Teeth, Claws and Drill Bits

Since this is a 'trip report' of sorts I won't dwell overmuch on quasi-related personal strife, but nonetheless please forgive a short preamble to that effect. Though rife with injury, this year has marked somewhat of a sea change for me in terms of climbing. After perhaps the 8th time injuring ligaments in my fingers in as many years and after spending half or more months out of the last 24 or so unable to climb at all, I'm finally having to face the injury head on to find a smarter way to deal with it. A switch over to mostly alpine rock this summer provided the means to climb lower impact terrain while healing, but predictably I managed to renew the injury while sport climbing in early September which of course cancelled all the ambitious fall climbing plans made throughout the summer. With that reality fairly well cemented in place after the initial period of self-pity and increased consumption of certain malted beverages, I still needed some sort of outlet that wasn't precisely 'climbing', but that would hopefully allow some level of activity without putting too much stress on some very angry ligament tissue.

I settled on replacing as many of the bad bolts on Tooth and Claw as I could before the snows arrived. This seemed like a totally reasonable low-stress activity; it wasn't, but it certainly provided the necessary exhaustion and a not altogether terrible educational experience. For those who don't know much about it (and for any non-climbers who might read my blog, my apologies as always) Tooth and Claw is a route on Lexington Tower at Washington Pass on the North Cascades Highway. It's characterized by a lot of good friction slab and was established on lead in 1989 by Dave Tower and Steve Risse.

In August Jens Holsten and I had a rare chance to climb together for a couple of days and decided to have a go at the route. The only thing I knew about it at the time was that some of the hardware might still be bad, but that a lot of it had been replaced as recently as 2012. As I ambled up the slab to the first bolt on the climb, sure enough it didn't seem so bad. Old quarter inch buttonhead, yes, but without any rust and with a legitimate hanger as opposed to the grim rusty sheet metal so often accompanying this type of bolt. Definitely more than four years old, however, which was a red flag. Next piece several feet above: fixed copperhead, but it looked fine. I was expecting some weirdness and in any case I'm game to clip some bad gear when I need to. But then eight feet above the copperhead is a rusty buttonhead protruding a good quarter inch from the wall. Scruffy, neglected 5.11 slab felt hard above that bolt, as it did after clipping the next strange nest of two tiny mystery bolts and traversing far to the right of them, as it did while clipping more spinning hangers and rusty metal up to the anchor. The climbing was great and only marginally runout, but for one of the first times in memory I found myself thinking about the real possibility of ripping all those shitty bolts out of the wall if I happened to slip on a bit of alpine crumble. 

The hardware on the second pitch of delicate .10c slabbing was no better and if anything, the stakes were higher if any of the three bolts popped. Jens seemed to enjoy it well enough in spite of this. Afterwards he led a great 5.11 pitch with a punchy little roof traverse and up another slab past the last of the questionable hardware. Pitch 4 consists of an interesting corner system and roof crack traverse with some scruffy but nice 5.10 jamming. Pitch 5 starts in an easier crack system that peters out onto a very thin slab. The crux moves exiting the very flared terminus of the crack were quintessential granite in that they remained mysterious until I'd already done them, but the reward was a body length or two of really technical friction before the pitch eased off. A 5.9 crack that exits an intimidating chossy cave and another shorter pitch of 5.somethingeasier finish the climb, but impending dark had us rappelling after the crux, vowing to embark on a quest to make the climb more reasonable by replacing some old metal. 

We rounded out our climbing with a romp up Rebel Yell on Chianti Spire the next day, which really couldn't have been a better counterpart to the rather moody and delicate slabs of Tooth and Claw, not to mention that my not having been to the Wine Spires before was an unacceptable situation that required remedy.

The anchors on Tooth and Claw had clearly all been updated up to pitch 5, so my task would be to rappel the route and fix rope on as much of the bottom section as I had rope to fix to facilitate the work on the lead bolts. September (and, technically, the first bit of October) had other plans for me before I could start, however: I hurt my back and could barely walk for a week; then I reinjured my fingers; then I twisted my foot running on the Blue Lake trail, although I got lucky and shrugged that one off after a week or so. Next, the clutch in my old VW grenaded and I found myself in the driveway with the transmission on the ground again, wondering what would happen next. Amidst this fiasco, I managed to borrow my girlfriend Anna's car for two days to rappel the route and hump some gear up to the base. I missed the proper rappel route and found myself unroped, standing on a tree that grew horizontally across a tiny 10 foot ledge, trying to figure out how to get clipped in again. Then I got my ropes stuck in a directional that I'd forgotten to clean, necessitating a rope solo of the upper 5.9 pitch of the climb. That last bit was enjoyable enough, however and I realized that the process could be in danger of turning into fun at some point.

Appropriately, the fun quickly morphed into toil. It took three days to pull and replace nine bolts on the climb, during which I learned a few lessons about bolting: hand drilling is hard; a 5/16" buttonhead is difficult to remove even if it looks like it should simply fall out; hand hauling a 50lb pack with a 6mm static line is painful. I didn't want to leave gear at the base because of fickle weather and so humped the same heavy load up and down three different times. On one day I replaced five bolts with little issue while on another I spent most of the afternoon removing two stubborn old pieces of metal that just didn't want to come out. I fought frozen hands and frozen ropes on a very cold final day of work after the first big snow, my last chance to do so before even more snow blanketed the low-angle East Face of Lexington and buried my ropes for the winter. My stressed ligaments were annoyed, but relatively unscathed from the abuse. The better three of the old bolts remain as does the rather solid fixed copperhead, but the unnecessary danger of aging hardware has been tamed somewhat and as a result the climb is the much more reasonable undertaking that it should be given the quality of the climbing. A little scruffy, yes, but with a little more traffic it should become as much fun as the routes on the East Face of Liberty Bell and of a refreshingly different flavor of climbing style besides.

At first it seemed like everything this fall was going to go wrong in some way. Subsequently it had the feeling of being just barely eked out: water squeezed from stone, if you will, as though it were possible to get things done but only just. Finally, however, there was a feeling of enjoyment from the whole mess and an understanding that everything has to be part of the fun, really, even when it isn't fun: there is no choice. I can't imagine a less convincing platitude, but I stand by it firmly in the knowledge that possibly, even for an infinitesimal blip in time, progress will seem more easily earned before once again steeling itself against intrusion. If nothing else, the month's trials and tribulations seem particularly apropos to the name of the route which makes my time spent on it all the more satisfying. In retrospect, at least.

The reward for reading, or perhaps for some of you in lieu of reading: the pictures.

Round three of this malarkey, truly a labor of...love:

A particularly fine day for rappelling shenanigans:


Daniel Merrick of dammerr.com makes a kickass climbing hammer:


Looking down pitch two or three:

The instrument of woe:

Part of the reward:


Slightly intimidating view from the overlook before the battle was joined: