Rising From Obscurity

This past weekend was quite nice for climbing: cloudy, dry and with temperatures in the low 60's. The long face routes on the Upper Town Wall at Index are notoriously difficult in hot weather; even direct sun on a 65 degree day can make the small edges and foot smears seem less and less plausible as holds. While Sunday had some sun breaks that heated things up a bit, overall it proved to be a boon for Jeanna and I for our attempt on an obscure classic free climb: Rise and Fall.

Nice looking place!

Now, the history of this climb is a bit hard to parse and has assumed a rather mythological guise. As far as that goes, this article has a nice account of Greg Child's near-fatal rappelling accident that inspired the route's name. Aside from that and the fact that he and Andy DeKlerk, two expert Index micro-face climbers, established the route in 1991 or so, little other accurate information exists about the route. Conflicting opinions abound: while Darryl Cramer's 'Sky Valley Rock' more or less accurately describes the route and its difficulties, Jeff Smoot's 'Rock Climbing Washington' guidebook embellishes both the danger and the difficulty with descriptions of 'back-off slings' and undergrading. To add to the mystique, Mikey Schaefer recently nabbed what may be the second free ascent of the route this summer (19 years after the first ascent!!!), commenting that it felt quite hard indeed.

Having tried and failed on the crux first pitch six or seven years ago, I remembered little except that I had mostly figured out the hardest moves but had perhaps stood on a bolt hanger to get through one particular section. I remembered the route as being a little dirty with lichen, which can sometimes feel like ball bearings underfoot on thin granite face climbing, making it feel much harder than it would if clean. After Mikey's redpoint and some other recent traffic, however, it was sure to be clean and I was inspired to try it!

Jeanna and I began on the first pitch of Green Drag-on (instead of the normal 5.9 handcrack start of Davis/Holland, which was quite busy at the time), which is a really enjoyable 5.11- finger and lieback crack that looks like it was made for stopper placements. Luckily, I had some of those aboard and promptly placed all except one.

Crazy lichens that are obvious from the road grow under the roof next to the route

The crux pitch begins on pitch two of Green Drag-on, which is a right-facing corner with broken pins that sports four bolts at the beginning that protect delicate 5.11 stemming. After the fourth bolt, the pitch exits the corner on the left and ascends a steep, featured face. A hard move or two left gains a really intriguing quartzite deposit/dike with egg-sized crystals (!) that is followed for about twenty feet to the crux: a tough section establishing on a large foot ledge and pulling over a bulge. Strenuous and still difficult liebacking up a dike feature culminates with one more pull over a steep bulge to the anchor. As I climbed the pitch, I found myself actually recognizing features, which was as problematic as it was helpful: I remembered which parts were hard which limited my ability to see all my hold options. Despite this, to my delight I made it through without falling in the style of the proverbial 'forgetful person's onsight'. Jeanna followed with a few hangs, but made mince meat out of the cruxes once she figured them out. Once again, I watched in dismay from above as she found a much easier way of sequencing the hardest crux, then pulled through the balance lieback above with panache where I felt taxed and nervous. This is beginning to be a familiar pattern when we climb routes together!

Guaranteed to be a good day with this crew

The second pitch is 5.10a and, while the bolts are spaced a little at the beginning, no longer deserves the 'R' rating it once received. Either bolts were added later (there were two more present than in previous topos) or the danger was overblown to begin with. The climbing is quite good, with more quartzite features (the same dike continued from below), a crux roof encounter and an interesting shattered quartz corner.

The third pitch is almost as difficult as the first, but not quite. It begins with a step right into more quartz-like rock (I believe the same dike wanders up the wall in this area) and climbs a corner with some knobs as well. A lieback crack (piece of gear) leads to a roof with some surprisingly featured climbing. After pulling over onto a slab with some difficulty, the features disappear and a typically desperate Index face crux ensues. Luckily, there is just enough to get by on but some of the holds were shockingly minute. I was extremely gratified to squeak through with an onsight (or 'flash' as there was a huge chalked tick mark on a key hold) of this pitch. Once again, Jeanna cruised up to the slab but hung once or twice before pulling it off effortlessly. Once she figures something out she makes it look far too easy, especially if it's actually hard-as-nails, 'magic toe levitation face climbing' on granite.

Me looking valiant on pitch 3. Photos courtesy of Matthew Schutz, who was climbing Davis Holland/Lovin' Arms right next door to Rise and Fall
A series of Jeanna on Pitch 3. I'd rather not admit how long it took me to make this in Photoshop

After some creative removal of the aforementioned tick mark, we continued on to the next 5.11b slab pitch. This pitch is long compared to the others and is remarkably featured: I had to look twice when I found myself pulling on strange granite pockets that lasted for most of the pitch (and no, they are NOT manufactured!). One thin section comprises the crux. Unfortunately, a crumbled foothold denied me on my first attempt at this section but after lowering and pulling the rope I managed it on the next try.

Jeanna on Pitch 4: thin, artsy face climbing typical of the Upper Town Wall

The final pitch is 5.10a or b and is short, overhung and ominously blocky at the top. At some point, a couple of bolts were added to the top part, obviating a need for gear. That said, one of the bolts is in a MASSIVE block stacked on other blocks that vibrated when I sounded it out. Visions of riding it down to the base danced through my imagination and I found a place for a small cam further from harm's way.

A view across the wall to the left side of the Cheeks

While this post is intended to provide a rather tongue-in-cheek analysis of the history and a detailed description and some photos of the route and its characteristics, I'll also offer some of my thoughts. First, I would like to encourage other interested parties to attempt Rise and Fall as I found the climbing to be quite in line with what one would expect from Index at that grade. In terms of difficulty, it falls in line with other routes of similar style such as Swim (.11d; slightly easier aside from pitch 1 which is HARD), Calling Wolfgang (.12b; slightly harder), Technicians of the Sacred Pitch 1 (.12b/c; harder still) and Soul on Ice (.12c; quite a bit harder). Expect tough cruxes, but nothing outlandish if your footwork is precise. Friction climbing on the UTW is quite temperature dependent, so plan accordingly. Finally, don't forget to take in the view, as it is quite spectacular from up there! The way the ground slopes away down to the town kind of makes the wall feel 1000 feet bigger than it is.

Gear list:
-12 quickdraws, 4 runners.
-Other gear is dependent on choice of approach pitch. For Green Drag-on P1, bring nuts #3-9 Black Diamond size, cams to #1 or #2 Camalot; small cams useful. For Davis Holland P1, bring gear to #2 or #3 Camalot. For Rise and Fall proper, a singles rack of smaller cams to .5 C4 size is nice to supplement bolts on a few of the pitches.

Pitch list:

P1 (5.12a/b): corner to crux face. P2 (5.10-): face climbing on dike. P3 (5.11+): quartz corner, roof and crux slab. P4 (5.11b/c): thin face climbing with pockets and one harder section. P5 (5.10b): steep, juggy liebacking and scary blocks.


North of the Sunset

The first time I remember hearing the album 'Solo Monk' by Thelonious Monk, the rather well-known jazz pianist from the 50's and 60's, was in Joshua Tree National Park. During one good stint in the park in late April back in, oh, 2002 perhaps, my friend Greg and I spent most of our time drinking coffee and burning in the sun.

Our morning ritual, as I remember it, was to listen to most or all of the aforementioned album; it became a sort of refrain of sorts for the variety of currents that guided that sometimes austere, sometimes foundational trip to the desert. Despite the fact that we listened to it almost every day for three weeks, I think it was the texture more than the specifics of the music that sticks in my mind. Only later, after some hundreds more times listening to the album, have I realized the power that this man held and transmuted into sound via the piano.

The tunes on 'Solo Monk' pave some strange middle path: while I would hardly call them strictly 'straight ahead' in terms of Jazz style, neither are they dauntingly avante gard or harmonically unapproachable. Monk has a penchant for dissonance that verges on missed notes at times, but clearly isn't the latter. Instead, his chord voicings are uncanny in the most canny fashion, dissonant and yet incredibly consonant in terms of his approach to harmony.

I don't claim to have the knowledge to analyze, harmonically, some of the tropes found in Monk's playing; I do, however, know that what Monk typically plays is often somewhat 'outside' of normal harmony, especially in terms of his musical era. The intervals in some of his voicings, for instance, were rather 'innovative', to say the least and some are still 'challenging' to some of out perceptions of what sounds 'good'.

In any case, I rather wished to avoid analysis here due in part to the chance that it might expose my rather limited knowledge of music theory and harmony; inspiration comes in strange wavelengths and sometimes must be heeded despite the risk of translational errors. What I hear in this album these days is the 'undercurrent', Friedrich Nietzsche's 'primordial unity', the untempered art impulse tempered and translated by form, in this case musical harmony. Really a verbose way of saying that Monk's got 'it' and that I dig what 'it' is: somewhat simple vessels (musical forms) overflowing with something more intensely communicative and affecting than the actual tensions in the tunes could ever be, the savant coupled with the intuitiveness of genius. Art, of course, but allow me a further meditation on the subjective:

Blue sky and a white-hot sun; new love coupled with a complete loss of temporality; a storm; clouds moving swiftly in the dark, outlined by the moon; an abstract and elegant brutality in the motion and subsequent stillness of the air; a foolish yet pure naivete; the idea of an end, a death, a coda; beauty in the most rare and austere form, as difficult to substantiate as it is, in the words of Richard Brautigan, "...[to hold] a flower and a rock in the same hand...", and similarly damaged and gone as soon as an attempt is made to confront its reality of being...

...and yet its presence has ripples...


A Day in the Mountains

A few weeks ago, my friend Jens and I made a pilgrimage up to Colchuck Balanced Rock in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness outside of Leavenworth to attempt a free ascent of a relatively new route on the formation: The Tempest Wall. The main event of the climb, aside from really good views, solid rock and stellar climbing throughout, is a 20+ foot splitter roof crack that is actually steeper than horizontal at one point! Jens and I went mainly to climb on the roof and, if things went well, continue to the summit. After a couple of decent attempts we rappelled, happy to have tried the pitch and planning on returning at some point to try again.

A couple of views of Colchuck Balanced Rock from afar, the eponymous 'balanced rock' visible as the highest point; and, a view of the climb, with the roof pitch visible in the center of the picture

This past weekend, Ben, Tiffany and I returned to this part of the Washington Alps to escape the forecast 95 degree temps in the lowlands and to make an attempt at a 'team free ascent' of the route. While the roof pitch has been free climbed in the past, our goal was to have each person either lead or follow each pitch, ideally with no falls on the entire route.

Colchuck lake with part of Dragontail Peak visible; a closeup of nice looking rock on Dragontail; a verdant little gully with some cool rock formations

Both wanting 'the' lead, Ben and I settled the matter with a game of rock/paper/scissors. I lost, of course, but gave him the pitch with small disappointment which was to be exorcised completely shortly thereafter. We were tired after the early start and the approach, but by 10am I was casting off on the first pitch and trying to allay the nervous anticipation of the roof looming closely overhead. The first pitch of the route is varied and fun, including a sporting tree shimmy and some pumpy lie-backing in corners. Not a bad warm-up, but not quite adequate preparation for the 20 feet of inverted jamming on the next pitch. From a luxurious belay stance, we both stared up and out at the incredible roof feature. After some philosophizing between us about expectations and the self-pressure towards perceived success as it pertains to climbing, Ben racked the gear and was off on lead.

Thus began one of the most inspiring feats of rock climbing I've had the good fortune to witness (and to belay for). I could tell Ben was a little nervous from the outset, if the jittery sensations I had were any indication. He climbed up an easy crack to the roof, placed a cam as far as he could reach, then downclimbed to a stance. After a couple minutes' trepidation, he cast off. Right away the pitch is awkward and hard, requiring one to reach far into a flare for hand jams, then to establish one's feet into the same insecure flare before moving through a section of decent but flared hand jams. At this point, the jams become more parallel and hand-sized but one's feet are actually above one's head in the flared section and must be moved somehow into better jams! Ben moved smoothly through to this point until his feet came out of the crack while moving through to the more secure jams. I simply fed out slack and watched in disbelief as he held on for a split second with a single hand jam before reestablishing himself in the crack. The rest of the crack is 5.11 splitter hand jams to a tough section turning the lip, but the pump builds incredibly through this section. Ben spent a minute or two shaking out as much as one possibly can on horizontal ground. The energy level grew. Fighting the inevitable 'hand jam pump', where one can barely operate one's hands, Ben fought to the lip of the roof and turned it. Time seemed to pause for a moment as I watched him fight to get his feet established in the crack above the lip--and then it was done. I let out a joyful yell. He told me he was going to puke. I told him to go ahead and do it. Watching Ben climb can be frustrating for how effortless he sometimes makes things appear, but I could tell he was digging deep for this one which made his success all the more dramatic.

Needless to say, despite our preparatory metaphysical pep talk, I indeed had expectations and was quite nervous about following the pitch. A fall here, while ultimately inconsequential, would now alter the outcome of the day for those of us playing 'by the rules of the game', so to speak, where falling essentially equals failure. Ego and the human tendency towards valuation and self-aggrandizing quantization of achievements bear heavily on climbing and if one is not careful, obfuscate entirely the true reasons we choose to spend out energy this way. Despite my self-admonition to climb for personal growth and enjoyment, I lingered at the start of the roof with both actual fear and doubt. Soon, however, I was climbing and focused. I flowed through the first awkward section effortlessly. I think my surprise at this shook me a little and I lost composure. The annoyance of the rope in front of me (an attentive belay on this pitch is crucial to avoid swinging down too far during a fall) and the difficulty of removing gear flustered me a little as I cleaned a cam from the crack with difficulty. I tried to shake out my arms a little but as I was approaching the lip, my hands, arms and core began to lose integrity; I could feel my strength waning and an outrageous sense of failure attempted to take root. Out of desperation, I actually switched to an undercling position with my feet on a small ramp feature, something that I had written off as ridiculous on my previous attempts weeks before. The change in grip allowed a little blood to flow back into my hands. Still, I hesitated. I established left hand in a good jam above the lip and my feet promptly swung out of the crack. I reestablished and attempted to regain focus, only to have them come out again. My core was blasted from the effort. I barely reestablished and fought a foot out left to a small foothold. I pulled up and into a layback with my right hand but couldn't pull up enough to make it work. Desperately I pulled my hand into a wide, insecure hand jam in a flared section of crack, another thing I had avoided completely as too difficult on previous attempts. I fought my other foot over the lip and reached up--into a perfect hand jam. I was done! I got my foot jammed securely into the crack again and took stock of myself: I was close to vomiting; my fingers were numb from squeezing so hard in the jams while my hand muscles and forearms were so full of lactic acid I couldn't move them; my throat was dry and my lungs were almost wheezing from the effort; mostly, however, I was ecstatic at having fought through what I considered impossible odds, especially considering my somewhat extemporaneous tactics. (Vertical World will be happy to note that I'm unintentionally advertising their gym in the pictures below.)

With the crux complete, we regained our composure to finish the rest of the climb. After my fingers thawed painfully and I regained most of the use of my hands and arms, I led us up the next 5.10a pitch and Ben swung through on a short easy pitch to a ledge below the next, albeit easier, crux: a 60 meter 5.11 endurance pitch featuring almost every style of crack and flare climbing, which was to be my lead. Between the approach hike and the amount of effort spent on the roof pitch, this lead turned out to be a fight: I moved hesitantly and somewhat nervously; I ran out of long slings too early and incurred rope drag that was absolutely heinous, almost untenable; despite placing gear sparingly I ended up with a 30-40 foot rope-fighting runout at the end until I could put my final two cams in as an (thankfully bombproof) anchor. Par for the course, naturally, and very satisfying to be able to climb on such incredible features: the variety of physical, body-size flares and steep crack climbing make this pitch one of the best I've climbed in recent memory! The only drawback was the relative discomfort of an awkward hanging belay in the left facing corner (in the pictures below, it is the obvious feature above me about 40 feet).

The lengthy 5.11 pitch: after passing two overhangs I'm being greeted by 60 or 70 feet of steep, varied jamming. Awesome!

I'm amazed at how physical crack climbing can be. Ben just redpointed a .14b/c sport route last week and I would venture to say that I'm no slouch at the sport crag either, but we were both tired after this pitch! Different disciplines of climbing, I suppose. Ben led us up the final 5.11a pitch which is short and climbs out of the corner to the right and under a roof to finish on ledges. 4th to easy 5th class scrambling led us up to the descent, but luckily we still had time to go to the summit. Some more easy 5th class and we were beneath the precarious-looking Balanced Rock. An exposed and slightly dangerous slab boulder problem, which I insisted on doing, leads to the summit proper, with incredible views of the cirque behind Colchuck Balanced Rock as well as Dragontail Peak, Colchuck Peak and Mt. Stuart. In the distance were visible Baker, Rainier, Glacier Peak and undoubtedly more that I couldn't identify. I was greeted on the summit by, surprisingly, a cloud of mosquitoes (to whom we had become well accustomed throughout the day) and copious amounts of flying ants of some kind. The descent from the top is mellow but the CBR approach gully is a little rugged and we were slowed by exhaustion: back to the base of CBR by 5:30; at Colchuck Lake by about 7:00 or so; at the car by 10:00.

The cirque behind CBR; and Colchuck Lake from the summit block

Crags and Colchuck lake; Mt. Stuart and the Stuart Glacier

I think Ben is enjoying some quality time on the summit with his new mosquito friends; and am I happy or scary, or both? And what year is it anyway?

Dragontail with the Triple Couloirs route visible in the center with Colchuck Peak visible behind; and Dragontail again from a different viewpoint

Self-effacing stoicism leads to fierce determination as the time for action approaches; or maybe it's the other way around?

Tiffany, Ben's wife, made the approach and descent hikes with us. Done in such short order, they amount to a bit of a slog. She also took some great pictures of the roof pitch which I unfortunately don't have to share; and, on the right: beautiful paintbrush in the summit area, where many varieties of wildflowers are present. As Jeanna was out of town and unable to suffer with us, I figured she'd appreciate a picture or two of the flora

Although somewhat beaten down by the effort, I find myself exhilarated to remember it even now as I slowly recover energy. I suppose I could pretend that I'm a swashbuckling bad-ass and play down the amount of effort this took, but I won't; consequently you, the reader, have to suffer (or enjoy? both? and I suppose you don't really have to) the long descriptions of what I consider a defining moment in my climbing, one in which the idea of working in league with a partner towards a common goal really became palpable and the goal came to fruition. For that I must thank Ben both for the fine day of rock scaling and for being a rock solid partner for an endeavor such as this, carrying the day with his fine lead effort.




Free Climbing the Town Crier at Index

If you haven't heard of it, Town Crier has been more or less the 'standard' aid route on the Upper Town Wall at Index for quite some time; relatively easy climbing (C2), short pitches and steepness add to its appeal as a good beginner aid route.

