Category Archives: Rock Climbing

In Defense of a Friend: Response to “Climber Fined For Obstructing Rescue” by Rock & Ice

This is a straight re-post of a piece my buddy Wes wrote in response to the one sided article Rock & Ice wrote about the climbing accident Wes assisted in.  Here is a link to R&I’s article: “Accident Report: Climber Fined for Obstructing Rescue

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I am writing this after reading about myself in Rock and Ice magazine this week. I had chosen to remain anonymous because this story was not about me. It was about the successful rescue, regardless of who should have gotten “credit” for the success. However, when this article was published with so many missing facts, I felt it was now time for me to come forward. I must tell my story in three parts.

Part I. I helped save my friend.

As with any emergency, when adrenaline, stress, and physical exertion are irrepressible, ten people can experience the same event and perceive it completely differently. I say this, because I know that my perspective is simply one of many. But, it seems to me, I don’t think anyone can accurately tell this story without hearing from me. An attempt to tell this story without my perspective is shortsighted at best, defensive and insidious at its worst. Here is how I remember it:

The day was going pretty well when Dylan Johnston and I received a call from our friends Jackson and Zach. Zach described how Jackson had fallen and was unable to self-rescue. Dylan and I rushed to their aid.

Because I am intimately acquainted with Shortoff Mountain, because I have climbed, guided, and scouted the Maginot Line (Grade III, 5.7) at least 15 times, because I am an AMGA Certified Rock Instructor, Single Pitch Instructor and full time climbing guide, because I know how to read a map, consult a climbing guidebook, and recognize my position at any time in mountainous technical terrain, I knew exactly where my friends were. Without a need for pause, deliberation, or consult I went straight to the top of their climb.

When I arrived at the top of Maginot Line, there were 3 Burke County Search and Rescue personnel on scene. My first interaction with these gentlemen that day, unfortunately, conformed to every other interaction I have ever had with them. You see, this day was not the first time I have interacted with Burke County Search and Rescue. At their best, they are honorable, well-intentioned volunteers who do not spend much time in 5th class rock terrain. At their worst, they are prideful, out-of-shape, and a danger to themselves and others. They are a bit of everything: some good, some bad, some bored, some effective, none of them have ever navigated this terrain before. For Jackson’s sake, I was hoping for the best in each of them.

I immediately inquired as to who was in charge. Their response was incoherent. They did not know who was in charge, they did not have a plan, and they did not offer me any plan or directive. Fearing for my friend and unsure what these three gentlemen could possibly do for him, I proceeded to set up a rappel to go down to Jackson. At no time did they direct me to not descend to the victim.

I attached my climbing rope to a tree with a bowline and rappelled on a single line with a grigri down about 100 feet. At this point I built a midpoint anchor for the rappel line and continued another 60 feet to Jackson. Dylan also descended down the line and positioned himself about 20 feet above Jackson.

Jackson was a mess He was on a ledge 200 off the ground laying on his side in a somewhat fetal position. I could immediately tell that he was in a lot of pain. Thanks to my training in technical rescue and wilderness first aid, I did not need a whole lot of time to decide what to do. I began to work. First, I made Jackson safe from falling any further. I took some trad gear from his harness; I made an anchor about 20 feet above him in a crack system (the closest available anchor). I secured Jackson to the anchor with his climbing rope. I began assessing and monitoring his condition. I knew that I would not be able to extricate Jackson from the cliff on my own, I knew from his condition that time was a factor and we needed to get him to advanced medical care as quickly as possible. And I knew that the terrain above would not allow for an efficient raising system. I know all of this in seconds, because that is what I have trained for years, and hours, and miles of terrain to know. I don’t need a committee to know this. I need help; Jackson needs help.

I made cell phone contact with people on top of the cliff as well as incident command for the rescue. I gave patient assessments. I guided the rescuers about where to place their ropes to reach the victim (my rope was a good landmark). I tried to be as precise and as helpful as possible, because I knew that Jackson’s life depended upon their assistance.

Inside my heart, my head, and my anxiety however, I know who is up there. I know that these well-intentioned volunteers would have difficulties pulling this off. They may allow us to sit here all night like they have on other interventions. Jackson may die here on this ledge right in front me. I begin to get scared, as I calm Jackson; his groans are only muted by spells of unconsciousness.

