Chasing the Drag-on

This year has been a bit of a drag for me in many ways, as I've subtly suggested numerous times in earlier posts on this blog. Plagued by climbing injuries and general health quandaries, my confidence in my well-worn ability to just 'get through it' has wavered somewhat. Surprised by my own disbelief at the fact that things actually change over time, I've been forced to reinvent my approach in some ways and, yes, even change my expectations! Zounds! It has been hard to accept this new baseline, as it were, but it's probably something most of us have dealt with recently and that all of us must deal with at some point.

Suffice it to say, then, that being able to climb is a welcome distraction from the miasma of life goal assessment, health care debacle and general despair. Now of course, I never feel as fit as those halcyon days of yore (in my mid twenties) and perhaps this attitude has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I have felt a little more honed lately and decided it was time to turn up the dial a little at the crag. Despite a few aches and pains, my sprained finger is nominally functional and I finally deemed it ready for a route on the Upper Town Wall of Index, which which a few exceptions tends to be far more crimpy and finger-intensive than the more physical cracks of the Lower Town Wall. Jeanna and I went up to recon the free Green Drag-on and maybe even go for a clean free ascent. My goal, of course, was to try to onsight it and it seemed reasonable enough. We had both been saving the route for a day when both of us were ready to crush it under our heels. Well, yesterday was sort of that day and sort of...not:

The weather has always been a bit of a crucial element in harder face climbing at Index. Barring some superhuman level of climbing technique or perhaps a mystical new shoe rubber compound, a hot day can make anything over 5.11 into a downright miserable experience; foot agony, shredded fingertip skin and a solid shitkicking of one's ego are the usual results of attempting harder climbs in sunny summer weather. That's why, of course, we decided to climb something that has a 5.12d/.13a face crux right at the top: the pitch would probably be in full sun for the few hours it takes to get to it, thereby providing a more fulfilling challenge in its completion. Yesterday, clouds seemed to be numerous enough that perhaps we would get a chance at climbing in comfort; all the more reason to cast off onto the five pitch big-wall experience that is climbing on the Upper Town Wall!

The first pitch (.11a) is a finger crack that tapers out at the end into a devious little crux. No problems here, really: with some slight misreading of the moves, Jeanna tried pretty hard to fall off the crux when she was following but persevered nonetheless. Footwork checkpoint passed!

The second pitch (.12a) is a long, devious corner with a couple of potent cruxes. The first is a series of funky stemming moves over a bulge at the beginning and the second is a magic high-step foot commitment shoulder scum move higher up. Flared gear placements in the upper part keep the excitement level high but not excessive. In avoiding one hideous hanging belay, I combined this with another easier (.11a) but frighteningly unstable pitch to belay at an even more excruciating non-stance under the large roof 3/4 of the way up. Not the best choice! The loose blocks on the .11a section are pretty much just waiting to fall off the wall and they are not much smaller in mass than the average-sized car. Jeanna gave the lower crux a good shot but fell a couple of times. Definitely not the most straightforward climbing, with a pretty specific hit or miss series of moves in that section. By now, the sun was uninhibited by cloud cover, which didn't bode well for the rest of the climbing. Ignorance is bliss, however and I did my very best to effect just that very state.

After liquefying my kidneys for a while at the belay (though the view is spectacular), I led a short (.10c, 30 feet) pitch over the roof to belay on a small stance underneath the free climbing variation. Though not a 'real' belay, this is far more comfortable than hanging under the roof and allows the belayer to see and hear the climber while they climb the first hard face moves. The only real problems are that the belay is kind of minimal (one bolt and one cam, poorly equalized) and that a fall from the hardest move might land the climber on the belayer. Fortunately, I didn't test this theory and made it past the first (.12c) face crux with little fanfare, welding some seriously awful crimps to the wall and thugging my way through to success and an assured future of arthritic fingers and NSAIDS.

Above this are two options: belay again at a semi-hanging stance or just keep plugging through the supposed (.13a) crux. I opted for the latter and, assured of my success, continued up the slab. After ten minutes of hesitation at a good stance I finally committed to the hard climbing. Exhaustion, thirst and the agony in my toes built to a crescendo and I fell off mid crux. My focus evaporated into a pointless but brief little tirade. Tired and dejected, I hammered away at the move several more times with a decreasing level of success. The sun and the hot rock beneath its rays became pretty hard to ignore as I watched my feet skate off the small but positive footholds again and again. At C0, the pitch was extremely easy to cheat through and I was at the top in less than 15 minutes. Rather than playing the dedicated rockstar climber and waiting for better temperatures and another redpoint burn, I opted for plan b: rappel and bemoan my failure on yet another route on the UTW. Thwarted by rain on the crux free pitch of Town Crier, I had now been thwarted by the antithesis on Green Drag-On at just about the exact same level on the wall.

Later, of course, I came to a more balanced conclusion: who really cares? I put some ridiculous demands on myself with this constant expectation of success that I often miss the forest for the trees, or [insert other relevant cliched metaphor here]. It's a difficult lesson that, for me, must be learned repeatedly before it starts to truly gel. Yesterday was, in retrospect, an enjoyable if thirsty foray onto some really cool climbing features. I tried hard and almost climbed the route with no falls. The route will still be there next week when it's not baking in direct sunlight and maybe we'll get the timing right. As for the rest of life's tribulations: if only they, too, always came down to single hard moves on hot granite things would be far more manageable.


  1. Is that Poison Oak in the background?

  2. I guess it's probably not so gorgeous if you get too cuddly with it.