Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Hanging Rappel: A Misadventure

November 5, 1989

I woke up at about 10 a.m. and tried to get Mike out of bed for an hour and a half. He still didn't have a job and arising in the morning was a very bizarre experience for him. We had borrowed some of Dusty's gear the night before, including "Phoenix Rock," a book which described Camelback Mountain, the day's destination, in exquisite detail.

We figured out what to climb after we parked the car in the small lot. I looked up at a humongous and seemingly blank face to the south. Mike, book in hand, pointed to the face.

"See that little 'v' in the rock up towards the top, with that dark line running down it? That's it, a 5.8 called 'Suicide Direct.'"

I gasped. "You're going to lead that? You're nuts."

"No nuts involved," Mike explained. "Just five bolts up to the 5.8 part. The first pitch is a class 4. We'll just free that."

I took another look, my curiosity aroused. It just looked so damned impossible. "Let's go," I said, opening the car door.

One of us forgot the backpack, so we had to wear all of the gear during the hike to the first pitch. The protective equipment dangled from our harnesses, bouncing and clinking. Parts of the hike were steep, but it wasn't very long. Soon enough, the large rock formation towered directly over us as we scrambled up the first, ladder-like part of the class 4.

Fifty feet up, that class 4 somehow turned into a 5.1 or 5.2 With gear weighing me and my harness down, the dangerous moves became a matter of life and something else. I'd step up to a one-inch ledge with my left leg while grasping a decent hold, then find a spot -- fast -- for the right leg to go, preferably higher. I didn't want to think about the less-than-perfect sturdiness of the rock. All we could hope was that if a foothold gave out, our handholds would be good enough, and vice versa.

The climb ended in a big ledge which was the belay stance for the 5.8. Three solid-looking black bolts protruded from the cliff face four feet above the ledge, and there was a blue sling connected to them, already set up for action. Mike and I sorted gear and prepared to climb.

The face on which Mike embarked was not straight up, but close. Now that we were here, the face didn't look blank at all -- there were plenty of decent holds. It looked more possible than it did on the approach, although eighty feet up was a lump of an outcrop -- "surmount the difficult overhang," the book said of it. I was glad Mike had decided to lead. The distance between the bolts on the climb was hideous, and there were no pockets or cracks for hexes or cams. I'd led 5.4s, but leading such a poorly protected 5.8 was unthinkable for me. Mike had led a poorly protected, difficult 5.6 at Granite Mountain (3rd pitch of Classic), so that and his other recent successes made him cocky enough to try this. Up he went.

Fifteen minutes later, my neck was starting to ache badly as he reached the overhang. There had been two long runouts for Mike to worry about, I estimated them at twenty feet each. That meant very careful and methodical climbing. You move slowly in a situation like that, conserving balance and energy. You check holds vigorously and be wary if one should crumble beneath your feet... as it did for Mike right before reaching the overhang. Leading a 20-foot runout means no falls, period. Never mind if your foothold just disintegrated. A 40-foot fall could break limbs, or a head.

Mike paused for ten minutes at the overhang, muscles tense, standing on one-inch ledges. Luckily, a bolt beneath the outcropping meant he would only fall six or eight feet if his skill failed him, but the fall would be a bad one since he would swing under the rock when the rope pulled tight.

Patiently, he felt around for options, not happy with what the rock required him to do. A deep, six-inch pocket was about face height. It would have been an excellent hold except that it kept you off balance, and the bomber hold up above had to be grasped at an angle. So Mike tried his famous opposition hold on the pocket, both hands inside, pulling closer to the face, where he could then attain a precarious, temporary balance point to launch his left hand slowly up to grab the good hold. It must have been a great, awful few seconds to go for that hold, feeling his balance diminishing as the one hand remaining in the pocket tried to pull him off left, causing his feet to smear off their tiny ledges and maybe sending him screaming over the outcropping to swing violently into the cliff wall.

It looked very smooth and professional from my vantage point. It had taken a while, but that seemed natural and necessary. A brief respite, and the rest of the climb took him only a few minutes.

"Major power moves, Ray!" he called to me, sounding relieved and proud. "It's just two or three power moves. You're going to love it!"

I wasn't destined to make those power move, as it turned out, although when it came to my turn to ascend the face, I did so with total readiness and confidence. Anything Mike could lead, I thought, I could sure as hell toprope. What happened next I can only make excuses about.

Maybe it was the 45-mile bike ride the day before, preceded by a few weeks of almost zero exercise. Come to think of it, I was heavily loaded down with the rest of the gear, including three full water bottles. Then again, maybe I just plain pussed out.

The route was challenging up to the overhang, but not 5.8 material. The overhang, on the other hand, seemed a lot like a 5.12 when I reached it.

Eight feet from my previous belay stance, a hundred-forty or so from the ground, I stood nervously balanced on one good foothold, a one-inch ledge, right hand in the aforementioned pocket, left hand further left on a two-finger balance hold, straining to keep my face away from the bulging overhang. I tried everything I could -- hugging the inverted face while stretching sloth-like for hand holds, tenuous laybacking, even an somewhat conservative lunge move. I looked to my left and right. The book, which I had dropped halfway up the first pitch and with which I could not have looked at then, anyway, told of 5.6 escape traverse to the right.

