“Perfect,” I said out loud as I clipped the cam placed, well, perfectly in the inch-wide crack. I relaxed a bit and shook out one arm at a time, trying vainly to coax some warm blood back into my fingers. It was obvious a storm was coming, the temperature was dropping and occasional rain drops hit the face. I wasn’t getting any stronger hanging there, I needed to go up. I jammed my hand deep into the crack and turned to work my feet higher, laybacking the crack and hoping not to see a swirling cloud of feathers as my jacket scraped the rock.
The rest of our team had climbed the lower portion of the route, but then bailed. Only Abby and I remained to finish the route. The team watched from the comfort of ABC as I slowly made my way up the crack. With numb fingers, I worried that I would lose my grip and fall at any moment. I tried to make precise and solid foot placements and found constrictions in the crack that I could slot a cold knuckle into like a stopper. Finally, the angle eased and I set up an anchor just below the summit.
Abby was out of sight when she started to climb, and I imagined myself a seriously lost fisherman feeling her movements through the rope. A strong front moved in just after she began to climb, blasting my exposed position at the top of the route. I pulled my hood over my helmet, grateful for its warmth. Abby made steady progress and soon arrived at the belay, her hands purplish-red from the cold.
“That was the worst climb of my life,” she said. “My hands are FREEZING!”
I nodded sympathetically as I quickly dismantled the anchor and coiled the rope. We opted to walk off rather than rappel and spent the rest of the 4th – low-5th class descent regretting the choice. We rejoined out team at ABC unscathed and quickly descended to base camp where our shelter was buffeted by wind and rain all night.
I’ve been reading too many climbing narratives lately. Maybe it’s the cool and wet weather we’ve had this spring. Even though the two places are similar in only one aspect – granite – I found myself imagining our family excursion to City of Rocks as a Patagonian expedition. I should be clear, I’ve never climbed in Patagonia, but I think Cerro Torre is the most beautiful mountain in the world. The aforementioned route was in fact a one-pitch 5.8 called Carol’s Crack. Swallows, not Andean Condors swooped around the rock formations. I built a toprope anchor midway up the route which the three middle kids climbed several times each. They really did bail to ABC, which normally means Advanced Base Camp in climbing parlance but in the case of our Suburban means A Big Car. And while Jennie read to them, Abby and I finished the route in a gathering storm before returning to our, um, vintage tent trailer which shook like a Patagonian beech tree in the wind all night.
Carol’s Crack happens to be the very first route I climbed, way back in about 1994. Newly married and living just an hour away from the City, Jennie and I ran into my former Scoutmaster, Craig, while visiting my parents. He invited me to climb with him. I knew nothing about climbing, but we were going to Utah State and I’d seen climbers in Logan Canyon. When I showed up at the crag, Craig was at the top and his daughter, Analee, was just getting ready to clean the route. She helped me get my harness on and tied me into a rope she trailed. Then she took off. Soon the rope tightened on my harness and Craig called down to start climbing. I couldn’t see him, but being a bright boy I figured I’d just follow the rope. There was just one problem – that rope kept tugging me upwards. “Sheesh!” I thought. “Give me a break, this is my first time.” I tried to speed up, but still the rope urged, “Faster, Faster!” I don’t remember any details about the route, the sensation of height, or what kind of holds my untrained fingers discovered. Just a feeling of wanting to prove that I wasn’t some no-natural-ability slow-poke.
“Man, you FLEW up that thing!” Craig exclaimed when I flopped down next to him on the belay ledge.
“I thought you wanted me to go faster, the way you kept pulling on the rope,” I panted.
So Craig explained the principle of belaying a second, and how he couldn’t see me so he had to pull until the rope got tight to know there wasn’t any slack in the system. Ha, ha! I took the next route at a leisurely pace and by the end of the day was totally hooked. Soon Craig had me leading 5.9 slabs before I could learn the meaning of the word “run-out”. The kids laughed and laughed as I told them the story around the fire that night. They couldn’t imagine their dad not knowing anything about climbing.
Unfortunately, Carol’s Crack was our family’s last climb for this trip. After a fitful night of wind, rain, and screaming baby, we impatiently waited for a weather window like a bunch of Patagonian climbers. A brief break in the clouds looked promising, so Jennie and I headed out for a 6-mile run (according to the guidebook, 7.5 according to Garmin). Halfway through, the rain started again. City of Rocks has no cell phone reception, no way of getting a weather forecast, just old-fashioned weather-reading experience. And all of my experience told me that we weren’t going to get that window. We held a family council and voted to bail. The timing was right, we’d had a fun time (Type 1+ / 2-) and hadn’t gotten to the “not fun” stage yet. Abby and I had climbed, the boys got their fire, Jennie and I got our trail run. There was no point in tempting fate. When we got home and looked up the weather radar, a big blob of green and yellow was parked right over the City. It was still there the next morning.
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