Yesterday, we went back to the Towers of Uncertainty (I love that name!). This time, we climbed at the Lava Dome. There was a 5.6 there that Dan was really interested in. At the base of the climb, we left everything we wouldn’t need for anchor building, then carried the necessary gear in our packs around the Lava Dome to the walk up.
The “walk up”, quotations on purpose, was a tough scramble. Blank spaces where foot smearing was the only option with exposure below, had me questioning why we were even out this day. I was tired. I was nervous. Actually I was pretty scared. I wished we were back at the house in the hot tub. Never mind the cold wind blowing continuously. I don’t think I took my puffy off all day.
Soon we were at the top, trying to figure out exactly where the climb topped out. There were lots of good sized boulders up there so building a natural feature anchor should be easy. Ultra careful as always, we pushed and kicked each boulder only to find that each one moved a little bit. They rocked a little, maybe shifted just a little. It made us uneasy so we decided to incorporate two boulders in our anchor.
At first, I wrapped a sling around one boulder and Dan wrapped one end of our 100 foot static rope around another boulder. Then we weren’t sure what to do from there. It seemed there would be too wide an angle joining the two pieces because the cordellette was short. So we pulled the cordellette and replaced it with the 45 foot static rope. Then we tried various ways to attach the two and leave an end of the 100 foot rope to hang down for a master point. My brain felt muddy and confused. Nothing we tried seemed to work to equalize the pieces. This took at least an hour.
We were both pretty frustrated at this point. I decided we should replicate the extended top rope anchor our guide had shown us. He had created two anchor points using cams. We had two anchor points using boulders. I told Dan we should remove the 100 foot rope and save it for the extension part. If we slung the boulder with our cordellette instead, we could treat each boulder like a bolt in a two bolt anchor. Then attach and equalize them using the 100 foot rope. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and the photos I took of the anchor Joey had built. We got to work replicating it.
After about two hours of anchor building, we finally had one that passed the EARNEST test and we both felt comfortable rappelling on. We were thinking maybe we’d climb the route once each and then go home. The wind was just getting colder.
Dan rappelled first, then me. At the bottom, we realized that both sides of the rope were running through a narrow crack and rubbing against each other. Not a great situation for top roping. Dan headed up, it was his turn to climb first. He didn’t place gear yet, just climbed to fix the ropes. On his way up, he noticed that there were places where it would be difficult to place gear and some of the climbing felt exposed. Dan doesn’t like to climb on aretes. It feels like a lot of exposure to him and he gets nervous. This climb went up a crack between two stone towers. At one point, you climbed on one side of the crack, up a corner of one of the towers, very much like being out on an arete. Dan fixed the ropes by running them through cams on either side of the crack.
When it was my turn to climb, I was pretty excited. While Dan climbed, I had been looking up at the route and I remembered something I learned last summer. It can be really helpful to approach a climb with the question "what have I got to give to this climb?" What skills do I bring,? What mindset do I have for this climb that will show the climb the respect it deserves? Even the easiest grade deserves focus and attention. I felt honoured to have the opportunity to climb it. I determined to show the climb respect and move carefully and reverently, with gratitude.
This was a really satisfying and joyful climb for me. The movement felt good, the gear placements were interesting. I let go of my expectations for a lead. My new attitude made the climbing fun again.
Towards the top, the crack opened so wide that there was no way to place gear in it. I looked for creative solutions and put a small cam in a depression in the rock face on the left side of the crack. It wasn’t bomber but it was something.
Then I checked out the way Dan had separated the ropes. He wasn’t happy with the cam on one side and it didn’t really get the rope to hang nice. I decided to move it. At the top, I found a flake of rock sticking straight up. I wanted to put the cam behind the rock and there wasn’t a good placement there. Then it occurred to me that I could take an alpine draw apart and hang the sling over the flake. Then attach one of the carabiners to clip the rope and boom, it hung straight down the climb. I was really pleased with this creative solution. I called down to Dan that he was going to love it.
Dan climbed and was pleased with how he was able to pull off the moves and place gear much better than he thought. Then it was my turn and I enjoyed the shit out of the climb again. Such a great feeling. Moving and placing gear in harmony with the rock and its contours and undulations.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted another climb after that. The wind had turned even colder and stronger and it seemed to be urging us to be done and gone. I walked over to the 5.4 to look it over. It looked so good but I had checked on the possibility of building an anchor from the top when we were up there. It looked really sketchy to climb over to the top of the 5.4. I put it out of my mind. As I walked back to our 5.6, I saw Dan pulling the rope. He had decided to lead it.
I put him on belay and watched him glide up the climb, placing gear just as he’d done on his practice climb. He talked himself through some tough sections and eventually made it to the top. Never a doubt. A fantastic victory. The Towers of Uncertainty seemed a bit tamer.
After that, I took the last climb to clean the anchor. Dan walked around and came up to help me. Then we hiked down and gathered up our stuff. Another terrific day climbing in J Tree.