Far away in a world of relative peace and security, across a landscape of pale-green desert plants and orange rock, motorists cruised by on the busy roads bordering the mountain park. The scratchy hum of their vehicles wafted up on the breeze to my ears. Paradise Valley went on with life, its inhabitants totally oblivious to my problem. It was a constant reminder that the whole world was not -- as I was -- frazzled, frightened, frustrated and on the verge of exhaustion.

The last lunge move had decided it. "Forget it, Mike!" I shouted, unable to see him in his belay stance. "I can't surmount this difficult overhang!"

"Are you sure? Try putting both hands in that pocket."

"I can't! I keep pitching off to the right!" I noticed that trying to yell and stick to the face weren't mutually compatible actions. I had to do something soon or I would come off the face again.

"I thought that reach might be high for you. What are you going to do now?"

"Get ready. I'm going to weight the rope and try to get over to the left. The book said it was easier over there."

Never again will I climb a route without memorizing everything the book has to say about it.

"Left?" Mike questioned. "I thought it was to the right."

"No, it was left. There's nothing to the right."

Then came the awful task of weighting the rope. That wasn't a problem - just a matter of crouching down and hopping off my tiny ledge and putting all of my trust and life into a small bit of woven plastic. It was pretending I had no fear of dangling from the rope on a steep face. Then, while hanging uncomfortably, knowing this was killing Mike's guts as his harness bit down, I had to pedal my feet left and right, building up momentum to propel me far enough to grab something. As I swung, the rope chafed above me on rough, uneven rock. I made a desperate grab too soon and only pitched forward in my harness, losing precious inertia.

"Hurry up! What are you doing down there?" Mike sounded strained.

"Almost there!" I didn't sound too casual, either. I swung to the left, grabbed with one hand and stopped the motion with a foot. My arm shook with tension. The rope was pulling me sideways now that it angled so sharply to the right. "Slack!" I grunted.


"Slack, slack! About two-three inches!" The rope relaxed and so did I. The next handhold I grabbed crumbled, leaving me like I was before. I slipped half a foot and felt the strong tug of rope threatening to yank me off. "More slack!"

"Are you on something?"

"Yeah, but I need more slack!"

This time Mike let out a good foot or more, enough to start climbing again, but too much should I pop off the rock. The horizontal swing combined with a couple of feet of vertical falling might be all I needed to break something.

I was on explored terrain, and as I now know, anything unexplored at Camelback is unclean. I carefully went up, using cautious stemming on untrustworthy footholds. What creaked or moved when I tugged with my hand would certainly come out under my foot's weight. Eventually I was five feet below Mike and far left of him. I reached with my right hand to a large black rock, bigger than my head, and pulled myself up with it. It started to pull out. I moved rapidly, using pressure from my left hand to stand on a good foothold I'd found. The boulder tipped out of the cranny it had been living for the last 10,000 years, plopped onto my foot and crashed into the belay ledge 80 feet below with the roar of an atomic bomb. People all over Camelback Park strained their necks looking up at me, perhaps thinking another climber had fallen.

I shouted an expletive, then kept going with only one thing in mind: Get off this shitty rock.

Finally I saw Mike. Relief washed through me. I took one more step and that that rock disappeared under my foot, though when I had inspected it, there was no indication a boulder that size would not support me. Even bigger than the last, it crashed violently on the ledge, splintering off into thousands of pebbles. Again, people looked to see who was making all that racket.

Just me folks, cleaning a route. Just making it safer for the next guy, if there ever is a next guy.

Had someone been on the ledge below, there would have no escaping the 25-pound projectiles raining down like vicious, inanimate predators.

But no one was down there, and I was done with my climb. I soon found out that our problems had just gotten worse.

Standing close to the edge as I usually do, I noted the height. "I hope you remember where that walk-down was."

"I guess I have to now that the book is down there, don't I?"

"Yeah, well, it's got to be around here somewhere." As we coiled the rope and organized the gear, I looked at the short gully leading to the top. We were not on the summit. We were in a maze-like valley. It was then that I started to get nervous. "Are you absolutely sure that walk-down is reachable from here?"

"Oh, it's up here somewhere." He took a long, pensive drag on his Camel. "I don't know if it's on the left or right, though. We may be up here a while."

"You have any idea what time it is?"

"Nope. Didn't bring a watch."

"Oh." We were on the shady side of the mountain, and I had to look out towards Paradise Valley to get an idea how bright the sun was. The city was still shining like a TV in the dark to my slightly dilated eyes. It seemed very distant and unreal. My gaze fell again to the ledge far below. "We sure can't rappel down from here."

"No, we sure can't. Not with a single rope. But we'll find the climb down. I'm just hoping it won't be too much of a bitch with all this gear."

We decided to go right. Twenty- to forty-foot-tall hills rose up smoothly all around us. Most were unclimbable. The path we had chosen was overgrown with particularly hungry, dark-green sticker-bushes. We had to hug the wall to avoid bad scratches, but at least we seemed to be descending. As we came around a corner, the bright-green cityscape showed through a gap in the hills.

"That must be the downclimb," Mike said.

"I don't think so. It looks a lot like a drop-off," I replied. The closer we got, the steeper it seemed. I was within a couple of feet from the edge and still couldn't see where this supposed path continued. Too bad we didn't have the book. It would have explained about the easy walk-down one ridge over from where we stood.

Not realizing this, we turned around, retraced our path and explored the way to the left. The hills separated enough to make one large, natural corridor which was good at first but soon closed up. I looked at the vegetation-choked passageway and noted, "That's all sticker-bush."

"Yeah, it is," Mike said. "You going in there?"

"I guess so. If I climb up a little here, I shouldn't get it so bad."

I picked my way up carefully, trying to hold the spring-like branches back as others clawed my hand. Then I noticed the humming. It got louder as I went further right. The sound changed to a low, muted buzzing.

Bees, I thought.

I tried to see what I was about to encroach on. There they were, dozens of the little guys flying in and out of their comfy hole in the rock. Many were just milling around outside their hive, waiting maliciously for some dumb climber to piss them off. Retreat seemed like a good idea.

It dawned on me that I had no idea what we would do next. We had a vague feeling that somewhere there was a downclimb, but now we were facing an additional problem. The end of the afternoon was almost here.

The breeze that had been perfect an hour ago was now tinted with coolness, and the preserved bit of desert terrain and hills which made up Camelback Park were dull with shadows, the reddish rock looking rather orange.

That was when Mike cooked up an idea so maniacal, repulsive and horrifying, we both knew at once it had to be acted upon. We uncoiled the rope. Mike would be the first one down, we decided.

We put the rope through an expendable, anchored sling. Folded up, the rope ends went down 80 feet, nowhere near the rock-pummeled ledge that was the start of Suicide Direct's second pitch. The overhang Mike had led over was 25 feet below us. Just beneath it were three bolts, enough to make us feel somewhat safe. The general idea was to rappel down to there, run a sling through the bolt hangers, clip in, pull the rope down, (being certain one end is tied to something so we're not left stranded), and then rappel down from our hanging rappel stance.

Mike clipped his figure-8 to the locking carabiner on his harness and slowly rappelled down the cliff face, not worrying if it was going to be difficult. I also felt very confident, perhaps overly so. Nevertheless, it was like I had seen us do this before. I had no doubt we could do it.

Mike was under the overhang, out of sight. I looked around the area one last time, and it was more beautiful than it had been when I was still thinking I'd be stuck up here forever. The sounds were of the wind, the same cars in the distance, the faint clipping of carabiners. Being the last one to rappel is always a good experience. It gives a fantastic, welcome feeling of total isolation.

"Mr. Stern, come on down!" Mike called. "And don't forget to test the rope!"

I wasn't about to forget that. If I got down there and the rope wouldn't pull through, one of us would have to climb back up to free it. I grabbed both strands and worked them back and forth easily. The runner was long enough and there were no rope-eating cracks to worry about. I clipped in and rappelled out to space.

It was a straightforward descent, though the overhang demanded some tricky footwork. There was Mike, standing on one-inch ledges and secured to a good-looking sling system. I had stopped to his right, my chest even with his head.

"All right, you having fun yet?" he asked me.

"Sort of. Where do I get to stand?"

"There's a small foothold near your left foot."

I found it, holding the rope tightly with one hand and clawing a slight ridge with the other. On one foot, with the rope tight from rappelling, balancing was awkward. I was using hordes of energy to stay on the rock; my hands were draining of strength.

"Why don't you clip in?" Mike suggested.

"It's all I can do to stay on this rock! This is no good," I shot back.

"Just clip in and hang. You won't go anywhere."

"No, I want to stand on something. At least then I'll have some control."

"Well, okay. There's a good ledge on my left. Can you get over to it?"

I sure as hell did. I remembered it from the climb up. It was a decent little ledge, wider than the one Mike was standing on. I secured myself to the sling system.

Mike then tied one end of the rope off and I leaned out and tugged it. Nothing happened -- the rope didn't budge. With a second pull, it gave a smidgen and then stopped, this time for good.

For the first time, the stress began to get to Mike. "Why the hell is it stuck? You were supposed to check that!"

"I did, and it worked perfectly! Everything looked fine. What more could I do?"

Mike contemplated this. "Okay, give me the rope. Maybe I can it get it from a different angle."

I handed it over, now more scared than I had been all day. The wind felt even colder exposed like this on a naked rock face. I couldn't stand the prospect of standing there for another half-hour while Mike climbed back up. I'd have almost rather gone myself.

Mike pulled, succeeding only in stretching the rope.

"I don't believe this shit," I said. My ankles were stiffening up. A second didn't go by that I wasn't aware we were twenty stories off the ground.

The rope was moving. Whichever way Mike had pulled it had worked. Seconds later, it whipped through the air like a giant snake and I could breathe again. Everything would end safely, this time.

(Pictures of postcards ripped from the Internets...)

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