Holcomb Valley Pinnacles was a great trip, the weather was on the warm side, and downright hot in the sun, but we managed to find shade and make friends…once we got to the place!
Holcomb Valley Pinnacles, or Holcomb amongst most climbers, is a collection of crags just north of Big Bear Lake. It’s popular amongst climbers for its sport routes and the few trad routes it offers, and its proximity to large cities. I’ve been fortunate enough to go there initially with the benefit of staying in a cabin with friends, or to hook up with friends who already had claimed camping space in the free, primitive camping areas along the dirt road approach to the trail head. Labor Day weekend 2019, I was leading three other climbers out, one who had never been, and two who had been there less times than I had. I had been nervous about two things. The first was arriving on Saturday on a holiday weekend – would we find a decent area for us all to camp at or would it be uncomfortably crowded? The second, and more important concern was could I make it out driving my little Honda Fit? I’d done it once before to the South camping area but had had to carefully navigate large puddles and many rocky and rutted parts of the dirt road approach. When I arrived at the South climber camping area I was the only non 4 wheel drive or high clearance vehicle until the next day (when another Fit and a sedan showed up).
These concerns made me hatch a plan. Two of my friends I’d invited out had vehicles that were no strangers to off roading. Peter had a Toyota Tacoma. This was well and good for road conditions, but not so great for carrying three passengers for multiple hours. The other, Cliff, had a van, great for gear, but though it had high clearance (due to some modifications he’d made) it was not a 4WD vehicle and was also configured to just be a two seater (the majority of van space being taken up by a bed and van life accouterments). The weather forecast mentioned a chance of thunderstorms for Sunday and Monday. That was the clincher for me to not take my Fit on the dirt roads. So it was that I found myself wearily trying to find the Big Bear Visitor Center in Big Bear Lake City, in the hopes of leaving my car and John and I hopping in with Cliff to do the last bit of the drive in. One tip for anyone trying to get to the same visitor center… don’t follow the signs on the side of the road, they make you go through a very crowded downtown area, when you just need to stay on the 18! Once I did get there though, I found out from a guy in the Visitor Center that overnight parking was not allowed. He did helpfully let us know that any public parking lot in town was ok for overnight parking and to definitely not park in any of the businesses’ parking lots. This was good news, except that, it being a holiday weekend, parking was hard to find in the public parking lots as we had already discovered trying to find the visitor center. Luckily our helpful visitor center employee pointed us to a lot that had plenty of space – a parking lot that was for Snow Summit parking during ski season but in the summer became a public lot, not something us out of towners could have surmised.
The next step was getting to the pinnacles area itself. Peter suggested we go to the North entrance because it was more likely we’d get a camping area close to the climbs. I’d never camped up there but had been a passenger once in a Honda Element that bottomed out on the way in. Cliff said he’d go for it so John and I piled into his van (John reclining on the built in bed in the back) and we went off. The ride in was rather adventurous and included miles on a reasonable, but narrow, dirt road, and then it became rocky enough that John and I got out of the van to help lighten the load and direct if needed. The travel was worth it though, we found a camping area with enough room for all of us complete with handy boulders to use as tables. There was even a pinnacle less than a five minute walk away. We were able to set up camp and get climbs in! We didn’t know what the pinnacle was called but we did some sport routes on it which some other climbers said were 10a, 10b, and 10d and I led up a mixed trad/sport route only to come down before finishing it. I was having a high gravity day.
As we were climbing, we heard what sounded like a man talking on a bull horn and saw dust clouds raised in the air. Turns out it was indeed a man talking on a bullhorn. “Gently push your way up…”, he instructed. Apparently there’s a guiding company that takes people on Jeep tours of the area and instructs them how to drive the rocky way in. The people on the tour stared at us from colorful Jeeps and I felt like an animal along an African safari route. I also thought it was funny that Cliff had made it all the way in without 4WD and these drivers paid money to drive the Jeeps. After climbing I broke out some spaghetti sauce I had made at home and froze for the drive up, as well as pre-cooked noodles. It was fun to feast as we gathered around my Luci light which stood in for a real campfire (open fires are not permitted in Holcomb).
Sunday we had a hearty breakfast compliments of John, who makes a mean bowl. After breakfast we walked over to find some climbs in the shade.
We ended up at Claim Jumper wall, where it seems most everyone else had the same idea. A veritable town’s worth of climbers and their dogs was at the wall. Rock quality is excellent at Holcomb. The granite walls are full of fun features like sharp edges, slopes to smear on, and some choice jugs and cracks. Every line on Claim Jumper wall was taken but one when we arrived. Some climbers even resorted to climbing across the way in the sun. The highlight of the wall for me was climbing a climb I had at first thought I might lead, but upon doing it on top rope found out it was on the challenging side. Some one later told me they had looked it up on Mountain Project where it had been listed as an 11c/d climb! I think my on-sight picker was a little broken. Over all, a good time was had by all until we decided to take a break back at camp for rest and food since it was so close. After lunch Cliff and I set out again looking for Pistol Pete, but on the way found something else to climb. Peter joined us (and told us Pistol Pete was being climbed) and we made short work of the climbs Cliff had found instead until we decided to head back before dark.
Monday our small group wanted to get a few more climbs in before we had to leave so after striking camp, we walked about and found ourselves on Coyote wall. Again, we were not alone, but we all had fun. One climb in particular with a bulge was a fun challenge.
Soon it was time to go. We packed things up, this time making Cliff’s van as light as possible by putting gear in Peter’s truck (as well as having John ride with him). It’s a good thing we did because at a certain point, Cliff jumped out to make a ramp of rocks to help him get over a tough spot and the van started moving backwards. I jumped over to the driver’s seat and stepped on the brake with my left foot. Cliff got in, “Good job Eileen”. Once we got over that part it was smoother sailing, which was good, because before we were quite back to the paved roads, we got some rain. Luckily it was over quickly and didn’t affect the road very much.
It was with a small sigh of relief when we arrived at my car, safe and sound where I left it. I know I was told it was fine to leave it there but I had still been a little worried. Getting back into my car I left with a smile on my face.