To keep busy, I shout instructions up to Dylan. Poor Zach has been down there belaying for hours. I then direct Dylan to bring Zach up on the original climbing rope and get him off the cliff. Seemed to me, it would be good to get Dylan and Zach off the cliff now. Zach must be exhausted and there is nothing else for Dylan to do. Plus, I knew that I needed to get off this cliff eventually, so I also told Dylan to be ready to belay me up once the rescuers had taken over. That was our plan, and Dylan and Zach got to work on that. I busied myself with Jackson, knowing that I had a belay out of here no matter what the rescuers upstairs did or did not do.

I made several phone calls upstairs to communicate Jackson’s progress, so it is difficult to remember when I was first instructed to leave the scene by incident command. It doesn’t really matter to me because no one seemed to have a problem with my response. I responded by saying that I would leave the ledge as soon as someone from the rescue squad arrived on the side of the cliff to care for Jackson. It never occurred to me that they actually wanted me to abandon Jackson without handing him off to a rescuer. I deduced that the incident commander was not on scene, because I could not fathom a directive that instructed me to leave an injured person to die by themselves. I don’t think I would have obeyed such a directive even if they had been more emphatic. But, no one was emphatic. No one seemed to have a problem with my plan, and the communication never seemed remarkable to me until later.

When the first rescuer finally arrived, the rope that they were rappelling on was too short to reach the victim, I saw two strands of rope ascending from his harness and deduced that he on some sort of belayed rappel rig, rappelling on one single strand backed up by another rope. This would have been great, but our would-be rescuers had not made the rappel line long enough. It dangled 20 feet above out heads.

Now, I know the caliber of the rescuers upstairs, so I can forgive those folks for this slight miscalculation. But Jackson is dying at my feet, so what we do now is important. Time is a factor. The rescuer doesn’t know how to communicate his predicament to the people upstairs. He doesn’t know how to say: “the rap line is too short, just lower me the last 20 feet.” Or: “tie off the belay, extend the rap line 20 feet, and allow me to continue rappelling once you’re done.” Or: “hey, I’m going to transfer my rappel to the rope the victim and the first responder are using. He seems to have a good rope and a good anchor here.”

I am sympathetic to his ignorance. He is doing the best he can, and I see that. So, I carefully directed him on how to use my climbing rope to rappel the remaining at a distance to reach Jackson. Once I had him there on the ledge, once he whipped out that massive first aid kit, once I saw him reach down, and touch Jackson, I didn’t feel anything but gratitude, and admiration, and relief. Thank God, I thought.

From this point forward, I remember communicating with the rescuer right beside me, primarily. The first thing he told me, as he was beginning care was that incident command wanted me to leave the scene. Jackson moaned some feeble protests, but I responded by saying that definitive care had arrived and that I needed to leave to let the rescuers take over.

But, the rescuer had transferred on to my climbing rope in his descent, and Jackson was still tied to it as well, and both of them were anchored to the crack system that was 20ft above their heads, and I honestly didn’t think the rescuer understood any of this very well. With the rescuer occupying my preferred ascent method, I wasn’t sure how or when he expected me to vacate the premises. It sounded like more of them were on the way, and a helicopter too. It never occurred to me to prussik up the line, and the imperative need for my immediate and hasty departure was never relayed to me. So, I told him that I was planning to climb out as soon as they could free up my climbing rope. But they never did.

Now, I know a million and one ways under the sun to get up a cliff. I could rope solo, I could climb dual prussiks, I could use my plaquette, I could cut the rope above the anchor and tie in there. Heck, if it was a really big deal, I could just free solo, but no suggestions, instructions, or specific imperatives were ever relayed to me. So I simply attached myself to the anchor that was 20 feet away. At the time, I felt like this was that safest thing for me to do. I felt safer attaching myself to the anchor I put in the wall and waiting it out, so that’s what I did.

The helicopter came to the cliff to assess the situation. then ascended above the cliff and lowered a rescuer with basket to the ledge where the victim was. I saw no delay in this action but then again I don’t have a trained eye for what delays in helicopters look like. The 2 rescuers then began packing the victim for extraction. After this occurred another paramedic was lowered out of the helicopter and attached the hook to the basket and lifted Jackson away to even more definitive care. Then, the helicopter lifted away the other 2 rescuers and I was all alone. Jackson was safe, at last.

