Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 21, 2010

Lumpy Ridge #2: “Melvin’s Wheel”

Summit of Melvin's Wheel. You can almost hear Wagner (Overture to Tannhauser) playing.

Twelve stories up a granite wall is no place to lose one’s composure, but mine was fleeing fast. There was no place I could see to put my hurting feet, and the smallest hand and finger holds seemed equally elusive. To make matters worse, a summer thunderstorm was rolling in from the west and ominous clouds were gathering for an attack. I looked up to see how much farther I had to climb, and saw nothing but lots more of the same difficult nothingness.

Good job, Ed — you make it look so easy!   [fully zoomed in]

Except... there aren't many holds between here and there.

And it's a long, long, long stretch.

I did what any utterly-inadequate-feeling human being might do. I burst into tears.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of heights. Simply speaking, I was in over my head, had not a clue how I would pull out of it, and I let my emotions get the best of me. I HAD to get up to the top of this climb, as descending was no longer an option after that first pitch was completed. That is a lot of pressure.

The photo says it all.

To be fair, I knew at the start of the day that we were undertaking a route more difficult than yesterday’s pleasant White Whale. My climbing buddy assured me that something rated 5.8+ (plus meaning “more than”) would challenge me, but he was confident I could do it. Ed is a professional climbing and canyoneering guide, and I trust his judgment. Right now, however, it was all I could do to keep from yelling some colorful epithets in his general direction. I was not pleased to be stuck on a crag feeling a sense of desperation and doom, with lightning approaching from behind.

I had already made it through one “crux” (the hardest part of a climb), but everything conspired to make this one feel worse. We had worked on hand techniques before starting, but in the face of meteorological vagaries that could be life-threatening, the ‘jamming’ wasn’t exactly working for me. I was inexperienced enough that I couldn’t punt very well.

Lump in throat. Not smiling.

Panic was rising in my throat as I struggled to focus on even one single thing I could do to propel myself upward. It was then that I heard words come out of my mouth that I rarely allow myself to say: “I can’t do this.” Up there on the wall, halfway between ground and summit, I said it again: “ED, I CAN’T DO THIS.” I meant it, more than I have meant many things. I was convinced that this was an impossible task.

Ed’s voice had a reassuring steady cadence as he calmly directed me blindly from above. “Use your feet. Don’t get tunnel vision. You can do this, Kathryn. Just one small move at a time.” I took a few deep cleansing breaths, more to stop the tears than to fill my lungs, and found the first move I could make. It was only a few inches up, but as I put that slack into the rope and Ed tightened it up immediately from above, he commended me and re-introduced a tiny ray of hope.

Well. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, which included shameless whimpering, more tears, scraped knees and elbows and back, self-pity, thirst beyond describing, and a desperate longing for three magical wishes. I’m rarely a wimp, but on parts of that climb I was a total wuss. It was not pretty, working my way inch by inch out of the slot of doom.

Package says "Snacks for the Bold." I guess I forgot to eat some jerky before climbing.

Ed’s considerable experience guiding all types of people has contributed to his being patient, compassionate, always encouraging. He knows how to empower others to muster the strength to get up and do what needs to be done, even when it looks impossible at the moment. I hope you enjoy the summit photo he took of me as much as I do. It is a reminder of what comes when you push hard at the edges of your ability and refuse to succumb to the “I can’ts” that impinge on your thinking and being. I’d call it a watershed day on the rock.

Our ascent took us up the left face of this crag.

Lumpy Ridge at Rocky Mountain NP: “White Whale”





White Whale. See teeny tiny people on the ledge; I was there. (Taken next day from adjacent crag.)

[Note to non-climbers: this piece contains explanations to help you understand the sport.]

I was attached by a climbing harness to a rope 250 feet above the valley floor, standing on a comfortable ledge of granite, gazing at the ever-majestic Long’s Peak. From the top of this first climb, the sheer beauty of the crags and the the mind-assaulting green of the valley stole my breath. Adrenaline rush! It had been a very successful ascent with a difficulty rating (5.7) right in my comfort zone — excellent to warm up on in a new place. I felt as confident as a beginning climber can feel when she doesn’t really have any technique down yet.

It was a rare 3-day break for me and it was time to get out of Moab where the highs have been in the triple digits for over a week. The Rocky Mountains were a no-brainer; my climbing buddy had plenty of experience on rock near Estes Park, Colorado. I’d never been; that’s where we would go. Besides, I’d get to check off one more national park from my see-’em-all list.

Ed selected “White Whale” (an easier route) from the climbing guidebook as it had been a while since I had been climbing, and we were not on sandstone any more but on metamorphic rock. It was also my very first multi-pitch climb, which means it takes more than one rope length to reach the top and therefore intermediate stops are required. This adds one more layer of drama as one must belay one’s partner (i.e., provide the safety rope from below or above as they climb) from a small ledge somewhere on the wall. It’s different from the more straightforward top-roping I had previously done, and I truly wanted to learn. Getting up high on the walls is exhilarating.

Leaning into Twin Owls on the approach to our climb. Man, the pack weighs a lot.

The hike to the cliff base took me by surprise. I was carrying about one-third of my body weight in rope and gear in a backpack, at higher elevation than I’ve been all year, and that 1.5 miles seemed interminable. What kept me going was the wildflowers, the conifer forest smells, the new birdsongs, the cloud formations, the wind whispers… and the thought of getting back on the rocks again.

Ed and his rack -- all sizes and types of protective gear, carried up the wall...

Reaching the base, Ed unceremoniously dumped his huge pack upside down and began assembling his rack. He would climb the route first, pausing frequently to place protective gear into cracks, then clipping the rope on his harness into carabiners attached to the gear. If he were to fall, my belaying from below would stop him, and the nearest metal device in the crack would hold him suspended while he regained his footholds and handholds. The leader must, of necessity, carry a whole lot more gear than is needed, because you never know which piece will work in which small crack. It’s disconcerting when you must place protection and have nothing that fits.

My guide scrambled effortlessly up the first pitch, or first rope length, installing gear as he went. When he got to the top of it and pulled all remaining rope up to his level, tensioning me for safety, I put on my climbing shoes with sticky rubber soles that would help grip the rock. One deep breath, one heave-ho up to the first foothold, and I was on the wall. Learning how to trust one’s feet, learning how to wedge one’s fingers and hands and fists into cracks, are the first tasks when embracing this sport. My job was to clean (remove) each piece of gear as I went up, clipping it to a loop over my shoulder. Soon enough, I found myself on the small ledge next to Ed. I returned his gear, and we repeated the process two more times, reaching our destination in a couple of hours. After taking a few minutes to give high fives, coil our rope, and admire the views, we hiked down to our packs.

The White Whale had been bagged. I was much pleased. But… what would tomorrow hold?!?

Blog at WordPress.com.