Last Sunday I took my nieces climbing outdoors in Southern California so they could earn the new Outdoor High Adventure Girl Scout badge. I had help from their parents and I also recruited climbing friend Christina, and legendary climber and author, John Long. With Southern California going through a hot, humid, heat wave, I had limited choices of where to take my nieces for their first time climbing on real rock. I picked a spot in the Santa Monica mountains, hoping that getting up higher would help. Even so I knew we’d be in for some heat so I went over my hot weather tips with my nieces before hand and thought I’d share them here as well!
1. Adjust your schedule. Start early. For my outing with my nieces I had logistical limitations because of people coming from different directions, but I still made our rendevzous point as early as I could. When going out with my regular climbing partners I tend to shift to an early morning schedule if the weather’s going to be really hot. This is particularly advisable if you are somewhere like the Sierras where afternoon thunderstorms can develop. Locally in Southern California, we’ll sometimes climb early, take an afternoon break and then climb well into the evening. Always having a headlamp in your pack gives you great options.
2. Dress accordingly. Some might think this always means shorts and tank tops (or no shirt if you’re a guy) but if you’re going to have a lot of sun exposure you might think about wearing a wicking long sleeve shirt. I’ve sometimes been cooler wearing my white long sleeve sun shirt than sporting bare arms. Also, don’t forget about a sun hat. You may not wear it while climbing but even short approaches can be made more comfortable if you’re bringing some portable shade with you. Think about your footwear as well. Approach shoes with mesh or Chaco sandals are my top choices for when it gets really hot. I’ll sometimes wear Injinji sock liners with my Chacos on a long approach where I want to be careful not to get blisters. Speaking of blisters, I try to air out my feet whenever I can on a hot day, for example if we take a break from the approach before climbing, I’ll take my shoes off for air. Moisture can mean blisters (and smelly climbing shoes!). Also, I know you know this but… wear sunscreen!
3. Drink lots of liquids. I think we all know how important it is to bring water. When it’s hot it’s best to bring even more than usual and to add in something to replace the electrolytes lost when you sweat. For this reason I like to bring some kind of “sports drink” in addition to water. I also find a flavored drink helps me consume more than if I just stuck to plain water. There are two ways I might bring a sports drink. The first way is to bring a powdered or tablet version of an electrolyte drink to add to water. Gatorade comes in powdered form and Nuun tablets work well. If you do this then you can decide how strong you want to make your drink, and it lets you time when you want to switch away from water. My second, and favorite way, to bring a sports drink on a hot day is to bring it frozen. I freeze a Gatorade bottle and pop it in my pack. You can let it melt a little, drink some of it off and then add some regular water to dilute the drink. You can shake up the bottle to make a refreshing slushy. During the climbing day with my nieces I brought two frozen Gatorades and let them use them while still frozen to press against their face and necks to cool off after our approach hike.
4. Find the shade. This is how I was able to climb in Joshua Tree National Park in August. Do a bit of research before heading to a new place and find out which climbs will be shaded. If you can’t research before you go to a place, ask some locals. A nice waitress in Mammoth steered my friends and I to a new crag with advice for shade. We were quite grateful for it. On the other hand, climbing day with the nieces we did not have any shade during the climbs and we all had to limit our exposure and get shade in between climbs.
5. Keep Water in the Car. I keep an insulated bottle of cold water in the car so I can refresh myself as soon as I get to it. If the car is still hot, I can let it cool off a little while I have a cold drink.
What happens if you don’t follow the tips?
While I have successfully climbed in many very hot places all over the country, unfortunately the day I took my nieces out, I didn’t completely follow my own advice. For one, it would have been better if we had met even earlier than we had to beat more of the heat, being up higher on the mountain did not help as much as I had hoped. Secondly, while I did bring more liquids than usual, I ended up giving one of my Gatorades away, and sharing the remaining one, leaving me with just one liter of plain water. I also didn’t have access to the water in my car because we carpooled some of the way and I had left it in my car at the first rendezvous point. Lastly, we did not get any shade during the actual climbs. As a result, after getting down from the mountains, I found myself with a headache and feelings of nausea. Fortunately by the time it really came on I was already sipping a cold drink in an air conditioned restaurant.
What had likely happened to me was that I was experiencing heat exhaustion, type of heat related illness. What I was already doing (stopping exertion, moving to a cool place, drinking electrolytes) was what the Mayo Clinic recommended and I soon felt a lot better.
Hopefully, you’ll follow my tips better than I did Sunday, and can go on to enjoy your summer!
By the way, my nieces loved climbing outside and want to go again!
Mountaineering is hard. This was one of the thoughts going through my head as I tried to keep pace with Matt as he transitioned from one direction to the other up a steep section of the Easton glacier of Mount Baker. I needed to follow his track and then make the direction switch as well, stepping my crampons over the rope length between him and myself and not stepping on the rope length leading from me down to Christina. I also needed to switch my ice axe to my uphill hand, and my trekking pole to my downhill one. Exactly where we were on the 10,781 foot tall mountain, I was not certain, but it was almost inconsequential. I knew the important things at the moment, which all seemed to revolve around facts. Matt, Christina, and I were Team Green Rope. We were being followed by Team Orange Rope (Harry, Kim, Lily, and Dan), and all seven of us were taking advantage of the nice weather window that had opened up for us in Washington to go for a summit attempt. We had thousands of feet in elevation gain to go and I was already winded trying to keep up with Matt’s pace. The last, and most immediate fact I knew was that I needed to do my transition.
I carefully stepped over the rope with my left foot, watching my crampon spikes, and then did the same with my right. I switched my ice axe to my left hand, putting my trekking pole in the other. The slope we were going up was steep and if I slipped I’d need to self arrest with my axe. I had no time to enjoy the fact that I had done my transition without causing rope drag, because it was back to making sure I kept up with Matt. I moved on. Step, stab, step, chunk. A few moments later, Christina called out “Hold!” and we paused as a team. Someone on Team Orange needed to adjust something. I was grateful for the brief rest and took a moment to look around. We had been climbing in the dark but now the sky was starting to lighten. The snow around us was visible in a larger-than-headlamp radius. The landscape was white, slashed with a few dark brown rock outcroppings and numerous small, and not-so-small-crevasses in shades of grey or icy blue. We were all on the Easton Glacier route only because a large crevasse had opened up a few days ago on the Coleman-Deming route, causing us to switch to Easton instead. Even before we learned that, our whole Baker climb was called into question due to weather reports which forecasted straight days of snow or rain, and strong gusts of wind. Looking around me though, I could see that the growing light showed no particularly dark clouds in the sky, instead, a lovely alpine glow was turning misty clouds pink and the snow took on a rosy glow. Mountaineering, I thought, was hard, but magical.
