By Camilla Barnes-Kelly, NOLS Instructor
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3
For those in search of adventure, the window of opportunity is often small. To coordinate the right partner, time period, season, and route often seems like a complicated puzzle that never quite fits together.
The climb starts in a crack in the middle of the photo and then follows jagged cracks to right leaning treed ledge at the top of the photo.
An adventure to climb an aid route in Zion National Park was one I had been trying to maneuver forever, or at least it seemed like forever. Zion is a spectacular series of canyons and sandstone formations located in southwestern Utah. I had been there before. I was patiently waiting to return.
The last time I had been there, my partner and I were hoping to climb one of the 2,000-foot rock walls. As we drove close enough to hear the local radio report, we were told that there was a large storm coming. This, combined with the intimidation of committing to a climb that would take several 16-hour days of hard manual labor, was enough for us to decide that it was not the right time to begin. We stayed long enough to wistfully gaze up at a formation called Angel's Landing. It's a dramatic peak jutting 1,500 feet straight up. I read about a route on it called Prodigal Son. It was rated 5.8, C2, IV+. This meant that it was within my ability, and an experienced team could do it in a long day.
So here was my dilemma: It was more than a year later and I still hadn't been able to climb a route in Zion. The season of opportunity was coming to a close-- it was becoming too hot to climb, time off from work as a NOLS instructor was limited, and I still didn't have a partner. I'd asked everyone I knew and was even willing to teach those who maybe had the time but not the skills, but no one's schedule seemed to match my own.
That's when the idea struck me, "Maybe four days is enough time to do the route alone." Then came the fears and doubts: Do I have enough experience, especially to do it fast enough to get to work on Friday?
I decided to test the idea out on friends, casually mentioning it to gauge their reactions. "I was kind of thinking, about maybe, well, soloing a wall in Zion," being very non-committing in case their reaction was, "That's crazy!"
Luckily, I live in a community of adventurers who all basically said, "That sounds great! Do you need to borrow any gear?"
Gaining momentum, I decided to commit. If that meant summitting, so be it. If that meant driving all the way there and then turning around because the weather was bad, that would be okay too. I had even managed to scavenge a #6 tricam, an obscurely shaped metal piece large enough to anchor a small boat, from the archives of Paul Piana's closet. It must have been a sign that I was supposed to go. And with all the support I had received from my community, I now felt that, although I'd be soloing, I would not be going alone.
In Zion National Park, the trip unfolded with the first sight of the desert cliffs looming and the first whiff of the dry desert air. I was so excited it was a good thing I had my seat belt on to keep me contained. I received my backcountry permit from a park ranger who proudly showed me his "LNT Master" card when he noticed my Lander address. Driving to the parking lot for my route, I couldn't have been more ready to go.
The first task to be accomplished was getting all my gear to the bottom, with a small river crossing in between. Two round trip hikes, eight crossings of the river, and one car shuttle later, all of my stuff and I were at the bottom of the route and I was ready. I put on my outfit: harness, knee pads, leather gloves, helmet, daisy chains, aiders, lead rope with bag to carry it in, 50 carabiners, a double set of camming units, triple set of stoppers, cheater stick, 2 jumars, pulley, and a grigeri as my belay system. Weighing one and a half times my body weight, I began up, not to touch a horizontal surface again for three days.
Halfway up my first pitch, I met Dave. He meandered up beneath me as I balanced on the top step of my aiders, trying to reach a bolt that was definitely placed by someone taller than myself. "Hi," I said as I sank back into my harness, out of breath and still unable to clip my aider into the next piece.
"Is this your haul bag?" he asked.
"Yeah," I replied, having no idea why he asked until an hour later when I went to set up my haul system only to realize that I forgot to bring the end of the rope up with me. I learned that Dave was also going to solo this route, was 24 and just out of college, and that my age of 29 seems rather old to him for a woman to be doing "this kind of thing." He reluctantly agreed to pass me the next morning, but checked on me periodically throughout the climb. (I think this might have been the climbing equivalent to helping the old lady across the street.)
