My hands are swollen; they feel like raw hamburger, and my feet are sore. Yesterday Bill Wright and I climbed 50 pitches in Eldorado Canyon. Our rules were that each route had to be rated 5.7 or above, and no pitches could be repeated. This involved doing 11 different routes, totaling about 5,000 vertical feet of technical climbing, plus the required scrambling, hiking, and rappelling to get off the tops and to the base of the next climb. It took 11 hours and 18 minutes.
“Hey wait a minute”, you might say. “This isn’t about running!”
You are correct. So let me explain:
What all this is about for me, is being in nature – moving, usually as quickly as I can – and preferably in the mountains or deserts. Although I’m well known as a runner, I actually don’t care what mode of movement I’m employing – running, backpacking, skiing, cycling, climbing, canyoneering – they’re all the same to me, they’re all good, and I just use whatever works best to get me to the places I want to be.
“Eldo” is one of those places I want to be. The dramatic and colorful lichen-flecked sandstone walls tower above the roar of South Boulder Creek, 800′ directly below. It’s a world-famous climbing area, and everyone from the local uber-jocks, to young couples, to climbers from out of state or country, engage in an intimate and intense dance with the natural environment, raising the energy level of the place so it’s like being at a rock concert with no sound.
While I love the simplicity and purity of a race, I greatly prefer “projects”, because the personal attributes one must manifest in order to succeed are more broad and engaging. Instead of showing up at the specified time and date, and running the specified route at a specified pace, you have to bring a lot more of who you are to the table. One must: 1) Dream; 2) Plan; 3) Research; 4) Do Specific Training; 5) Commit; 6) Have Courage and Effort; 7) Drink a beer and write a blog post when you’re done.
I might or might not be kidding about that last one; but am not about this: the really key element that makes difficult projects go well is: #8 A Great Partner.
Especially for this project: Doing 50 PIAD (Pitches In A Day) in Eldo is both interesting and problematic, because one must scramble, rap, or hike off everything, and the topography is quite rugged and spread out, thus requiring a fair amount of stamina and strategy. It was going to be a long day. The best way to get this done, would be to “simul-climb” everything. This means instead taking turns with one person climbing while the other belays, both climbers move at the same time. We’re still roped together, and placing protective gear, but there are no active belays; if the leader falls, he could take a 50′ whipper, stopped only by the body weight of the follower on the rope, who would be pulled upward toward the placed gear. If the follower falls however, he would immediately pull the leader off also, and they both would plummet until the leaders falling body came to a very abrupt halt at the nearest gear placement below him.
So in simul-climbing, if the second falls, the likely result would serious injury or worse for the leader. If one person makes a mistake, both pay.
In climbing, possibly more than any other sport, #8, “Great Partner” is not just important. It keeps you alive.
A year an half ago, Bill and I rocketed up 4 of the classic formations in Eldo – the Bastille, West Ridge, Redguard Wall, and the Wind Tower – in a blazing 1:58. There’s no way I could do that now. I’m too old. Or I’ve turned into an annoying whiner. Or both.
Either way, I lacked my usual super-confidence, and shared this with Bill in an email:
“I’m not nearly as strong as I used to be, so have to compensate by better preparation. Real glad we’re doing this together!”
He promptly wrote back:
“Very mutual. You might not be as strong, but you were superman before. Plus, you are rock solid and I trust you to be safe. There are only probably three other people where I’d lead 50 pitches with someone simul-climbing below me. I know you will take care of me and because of that I can relax, concentrate on what I’m doing, and have fun. I don’t worry about my partner.”
“See you tomorrow at 4:45 a.m. for the big day!”
I believe we all live up – or down – to the expectations people have of us. To place total trust and confidence in a person is therefor giving them a huge gift. I went to bed intent on living up to that gift. I woke up before the alarm.
#1 The Bulge, 5.7 (5.9 finish var), 4 pitches.
It’s just light enough to see when we start up “the scariest 5.7 climb in the state”. Many accidents here, but we know this route well, breeze up, and scramble down the East Slabs.
#2 T1.5, 5.9 (Touch n Go – Jules Verne – T2), 7 pitches.
“T1.5” is my name for this excellent combo of 3 routes, designed to keep the climbing continuously hard, but within my very modest ability level. I don’t cruise much of this; it’s stiff. We do the Vertigo raps (3 to get to the ground), in order to efficiently set us up for the next segment.
#3 Rewritten, 5.7, 6 pitches.
This is a moderate but excellent route. I’m liking being back on 5.7 … like hitting a level section on a trail run … time to accelerate and improve one’s pitches per hour average.
#4 Great Zot, 5.8, 6 pitches.