I pulled up the now empty rope end, unceremoniously tied in, called up to confirm my belay from Dylan, cleaned all the gear, and climbed with Jackson’s rack, my rack. After all that, and carrying all that gear, the climbing was exhausting.

When I arrived at the top, I was not greeted by rescue personnel, I was not thanked, I was not cared for or supported. Instead, I was arrested by a forest ranger named Jason Crisp. He was visibly upset with me and my partner over the situation. I didn’t really understand what had happened. The right thing had happened. The victim was safe and alive. I had played a critical role in the success of the rescue. I had given continuous reports on the victim’s condition. I had guided and assisted the descent to Jackson.

I was angry, emotional, and more than slightly irritated. The ranger instructed me to begin hiking down with him, that I was being detained. I began a second rescue operation at this point. At this point, for reasons I could not fathom, I now had to rescue myself from going to prison.

In that effort, I was also successful. In the two mile hike down from Shortoff, I managed to explain the entire afternoon to Ranger Crisp, and I won his immediate sympathies. He agreed that something did not sound right, that he had been called on scene to detain a belligerent civilian who was interfering in a professional rescue. I felt betrayed, disgusted, and alone.

The silent indifferent eyes of all the rescuers in the cul de sac helped me understand what had happened. Ranger Crisp understood it too when he saw their skulking faces. My actions, my critical thinking, my decisiveness, had humiliated the Burke County Search and Rescue members. I had inadvertently robbed them of their glory, and they fully hoped to have me spend the night in jail in order to abjure their injured pride and coveted heroism.

I was despondent, heartbroken, and incredulous. I still couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Ranger Crisp pulled me aside, and he said, “Look, I admire what you did up there, but I have to do something here, because they are expecting me to arrest you. I’m going to write you a citation for disorderly conduct, and you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s not a criminal citation, it’s just a fine. If you pay it, it virtually disappears.”

Believe it or not, I was grateful to the Ranger. If he had just believed everything the rescuers said, I would have been in jail. As it was, I was free to get in my car and leave, a gesture for which I am immensely grateful. I believe Ranger Crisp probably understood Burke County Search and Rescue just as well as I do, because he was under no obligation to take my word for it.

In an odd twist of the story, Ranger Crisp was murdered 2 days later apprehending a real fugitive in the national forest. I felt an immediate loss and sadness, not only for senseless loss of a good public servant, but for losing the only witness to the operation that seemed to defend me. I was sad for a dozen reasons in the 48 hours after the rescue, but that part was just incomprehensible. The world felt really small, and sad, and senseless.

Part II. Aftermath.

I didn’t start to get really angry until later. The evening after the rescue, on the news, there was a dramatic account of a heroic intervention on Shortoff Mountain by the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. There was helicopter footage, interviews with the very rescuers I had assisted, and an explanation that the rescuers had done their duty despite the “interference” and “delays” cause by a civilian bystander. I thought about the faces in the parking lot at the base of Shortoff, I thought about my reputation as a community member and a guide, I thought about how unfair and unjust my treatment had been.

It’s hard to describe, but each ounce of despair and betrayal that I had felt the night before was replaced by anger. I called the television station and explained that their assertion of my “interference” was just bad reporting. But, I was having to piece together the other half of the story from what Ranger Crisp had told me the day before, what I had seen on the news, and what Dylan and Zach had overheard while they were on top of the cliff. So, it was hard to know what to do, or say, or how to do it or say it. So I just went to my family’s house for TLC.

Once I got home, the more I learned about Burke County’s version of the story, the angrier I got. I might have really raged on the internet and news and public forums, but a few things helped me get it together. First, I visited Jackson in the hospital and returned all of his gear. Seeing his smiling face, all his bandages and stitches, meeting his Dad, feeling the firm grip of his handshake and embrace, despite his injuries, I put the whole thing in perspective. Despite what Burke County had done to me, my friends life and health and happiness sat before me, on the mend. I knew, despite all the slander and obfuscation, how and why that happened. He would not have survived without Burke County calling the helicopter, and their EMTs, and their infrastructure. But all those systems and tools and personnel would not have done them a bit of good if I had not been there. I knew it as soon I looked at Jackson; he knew it; his dad knew it too. That was redemptive.

