Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mission: Failed (But Not Really)

Definitely a day to remember. Skyed it to August Canyon on a Tuesday afternoon, no one around, temperature soaring well over 100. Actually, there were quite a few cars in the parking lot considering the temp, maybe 10 or so.

I felt very privileged to be going on such a decadent adventure, and able to write it off as work. As always on such scorching days, the others at the mountain were the hard-people, the ripped dudes and dudettes who bound up and down Camelback like ibexes. I had my big gray approach pack:

Inside was an orange, two big Nalgenes of ice water, my 160' rope, harness and assorted gear, sunblock, knife, phone and climbing shoes. Notice I didn't say chalk bag. I left that in the Jeep. Realized that sad fact just as I got up to the top of the second handrail section, too far to go back. Who needs chalk. Just a crutch, really. Even on a hot day like this, possibly the only kind of day when chalk might be necessary, I talked myself into believing it wouldn't matter. Thankfully, it didn't. But it could have on a different day, on a different route.

As the firefighters had said, once I turned right at the top of the handrail parts (not the first steep part, but the second one), I found the class 4 back door to August Canyon. I passed this route at first, believing it might be the 5.7, Line of Fire. The trail keeps going from here so I followed it until it dawned on me that, no, as much as I didn't want to believe it, this was the class 4. Karabin's Camelback pamphlet calls it a 5.2. This is the spot the rescue victims climbed, according to a fire captain I talked to. Though the firefighters call this a class 4, I'd say it's at least a 5.0 or 5.1. Some moves are comparable to a 5.5 in the gym.

I had walked up to this thing and taken a closer look on the first pass, so I knew the beginning was doable. But it had the look of a serpent's mouth to me - it was balls-to-the-wall free solo and I'd wanted no part of it.

A few minutes later I found myself at its base again. I put on my climbing shoes and danced up the first 40 feet just to see how things were going to go, ever mindful of how I would down-climb. I decided to practice that start twice because I knew I'd be coming down with less energy, and I wanted to try it with the pack.

Here's a picture that ran with the blog post I wrote for NT.

This was a mini-epic for a few different reasons. One is that I was alone, and the southeast side of the Head was deserted, which it probably would have been even if it wasn't about 107. The heat meant few people were hiking the Echo Canyon trail -- put it all together and that means if I fall, odds are slim anyone would know for a while, especially if I was unconscious and couldn't yell for help. In that case, I'd be totally screwed. This is one of the realities of solo adventure, but the risk, paradoxically is also one of the joys. Taking on heavy responsibilities and meeting challenges, in this setting, is somehow like stealing jewels from the dragon's lair.

The climbing was easy, but only just so. The footholds were solid and positive, but thin, so that my heels stuck out on much of it. I saw at least three bolts on this section. After the first 20 or 30 feet the angle mellowed out and more good holds appeared. The rock quality, however, took a turn for the crappy. (No more bolts, either.)

A solid route exists there, but I had to pick my way carefully 'cause this was no place for a rush job. I wasn't gripped on the ascent. Highly focused, yes. I was happy to make that right-hand turn at the top there and ease on up to the August Canyon plateau.

This is a shot of my hiking shoes and a water bottle that I left at the bottom. There's a big eyebolt up here, but I think rapping it would take a double rope. My guess is this about 100 feet up; the eyebolt might be a bit more.

This was from a little further up. It was fun scrambling, pretty much, from the top of the 5.1 to this point.

