“You’ll have too much drag!” Dave shouted up to Luis, who was scouting around a round cap formation near the top of a trad climb on Chimney Rock.
As his belayer, I was standing in a position about 50 feet below and to the left of Luis, unable to see what was going on. I could; however, agree wholeheartedly with Dave. Luis had asked for some rope earlier and I had given him the slack, yet he wasn’t able to feel it at all.
“What about that crack over there?” Dave shouted again.
“It’s nothing, it just flares.”
Eventually it was decided that Luis would just belay me up to a spot on a ledge more in line with the rope than the false crack. We should, Dave said, be able to downclimb a chimney from there to another ledge and be able to go to the back of the formation to some rap rings on the other side.
The original plan had been that I was going to tail and reclip a rope so that others in our party could also follow the climb. That plan was smartly scrapped and I was just going to do a straight clean.
As I waited to make sure I was on belay I contemplated the 5.7 rating at Joshua Tree National Park and recalled a conversation I had had earlier during this trip.
“That one says it’s a 5.7” a climber had asked me.
“5.7 trad climbs here are unpredictable. They vary a lot.”
“Yeah, why is that?”
“I think some of them were rated with old school ratings, when 5.10 was the hardest there could be. That and maybe vet climbers doing a climb, just cruising, thinking a climb wasn’t too hard and shrugging that ‘we’ll just call it a 5.7′”.
I got a smile at that and continued, “There’s a climb in my old guide book that’s rated a 5.7. In the newest guide book it’s a 5.10!”.
“Belay is on!” Luis called. We did the rest of the command exchanges.
I started climbing.
The climb I think we were doing according to my old guide book is West Face Overhang, 5.7 1 star. We (Luis, Dave and I) had studied it from the ground, comparing it to their newer guide book (I had left mine at the campsite). It looked like the first part was an easy, lower angle, walk up between two small cracks which then led to a chimney climb topped off with a boulder-like chunk which looked to us to be the crux of the climb to get over and/or around. The finish of the climb had looked like a crack to the top of the formation set in another large boulder like shape above a ledge. That part is what Luis had called “nothing”.
I was on the lower angle part now – the part we had thought was going to be a “walk up” but at which Luis had already told me, in his accent, “That part is a little bit scary”. I could see how it would be a surprise on lead. The cracks were nice but the rock between them protruded outwards, keeping you a little off balance.
The next part was the chimney, it was a little bit too off width to do text book chimney moves, but it wasn’t too bad. I had noticed that Luis had gone straight up, following a crack rather than going around the roof part but I stepped onto the block instead.
A few more moves and I was at his belay. There was a small ledge which I could walk around the corner. Though I didn’t walk right to it due to rope drag, I could see what Luis had meant about the “crack” we had thought was the final part of the climb. It was not too much more than a scoop out of the rock towards the top, it might make a fun boulder problem if you could stem your way up, but there was no way to place gear at that part, and we were rather high in the air.
From the ledge I looked for the chimney area Dave had mentioned and saw it. It would be an interesting downclimb just get into place for it. As I got a closer look I didn’t necessarily like it. “So, we go down there?”
“Yes,” Luis said. “Or… you could lead up this,” he indicated a crack in the boulder like cap, which started at the ledge I was on and went all the way to the top. It was not tall at all, maybe 15 feet or so? Maybe 20 at the most.
We moved towards the downclimb but before I was about to cross I decided I wanted to lead the crack instead. I told Luis, “I’m like a cat, I like to go up more than I like to go down”.
This is true but I’m not sure why I felt so confident I could do this climb as an onsight. The crack looked lovely, hand and fingers, yet I really don’t have too many trad lead climbs under my belt, and even fewer done as an on sight. Climbing had helped me realize something though. I am good in a tight situation, between a rock and a hard place (forgive the pun), or even just an uncomfortable place.
I have been called a “rope gun” only a few times in my life since usually there’s always a better one in my group, but if one was needed, I’d step up. When I know something needs to be done and I can do it, I will. No complaints, no backing down. This situation on Chimney Rock was not dire as, say, my unexpected lead of part of Open Book (5.9 trad in Tahquitz) but it was just more convenient if I were to lead this and… I thought it would be more fun as well.
A few days before this trip my boyfriend told me of this crazy theory he had which basically said that I am like a hobbit. Yeah, a hobbit, from the Lord of the Rings. I didn’t find this flattering but he explained himself. Looking at a hobbit you wouldn’t expect them to be tough, but they came through and could kick butt. So he was saying I am tough and good in tough situations. I thought about The Open Book epic and other climbing situations I’ve been in and decided not to throw something at him. Still, I’d much rather be an elf, than a hobbit, for those keeping track.
I thought about that incident right before I started up the crack. It was fun, not as easy as I had thought, but fun. Luis had put a piece in at the bottom for me, he took it out after I had placed one of my own and passed it up to me to place again. I think I only put one more piece in. Just before the top I found that the crack widened. “I’m a little scared now, the crack widened,” I said to him.
“You are good,” he encouraged.
It was silly to tire myself out just hanging there, “When in doubt, run it out!” right? So I moved up and finished.
There were bolts at the top and rap rings. I happily told Luis.
When he got up I discovered I’d been climbing with my Flip MinoHD in my pocket so I took a quick video.
I gave Luis a high five.
The story of the 5.7 wasn’t over yet though. We rapped down to a ledge of sorts on the other side but not to the ground. I could see rap rings on a rock face through a chimney crack. We ended up going up and through this chimney, at first not knowing if we could reach the rings. When we made it to the ground I gave him another high five.
This is what I remember about my early trips to Joshua Tree: a 5.7 can take all your strength and then send you on an epic downclimb (though in this case it was easy once we saw there wasn’t a chasm between the chimney and the second rap rings).
So, when is a single pitch 5.7 trad climb not a 5.7? When it’s an old school Joshua Tree 5.7 that’s when. Then it can become a route finding surprise 2 pitch climb with an unknown way to get down. The funny thing is, I know this about the 5.7s, yet I keep trying them anyway, a girl’s gotta have some unexpected fun doesn’t she?
Feel free to add your own “5.7” stories!
You can also read a trip report from theclimbergirl (no relation, though we should be huh?), she posted about a hard 5.7 as well (and was in the park just days after I left from this trip).
Links to my other articles about this particular Joshua Tree trip (January 15 – 19, 2009):