially taught through this section and I moved very cautiously. I made sure each step was placed on the strongest parts of the snow. Even with this diligence I took a step that collapsed a section of a bridge. I didn’t punch through but when I was a few feet beyond that bridge I saw that one of my footprints had disappeared into the abyss. I could see that we were walking over a monstrous ice cavern system and a fall would be disastrous.
Once I realized just how weak the snow was I started probing the strength of the bridges with my ice ax for each step. I’ll admit it, I was spooked almost to the point of being scared. The final obstacle was a crevasse crossing unlike any I’ve ever seen. If you imagine two diving boards facing each other but not touching you’ll have a good idea of how precarious the crossings was. I inched my way towards the crossing, probing the strength on my side and visually checking the other. I made it, it held, but we we’re not through this obstacle yet because Grant still had to cross.
While we were moving through this section Grant and I had clipped in to the hand lines to provide a little bit of security. Whether this security was real or imaginary is debatable but that is what we did. I made sure as Grant moved I kept the rope taught without unbalancing him. He probed his way out to the crossing and I was ready for anything.
Grant announced he was crossing , there was a pause, and then a loud, frightened “ohh shiiiit” came from behind me. My reaction was exactly that, a reaction. I didn’t think or feel or use any part of my higher brain. I dove through the ground and I mean through because I was planting my ax as deep as it would go. My feet were set, my elbows tight to my body and my ax buried but the rope never tensioned. Grant had been thrown off balance while crossing because he didn’t unclip from the hand line. His fear filled “ohh shiiiit” was not from the snow bridge collapsing but from an awkward yank on his harness.
The adrenaline coursing through my veins did not know that it had been a false alarm and it continued to put me in a state of hyper-attentiveness. I can not describe the exact emotion I felt because it was not one in particular. I was not happy that it was a false alarm, or scared that I could have died, or even proud that I did exactly what I had trained myself to do. I was overwhelmed by raw, unfiltered emotion in a way that has never happened before.
After that we made it back without major incident. We had left at 2AM and returned to Camp Muir a little after 1PM. It had taken just as long to get down the mountain as it had taken to get up but that is what it required to do so safely. It was a good climb but it was good to be back too.
From the comfort of my couch I can look back and see that there are a number of things I should have done differently on this trip. The first is to take a third person. My days of two person glacier travel are done. Three people to a rope team really is a minimum unless there is a compelling reason not to. Additionally I would have started our summit bid at 12:30 instead of 2 to cross more snow when it is firm.