I found this cozy little nook and thought it might be the access point to the north face. After I hopped up on the bulgy part in the middle, though, I heard a loud buzzing sound -- bees. My catlike reflexes went into action -- or so it seemed in retrospect. I'm sure it didn't look pretty, but I jumped off the rock with a bit of a spin, landing in that sandy part there and running back out nearly in panic. My only thought was to put as much distance as possible between me and the hive before they targeted me. I knew a swarm attack here could be deadly -- probably the biggest objective danger at Camelback. You could be as cautious as a mouse and a world-class climber to boot and still end up dead with the venom of 500 stings in you. Or maybe you only get one or two hundred stings before you do something crazy and slip off a cliff face. I tiptoed back in here after I realized they weren't coming after me. Sure enough, there was a hive in there. Look at the formation on the left -- see how it looks like a whale lying on its right side, with the big crack becoming the dark line of its mouth and the pocket above it the whale's small, black, set-back eye? The hive is the eye. Dozens of bees were flying in and out of it every second, and I tried not to breathe too heavily, thinking they might not like that. I wondered -- if they attacked, which would be the best course of action: Try a single-line rappel or down-climb the 5.1. Having a rope to descend would be safer, of course, except the bees would annihilate you during the set-up. You'd have to do it blind, with your shirt pulled above your face, else you'd need your hands to scoop the bees out of your eyes. A quick figure eight on a bight, quick biner clip, then either batman (possibly tearing all the skin off your hands) or rappel, but the rappel takes another minute to hook up and the bees are all over your arms, your chest, your neck. The rope would be tangled -- of course it would. A bad tangle would mean death. Then there's Option B -- climbing. As mentioned, the bees go for the eyes and mouth -- it might not be possible to downclimb and keep the bees from the eyes at the same time. Blindness could occur rather quickly as the eyes swelled up. But route-finding on the 5.1 is essential. Going more than a few feet off route could mean disaster. You'd quickly downclimb to a blind alley, then have to climb back up and try another path, assuming instinct didn't keep you downclimbing until a slip occurred. The guy I interviewed for the Trib managed to downclimb Hart Route while being stung by wave after wave of bees, but I know Hart Route fairly well and it's hard to get off route there. It's very straight-forward. Not like this 5.1, which requires extra focusing of the eyes just to see the route under ideal conditions. Whether Option A or B would be chosen would probably depend on the severity of the attack. A heavier attack might prompt a decision to downclimb, though in fact the downclimb might only be possible under a lighter bombardment, which would mean the right decision would be counter-intuitive and thus less likely to be chosen in an emergency.

Here's evidence of some of the "gardening" the firefighters did. This was after I found the notch that led to the north face. There's a wonderful little cubby spot here with a sublime view. There's also a fair sprinkling of garbage up here, lots of empty water bottles which I assume are also from the rescue.

The view from this notch is fantastic, and strikingly different than what 99 percent of hikers will ever see at Camelback -- as are many of the views from the various climbing routes. This scene looks north past a section of the Echo Canyon trail. That's the main bouldering boulder in the middle of the trail slight left of center.

A view of some of the upper bluffs.

Here's another reference from where this was. Above is a shot is from the parking lot...

And this is a shot of the parking lot from that spot. I still find it hard to believe it's 400 feet to the ground from this perch. More like 250 or 300 max, I'd say.

Anyway, I consider the mission a failure because I never made it to the rescued dudes' perch. I descended about 40 or 50 feet from the notch opening, down a fairly clean dry water fall -- not totally dry, though -- there were at least three pools of water ranging from about one to two feet in diameter, each with a dozen or so bees taking a sip. I gingerly picked my way around those and stopped about 40 feet above the perch. I would go no farther, making this trip a failure.

The downclimbing from that point became sketchier, in the neighborhood of the upper part of the 5.1. It looked potentially doable, but it was about 6:30 or so by then. I decided to abort the mission since it was going to take some time to climb back up to the notch, trek across August Canyon to the downclimb, then do the downclimb (the prospect of which had left a seed of anxiety growing in my stomach from the second I reached the top of it).

This is such a great area -- I'd love to go back soon. Exploring around the Canyon would be fun, and I'd like to find the four-chain rappel for Suicide and Suicide Direct, which should be accessible a bit further west in the canyon. The growth gets kind of thick in places and the potential for bees or rattlesnakes are the only bad things about this place. It's about as good as it gets for a desert hideaway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like all of the different views you have here and the stories that follow. I like the challenge of hiking Camelback too. Though I'm not one to venture too far from the Echo Canyon trail. It is a great hike every time and it seems you find new things to see and photograph each time. I have some unique treasure images from one of my Camelback hikes a year ago that you may like to display up here. Just let me know (email or via my blog).


PS I enjoyed your talk at ASU today. I hope to blog with you again :-)