Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hart Route Freesolo Pt. 2 -- The Ascent

This was to be a grand day of adventure. The weather was outstanding -- high 60s rising to low 70s. (This was in mid-April, if you'll recall from Pt. 1). I had all morning and then some -- more than enough time. And I had a new rope and harness, something I'd been planning on buying for the last few years. In the back of my head, thoughts lurked of turning back. No matter what, I promised myself, I would climb with caution and reversibly -- I would back down all the way or rappel down if need be. At no time did I want to find myself on super-sketchy terrain. Yet I was also 100 percent committed to the attempt.

I took my small backpack, cleared out of all work stuff and loaded with icewater, an apple and a banana, the A630, some slings and a couple of small cams. At the base of Hart Route, I attached the climbing gear to my new BD harness and tied into the new rope. The rope would be in a coil at the base as I climbed, which is much easier than hauling the whole thing up at once. Doing that presents a small risk of a rope-stuck situation, but the first pitch is fairly vertical and has no rope-eating cracks.

The beginning went well, and soon I was at that nasty little crux before the ledge. As before, on the recon trip, I didn't like the looks of that last couple of meters, which require sort of pulling into vegetation, feet in a stemming-type position that heightens the exposure and potential for falling all the way to the deck. The right was more of a series of face moves. I decided the rock quality was decent enough to attempt it. A minute later I was finished with the first pitch, feeling like I'd discovered the easy topout I'd hoped would be there the week before. My beautiful, new, green 9.8 mil rope (Petzl Nomad) pulled up easily behind me. As I made my butterfly coil, my lack of companionship seemed acute -- nobody was at the other end of the rope.

Despite the bitchin' weather, Echo Canyon wasn't as crowded as I would have expected. It seemed quieter than usual -- or maybe my mind was just making it seem like that way. No other climbers were out on Gargoyle Wall, which Hart Route is part of, and no one was on the Monk. I had everything above the Headwall to myself. Which was just fine, for this trip, anyway.

The first pitch felt like solid 5.2 to me, especially compared to the 5.0 that I usually freesolo to get the top of the Headwall. That's the route just north of the class 4 section which is also freesoloable. The 5.0 is the one with the palo verde about 3/4 of the way up. It has a slightly sketchy top-out, but there are plenty of footholds, unlike the top of p1 of Hart Route. That makes a huge difference when you're unroped.

After topping out on p1 during the recon, a glance at the beginning of p2 caused more doubts to enter my mind. Those doubts were still with me as I prepared to go higher on the freesolo. If you zoom into the picture from Pt. 1, you'll see the bloke I pictured leading the start of p2. The section just under him is tougher than it looks, and I found the spot where's he's at in the picture a bit exciting, too. Plenty of handholds but it keep you off balance in places. Halfway up is a traverse to a left-facing fracture -- all good. Some rests requires an awkward foot stuck in the crack, but the rests were mainly to get my bearings and prepare the next few feet of slow, static freesoloing -- not the desperate rests needed during an intense lead. Still, adrenaline leaked into my veins as if from an IV drip.

From the top of pitch 2, you need to go up and right to access the start of p3. As I began to do this, I heard what I hoped I wouldn't hear: Buzzing. The hive was nearby, for sure. I tried to walk on the sloping ledge as quietly as possible, holding the heavy, coiled rope in one hand. Then I could see the hive -- it was about 40 feet away, up and left, in the same spot where it had been some years ago, when I climbed Hart Route with Scott. The hive thrummed with activity; in fact, the bees seemed a bit agitated and not just simply flying back and forth on pollen runs. Every few seconds, a small, black streak would zip by me, coming or going to the hive.

The bees hadn't noticed me -- yet. My apprehension was higher than it had been since I started the climb 45 minutes earlier. The rope was coiled neatly -- but could I set up an emergency rappel if the bees began stinging me? One reason Abbe and his partner, Jeff Passage, couldn't get the rappel going was that the rope was somewhat tangled. But if I was under attack, would my rope be tangled, too, thanks to Murphy's Law? Sure it would. I became convinced that if a swarm attack began, it would be a miracle if I could get the rope anchored and thrown down without tangles as stingers were plunging into my eyes and face. As on George Route, my guts fluttered as I imagined a full-on killer-bee attack, how I'd be stuck on the crag and praying for death to come sooner rather than later.

My fear level shifted into high gear. Fear is a requirement on a climb like this -- but managed fear, a useful tool to keep my senses as sharp as possible. Now I was re-thinking the whole endeavor. I stepped back to the false safety of the p2 ledge, where I couldn't see the bees. I started visualizing the two rappels it would take to descend the pitches I had just climbed, planning to bail. Dammit, I thought, who's the dominant species here!

I was on a mission. After a few minutes of pondering, I decided that I would risk the bees to complete what I had started. I was very much looking forward to the p3 face and successful summit. As quiet as a gecko, I tip-toed up and right, keeping my eye on the hive and trying to gauge the bees' mood. They didn't seem to notice. Without hesitation, I began pulling up the start of p3, which is a face but has plenty of fractures and cracks to hold on to.