I made it no farther than one pitch that first night, but decided to commit to going and to sleep 100 feet off the ground. Dave "fixed" the rope on the first pitch but slept on the ground. I figured that the more I practiced setting up my sleeping system, the more efficient I'd become at it.
The vertical world still takes me a while to get used to. (But by the end of the climb, I was no longer even aware that I was in my harness). As I tentatively crawled onto my portaledge, I considered the day. I have heard that there are always more reasons not to do a wall than to actually do it, and I proceeded to list as many of the reasons to retreat as possible. The first pitch took longer than I expected, having to retrieve the haul line I forgot and untangle a huge knot that appeared in the rope. I would need to complete at least four pitches the next day to reach the top in time to be at work on Friday. Maybe it was unrealistic. Dave seemed surprised that I would take this route on as my first solo attempt; Dave had soloed other smaller things first.
But as the evening light changed the color of the cliffs rising hundreds of feet around me, my fears were silenced. I had committed and I wouldn't know how far I would make it the next day unless I tried. I took a deep breath and looked around and thought, What a beautiful place to be spending the night. I set my alarm for just before sunrise, knowing that I would have to use the whole day.
When the alarm went off the next morning, I took a few moments to eat an apple and a power bar, and soaked in the silence. And then the work began; I wouldn't relax again for 16 hours.
The system of solo aid climbing essentially involves climbing each pitch of rock three times. The first is the most fun. The climber gets to "lead" the pitch, solving mini-problems of gear placement and body movement for each foot of rock gained. The second part is the easiest and involves rappelling down the line you just brought up and anchored, removing your haul bag and rope from those anchors, and then reascending that same rope. The third part is intense manual labor. Countering your own weight with that of the bag, brings up the haul bag: you go down, the bag goes up, you reascend the distance you just went down. The more weight you have over the bag, the easier the whole process is. For me, it often seemed as if the bag was winning. I sweated and used every muscle I had to get that bag to move every inch it did. I moved it a lot of inches. So the day consisted of that three part system, times four.
Dave and I had a few traffic jams as I let him pass me above the first pitch and then later at a few of the anchor spots. As a result we got to know each other better and he got to make a few more comments about my age. By the end of the day, though, he had gotten a full pitch ahead, which would keep us separate from then on.
As I plopped down on my portaledge to sleep that night, I was once again overwhelmed by thoughts of retreat. The hardest aid was above me. My feet could still feel the pressure of the aider under them, even though I was sitting down and my shoes were off. I completed my last chore of eating canned Chinese food--something I had thought would be a nice treat but instead had become something I knew I needed to do before closing my eyes. Sleep was sporadic throughout the night, and the alarm went off before I really got any.
The third day started with a beautiful sunrise and the most delicious apple I have ever tasted. I then did the hardest aid pitch on the route: many small stoppers, several high steps and a few traverses. I had been uncertain of my skills on this pitch, and was excited that for every problem, I had an answer. It took longer than expected, however, and once again I was plagued by the time factor. Remembering my commitment to work hard, I plodded upward.
Everything happened just in time, but definitely, no sooner. The last aid pitch had a pendulum as part of its sequence. This was a technique that I had read about but never really used and I really wanted to do it in the daylight. I passed through this section of rock just at sunset, and turned my headlamp on for the final 30 feet of bolts to the top. The bolt ladders contained the hardest moves for me for someone much taller had placed them and I constantly had to high step. This became more humorous, as I was executing these moves in the dark.
"Here you are," I laughed to myself, "and this is what you do for fun!"
A couple of interesting moves were a part of this final bolt ladder. One was what is called a hook move: instead of using a piece that is stuck in the rock, you balance on a hook placed on a small ledge on the rock. Images of myself falling and my headlamp spiraling to the ground passed through my head as I balanced up to my next solid piece. "Just keep doing what is in front of you," I kept repeating. It had gotten me this far.
I finally reached a large sandy ledge, 100 feet from the top. The only pitch left was scrambling up through a "chimney," something that would be much easier in the morning light. This was where Dave had waved good-bye five hours earlier. I was basically at the top! I had succeeded! Well sort of . . . I still had about four more hours of work before I could lie down to sleep.
