Friday, May 25, 2012

The ugly side

At the crack of noon, under a cloudless sky, The Brewer and I roped up for Beulah's and Heliotrope, at the Solar Slab in Red Rocks. I was sweating from the approach and stuffed my shell into my pack on top of our post-climb PBRs.

"Butch," said The Brewer, "I'm bringing my shell."

I rumaged around memories of epics and concluded that The Brewer was right and stuuffed the shell into a stuff sack, clipped it to my harness, and set off.

I sweated enough to strip down to my blinding white skin, and on arriving on the Solar Slab terrace, we looked up and saw five people at the bottom of Heliotrope, which shares a first belay with Solar Slab and Sunflower.

At the belay were two parties. One was three women-- one experienced and two not. These had started their day at 6:00 AM at the gate, and had taken six hours to climb the three pitches of Johnny Vegas. The other two were a couple from Oregon. The girl wore a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and her boyfriend shorts and a t-shirt, as well as a surprsingly large pack. They were on their first multi-pitch.

The three women set off up Solar Slab and I chatted with the girl as she followed up Heliotrope and I led behind her. They were on their first-ever multi-pitch. At this point the wind had picked up considerably, and we enjoyed perfect temps with the sun.

As I arrived at the bottom of the third pitch of Heliotrope, the guy was leading up onto the very runout fourth pitch, and, in somewhat higher wind, his girlfriend was shivering. I lent her my shell and brought The Brewer up. The girl thanked me for the shell and said she had left hers at the base. When I asked what we in her boyfriend's pack, she said he was carrying another rope, and their lunches.

Meanwhile, way below us, the party of three was still on the first pitch of Solar Slab proper. Their leader was a snail, as were the seconds, who were not simul-seconding, even though they had two ropes.

The Oregonian leader got scared and bailed onto the neighbouring route, Sunflower, and The Brewer and I climbed up. At the top of Heliotrope, the wind was ripping, the sun was gone, and clouds were moving in. We ran into two girls, Heather and Angela, and agreed to share ropes and simulrap down the Solar Slab raps. Heather had a shell, but Angela didn't, and so The Brewer gave her his. He had two wool layers and a fleece on.

As Heather and I rapped down, we looked across and saw the Oregonians. I asked them if they were bailing, and they said "nah, we're gonna finish."

I said "It's cold, you don't have a lot of clothes, and it might rain. You should bail." They wanted to comtinue.

A few raps later and we reached the belay where we had first met the Oregonians and the three women. The three women were bailing in what was now near darkness, very high-- like sideways ropes high-- wind, and very cold temps. It took them fucking forever to set up their rap, and then they refused to simul-rap. Above us, The Brewer was yelling rap beta to the Oregonians, who lacked not only clothes but headlamps.

"Look," I said to the three women, "there are seven people here. You're going to hold all of us up in bad weather. If you are worried about simulrapping, the first person can fireman the rest."

"Um, we're not comfortable with that," said the experienced woman.

The Brewer and Angela arrived, and The Brewer explained that the Oregonians had now found the rap route. They did have a light, it turned out-- one had a micro pen-light. At this point I stopped worrying about the Oregonians. All they had to do was rap straight down and they would get back to their packs. Iw as a bit worried about The Brewer. He's tough as nails, and smart, but there's only so much you can do while the wind rips away at you.

By the time we rapped onto the Solar Slab terrace, it was dark, and the wind was howling. The three slugs managed to stay ahead of us on the next rappel, but on the rappel after that, they went the wrong way, and their whole system turned into a clusterfuck. The first woman rapped way past the anchor, into the wrong part of the gully, and decided to jug up.

"Fuck it," I said, "we're passing," and installed a sling and biener on a tree to bypass the slugs. Heather and I set off, passing the slug woman and her prussiks. If you have ever climbed the Solar Slab gully, you will know how ridiculous this is-- it's third class, and here was this woman, jugging!

As Heather and I started the final rap, a few drops of rain and hail fell. By the time we reached the ground, thirty seconds later, it was pouring and sleeting. And by the time we retrieved our packs and brought them to the ropes-- maybe two minutes-- there was a waterfall blasting down the gully, out of which emerged a soaked Brewer and Angela. I could nto believe my eyes. The waterfall was literally so powerful that no normal human being could have moved up it, even ont he third-class rock under it.

As we packed, we heard yelling, and looked up. The three slugs were doing their slow thing in the guly, but the Oregonians were atop the Solar Slab buttress, their tiny lamp a-flicker. Through the howling sideways wind and sleet, we heard "HEEEELLLLLLP!"


There comes a time for all of us when the decision we are about to make will have life-and-death consequences. We had all of our clothes on, and were freezing. Above us were two climbers minus proper lights and clothes, in what was now a full-on snowstorm.