Having led and seconded Hart Route a few times, I remembered the 3rd pitch quite well -- it's all sweet and fun, compared to most face routes. It's a relatively low-angle friction pitch, with lots of Camelback pinchers and finger holds and very little dicey rock (as long as you're on-route). The first 25 feet went very quickly; my tinge of panic made it feel like my climbing shoes had rocket thrusters attached. But as I got higher, I grew less concerned that I might piss off the bees. If they respond only to threats, they would have known when I was halfway up the pitch that I had no way of messing with them, even if I wanted to. After a while I forgot about them and concentrated on the somewhat nutty task at hand.

The first half of p3 is really easy, definitely 5.0 or less. I thought the whole thing might be a 5.0. But to my chagrin, the very last couple of moves of Hart Route are the crux of the whole climb. The third pitch is rated 5.2, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought the first pitch had the 5.2 and the last pitch was 5.0. That's what I get for not properly researching the beta.

(Above, P3 with crux marked. Below, the Monk.)

One last bolt before the crux tempted me enough to throw a sling on it. I thought maybe I could hold onto the sling if I fell as I made the last couple of moves. But my sling was much too short. I could not hold on to it and make the moves to gain more height. Plus, I knew that falling on static webbing -- compared to a dynamic climbing rope -- could easily generate enough force to rip the bolt out. Embarrassed with myself for wasting time, I took the sling off and steeled myself to do the last moves. They're easy, but it's Camelback face -- the poor rock quality adds significantly more risk.

I reached as high as I could and found something to pinch. I caressed the rock as I settled into the strongest handhold I could muster, looking for positive edges and the right directional pull. Once I found them, all I needed to do with get my feet up. This was a long way up and p3 had turned spooky, getting steeper and harder. I brought a left foot up higher and tried to move my right foot. Suddenly, my right leg decided to stop working that well. I tried to place my right foot in an adequate, though marginal hold - and felt a spasm in my thigh. Whoa, I thought, realizing that a fall here would probably mean death. Get it together. Calm down. Fear can make your worst nightmare come true -- or it can be channeled into action. I chose the latter.

I calmed my mind but could not completely convince my right leg that everyone was going to be fine. Still, everything worked nicely and a minute later I was done. Success!

I was ecstatic I had decided to ignore the bees. I had just done something I'd thought about doing since I was 23. Now, 20 years later, I have the experience and confidence to pull it off, so I did. It feels good.

I lingered a very long time in August Canyon, checking out its mysteries. I'd like to spend much more time there and maybe even spend the night. Then I rapped down Pedrick's and -- with much relief -- took off my climbing shoes and put my hiking shoes back on. My legs and feet felt strained from the few tense stances on the way up. Yet I still had plenty of energy, so I decided to summit Camelback. Hauling the backpack (with the rope inside) was more weight than I usually carry up the Echo Canyon trail; after that, I was finally tired.

So what's next for freesoloing at C-back, if anything? Well, there's always the Monk, if I want to scare the bejesus out of myself. It's got at least one kind of blank section for the feet that requires a friction smear -- the problem is, friction smears and freesololing don't go along - not in my book, anyway. One slip could mean curtains. But I would consider pushing up the first half of the Monk without a belay, then backing down at the smear foothold. Then there's... let's see -- how about Hanging Gardens in the McDowells? Probably not -- that's a solid 5.5 and has some very sketchy granite face moves that would be be terrifying. The good thing about doing Hart Route is that I now don't feel compelled to freesolo anything for the time being!

All in all, this was a day to remember. I would consider freesoloing Hart Route again before leading it. It's too easy on rope!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Piestewa Break

I hit the trail at Piestewa Peak after work today – truth be told, I left a bit early following completion of my next cover story. I was jonesing for a hike-workout and summit after the unsuccessful Humphreys Peak bid on Saturday. But it was really the weather that made me do it. Right now is so beautiful I can hardly believe it. Seems like February or March. And tomorrow’s supposed to be eighty-four, tops. Amazing.

I crushed Piestewa (still want to call it Squaw), as usual. Because there are more people, I’m always happier when no one can pass me here. My time up was excellent today – 25-30 minutes, I think. Should have timed it.

The sunset in the Phoenix Mountain Preserves always captures my eye – in a way, it’s that typical Sonoran desert look I love so much. The rock here has a brown hue that absorbs the sunlight in a warm way pleasing to the eye. (This doesn’t apply in the summer, obviously, when you could almost fry a steak on that rock). Vegetation is plentiful with lots of green from all the rain we’ve had this year. The wind is blowing well – a good day for sailing. No water here, but the palo verde trees and creosote branches are waving back and forth.

Perhaps the best thing of all about hiking Piestewa: The view of the western flanks of Camelback Mountain. Especially at sunset. Then, the magical pink-orange Camelback rock glows, while the dark shadows of the folds and crevices of the Head provide rich context. The greenbelt of the western edge of August Canyon extends across the Headwall like a terraced, though haphazard, ancient garden. The giant, whitened half-bowl beneath the crux of the George Route is like a fingernail. Homes worth millions of dollars apiece lie nestled in hyper-luxurious Sonoran flora, the ones on the PV side surrounded by acres of buffering land.

Hiking down Piestewa, like hiking up it, isn’t as tough as Camelback. When I choose to leap forward in speed, running down the flatter parts and bounding down some of the stair-like sections, I find there’s far less gravel where I’m stepping. The only problem is that the trail is narrow in places – it may even have more narrow spots than either Echo Canyon summit trail or Cholla. That wasn’t a big deal today, but it does on the nicest days, when the place turns into an anthill.