A few years ago in the summer of 2007, former Washington local Justen Sjong cleaned and made free ascents of both Town Crier and the neighboring Green Drag-on at relatively modest grades (both have a pitch of .12d/.13a face climbing). Both 'free versions' have only relatively minor variations to the original aid lines. The gauntlet was thrown, so to speak, as everyone around here who was climbing at the grade were accustomed to simply ignoring low-hanging plums like these.

Years later, we're finally waking up: Climbing magazine had a feature article on Index last year that included photos of my friends Jens and Max on the free Green Drag-on, and this summer Mikey Schaefer, Kate Rutherford and Sean Leary have been active on the Upper Wall, including, I believe, free ascents of Town Crier, Green Dragon and the Waterway Route, an A3 that went free at an astonishingly low grade of 5.11! It may not be as glamorous as free climbing El Capitan, but to Washington climbers this should be yet another exciting reminder of what we have right in our 'backyard' and hopefully a bellwether of things to come.

This past Monday, Jeanna and I went up to put some time in on the Town Crier. A previous attempt had proven fruitless as I was having a 'bad attitude' day, climbing like a nervous idiot and failing on the first hard pitch (5.11!). Despite (or perhaps in light of?) the fact that the Upper Wall was engulfed in clouds and rain was all-but-guaranteed, this attempt was much better and far more enjoyable.

The Enchanted Forest of Index

Cloudy, but cool!

Pitch one was wet and slimy. Luckily, this crack is still 5.9 when it's wet

To my delight, the steeper climbing above the slimy first pitch looked dry! Pitch 2 is a short chimney with a 5.9 move. Pitch 3, where nervousness shut me down last week, went smoothly and without issue. It is the only real variation to the original aid line (avoiding the roof and pendulum point) and features a 5.11 move over an overlap and some climbing on a hollow flake. Not so bad.

The first of the two crux pitches is Pitch 4, the 'Triple Overhang' pitch. Funky moves in hollow rock off the belay lead to a steepening corner with some iffy rock, then a steep boulder problem. The crux is basically sport climbing past many pins. I almost got it on my first attempt but not quite. My second attempt went fine. Jeanna linked the crux boulder problem, but a clean toprope ascent proved elusive and we continued upwards.

Looking down from above the Triple Overhangs, although you can't actually see the pitch

Pitch 5 is a seam leading to a flare, with a little trickery involved in the initial climbing off the belay stance. It probably clocks in at around .10d/.11a with some fun climbing.

Pitch 5 from below

Looking over at the beautiful Green Drag-on. Its free variation climbs out the right side of the roof and up the obvious 5.10 crack/layback before exiting left onto crux 5.12 face climbing and then rejoining the aid bolt ladder for a harder crux (.13a) on the next pitch

Pitch 6 is the bolt ladder pitch which also comprises the crux of Town Crier at .12d. Luckily, the rain held off long enough for me to attempt the pitch and work out the moves. Cool climbing in a 5.10 groove slot leads to steep moves past pins to the crux bolt ladder. Moves around a very small flared groove on an almost vertical slab comprise the crux, with good footwork being paramount. The texture of the rock is excellent, as I learned when it tore my skin as one would peel an overripe fruit. After some airtime and a bleeding fingertip, I figured out the crux section and finished the rest of the pitch to make sure there were no further surprises. This pitch is probably more like .12c once you know all the moves. As expected, the rain came right as I lowered down and intensified as I pulled the rope for a redpoint attempt. Wet footholds on the slab thwarted me and I resorted to some exhilarating C0 action. Having given it our best, or at least some close semblance, we descended into the mists.

The town of Index during a rare clear moment

My third grade teacher always told me I'd have frown lines if I didn't stop scowling so much

I really know how to capture those crucial photographic moments

Great climbing, great views: what better to revitalize my excitement after a solid month of sport climbing? The latter simply lacks the adventure quotient that makes these (small) bigger objectives that much sweeter, although the crux sections of Town Crier, to be fair, are essentially sport climbing with a view...


...oh well!