There was no way to climb back up to help them. Sandstone is mush in water; the gully had a waterfall blasting down it; we were frozen and out of food. So we called 911.

The S.A.R. guy they put us onto said that there was literally nothing to be done. He told us not to attempt a rescue. He also told us that there was nothing he could do until morning: sleet, darkness and very high winds would prevent both climbers and helicopters from doing anything. He also advised us to make sure we were not putting ourselves in danger.

We went to Vegas for fast food and what followed was the most miserable night of my life. There were two dead people out there. Cotton clothes, no light, and trouble finding the bottom half of the rap route = death. I tossed and turned.

The next morning, as we silently waited for coffee to boil, a climber walked into our site and told us that S.A.R. had flown out at first light and had found the Oregonians, who had rapped Johnny Vegas, having had to cut various stuck ropes, and who had made it to the ground, but were too hypothermic to move. When S.A.R. got to them at 6:00 AM, the girl's body temp was 83 degrees. Both were in critical condition in the hospital.

An hour later we saw a Ranger, who said "your 911 call saved their lives."

* * * *

The question as to what we did right and wrong still bugs me. Should we have done anything differently? I have a few ideas.

a) It should-- but unfortunately doesn't-- go without saying that if you are on a multi-pitch, you should, always, have a rain-shell, a hat, and a headlamp, which can hang, light and hassle-free, from your harness. Angela lacked hers, as did the Oregonians, and I nearly left mine behind. There is no way that having this stuff is gonna slow you down, or compromise your experience, so just fucking bring it.

b) The three women slugs made poor decisions. If you are climbing in three, and you are paranoid, and slow, and one of your party is a gumbie, you should not be on a multipitch. And if it takes you six hours to climb three pitches, you would be best off not starting a six-pitch route at 1:30 PM. If things go sideways, and one experienced person has to mandhandle two others off a route, you are asking for trouble. It is necessary to re-evaluate objectives in light of what happens. As I write, four people just died on Everest, and what it comes down to is, they wanted it badly enough that objective reality (it was late, and they were exhausted and sick) got ignored.

On top of that, when the shit hits the fan, you defer to the experienced, and you move fast. We simulrapped with the girls; the slugs should have done the same, or at least let us pass earlier. If you are gonna fuck around, don't interfere with others.

c) The Oregonians made every mistake in the book. Too much gear, too little clothing, not assessing their situation, refusing to turn around, no headlights, not having proper beta for finding the rap route-- add that to bad weather and you've got a disaster.

d) Did we screw up? We did...but there is no way we could have known that we did. The Brewer managed to direct the Oregonians to the rap route, and then we descended. We could have waited for them on the Solar Slab terrace, but when we were rappeling off the terrace, we saw them, descending the rap route. We had no way of knowing that they would have trouble finding the rap route off the terrace. They also had double ropes, which, we assumed, would make for fast raps, as they had for us. They had, after all, climbed up past the rap route that morning.

Should we have waited at the base of the cliff for the Oregonians? Maybe...but we were out of food, and frozen, and we did not have any emergency equipment like bivvy sacks. If the Oregonians had come down with any problems (e.g. hypothermia) we could have done little more than huddle with them. This would however also have put us into major danger. We could not have gone back in, because the park gates were closed.

My S.A.R. friends in Squamish say that you take care of first yourself, then your rescue team, and finally the accident victims, in that order. A rescuer or team who are in danger or unable to do X or Y are going to not only not help the victims but also put themselves in danger, potentially amplifying the problem.

e) Finally, making things safer for people does not actually make things safer. Solar Slab, which gets at least ten ascents a day, was equipped with a dedicated, 30-meter-at-a-time, bolted rap route. Paradoxically, this route has not done much to reduce epics and accidents. While it is now easier and faster to get off, this same ease and speed means that more less-experienced, slower, weaker etc parties will try the route. This will obviously lead to congestion, but it will also mean that, when things go sideways-- like rockfall, or weather-- there will be more people with fewer skills up there. The best rap route in the world is not going to help you if you can't retrieve stuck ropes, or if you forget your shell, or if you climb into poor weather too late in the day.

e) There is my Supertopo post (and many responses) here.

Anyway. Everyone survived...but now I look at sunny 5.6 routes and I'm glad I have a light shell and a pocket lamp.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Gota story

It's been two years since The Driller and I put up La Gota Fria. As of this writing, we have the FCA-- first complete ass-- with two pitches (12c ansd 12a?) remaining to be freed. I'm not holding my breath.

After our ascent, a bit of a shit-storm happened on-line. Basically, Napoleon was unhappy that Driller and I had done the First Ass of the route without him. He having done the First Ass of some of the pitches, wanted to be included in the First Ass, but wasn't, and this is why.