“Ok, go on!” Christina called, and so we did. After awhile of trying to high step my way following Matt’s steps, I realized it was easier to break out and make my own. I used the French step Matt had just told me about the day before, when we had all practiced mountaineering skills after a beautiful hike up to our base camp at 6,000 feet. The French step, as he demonstrated, was basically a cross over step in your desired direction, it saved some knee strength if you were already trending a path right or left. I liked it a lot, it reminded me of the fun I’d had doing a cross over turn when ice skating or rollerblading. Now I French stepped my way on to icy snow and left little slash marks behind me as my crampon blades cut out on my own.
I contemplated the fact that sometimes it’s easier to make your own path to achieve the same goal. Perhaps I should accept this in life as well. I’ve often been surprised at turns my life has taken and been aware that I have not been following the established trails many others have forged. Perhaps it doesn’t matter though, if I get safely to where I want to be. Step, stab, step, chunk. Step, stab, step, chunk. We continued for a long way, up and over another steep section. When I crested that I found that Matt was in a somewhat less vertical section. We decided to let Team Orange catch up to us before moving on. Matt coiled me in, and then I did the same for Christina, letting us all gather in one place. “That was a good stretch there,” he said.
“I was doing the French step!” I said excitedly. Matt added, “Mountaineering is not like hiking, where you can go at your own pace. You have to move as a team. You have to constantly be moving at the fastest pace you safely can.” I could only nod. I understood what he was talking about. I was also aware that I was the weakest link on our team. Christina, a long time friend of mine, had been working out 4 days a week and her husband Matt had been training as well. They were also experienced mountaineers. I, however, had sporadically trained, then gotten lazy when I had a wisdom tooth pulled and full recovery from that (and additional dental work) took longer than I thought. I felt like I was doing this climb nearly “off the couch”. I had also never climbed a glaciated peak before. Maybe all of that is why, for the first time, I was experiencing altitude sickness. This surprised me. I’ve climbed in Yosemite’s high country many times and I summitted Mt. Whitney twice, once as an all day hike, and another time via the East Face technical climbing route. Whitney’s summit, at 14,505 feet, is the tallest in the contiguous United States and significantly taller than Mt. Baker. Of course, as Christina reminded me later, the speed at which you gain the elevation is a big factor in getting sick, as well as dehydration and over-exertion levels. I certainly wasn’t used to the exertion of kick stepping and the different sort of rope management / pace keeping needed for glacial travel. Whatever the reason, I was not feeling my best, and had an upset stomach, but I was still moving, and that was key.
Moving itself though is not enough to guarantee success. While rock climbing multi-pitch routes in the Sierra, I’ve often thought of the saying, “Speed is safety” because we wanted to be off the rock before afternoon thunderstorms began. As the day went on and the sun warmed the snow, it became more strenuous to ascend. This was another reason why moving safely but quickly is a good idea. I found myself postholing in prints left before me, not just from Matt but from other parties also heading to the summit, and my axe would sometimes plunge deeply enough into the snow that my rhythm was thrown off. “Step, stab, step, chunk”, would sometimes become, “Step/slide, poke, step, crush”. We were ascending though, and we were on Roman Wall, the steepest part of our journey. When I’d seen it from below, it had looked very intimidating. Now, I just concentrated on following the steps, even at the cost of taking larger strides than I normally would. I did not want to slide down. I was very tired, my breath coming noisily as I mouth-breathed. But, we were getting closer and closer to the summit and that mentally energized me. Finally, I saw the horizon above me turn white and blue, instead of being an all white wall, and I knew that I would soon be at the top of this steep section and on the plateau. One more step did it. I saw Matt and could walk normally now, my ice axe uselessly dangling too far above the snow to be used as an aid. Now we had one last uphill to the true summit. I was so tired, I did not look around the plateau but doggedly continued on.
At the base of the last uphill section to the summit Team Green Rope left packs, ice axes, and our namesake. It was time for the last push. I was very tired and dehydrated but I started up the gentle slope. I was still breathing heavily, and my nose had been running for awhile. Still, each step I took was instilled with the confidence that I was going to make it. I took the last steps, and saw a blanket of clouds spreading out before me. I cracked a smile. Matt gave me a high five. Christina joined us. We had made it! I smiled more broadly. I had reached my goal. It had taken a combination of following the footsteps of others, and choosing my own tracks, but I liked where I was. I liked it quite a bit. Matt had told me to save some energy for the way down. The thought of going down some of the steep sections we had come up made me a little nervous, but I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I’d get there and meanwhile, in spite of being tired and sick, I was still enjoying the journey.
Post Script: My Nitty Gritty Trip Report
Friday, July 5: From Baker trailhead, hiked to base camp along the Railroad Ridge trail. Spoke to other climbers on their way out and asked them about conditions. Their responses were sometimes along the lines of “Well, we summitted.” One said, “We had some views but we had 30 mph wind gusts”. They did not seem terribly enthused. The weather continues to hold. No rain. Set up camp, practiced self arrest, glissading, and roped team traveling. Had food. Tried to sleep early. We were squeezing 3 in a tent, and in spite of that I got a little cold and didn’t sleep well. Stomach wasn’t feeling good.
Saturday, July 6: Our alarm went off at 12:30 AM. Our target time to leave was 1:00 AM. By the time both teams actually started climbing it was around 2:45 AM.
Reached the Roman Wall after the sun had already come out. Snow was getting quite a bit softer, and thus it took more work to travel upwards on it. Team Green Rope summits at 11:11 AM, after leaving packs and ice axes at the bottom of the very last bit. We go back down to eat snacks while waiting for the Orange Team. Orange Team shows and everyone goes to the summit again, this time with ice axes, for group photos and to enjoy the views again. Everyone goes down to the packs and a group snack break happens. We start heading down as a whole group, Orange team in the lead this time, Dan in front. Green Team also changes rope order, Christina on lead, myself in the middle, and Matt last. Snow is very soft but we get down the steepest challenging part alright. The way down takes a long time. We are walking down into fog. Soon it’s hard to see. We carefully find the route. At one point we are off the glacier though still on snow and think we can do some glissading. Kim goes down as a guinea pig but suggests that we not do it. “If we go down here, we’ll die”. We all put our crampons back on and hike down. We get to the snow field right below our tents and stop to remove our crampons. Matt and Christina want to hike out all the way to the car and ask me my opinion. I say, “I won’t make it”. They leave me alone to finish removing my crampons and when I get to our tent they hand me a bowl of miso soup, which I drink gratefully. Before I finish the soup, I’ve agreed to hike all the way out and we hurriedly pack in the light rain which started as I was having the soup. The rest of the group decides to stay so we give Dan a bunch of our food. Matt, Christina, and I hike out. Matt soon goes on ahead, as I had warned that I was already tired and would need to take breaks. At one point Christina and I get confused by Matt’s turn direction and end up adding another half mile to our hike out. I am beyond using my last reserves now. However, we do get to the missed fork turn before daylight ends. We manage to hike out, me at the tail end. Hiking not in snow is much easier, but the hike still feels very grueling and each section with uneven rocks hurts my feet and challenges my mental skills. I finally make it to the parking area. We drive back to my friend’s place in Seattle and arrive Sunday, July 7, around 2:30 AM after stopping for drive through fast food and coffee. We had been awake for 26 hours. I was mentally exhausted but still thinking about what I had learned. I started writing the start of this blog post on the flight home.
I think it’s pretty easy to find great gifts for climbing and/or outdoor loving Dads but I thought I’d highlight a few that caught my eye and would make some pretty good gifts year round!
Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights
These are great! I love giving people my blue #3, letting them heft it and then handing them my Ultralight #3. The result is usually… “Wow!”. Check them out here.
Five Ten Tennies
If your Dad is Old School or likes the vibe, get him a new pair of the re-introduced Five Ten, Tennies the classic approach shoe! Take a peep here.
Slim Clip Phone Case
This phone case is slim enough to just clip onto a waistband. So Dad can run, hike, or work out without holding it in hand, or needing a separate case or holder for his phone. See the Slim Clip Cases here.
So what do you say when invited to be second camera for a shoot in a well known climbing area half way acress the country that you’ve never been to? You say, “Yes, I want to go!” Even if you don’t know when it might happen, and even if it just so happens to end up being the same week that you’ve already taken a day off to make it a three day weekend trip to Red Rocks, Nevada.
So it was that I found myself bound for the land of Muhummad Ali, green hills, Bourbon, and the Red River Gorge. The shoot was for the American Alpine Club and Adidas Outdoor and I had just had the good fortune to have just been accepted as an Adidas Outdoor Grassroots Ambassador so I was there doing double duty. The main on-camera talent consisted of Adidas athletes, Molly Mitchell and Kai Lightner, and American Alpine Club Education Manager, Ron Funderburke. We were there to shoot a video for the ACC’s Know the Ropes series with help from Erik Kloekker, Muir Valley volunteer and a local climbing guide.
From the parking area for Muir Valley, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, you can’t see anything that would clue you into the climbing potential of the place. Instead, there are chalked space lines and a rain shine shelter with tables, computers and papers for waivers, and a vending machine that promises the bubbly drink of choice for the area, Ale8, a ginger ale / citrus soda concoction that I’ve been told is great for mixed drinks.
From the parking area, the path to the crags was well maintained, not very steep, and there were signs at each juncture for various cliffs. When we arrived at our destination for the day, Drive-By Crag, I was impressed by the height and steepness of the climbs. The rock look featured enough, but challenging nonetheless. First bolts were stick-clip high and I found myself thinking I really should make/get myself one since I’d had the same thought when I went to Smith Rock.
After getting several scenes in the can and getting inspired by Kai and Molly basically gliding up steep routes, including Easy Rider 5.13c, Ted and I found ourselves with some free time when Ron had to leave to take Kai and Molly to the airport. The weather was still wet enough that it had been hard to tell throughout the day whether or not it was raining, or if we were just hearing the sounds of a few small waterfalls created from earlier rain fall. The crag was still quite crowded, and included a group of kids that Molly had coached before. I was jet lagged from the combination of my red-eye flight and long car ride and was not quite sure how I’d fare onsighting something. We did find a route that was supposed to be 10b with draws on it already. The first bolt didn’t seem to require a stick clip so I got on it. The start was a little deceptive but I got the first bolt. All well and good but what happened then was I got too set on a hand jam I had found (yes, I found a hand jam on a sport route) and I knew the next move was actually supposed to be a jug above me but that the steepness of the climb was already messing with my head. The combination of moving up above the bolt and possibly falling backwards did not sit well with me and I could only guess how tired I’d be further up the route. I backed off. Not my proudest moment. Ted and I moved along the cliff wall to another 10b I had eyed earlier. There was a group at it but since there wasn’t much choice of routes that were in my onsight range, Ted and I decided to relax a bit and wait and watch. The leader on the route was about two thirds of the way up when she fell, turned upside down, and continued to fall a few more feet. It was a rather dramatic fall. Various people called out, “Are you ok?” She came down and checked herself. She was a bit shaken up, but minor scrapes and bruises were the final tally. I did feel I didn’t want to lead the climb though so asked another person in the group if they wouldn’t mind giving us a ride on their rope. They didn’t mind but the plan changed to one of them leading with our gear so that they could leave and another in their group would just use our stuff to get a top rope climb in before they too left. During this conversation, we were asked how long we’d been at the Gorge. Ted answered it was our first day climbing, and in fact our first climb here. The gal we talked to look surprised, “Well, you picked a stout wall to start!”
The next day the weather had changed considerably. It was no longer cold and rainy but on the sunny side. Ted, Ron, and I joined up again with Erik and we went about getting scenes done for the video. I was called upon to also act in it so I guess you’ll see me in the final video. In the course of getting our shots we needed a rope up at times so we got to climb a little. Once I got on these routes, I understood why the gal the other day had been surprised we were starting at Drive-By Crag. These crags had more variety: a larger warm up range of climbs, different heights, and steepness.
We capped off the day with a stop at Skybridge Station for a cold one before getting back to make dinner at the cabin. We were invited to Trivia night but were having guests for dinner so had to decline. Here I was miles from home but still making friends and even meeting a friend’s family. In other contexts people might say to never mix business and pleasure or your social circles but I’ve found that climbing / outdoor folks often do so with great results.
The next day it was my turn to leave to catch a plane before the day was over. I had to get myself to Louisville International Airport. Luckily we cranked out some scenes and had time for me to lead something finally. It was just a 5.7 but it felt good. I also got to top rope some harder routes, finishing my climbs with Little Viper on Bruise Brothers Wall and letting me leave directly from the area with a smile on my face and pumped forearms. So long Kentucky, I hope to be back soon!
This past weekend, I took a day off and shot out to go climb in Red Rocks, Nevada. My friend Michelle had grabbed a group campsite months ago and had invited friends out and I’d gone ahead and asked for time off to make a 3 day weekend. My goal (which had been stymied the last time we did a group camp here) was to finally finish Ginger Cracks (5.9, 955 feet, 7 pitches). Years ago I had been on it in a party of three but we had bailed for reasons based on weather and fatigue.
I’m happy to say my friend Eric and I pulled it off this weekend with relatively small glitches: had to wait for a party of three we had not seen waiting at the base during our approach hike and Eric at first took a wrong chimney but quickly realized it. The weather was overcast during our morning hike in which made it tolerable and rather pretty. We came upon a group of deer who didn’t seem too concerned about us. We found the trail easily enough by following our guidebook beta and it seemed to take us the predicted hour and a half to get to the base from the parking area.
The climb itself was fun and varied, requiring a variety of gear (cams up to a Black Diamond 4, and nuts) and techniques (crack, chimney, face crimps, and traversing skills). The movement was fun and interesting and the views spectacular. I had originally planned to lead some pitches but seeing as we had not just one but two parties of three ahead of us, and hopes to get down before dark, I talked myself out of leading (though I almost took a higher pitch we thought might be the 5.0/5.2 pitch but turned out to be the crux!). I was happy to follow though. As I climbed I thought about how fortunate I was to be able to climb; to have access and the ability to get on something this great even though it had been awhile since I’d been a multi-pitch this tall, this hard, and with this long (and tiring) of an approach hike.
All I could do was smile as I climbed higher, the shade following me up the pitches and keeping me from overheating. We did have to wait sometimes for belay stations to clear and as the day progressed Eric and I both put on light jackets. A very light sprinkle, and thunder accompanied our last pitch but both ended before we finished our descent rappels.
Though we finished our rappels while there was still light, our hike out was in the dark which made it more challenging in terms of finding the right way to go and in staying upright on the steep and sometimes loose terrain. We eventually made it with only a few, quickly corrected wrong turns.
As far as multi-pitch climbs go, it went incredibly smoothly and yet, I felt a great sense of adventure and accomplishment. We in the climbing community sometimes make a lot of noise about first ascents, speed ascents, free soloing, and pushing the limits but I think every climber knows what the public may not – that most every climb for us can give us a quiet pleasure and the enjoyment of experiencing a climb and touching rock. When we topped out on the last pitch and looked out on the wilderness we had hiked through, I smiled again. How fortunate we all are.
Black Diamond, long known for their climbing hardwear, joined the ranks of climbing rope makers a few years ago. I was provided a Black Diamond 9.9 60m rope and I’ve been using it as my main climbing rope for a few months now.
I chose the 9.9 to review partly because it seemed to be a good “if you could only have one rope for years” type of rope. Meaning, I wanted a rope that:
1. I could trust
2. would take some abrasion abuse (I climb a fair amount in Joshua Tree National Park)
3. would work in a reasonable amount of belay devices
4. would be a decent trade off between having the qualities of 1 and 2 but also be long enough to do most climbs / pitches and
5. wouldn’t break the bank with its price point.
According to Black Diamond their ropes aim to “strike the perfect balance between weight, durability and handling, Black Diamond ropes feature a unique combination of weave and sheath [the 9.9 uses a 2×2 weave construction] that’s merged to create a cord that’s supple yet not too soft. This construction enhances the ropes’ ability to knot and feed through your belay device easily, without sacrificing longevity.”
So have they accomplished this goal?
I used this rope on sandstone at Echo Cliffs and Texas Canyon, on the famously gritty quartz monzonite of Joshua Tree National Park (and at Alabama Hills which has the same rock), and on the granite of Yosemite. It was used for both top rope and leading (and for multipitch in Yosemite).
A total of 12 people used the rope.
The first thing everyone seemed to notice was that the rope was fairly supple, and seemed smooth and a little slick. For my friends used to using thicker, older ropes, they noticed the slickness but easily adjusted to using it in a first generation Grigri. I noticed the slickness right away and thought it was great for tieing in however I did feel like I had to watch it when using my Trango Cinch. The sleekness was barely noticeable when using my Petzl Universo (think Verso permanently attached to a carabiner if you aren’t familiar with that device). It performed similarly in the Black Diamond Guide as well.
Endurance / Longevity
The rope is not as bright blue anymore – it’s quite dirty now. However, aside from discoloration, it otherwise has that smooth look of a new rope – no snags, no lumps, no unevenness. I have appreciated the suppleness of the rope when using it during trad leads and in creating rope anchors. It hasn’t lost the suppleness nor its dynamic qualities but I’ve only been using it a few months, not years so we’ll see as time goes on but for now I do think it will have great longevity and the handling of the rope is great.
A clear winner for me is the weight and size of the rope when carried either backpack style or in a rope bag or a backpack. I own a Petzl 9.8 60m but the Black Diamond 9.9 seems smaller and more compact, more than the .1 diameter difference would account for. When comparing the Black Diamond 9.9 to other diameter options, I think the trade off for the diameter of the rope versus having a lighter, skinnier rope is worth it. If you mainly do longer routes or like combining pitches for multi-pitch climbs, I’d consider the 9.4 70m instead, or perhaps even the 80m (assuming you have specific climbs in mind and it won’t be your one and only rope).