Second, I tuned in to Facebook and watched as the climbing community sprang to my defense. Many of my defenders did not even know that the responder mentioned in the news stories was me. They defended me on principle. Climbers in Linville Gorge have seen the Burke County Search and Rescue Team in action. They have also seen me in action, a fixture of the crag, a helping hand, a cheerful compatriot. I think most of them just called the whole thing like they saw it: “Thank God, Wes was there!”

Lastly, I went home to Washington. My girlfriend, my family, an enterprising and bustling city, it helped the whole fiasco seem far away and trivial and worthy of being forgotten. And that is what I did. It was easy to forget, because no one from the Forest Service, the Rescue Team, or the press ever contacted me again. I knew that people back in NC were still talking about, but I was happy to let it go. In fact, I was anxious to let it go.

Part III. What now?

The only reason I am telling my side now is because an incomprehensible version of this story recently appeared in Rock and Ice. I’m not sure who concocted that narrative but sounds a lot like the script I heard on the news that evening after the rescue. It doesn’t sound like the day I remember at all.

The thing about a news cycle or a rash of Facebook posts is that they will be forgotten relatively quickly. But, I think I’m calm enough and comfortable enough to set the record straight. I don’t want to be remembered that way. In my defense, I have a community and a surviving friend who knows who all the key players were that day. I had an experience that will resonate with every climber that has ever interacted with the Burke County Search and Rescue Team. Volunteer rescuers in Western North Carolina have a track record of mishap and blunder that is almost always averted by someone like me.

Lastly, the evidence against me is entirely manufactured. If there are recordings out there that document my “disorderly conduct”, they have never been produced for my hearing, for anyone I know, or any law enforcement authority that I am aware of. Video and photo evidence of the rescue however, clearly demonstrate the use my rope and anchor to assist in the rescue, my position on the cliff when I was asked to vacate the ledge, and the mishandled technical systems that the rescuers were attempting to use to access the cliff.

If there is a silver lining to this whole story, it is simply to have the climbing community understand the following:

Professional Rescuers, Professional Climbers, and recreational climbers have vastly different skill sets, procedures, cultural norms, and communication styles. In some parts of the country (like Burke Co), these groups have not yet learned to talk to each other, to be a resource to each other, or to support each other. I am glad the CCC and the guiding community are working hard to open up channels of communication so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
Narrative has a powerful effect on the climbing community. In local news, that narrative will be sensational and sexy, even if entirely inaccurate. Every climber involved in a rescue should consider not only the efficacy of their action, but how they will perceived and portrayed in news media. For me, I’d help no matter what they say. I’d do the same thing again if I had the chance. But, if you can’t take that kind of heat and vilification, stick to the sidelines.
Become proficient in improvised rescue techniques. I would not have been effective or efficient, and I might actually have been danger to Jackson, myself, and others, if I had not known exactly what I was doing out there.

Smith Rock: 2013

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock is a pretty amazing place.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Sure I had seen pictures and heard about the hard sport climbing but that didn’t quite prepare me for my first outing.

2013-03-20 09.44.03My buddy Clark and I had a couple of free days and decided to head to Smith Rock because the forecast said it would be sunny and warm.  The weatherman lied to say the least.  The first day we got rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and had to brace ourselves during the gusts as we crossed Asterisk Pass.  Not quite sunny and warm but even with the crummy weather we had a blast.

We first hopped on Cinnamon Slab (5.6) to get a feel for the rock.  I am very glad we did because climbing tuff was unlike anything I had ever climbed on.  It took a bit of time but my “vision” for the best hands and feet eventually came around and it was a very enjoyable climb.

We wanted to hit the classic moderates during our brief two day trip.  First on our tick list was Spiderman (5.7 – 2 pitches) so we scrambled through Astrick Pass and over to Spiderman.  It was slightly drizzling and neither one of us was super-thrilled to lead but Clark sacked up and lead both pitches of Spiderman with numb fingers on damp rock.  Even in those manky conditions it was easy to tell that this was a classic climb.  The route eats up gear and moving around the daunting roof is airy but super secure if you have the right size hands to jam.