This is next to Rewritten, and thus would be quite efficient, except the down climb from these routes is non-trivial. Still, we are ticking these entire routes in one hour, including getting back down, eating, and sorting gear.
We really wanted to do Green Spur next, as it adjoins Great Zot and Rewritten, but other parties were stacked up on it so we quickly shifted to Yellow Spur. We had created an Excel spreadsheet listing 80 pitches of climbing, so that we could make adjustments on the fly depending on what was open. When one gets old one gets slower … but hopefully, also smarter.
#5 Yellow Spur, 5.9, 7 pitches.
I always felt this was going to be the crux of the project. Even though Rewritten was our third route of the day, we still got there before anyone else, but couldn’t beat people to Yellow Spur; it is very popular and by now other parties would almost certainly be on it.
The first pitch was open, so Bill launched, climbing the opening 5.9 moves like he was scrambling the Third Flatiron. At the belay for the 2nd pitch I passed a couple; the guy was grim and didn’t look at me. Apparently Bill asked him twice if we could pass and the guy said “No.” Then the lady said, “Oh, it can’t hurt, can it?” Bill took that as a cue and took off. He was really motoring on this one; in part to demonstrate to that party that we really don’t hold them up, and in part because he’s so strong on this route anyway. I couldn’t keep up and was slowing him down, but in 5 minutes we were outta there and didn’t see them again. No harm done in my opinion.
On the 5th pitch we passed another party again, but in the opposite style: they recognized Bill – who literally wrote the book on speed climbing you should know – and gladly let us pass. We didn’t hinder them, they certainly didn’t bother us, they were really good, we all exchanged pleasantries, and in a few minutes I was alone on the really steep upper headwall of the Yellow Spur, the rope to Bill disappearing over the arete above.
Dang, this is steep and thin … anywhere else but Eldo this would be 5.10 … I didn’t practice this route beforehand to be completely sure of the moves, so I intentionally pull on gear rather than climb it free … I just can’t fall … pride is a secondary consideration.
We do the Vertigo Raps again, and hike back up to Green Spur. Another party is sitting at the base, lacing their shoes. “No”. The guy is really adamant; “No way”. We have this route dialed, having practiced it not once but twice (Bill three times) in the previous two weeks in preparation for this effort, so we’d be out of their hair in the time it took them to eat a granola bar, but he would have none of it, so we had to respect the fact that even though they hadn’t started climbing, they got there first. So we reluctantly hiked back down, sorry to lose those 5 pitches and the fine route.
#6 Ruper, 5.8, 7 pitches.
Since we are on the west side of the cliff anyway, we do an alternate start to this fine route, giving us 7 instead of the usual 6 pitches. Two years ago we twice did this route for speed, getting it down to well under one hour car-car, so I feel confident on this. Back then I was seriously considering free-soloing the route, which either due to lack of recent experience on the route, deteriorating ability, or increased intelligence, I definitely didn’t feel like doing today.
We scramble down the East Slabs again, with 37 pitches in the bag. We just have to pick up 13 on the Wind Tower and Bastille; we have practiced probably 20, so we have the options. Except for being very thirsty, we both are feeling good; I feel this project is almost a done deal.
#7 Wind Ridge, 5.8, 3 pitches
We normally wouldn’t do this route because it’s easy – we do a var to the start to bump it up from 5.6 – but it’s the first route encountered on the downclimb, it’s open, so we feel we have to nab it while we can.
#8, #9 Reggae, West Overhang, 5.8, 4 pitches
We’re parched now, really want some water, but continuing down we see Reggae is free, so we do an alternate start to pass a party, and knock this one off. In an highly efficient twist, instead of going all the way to the top and the subsequent lengthy hike off, we move right and downclimb the West Chimney route.
The car is only 30 m away – another great thing about Eldo – so we pause to eat and drink. Only 5 pitches to go, we know the Bastille well, so we’re relaxed.
#10 Bastille Crack, 5.7, 5 pitches.
We were keen on doing Werk Supp, but it was taken (by a friend of ours, Pemba Sherpa), but strangely, the Bastille Crack was open so we got on it. This is one of the most popular climbs on the planet, yet in spite of that, it’s worthwhile.
#11 West Chimney, 2 pitches
We had a lot of good options for the west side of the Bastille, but this is the first one encountered coming down from the previous route, so we got on it, got it done, and it was time to implement #7. We may have done more, but Bill actually had a huge 4-route day the next day (not I).
I like projects. I like who I become in order to do them. I am very grateful for the great partners who continue to sustain me. I love being in nature, moving.
I think we can do at least 60 PIAD next time.