I’ve already mentioned that some climbers had to adjust to using the rope in their Grigri – but this may be the newness of the rope, and in the case of one climber – it was the skinniest rope he’d ever used. Still, be mindful of use if you have an older device where 9.9 is on the narrow end of its use.
I had a small issue with the middle mark, it is simply a small section colored black. When the rope was brand spanking new – practically glowing electric blue – it was pretty easy to notice this mark but once the rope got even a little dirty, it was much harder to spot. I love the convenience of the reverse pattern ropes to show you the two halves of a rope but understand that’s a bit costly. However, I have seen ropes with warning stripes before the middle mark, I would have liked to see that on this one as well.
Lastly, a small “con” – when I received the rope I didn’t do any special uncoiling or laying out of the rope, and I did notice it get a bit kinky during the first top rope routes, however it settled down pretty quickly.
The Black Diamond 9.9 60m (also available as a 70m) is a versatile rope that does the job without breaking your back.
More Tech Specs:
Rope Type : Single
UIAA Factor Falls : 6 Weight Per Meter : 64 g (2.3 oz)
How many climbing spots can you cram into a 4 day trip that starts in California’s Central Coast and hits Yosemite? Well that was what I wanted to find out. My friend Vina had invited me to go with her to Yosemite to take advantage of an invitation to stay at her friend’s tiny house in Oakhurst. Not exactly Yosemite, but much closer than coming from Ventura! I agreed, and we soon came up with a plan to get to Oakhurst in a roundabout way that I’ve dubbed the “Sierra Circle”… via stops at Alabama Hills (neither of us had climbed there before), Tuolumne, Yosemite Valley, and then to either Fresno Dome or Shuteye Ridge. Little did I know that this trip would become a test and highpoint in my re-entry to climbing experience.
Drove from Ventura to Lone Pine, arriving in the afternoon, and ate at an unpretentious restaurant. Vina wanted to buy a helmet so we went into the climbing shop across the street. While there I asked if it was too hot to climb at Alabama Hills and was told it would be pretty hot, 104 earlier. What climbers usually did was hold off until 5 pm to climb but there were a few places in shade. We didn’t want to wait until five to climb but decided to spend some time grocery shopping to miss some of the heat. It was my first time driving in Alabama Hills and I wasn’t sure how my Honda Fit (2008 Sport) would fare on the dirt roads. The friendly gal at the shop had advised us to check out the Corridors area as a good chance to find routes in the shade so we hoped to camp near there as well. I drove Fitting (yes, I’ve named my car) out on the dirt roads and after a bit of wandering loops we came to a section I thought would be too hard for it. I wisely did not attempt this and put it in reverse; unfortunately, I hit a sand spot and my front wheel dug in. Vina got out and changed shoes, readying to push my car. A climber nearby saw our predicament and helped out as well. He explained he’d gotten a rental car stuck in the same place. Thankfully it wasn’t that hard to get unstuck and I decided to pretty much set up camp right after we got my car turned around on more solid ground. We were close enough to walk to the Corridors and the Lost Eye to the Moon formation the gal in the shop had said would be in the shade (she was right) and got on them. The routes turned out to be good, confidence building onsight routes for me and Vina did a lead there too. The quality of the rock was excellent and was comprised of quartz monzonite same rock that’s out in Joshua Tree. After climbing, we ate some dinner while looking out at the great views one could see in many old Western films. Vina tucked into her tent and I took some long exposure shots but was I too tired to really work at it (and found light pollution from town and the moon interfered with starlight) so gave up and went to sleep in my car. In spite of the heat, Alabama Hills was a great spot and I already knew I’d be back for climbing and photography purposes!
Got up and packed up before heading out to do Shark’s Fin arete… a goal I had ever since I’d seen the formation years ago when a friend and I had crashed the night right under it… but he wouldn’t let me climb it (we were rushing to get campsites for friends in Tuolumne and he’d insisted we didn’t have time). There is a designated parking area for The Shark’s Fin now, it meant for a very short walk, but we did see that a group was beating us to the formation as they were already walking out. Luckily, once Vina and I caught up, they didn’t seem to be hopping on the arete route. It was a guided group led by a female guide with a small group of guys who, judging from what she was telling them and their responses, were either very new to climbing, or had maybe done it a little in a gym. I asked the guide if she minded if I led the arete route “real quick” as we were then going to leave for Tuolumne. She said her plan was to get her group up the left route then hang a rope on the arete route but she still had some instruction to do on the ground so, go ahead. I stepped up to the route and realized it was one of those that the start was a bit odd, I had hoped I could clip the first clip from a boulder nearby but it was too far, eventually I just had to go for an essentially no foot move to gain an edge to then clip. The rest of the climb was not a gimme either, but quite a lot of fun! Vina followed it and paused for some time at two spots and later told me she was impressed at my onsight of it, “Great job, Eileen, you did it so fast, and without even eating breakfast!”
“Really?” I said. I had worried that I’d taken too long since the guide had been waiting to add a rope to our anchors.
One of the guys in the group piped up, “You did great, I was watching, you looked really smooth on it, no hesitation.” It struck me that – even though some other guys in the group had been talking loudly about skydiving and trying BASE jumping in such a way that made me wonder if perhaps their egos were feeling a little threatened – climbing has come a long way since I first started when guys pretty much assumed a female (when there was one in a group) was not a leader. This morning, the two leaders on the rock were female, and one was a guide. Shark’s Fin is such a picturesque rock and I love that you can see Whitney from it as well. After that, Vina and I stuck to our word and got in the car to head for Tuolumne.
Unfortunately, upon leaving Lone Pine, my low tire pressure indicator came on. This had also happened a week ago and I found my driver’s side tire slightly under inflated, chalked it up to temperature changes, inflated it and all was well. The light coming on again made me worry it was a slow leak, though it could be due to altitude and temperature change again – if so I’d expect that to affect all 4 tires instead of just one. We decided to make an air and lunch stop in Bishop, CA after I told Vina that I loved going to Schat’s Bakery every chance I could when going through that town just to buy a loaf of their Chili Cheese Bread. Schat’s is a very busy, tourist filled place but we got a table and the bread is totally worth it! After that we tried to go to the Chevron to put air in the tire but someone had parked in the spot for it. The tire visually looked fine and I didn’t see any nail, etc, but I still wanted to fill it up. I went to the Shell in town which is at a Carl’s Jr and after getting the free tokens to operate the machine, found out it was out of order. So I went back to the Chevron which fortunately now had the air/water parking spot free. The tire was at 21 PSI. Tire filled with air again, and the low pressure indicator off, we hit the road.
I was running on a sleep deficit from a busy week so I was glad to be able to catch a few winks while Vina drove on the leg from Bishop into Tuolumne and the Lembert Dome picnic area. I had had the vague idea that I would lead us up Northwest Books. That route was my very first multi-pitch trad route I’d done a long time (*cough* almost two decades *cough*) ago. I wasn’t so sure though. I didn’t remember a key part of the route. Missing this part would make a big difference in the rating. I also remember the descent being quite painful in climbing shoes (and steep enough that I wouldn’t want to do it in hiking shoes – and yes, I know there’s a long way down via a hiking trail). Luckily, we got a primo parking spot alongside the road and started to rack up. Alas, the spot was too good to be true, as some climbers told us who were sorting gear nearby. We had parked in the No Parking zone and didn’t realize it because the car after me had done the same and also blocked our view of an additional sign. The climbers were leaving though so we could take their legal spot. Trip of ups and downs in terms of luck so far!
We grabbed the parking spot and finished gearing up. I was still feeling “car warp” from the drive and grogginess from my not-very-refreshing cat naps in the car. Hiking up the approach I could feel the altitude (I live basically at sea level). I looked ahead to the route and still couldn’t see where one was supposed to traverse to avoid getting on a harder crack climb after pitch one. I realized too that it’d been years since I’d done a multi-pitch climb of any sort, following or leading. I had studied Mountain Project’s beta on the route but still didn’t have a clear picture in my mind. Truth was, I was hoping another party would already be on the route so I could see where they were going and follow them. What I did notice when I looked up was that someone had left an alpine draw on the one bolt on the route! Nothing gets you motivated like a chance at booty gear! I headed up the 3rd class approach to get to the real start of the climb. Upon getting to the tree and setting up an anchor, I realized that I could also see that there were two pieces of gear in the crack beyond the bolt! I guess the party that had left the gear on the bolt had bailed higher and didn’t want to just lower on one piece of pro or didn’t feel good about their placement of it. I still wasn’t liking not knowing the route properly, though my memory of the first pitch was coming back pretty strong. I remembered it was a bit odd and slick in parts, not an obvious crack or lieback technique situation. The pair of guys who had passed by earlier on the trail below (and I’d hopefully asked if they were going to do Northwest Books) came back. I called out, “You’re back!”
“Yeah, we decided to pass on the direct route and do Northwest Books instead.” I had already decided to just lead climb up to the bolt, maybe check out the situation with the two cams, but likely come back down. The reason for this plan was that I had lost my nerve but Vina wanted to at least climb a little since we were there. We had a backup plan so would do that afterwards.
In the end, after some discussion with the guys, it was decided that I could climb up and use their gear to get lowered / downclimb. In exchange, the guys would now get to lay claim to the gear left in the crack. I headed up, placing a few cams before getting to the bolt. Right before the bolt I could see why it was there… there were some friction moves to get to it and to go beyond it. Getting to it was likely easy for anyone taller than myself but I didn’t like it much and found it an unpleasant surprise after the easy terrain before it. In addition to this, I could hear a lot of chatter going on at the base of the climb and thought I heard my name. I stepped back down to a ledge from my attempt to start the friction part to ask what was going on but learned no one had said anything to me. I continued up and gained the bolt. The gear was brand new and could not have been left there more than one day – particularly since this was normally a very popular route and it would’ve been cleaned sooner. The cams and crack seemed so close but so far away! But, I already had a plan, so put in the Berkeley guys’ gear and lowered / down climbed.
Vina went up after and did the same. However, we didn’t take off quite yet, she wanted some photos before we headed back to the car, so we were able to see the guys start the route. Upon getting to the friction part, the leader was hesitant as well – it really was pretty blank for a route that’s supposed to be 5.6. He went ahead and got to the crack but said, “I didn’t like that part at all!” He continued on and passed the two left behind pieces. Then we could hear him exclaim, “There’s more gear!” This was very odd, why would someone leave so much gear? Vina and I were already making our way down but could still hear the guys talking. At one point we heard the leader say, “Something must have gone wrong, there’s an anchor just lying here at my feet, not attached to anything”. This was very strange and not good. Leaving gear on multi-pitch routes is not uncommon, some would say it’s the price of admission to multipitch trad climbing. But leaving a lot of gear, and seeing an anchor setup not attached to something, is not common at all. I wondered if the party had been chased away by a thunderstorm, or, as I heard one of the guys say to the other, “Maybe they were so flush, they just bailed and left all their gear?” There was another possibility that neither they, nor I said out loud.
It was with somber thoughts that I left the Lembert Dome picnic area with Vina to scope out a “climb” she had done with her husband a few weeks ago near Tenaya Lake which she described as just “walking up” with great views. My backup to Lembert had been to find Bunny Slopes or one of the few top rope areas in Tuolumne but, considering my mood, the fact that we’d already driven past one of the top rope areas, and the time limit (Vina wanted to get to Oakhurst early enough to say hello to her friends before dark) – easy “climbing” was fine with me. We ended up not finding exactly what Vina had envisioned but we did pull over across from Tenaya Lake and go up what I began to recognize as part of the descent area from when I did West Route years ago. I then spotted the route itself and remembered leading the rather slippery lie back pitch, and thinking it must be even more slippery now. Was I being older and wiser to not even want to do it now, or was I just being chicken? Was my caution completely due to my “still getting back into climbing” status, or something else? I had led fine in the morning on the sport route. What was it about trad in Tuolumne that scared me so much? I brought my attention back to the exploration we were doing. We found a lot of wildflowers and gorgeous views. Tuolumne is pretty breathtaking, no matter where you are in it.
