Friday, April 30, 2010

Hart Route Freesolo Pt. 1 -- Recon

Six-and-a-half hours of pure, kickass adventure in Camelback last weekend. I freesoloed Hart Route -- something I've been thinking about doing since the first time I climbed it back in 1989. (Click on picture for close-up, with dotted route-line). I went on a recon mission to the place a few weeks ago, climbing up the first pitch after being invited to climb through by some folks who'd gotten up earlier than me. The pitch is rated 5.0 in some guide books, but it's really a 5.2 by today's standards. It's hard to know what to compare Hart Route to -- there are relatively few climbs out there rated 5.0 to 5.4, and they're usually underrated instead of overrated. Unlike a gym climb, it's not sustained, and it's not always vertical. But each of the three pitches on Hart Route has moves that would be rated 5.2-5.7 in the gym. Add in the diceyness of Camelback rock and the quality exposure of each pitch, up to the top-out at 150 feet or so, and this climb becomes something quite unlike any gym or shorty sport climb. It gives me the same feeling I get while on trad lead, or even trad seconding -- an hours-long rush of adrenaline, fear, happiness, mental control and physical satisfaction. Freesoloing anything allows me to reclaim my human-animal roots, the need for excitement missing in daily modern life. And Hart Route is a good freesolo for me -- not too hard, nothing to keep me up at night when I'm done. It's extreme, by the average Camelback hiker's standard, but not too extreme for people who feel comfortable running out a lead in the 5.6-5.8 range, which includes me.

Spending time like this at Camelback is a fantastic mountain escape.

But I digress.

The first pitch of Hart Route is quite easy, to the big hole 3/4s of the way up. After that, footholds on the left become trickier at the same time the handholds get thinner. On the recon day, at that section, I angled left to a spot with bushes and a moderate overhang. Climbing in full static mode, as I do sometimes when I freesolo so that I can reverse the moves without much thought, I pulled myself into the final moves after a bit of leg shake. I'd initially felt like a total badass after the guy in the picture told me to come up -- another guy and a woman were waiting to top rope and I figured my unroped ascent looked kind of impressive. Then I ran into that muck at the top and looked like a wanker. Truth be told, I only topped out on that shite because, in the back of my head, I figured I would ask the guy for a lower-down so I didn't have to down-climb that last part with my ass 50 feet above the deck. I hate down-climbing overhangs on freesolo and try to avoid climbing up them in the first place, ever since my hardest all-unroped climb -- my freesolo of Rappel Gully (5.4) back in the 90s. That one has a nasty little overhang right at the top, about 70 feet up. It wouldn't have been a big deal -- except I'm too familiar with Camelback to think I can safely trust my life to any one hold. When I talk about climbs that keep me up at night, that's one of them. On Hart Route, had the bloke with the belay not been there, I'm sure I could have downclimbed the upper part of the first pitch, but it would have been scary.

I snapped this picture of the guy, then asked him if he'd lower me. It turned out that a purple biner I'd found at the base of the headwall was his, and I gave it back to him when he asked if I'd seen it, so you could say he owed me one. (I never would have used it, anyway. You don't know where found biners have been -- if found at the base of a crag, like this one, I assume it probably fell and might be damaged, even if I can't see any evidence of a crack, scratch or dent). I forgot to mention that for the recon mission, I only had my rock shoes and chalk -- no rope or harness. The guy asked me how I wanted to do the lower. I tied a figure eight on a bight in his rope, clipped a biner on it for a handhold, then asked him to lower me down to the easy part at the big hole, which he did.

In spite of the assisted downclimb, the whole experience got me thinking seriously about freesoloing the whole thing. I'd been playing around with the notion in my head in the days before the recon mission. Of course, I'd have to bring a rope with me in case I needed to bail, and for the convenient rappel down Pedrick's Chimney when I was done. Now I knew the top of the first pitch was sketchier than I really wanted, but having climbed it without a rope made me confident I could do so again. I stuck around awhile, trying to learn something from the blokes belaying up Hart Route, but they took so long to move I had to bail off the headwall area before they reached the top of the second pitch. That meant I'd be doing the freesolo without beta on the second biggest objective danger (the first being gravity) for any climbers on Hart Route: the deadly beehive. I only wish the adjective was an exaggeration. A few years ago, a guy named Keith Abbe  died on Hart Route after he and his partner were attacked by the bees that live on top of the second pitch. Abbe didn't die from the stings, though he was stung about 100 times, if memory serves. He died because he and his partner were not skilled enough to set up an emergency rappel while under the insect bombardment. I have no idea whether I am, for that matter, and I hope I never need to find out. The partner, whom I interviewed for an article in the East Valley Tribune about the tragedy, told me that he made a command decision as the leader of their expedition that they should untie the knots from their harnesses and downclimb as fast as possible. Abbe apparently didn't get very far before he slipped and fell at least 50 feet to his death.

Three weeks after freesoloing p1, I found myself at the base of Hart Route again, ready to push as high as I felt safe in doing.

Click here for Part Two: The Ascent