Rob Pizem is a high-school teacher and a SCARPA climbing team member. The following is the second part of his account of attempting a new big-wall free route in California last summer. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here.
Mike wouldn’t talk to me. Actually, it seemed that he was very pissed. We had finally made it back to the truck after sitting around all morning. Our best-laid plans failed to include the fact that the horse packer had to arrive at our camp 13 miles in and then take us and our massive load back to the trailhead the same day. We stupidly thought that the horses would be there in the morning and that we would be out by noon. So all morning Mike was stressed about getting back to Colorado to be “in” the wedding that was occurring later that night. It was looking pretty bad and there was nothing we could do or say. The fact that I was driving wildly through the winding mountain roads on a mission didn’t help the cause either, Mike gets car sick and was fully taking a beating as I put the truck on two wheels around blind curves.
Something like that can make an entire trip turn sour. He failed to remember the incredible adventure that we had just endured. The weather was perfect in the central California Mountains for the entire time. Splitter days just like in Yosemite are what we encountered. Sometimes so warm that on the mostly south-facing wall we prayed for a stray cloud or two to give us some relief from the hand drilling of anchor bolts and rehearsing intricate climbing movements through the challenging sections. Mike and Ari had come up with a way to save their burning necks with bandanas. They would duct tape the bandana on the top of their helmets so that it draped over the back of their necks and shoulders. They appeared to be from the Middle East with their new clothes and much happier since they were not getting nuked by the solar radiation that our closest star provides.
We could not anticipate how the approach to the wall would destroy our legs day after day. Our camp was situated next to a tiny creek about two steps across that provided us with pure mountain water. We filled our water bottles, washed our cooking materials and even bathed in that tiny little creek. We were grateful that it was there. No matter how wonderful our camp was it still didn’t put it closer to the wall. We had to trek through the burned-out, dusty forest each and every day to the wall.
The 45-minute hike took its toll. Like zombies we excitedly moved toward the route in the morning. Each of us hoped that we would see some wildlife, but we encountered silence and alone on those approaches every day. After passing a tiny spring with a few struggling plants, we climbed a small hill and began traversing a few hundred yards to the gulley that took us down to the half-way point on the wall. The terrain was uphill host of the way to the wall and then rose and fell in the gullies that drained the mountain side next to the monolith. Our last obstacle was descending the 1000-foot gulley of loose rock and mosquitos. Right before we got to the ropes we had to attempt not to stumble off the cliff to the abyss below. For some reason, one of us thought to bring surveying tape so we were able to follow our tape safely through the maze of detached white granite blocks.
At the top of our lines, we changed into dry clothes and checked each other’s gear to ensure a long safe day on the wall and went to work. One by one, each pitch’s complex path was solved, cleaned and protected. We did our best to add as few bolts as possible because hand drilling is slow, especially in the granite of the Sierras. One by one each of us jugged up and down the wall drooling over the amazing climbing that awaited us once the work was through. After a few days of the hike, jugging cleaning and working on the wall we were exhausted and needed a break.
On a perfectly sunny and warm day, we relaxed by the river, ate and recovered. After bathing in the creek and washing our dusty clothes, boredom set in and we anxiously awaited the arrival of our good friend and amazing photographer Andy Burr. He was getting dropped off after visiting with family to come and shoot photos and to also to help with the route. We arranged to take in his camping gear, so all he had to carry was his photography equipment. We hoped that the sometimes invisible trail was obvious to him during his evening hike to our camp. I had made a huge teepee with fallen logs and surveying tape in the trail where he had to turn to reach our camp. We hoped that he would be able to find it after 13 miles of dust, mosquitos and darkness.
Fresh apple pie never tasted so good! Andy made it to camp having survived an onslaught of mosquitos and the disappearing trail to being us fresh apple pie. Fortunately he passed a trail crew who shared some Deet. He entered camp to a glorious fire and tall tales still hanging in the air.