Driving to Oakhurst
We took off from Tuolumne with some regret, and headed to Yosemite Valley, hoping we wouldn’t have to follow the loop road around. Thankfully we didn’t but I begged for a stop at tunnel view, as the light was very pretty. It’s certainly one of the most photographed views in Yosemite, but that doesn’t make it any less gorgeous! Unfortunately on the drive down from there, the low tire pressure light came on again. This was not good. I was at the wheel and knew there was a gas station at Wawona. When we got there, the air pump needed to be turned on and there was no one inside the gas station (though the gas pumps still worked). I checked my tire pressure and it was at 21 PSI again. We just wanted to get to Oakhurst and I’d get the leak patched (or buy new tires). It made for a slightly nerve wracking drive down (with us keeping an eye out for gas stations along the way) but we finally made it to a Chevron with a hightech but working air station. My tire pressure seemed to have held, as it was still at 21 psi according to the fancy air pump machine. I filled up the tire and drove the thankfully short distance to our hosts’ place in Oakhurst. Safely at their place I got out of the car and heard a hissing sound. That was new! I could tell the tire was going to be flat by morning. I had just bought this set of tires, less than 2 years ago. Darn luck!
Coming… PART II, in which I inexplicably get my nerve back and experience some “firsts”
Below: Gallery of Day 1 and Day 2 trip photos featuring a mix of my professional photography shots, camera phone, or GoPro shots, and shots by Vina Lustado (those taken with me in them except for my GoPro timed photos of Shark’s Fin). Photo of Vina and me in yoga poses by unknown photographer from LA (one of the guys being guided).
In the fall of last year, I wasn’t yet back to climbing but I was craving nature and adventure. Terri, a climber and photographer friend of mine suggested we do a road trip from her place in Sacramento up to her sister Tracey’s place in Oregon then travel together to do our own mini night and landscape photography workshop trip. It sounded like a great idea to me and we made plans to do it in the Spring. Well, I’m happy to say, we managed
to pull it off between this first week of April. While we did encounter circumstances that did not make of the best milky way photography conditions (rain and light pollution), we did come back with some great photos, happy memories, and a list of more places and things to do for next time! We also got to snowshoe, hike, rock scramble, have dinner with one of Terri’s photography mentors, enjoy food stops, and each other’s company. Below is a slideshow of my photos too see the photos larger, or for purchase, go directly to the gallery here.
“Eileen I’ve got a climb you should lead,” Todd “The Mayor of Joshua Tree” Gordon told me. It was Saturday. With rain predicted locally for my birthday weekend, I had taken off on an unplanned trip to Joshua Tree and found myself amidst blue skies, a bit of wind, and good company. Todd led the route first, then left an anchor for me to then lead it after him. I hadn’t warmed up on anything so this would be my first climb in weeks, but it looked great so I tied in. I moved up the easy start, then on to the steep section. Moving up from that I reached up but didn’t quite get the hold in the ideal spot on the rock spine. I was keenly aware that I was on lead so didn’t let go. I growled a little to myself but stayed with the hold, got my feet higher then stepped up. A few more moves and the climb was over too quickly.
I’m not one of those climbers that feel that when they climb, they should always lead. I’m just as happy following a route and I take pride in being a good “cleaner” of trad routes. I appreciate leading though as a skill and a unique way to bring oneself to focus on the moment so I practice when I can. Since my re-entry to climbing, I can count the times I’ve led on one hand. I know I’m not physically back to where I was. Mentally I’m not either. I was initially nervous to even just climb on toprope on a long friction climb on Suicide Rock. Re-entering climbing has meant challenging myself both physically and mentally.
Sunday, others in my group pointed me at a climb called Sand Donkey in Indian Cove. It was tall with some vertical cracks mixed with face climbing. I decided to try it as an onsight upon seeing that the first bolt seemed to be at a reasonable distance. I climbed up a few feet. I felt good on this low angle start. I even paused to smile at Michelle for a photo.
I soon had to get down to business though. One of the verticals contained a bulging section that I needed to get over. I saw a bolt that would’ve been nice if I could have clipped from where I stood but I was just out of reach. I would have to move up somehow to do it. There was a chalked hold I could see that seemed to be the obvious one to go for before stepping up. I decided to basically hop for it. One. Two. Three. Hop… and fail. I repeated this with the same result. John “Wrote the Books on Climbing” Long, was in our group, and called up to me that the climb shouldn’t be that hard (it’s only supposed to be a 5.9 I think) and if I was making all that noise maybe it wasn’t the move. I said, “You’re right.” I shuffled my feet right to take a look at what I hoped was a crack I could use. It turned out to be just a flare. It seemed like the only thing to do was to go for the chalked hold. I shuffled back and discovered a small ledge I could use for my left foot so I could get a little higher. It was not ideally placed, it was too much inline with the hold I wanted… making my center of gravity a little off for such a move. It was worth a try though. I placed my foot carefully on it then tried a hop from there. My hand touched the hold! But I could not keep it. I did feel though that it wasn’t a jug, it was more of a slight mound. I’d have to make it work. One. Two. hop! I got it on it’s lower part but, still I was going to make it work. I held on. My hop momentum hadn’t brought me high enough to rock onto my foot so I did a slow push down on my left leg before being able to straighten and step up. That move was definitely not in line with a 5.9 rating.
I had some adrenaline going as I prepared to move on to a face section. This required some calming on my part. I started to puff breathe. I remembered some advice given to me a long time ago… place your feet carefully, don’t reposition them. I stepped and moved. Stepped and moved. I got to the next bolt. There was one more vertical and then another face part. This seemed harder and steeper, and I still felt adrenaline from the move lower in the climb, but the anchor was so close. Step and move up. Step and move up. Keep your balance! I carefully did the last move and reached the anchors.
After I was down on the ground, it was interesting to watch the other climbers in our group do it, and to find that two of them found the second to the last face climbing portion of the climb to be a challenge as well as the part I felt was the crux. I realized that my mental space and muscle memory for friction, small edge type of climbs is still with me and may in fact be making it hard for me to properly judge those type of climbs since other types of climbing seem hard still. Or maybe it was just that I had been so relieved to get past the bulging vertical below, that the rest seemed not as bad in comparison. Of course, climbing routes are often great physical puzzles – there are no colored holds outdoors – and one can be creative when trying to figure out the next move. What may work for my body frame, may not work for others and vice versa.
That’s all part of the fun though. I love how climbing is good for the body, mind, and I’ll add, soul.