When we began the route, in 2008, Napoleon and I started ground-up. We immediately ran into one problem: Napoleon didn't want to show up for work. After the second day on the route, we made plans to work a third, and Napoleon sent in his stead Kasper Podgoski, who nabbed the Fist Ass of P1 and 2 with me (on aid).

After this point, Napoleon would only show up for the occasional day. It became obvious that the route was going to go, and it became equally obvious that, if we wnet at Napoleon's pace (one day per month) we would be retired by the time the FA came around. So I recruited The Driller, who has a ton of aid experience. The Driller, despite having a non-climbing girlfriend (now his wife), a full-time job, and full-time school, ALL AT THE SAME TIME, became a regular feature on the route. I also had a non-climbing girlfriend-- and we have kids-- and a full-time job, so during the doing of this route, both Driller and I gave up quite a few climbing days.

Together we pushed the route -- entirely ground up, via aid-- to the top of P10. Napoleon disagreed with the tactics. For him, ground-up was too dangerous. However, he had not led a single pitch. At this point he proposed that he rap in from the top, so he and our friend Ben hauled a few hundred meters of rope up there and they rapped down and isntalled fixed ropes to the top of P10.

We now had fixed ropes-- as of April 2009-- on the whole route, and it basically came time to clean, log and bolt. This work, while not awful, isn't nearly as fun as actual climbing. You are hanging from aiders or a butt-bag, hacking away at dirt, logs or flakes of rock. Yes, you can shit-talk with your partner, and the views are great, but it's not climbing.

As the route progressed, Napoleon did less and less work, while Driller and I kept at it. Napoleon would send us missives which included JPEGs of the route with suggestions that we "scrub variations" on the route. In the summer of 2009, on several occasions I was on the route, working, while Napoleon would project this or that on the Badge, and yell at us "hey fuckers, you guys should try climbing something!" and so on. Indeed, that summer, Napoleon-- who was working 8 hours per week and not in school-- was climbing five days per week, and came out twice to work on the route.

In March of 2010, Driller and I told Napoleon flat-out that when the first ascent was going to happen, he would not be on it unless he massively upped his work commitment. He responded with "I will be available to work on the route in May and June." Instead, he went to the Valley and we didn't see him for two months.

One week before the first ascent, I ran into Napoleon and his girlfriend in Starbucks. I told him that Driller and I were gunning for the First Complete Ass next weekend. He said "cool" and I said that we would save the two 12+ pitches for him, to which he said "cool."

On July 10, 2010, Driller and I did the F.C.A. of La Gota Fria, freeing all but two of the pitches.

The next day, when I put the topo online, the shitstorm started, with Napoleon name-calling both Driller and I on Squamishclimbing. He was told by the admin that if his comments persisted they would ban him, as he was slandering both of us.

When I added up the days of work on the route, it had taken something like 53 person-days. I had done around 30, Driller 15, and Napoleon 8. Other people like Ian Bennet, Tony McLane, Ben Roy, Paul Cordy and Kasper Podgorski had put in time as well.

Napoleon was angry that he'd been excluded from the F.A. I still have mixed feelings about this. His lack of work-- especially considering that he had no job, no girlfriend, and summers off-- was shocking. At one point in the summer of 2009, I called him to see if he wanted to get out onto the route, and he said "I can't; I've been climbing all week and I am too tired." While he enjoyed a climbing summer, Driller and I hung on ropes and dug mud.

Were we selfish in excluding him from the F.A.? Probably. Were we justified? Dunno, but it felt like it, and still does. If I were as generous as I'd like to be, I might've forgiven him...but that route came at great personal expense, it cost Driller and I many climbing days, and it felt like Napoleon was more into talking about the route than doing the work. Indeed, it became particularly galling when Driller and I would run into acquaintances mutual to us and Napoleon, and hear them say "so Napoleon was talking about your guys' route. How is it going?", when Napoleon would have been months not climbing the route.

In the end, the route forged a much stronger and deeper bond between the Driller and I, who shared some hair-raising moments. It also taught me to aid-climb, to confront fear, and it showed me that small acts of selfishness (like showing up hours late for climbing days, and refusing to work, and assuming your partner will bring all of the stuff you forgot to pack cos you were out partying till 3 A.M. the night before) often portend much bigger ones.

So, yeah. Ya dance with them what brung ya. But not forever.

Head Games

So I am a little short of regular partners right now.

The Filth has a baby and lives in Chiliwack, where, when not wiping up poo or banging away at either the wife's ass or his keyboard (he is writing a novel), he strokes himself while staring at the likes of either Slesse or the Internets full of bouldering pictures.