Spiderman - Smith RockAt the base of Spiderman someone had written in chalk that their rope had got stuck.  We had heard that this was not uncommon so we opted to scramble down.  With the gusty winds it took us a bit to find the right trail down but even with dealing with the wind the scramble was faster and more secure than rapping the route.  Plus on the scramble there was a knotted rope to lower yourself into a mini-cave: how cool is that.

The sun came out as we were scrambling down and it was a much need blast of warmth to rejuvenate our spirits.  With the sun shining we moved over to Out of Harms Way (5.8), which is a half-trad half-sport route.  I lead this and had a surprisingly difficult time jamming up the flake.  It looked like it would be a couple of jams and I would be up but I managed to make it super awkward.  Once I got to the top of the flake I was in for a treat.  I had never pinched dime sized crystals to make upward progress but that was what was called for.  There were bolts every five feet so even with nubbins for hands and feet I felt good.

We basically called it a day after that and went to Bend, OR to get beers and burgers at Deschutes Brewery.  There is nothing quite like a cold beer after a good day of climbing.

Five Gallon Buckets - Smith RockOur main objective on the second day was to climb Wherever I May Roam (5.9 – 5 pitches) which is on the backside of the mountain.  Since it was a balmy 33 degrees we decided to wait ’til the afternoon with the hope of climbing in the sun.

We started the day with Five Gallon Buckets (5.8).  Climbing the huecos was pretty amazing.  It was a first for me and I enjoyed it so much I climbed it twice.

With the sun shining we moved to the backside and started Wherever I May Roam (5.9).  The cool thing about the route is that it is five pitches of sport climbing.  I typically think of sport climbs as one-pitchers but I guess not.  I took the first pitch (5.8) to get on top of the pillar.  The only thing special about the first pitch was how sharp the rock was on my freezing hands.  We had totally blown the timing and the sun hadn’t even touched this side of the rock yet.

2013-03-21 13.16.09Clark took the second pitch (5.9) which starts with a big step over an airy gap as you move from the pillar to the main face.  At this point the wind was blowing something fierce and my puffy jacket did little to keep me warm.

I took the third pitch (5.9) and in many ways this was the crux pitch.  If you have read anything about Wherever I May Roam you’ve probably read how people get “lost” on the face by following the wrong bolts.  I had read that also and I thought there was no way I was going to get lost.  Yup, I was wrong and got totally lost on the face.  Even looking back I can’t figure out exactly where I went wrong.  The problem is there are bolts every-which-way and there is not a clear path of least resistance.  Plus you can’t see the anchors until you are basically on top of them.  The best advice I can give for this pitch is to remember that the anchors are all the way around in the dihedral and to keep moving up and over.

Clark took the fourth pitch (5.9) and while I was belaying him snow was blowing up on me as I hung in my shaded belay.  I haven’t shivered that hard in ages and let me say that it was not even type II fun.  When I joined Clark at the fourth belay I was in full body convulsions mode and was not in the most pleasant mood, but in an effort to just keep moving I lead the mostly unimpressive fifth pitch (5.8).

Getting down was straight forward.  We rapped off the backside into a sandy gully.  The second rap was from a set of chains on the west side of the gully which drops you at the anchors for the third/fourth belay.  I can imagine the tiny belay ledge gets pretty crowded on a nice day.  After that there were two more rappels from obvious anchors.  Normally something goes wonky while I am rapping but this one went surprisingly smooth.

Once we were down, and out of the wind, it really hit me how great the route was.  If the whether had been nicer I think that this route would be in my top five favorite routes.  I would highly recommend it… on a nice sunny day.

All in all Smith Rock deserves its reputation as a world class climbing destination.  I can’t wait to get back there.

The top of Wherever I May Roam

The top of Wherever I May Roam

Leading Classic NC Lines at Looking Glass

 

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.

The last picture you see shows me hanging on the anchor at the top of P1.  There were no more pictures through P2 and P3, because the wind kicked up and the climbing got more hairy!

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 Bite of the “Tarantula” – Linville Gorge

My good friend Tonya recently climbed Tarantula at Linville Gorge.  She has kindly written up a trip report and I have to say that it sounds like it was a grand adventure.  It is trips like these that make climbing in North Carolina world class and makes me miss it all the more. Note: the above photo is an old photo and is not on the way to Tarantula.  -Jon

We set out this Saturday morning, August 27, 2001, for what we knew would be an extended adventure in Linville Gorge, North Carolina.

We met in the Table Rock parking lot at 9:30 am … an eclectic group of six climbers:

  • Me (Tonya) the newbie of the bunch and the only girl,
  • Ben – my fiancé and regular Onthesharpend.com star,
  • Wesley – our tattooed teddy bear,
  • Barry – aka the Nature Boy
  • Buddy – Old-time hard man who has put up many lines around North Carolina, and
  • Les – world-traveler, originally from Canada, and Buddy’s trusty partner for over 10 years.

Our target was a beautiful, but little climbed line in the North Carolina Wall of Linville Gorge called Tarantula.  The 3-4 pitch route was downgraded to a 5.9 in the newest guidebook, but the original 5.10a grade seemed much more appropriate (I’ll explain that later).

If you’ve ever climbed one of the moderate routes in the Amphitheater like the Mummy, the Daddy, or the Prow, you are familiar with at least the start of the descent into North Carolina Wall.  I knew I was in for a long day, because Wesley and Buddy kept asking me if I was “up for it.”  Plus, they all let me lead the pack as we headed out from the Table Rock parking lot.  (I am the shortest and tend to struggle to keep up on the approaches.)  Since they were letting me set the pace, I knew they were concerned I wouldn’t be able to make it!

Now, I’ve been climbing 2 and ½ years, and I’ve been lucky to climb very frequently and have been exposed to more multi-pitch traditional climbing than many climbers ever experience.  I’ve been following trad consistently, and am pretty confident up to grades in the 5.9, 5.10a range.  However, if you’ve ever climbed multi-pitch in North Carolina, many of the routes are sandbagged since they were originally years ago when 5.10 was the hardest grade possible.  So, I’ve learned that ratings can be deceiving …

We took the trail out of Table Rock toward Shortoff Mountain, but then we turned right at the 2nd turnoff point, and followed the trail down.  The descent gully is steep, has a few scary unroped down climbs, but was familiar to me as I’ve been down it several times.  However, when we reached the point where we stood under Bumblebee Buttress, we moved left and began bushwhacking through barbed brambles and ivy trees, and tromping through waist-high brush as we moved left along the bottom edge of the rock face.  Eventually, we came to a 50-60 ft rock face that we had to climb up, again unroped.  It was easy climbing, but we were already high up on the side of the Gorge and it felt very exposed.   The views from that remote point across the Gorge to the Gold Coast and the Linville River are breathtaking.

Once we reached the top of the rock face, we hit another section of bushwhacking through briars. (I was glad I wore pants and I still don’t understand why Buddy insisted on shorts – you should have seen the bloody scratches on his legs – you’d think he’d learn after doing this for 30+  years!)  Then, suddenly we came into a little clearing and found ourselves in front of the route.

So, the intention was to lead off in teams of two climbers – Wes and Barry, Buddy and Les, and Ben and me.

The first pitch is definitely 10a in my book, but it’s a very short pitch.  It’s a traverse left under a roof, and it’s easier if you stay low.  It’s about 3 strenuous moves in a row, then eases off and you’re suddenly on the belay ledge.  It didn’t seem too bad on 2nd (although I did weight the rope once on those first strenuous moves), but on lead it is heady.  Part of the intimidation factor is that the strenuous section has some very loose rocks above you, and you have to be VERY careful where you pull.

Barry was the first to lead off, and he placed a piece of gear, proceeded to climb above it, reached for a hold that turned out to be no good, and took an immediate leader fall.  Wesley made a great catch, as Barry’s piece held and luckily Barry didn’t come smashing into Wesley who was standing on top of a huge boulder at the start.

Then Buddy decided to do the harder, more direct start to the left of Barry – and he struggled, made an aggressive down climb, and we all decided we’d follow Barry on his rope!

The 2nd pitch is some of the best crack climbing you’ll ever see in North Carolina.  It’s definitely a stemming problem, but there are two distinct sections where you absolutely have to fist jam and hand jam, as there are NO other holds.  Wes led this pitch for his team while I brought Ben, Buddy, and Les up to the belay ledge for the first pitch.  Les did climb the direct start on 2nd, and he sailed through it.