I set my anchor and rappelled down into the black abyss of the cliff below me. The dark made everything a little more mysterious, and I needed to be extra cautious. As I ascended the cliff for the second time to clean the gear from my route, I ran into numerous puzzles to solve. The route was slanted, with a pendulum, and these are tricky to clean. At one point, misjudging the distance to the next attachment, I swung 30 feet across the dark cliff face. I hung in my harness, letting my heartbeats quiet, vowing to be safe and methodical.
After the sandy ledge for the second time, it was now time to lower myself once again to bring up the haul bag. Suddenly, I no longer wanted to be in the vertical world. My feet were on solid ground, my weight was no longer in my harness, and I just didn't have it in me to hang out in the darkness. I set up a three-to -one pulley system and hauled the bag up with my back. Although this was a slow, physically demanding process, it felt much better than hanging back on the rope. Two hours later, my bag finally appeared. If I had been better hydrated, I might have cried. I stretched out on the ten- by five-foot ledge, my blood pulsing through my body from exhaustion. The night was perfectly clear, and the stars were bursting out of the sky. I had succeeded, and in time to make it to work on Friday.
A few hours later, the sun was up, and I was working again. The last pitch was an easy, sandy scramble, which I had to do several times to get all of my stuff to the top. It was steep enough that I had to be roped and sandy enough that any part of me that had remained clean no longer was. After bringing my last load to the top, I popped out of the bushes onto the "advanced hiking" trail up Angel's Landing, suprising two very clean looking hikers.
"Did you spend the night up here?" they asked, a little perplexed.
"Just a few hundred feet down the cliff," I smiled, pretty excited about my accomplishment.
After checking my watch, I only had enough time to make one trip down in order to get to work. I consolidated everything into the haulbag and what didn't fit got clipped to the outside. I cringed as I lifted the enormous monstrosity onto my back; not only was it heavy, but I was the antithesis of a backpacker with style, something I have spent a lot of time teaching others. As I started to walk, I realized the validity if what I teach, an unbalanced pack is extremely difficult to carry. I held onto the handrails with both hands for the tricky parts and had to crawl at certain steep areas. The tourists were very understanding and would step aside as I passed. (This also could have been because I was too wide to fit with anyone else.)
Everyone I passed gave me a curious look, but only a few asked questions. Dave (remember Dave?) had been down in the parking lot the evening before telling passerby's that "not only is that person soloing, but it's a 29 year old woman!" so a couple of the hikers were pre-informed of what I had done and gave me congratulations or disbelief. A couple of young women asked me if I knew where to go bouldering and gave me a "Cool!" when they found out I was alone. One man in his late 60's was pretty curious and asked quite a few questions about where I had come from. Twenty minutes later, he reappeared asking about how I slept. Twenty minutes later he reappeared asking what I had eaten. I think I saw him five or six times on my hike down. I would stop periodically and lean up against something, but the thought of having to put my pack back on pretty much just kept me walking.
A few hours later, I reached my truck. Not quite ready to start driving, I sat down to drink some water. The man in his 60's approached me again, this time curious about how much weight I was carrying. I told him I taught backpacking for a living, and this seemed to make sense to him. I am glad it made sense to him, because I was not sure it did to me. Three middle-aged women tentatively approached me and asked if I wanted to share their lunch.
"I'm pretty filthy," I said, suddenly aware of my dirt-encrusted hands and the grime embedded under my nose.
"We don't mind. We just wanted to ask you some questions." As I joined them at their picnic table and tried to reach an orange slice without putting my hand in the bag, they took my picture.
"You're going to end up on our bulletin board at work," they excitedly told me.
I packed everything up, drove for 10 hours, and made it to work on time Friday morning.
Several days later, while unpacking my stuff, I came across the leather gloves I wore for the climb. They were Italian leather driving gloves that my grandmother had owned. When she died a few years ago I inherited several pairs, cut off the fingers and made into aid-climbing gloves. And I thought about all the strength I had from others, to do my solo climb.