Things were looking good. We had everyone there, spirits were high and the route was cleaned up and ready to be climbed. The next morning we headed back to the wall to begin our attempt at a free ascent. Mike climbed pitch one, I led up the second pitch and somehow squeaked through its exciting moves and slabby crux. Andy was doing his best to capture the excitement of the day. Ari took the next pitch and the three of us moved up the wall, taking our leads and seconding the wonderful line that was now climbable, well protected and fun!
With every successful lead another fixed line had to be hauled up the wall. We knew that by the top we would be hauling many pounds of static line and extra gear with us and that it would eventually wear us down. At the midpoint of the wall, we reached the real crux of the route. A tips lieback with a boulder problem start for an entire 35 meters. Ari gave it a go and nearly finished it. I gave it a go and fell. This was the same thing that happened while working it earlier on the trip. The fatigue of the adventure and the challenge of the pitch added up to thwart our every attempt.
Earlier on the trip, while I was working the crux on top rope, I hurt my lower back. Well actually, when I was establishing another big wall route in Yosemite I broke my back. That injury has plagued me ever since. What I learned from the injury was that I shouldn’t try hard liebacking moves. What did our new route come down to? Hard liebacking moves. I knew that I shouldn’t try the pitch, but I just couldn’t help it because I wanted to free the entire climb. So after a few attempts I was done. Between that crux, the hiking, the hauling, the hanging belays and the minimal food, water and rest, I was done.
What I mean by done was that I couldn’t climb anymore. My back was in so much pain that I was unable to continue. I did climb one more pitch and decided that I would be taking over jugging out the fixed lines, the piles of cams that we didn’t need for the rest of the route and the water and anything else that needed to be removed from the wall. I was bummed. I was in a bad mood. I was a team player but more on the team of not climbing. I withdrew, stopped talking to the boys (who are my best friends) and became a crappy partner.
The rest of the day consisted of slowly and painfully jugging up a few hundred feet with a bunch gear, leaving it on a ledge and rapping back down for more. I tried not to listen to the others enjoying climbing and having a ball on the wall. I wanted to go home. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to quit.
That evening, during the long and slow hike out (with all the ropes and gear), I sank lower into my self-pity. We had one and a half more days to climb to the top of the wall (remember our route went from the bottom to the half way ledge) and I wanted out. Mentally I was capable of completing the pitch, but physically I was not. I remember the last time that I pushed my back after the accident. It was on a Zion route that I was trying to free. The crux was 30 feet of tips laybacking. At the end of the day, I couldn’t walk, sit or stand without severe pain. It took almost two weeks to feel better. I knew that if I pushed it here at Tehipite Dome, which was 13 miles into the wilderness, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for weeks.
The next day, we wandered our way up the remaining 1,200 foot tall granite dome to the top of the wall. I jugged and hauled the rest of the gear that we couldn’t carry out the day before. At the summit, we signed the register, high fived and enjoyed the moment. Well, at least they did. I tried my best to hide my feelings and not bring everyone down. The entire day Mike, Ari and Andy tried to get me to lead any of the amazing pitches that remained to the summit and all day I said no. I know that I was capable of doing that but I was withdrawn enough that I was not interested.
The journey home was uneventful. The horse packer came and we enjoyed a leisurely ride back to the truck. With each stride of the horse I got into a better mood. I was leaving one of the most beautiful places to hike, explore and even rock climb, yet I grew happier as we moved farther away.
On the drive home Mike never really spoke to me as he sunk into a mood. He was bummed that he had made the commitment to be at the wedding and then couldn’t. Ari and Andy were psyched with the trip and longed to go back to complete that crux pitch in better style. I learned that I needed to grow up and not be a spoiler if things that I can’t control don’t go my way. In the end, I wouldn’t change anything about the trip and I am very glad to have been on it with those guys.
Months later after reflecting on the trip, I made sure to apologize to the boys for my behavior. And as of today, we have plane tickets purchased for our next trip and we are all chomping at the bit.
Thanks for listening and thanks to SCARPA and my other sponsors for keeping me on the rock!