Wes moved efficiently, but definitely stopped to take a long rest at the top section where you get a great “butt” rest.  He even stopped to drink water!  As Barry followed after him, the Tarantula ate the first piece of gear of the day – a nut that was the first piece Wes placed (which, of course, belonged to Barry).  Barry, Buddy, and Ben all tried to get it out.

So, the belay at the top of pitch 2 is a small hanging belay, so the plan was for Wes and Barry to already be leading off the 3rd pitch by the time Les arrived at the belay.  Les led off on Pitch 2 once Barry was out of site, and he moved efficiently.  Pretty soon, Ben, Buddy, and I were left at the top of the first pitch – and we could hear Les at the belay talking to Wes and Barry, who seemed way closer to the belay than they should have been by that time.  However, we couldn’t understand what they were saying, so we weren’t sure what the problem was.  Ben walked off left and could see that Barry hadn’t gotten very far on the first pitch, which was rumored to be a 5.7, but we couldn’t see what the problem was.  Buddy followed Les, trailing our rope and then put me on belay.

I headed up the 2nd pitch, supposedly 5.9+ (the infamous +), and it was super hard and super fun!  At one point I had to get a fist jam in all the way to my wrist and hang my entire body off it while I moved my feet up.  It was hand over fist over ring-lock, and I definitely hung on the rope a couple times.  But I made all the moves and got out of the crack and over the roof – and then made the awkward traverse right and up to join Buddy and Les at the hanging belay where I would spend the next 3 hrs! (Yes, I did say 3 hours.)

I belayed Ben up, and while he definitely stopped frequently, he never weighted the rope and joined us at the belay.  (He’ll probably want me to confess that he arrived parched with thirst and when he asked for a drink from the water I was carrying for us, I had drunk it all.  I am atoning for this by publishing my shame to the climbing community – so HA!)

By this time Buddy had led off – sort of.

Now, I need to explain a few things.  First, Buddy has been leading trad for over 30 years.  Second, Buddy is typically the one in our group who will lead something that someone else has backed off of.  I have seen him lead 5.11a/b trad.  Buddy is a very solid leader.  However, part of why Buddy has survived so long is that he is very good at mitigating risk.  As an example, when Buddy gets up to a gear anchor, it’s not uncommon for him to add 5 other pieces to the anchor.  In fact, the belay at the top of Pitch 2 must have had 12 pieces of gear in it.  Additionally, Buddy is very good at finding and placing gear – even in tricky situations.

This pitch, which was supposedly 5.7, had Buddy stumped.  And, he had climbed it before.  Buddy climbed straight up, placed a piece, and down-climbed.  Then, he went around right, climbed up, placed a piece, and down-climbed.  Then climbed up again, got past the initial piece, and down-climbed.  He came back to the belay.  He finally led up straight, and very, very slowly, with much down-climbing, moving left, then right, then finally going straight again, he got moving.  Ben, Les, and I stood at the hanging belay for hours watching this delicate dance.

Finally, Ben decided to lead off behind Buddy on our rope – he decided he would clip our rope into the gear that Buddy’s left-running rope (they were using double-rope technique – another Buddy stand-by) was running through.  At this point, Buddy was so far above that gear as to make it no longer needed.  Les and I determined that I would belay Ben, tie into Buddy’s left rope and our rope, and climb on both, cleaning the anchor and all gear on Buddy’s/our rope.  Les would climb Buddy’s right-hand rope, as he needed to traverse waaay right in places to get gear Buddy had placed as he had searched for the path of least resistance (which was not to be found!).  Ben moved quickly, pink-pointing the route and adding gear where he could, and soon Les and I were alone.

Long story short – too late I know – I found myself alone at the belay, unable to communicate, with my kind belayers repeatedly pulling both ropes tightly on me while I took down the monstrosity of an anchor.  I finally started climbing.  The route had significantly overhung sections, most of which had good feet, but not always great handholds.  I came to one gear placement where Buddy had placed two TCU’s side-by-side in a horizontal crack.  The left-hand piece came out easily, but the blue one stubbornly refused to budge no matter what I did.  I hung on the rope, and beat on it with my nut tool.  As by now I was keenly aware of the sun getting closer to the other ridgeline, I finally left the piece.  Tarantula had taken another bite!

I kept climbing and reached a section where you had to make a huge step up to a shelf, but there were no real hands to pull up on, and it was extremely awkward.  I finally made the move, but I pretty much just flung myself up there.  When the pitch finally eased up as I hit this left, upward moving ramp, I found myself at an entry to what looked like a bush tunnel. This was the end of the route?  I had so much gear on me at this point that I could hardly drag myself through all the bushes.  Somehow, Buddy and Ben together had found plenty of gear on the pitch, as I cleaned about 15 pieces.  As I fought gear and slings hooking on branches left and right, I reached my climbing partners and stated that obvious, “That was no 5.7.”  It had to be at least 5.9.

You would think at this point that we were done, but we had one more little pitch to get through.  By the time I followed up an easy scramble of rock, and bushwhacked to the base of the final section of vertical rock, Ben had already let the section and Les was getting ready to follow.  This section was supposed to be 5.4 – but as I watched Buddy make the move around the big jutting flake, smearing with his feet on no footholds, I decided Tarantula had once again sandbagged.  Buddy left me two pieces of gear, but before I started to climb the first of those two popped out and slid down the rope – not exactly making me feel confident.  I calmly cleaned the piece and started up.  I decided NOT to make the move Buddy made, and instead climbed the mossy face.  There were tiny feet and tiny hands, and before I knew it I was up and back to bushwhacking and scrambling, and then, voila! I had topped out on the ridge.

We changed out of our climbing shoes and started the work of getting home.  Dusk had fallen and we needed to get back to the main trail before real dark.  We headed left, scrambling over deadfall and bushwhacking through the brush.  Ben led, then Les, then me, and then Buddy.  Wes and Barry were long gone by this point.  After about 10-15 minutes of moving steadily up and left, we hit the main ridgeline trail.  We followed that trail all the back to the main descent trail, and found our backpacks just in time to put our headlamps on.  Just about 10 more minutes uphill and we turned left onto the main trail back to Table Rock.  I checked my phone, as I heard it ringing (yes, Verizon works out there), and had a missed call from Wes.  It was 9:00 pm – so I called and left the message that we were back at the main trail.

Finally, we trudged into Table Rock parking lot and met up with Wes and Barry about 9:30.  I will say that it could have been a longer day – we did not get lost finding the climb or hiking out, and that is a definite possibility for anyone attempting that climb.

Tarantula makes for a very fun adventure – with varied climbing.  Pitch 1 is very short, but is a strenuous, left-moving traverse.  Pitch 2 is an awesome crack that never lets up (think Triple S at Seneca, but with less feet and longer).   Pitch 3 is hard to protect and overhung, with much stiffer climbing than the rating suggests.  And the little Pitch 4 is worth protecting and roping up for.  If you’re up for an adventure, Tarantula will deliver.  Just beware of the bite!!

Classic NC Climbing – Moore’s Wall

After a two year hiatus from North Carolina rock climbing I finally made it back to climb at Moore’s Wall with my old partner Ben and his ever lovely fiance Tonya.  We ended up climbing the super classic Zoo View (5.7+ 2p) and some 5.6-ish line on Sentinel Buttress.

I’ve climbed Zoo View once before during the early days of my climbing career.  Ben and I had been hitting all of the classic 5.6’s in NC and feeling confident after climbing the Maginot Line (5.7 3p) at Shortoff Mountain we committed to Zoo View.  The thing that establishes Zoo View as a super classic climb is the daunting roof halfway up the second pitch that is home to the most bomber jugs imaginable.  The holds are deep and positive and confidence inspiring to even the most novice climber.  With these church of the solid rock holds you can relax and enjoy looking like a superhero as you pull a good size roof with great exposure.  It felt good to pull that roof again and even better to get to the top with a shit-eating grin on my face and relive the climb with Ben.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the rappelling situation at Moore’s Wall.  There are not a lot of rappelling options and the set of bolts that dumps you to the Crow’s Nest drops you down a popular route on Sentinel Buttress.   When we were there we accidentally rappelled over a team.  I am highly embarrassed and it is inexcusable but it happened.  Be very careful about what is below you when rappelling on Moore’s Wall and expect to wait at the top or at the Crow’s Nest for the parties below to clear.  It is just the way it is, but hey we’re in the South where people are friendly and afternoons  are lazy.

My old trip report on Zoo View has more pictures and beta if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.  Also if you have any thoughts on fixing the rappelling situation at Moore’s Wall I’m all ears.