The Driller has become a full-on corporate whore, much like Napoleon, the main differences between these two being that the Driller had a soul before he went over to the Dark (well-paying) Side, and he gets laid regularly.

The Brewer has been ski-touring. Before that, he was swamped in Minion Training. This is when your previous Minion-- a.k.a. Brew Bitch-- gets fired, and you get a new Minion, who must be brought up to speed with things like degrees Plato, sparging rates, and why not to connect the brown ale hose to the I.P.A. tap. Which adds up to not much climbing, but The Brewer generally has kegs and kegs of beer at home to compensate him.

So Butch has been bouldering and is pleased to provide free advertising for The Hive a new bouldering gym right beside Cliffhanger. Now using my sexy new used longboard and chugging a few beers, I've been riding (and falling)down there and cranking a few V19s to stay in shape. After all, this is the summer when my long-awaited project, a nude freesolo of The Nose, goes down.

The attentive reader will have noted the massive blatant lie in the former sentence. That's right, folks-- The Hive does not give its boulder problems V grades. Really!

I talked to a setter there who told me that the deal was this: when you put a grade on a problem, people typically have several set reactions:

a) "it's soft for the grade"

b) "it's hard for the grade"

c) "I can't do that, it's too hard"

d) "I can't be fucked to do that-- it's too easy, and I am training for my nude freesolo of The Nose"

I heard this and I thought back to two of my former limits-- getting into 5.10s and then 5.11s on trad. I had a trad rack for a whole year, was climbing 11+ on bolts, but lacked the sack (what women call ovaries) for 5.10. This, I thought, was the realm of HardPeople. Well, I would eventually break through this barrier at the Malamute, back when the thrill of climbing there had more to do with the routes and less with breaking the law. I sent a 10a or maybe 10b with some nice scary wet moves at the end. Anyway it turned out to be really cool, but not hard at all, leading me back to the old saw: walls are made of thoughts.

My 5.11 moment came one year later. Bones and Eamonn slept on my floor en route to Alaska one spring morning, and I was jealous as I drove them to the airport. Then The Lawyer called. We had climbing plans. He said "I'll be two hours late, and I am bringing my wife, who is getting a massage."
Argh Jesus fuck, I thought, the dumb bitch got it backwards-- massage AFTER climbing-- and anyways she was one of those people who climbed so that she and Her Husband! could "spend time together." This is another way of saying it was as much an act of masochism to watch her climb as it was for her to actually climb-- she just didn't want to be there, but she had to keep a steady eye on Her Husband!'s other girlfriend, Rock. Goodbye HardPeople, hello Puss-fest.

So we ended up at the Bluffs on the world's nicest Saturday at 1:00 and The Lawyer led up that 5.9 corner up and left of Penny Lane while The Wife belayed him. When The Wife got on the rope it became obvious that this was going to be one of those two-hour pitches. An urge seized me and I walked over to Penny Lane. I put on my shoes, and jumped onto Penny Lane. The couple racking up for it said "NO! DON'T SOLO IT! WE'LL BELAY YOU! PLEASE COME DOWN" but I went on and did my first freesolo without really thinking about it. The route's crux is a one-move wonder ten feet off the deck and I barely noticed it. On top, I slid down the other end of The Lawyer's rope while The Wife made noises about having brought the wrong shoes.

Now I am not spraying here. I have gone back to that route with a rope, and been scared. I have backed off of solos. I have felt like-- and been-- a total pussycat, and if you don't believe me, ask The Driller or The Filth. But back on the ground I realised that I'd just gone through another wall. I ran around the Bluffs and soloed every easy route I could find, then roped up for Partners in Crime, and onsighted my first 5.11 on gear. Walls are indeed made partly of thoughts, and that day I had the single best climbing day until then of my life.

So back to the gym.

Apparently they decided on this "grade cluster" system. Routes (problems) are "graded" colours, and each colour roughly corresponds to a set of grades. EG yellow is V3-V5, orange or whatever V1-V3 etc. What this does is, it gets people to

a) try a variety of moves within a colour group (grade)
b) not worry about the grade so much
c) not argue about grades' hardness or softness
d) appreciate the moves and difficulty, not the grade

This reminded me of a Croft line, where he talks about how the other Bishops bouldering adventure is-- no, not V19 highballs a la Sharma-- but the smell of sage underfoot, a sunride, and the wonder of finding and climbing something nobody's seen.

Anyway I have had a marvellous few sessions there and am very much enjoying it. No, the bastards didn't pay me to write this, though they should. Some free passes are in order. The OTHER thing I like is that they make all the holds on the prob the same colour, so, if you are a dumm giy like mee, you don't have to expend valuable energy trying to find your graying islands of purchase in a sea of dusted wall and peeling tape.

Knight to king's fourth, Cliffhanger.