Leonids – El Cajon Mountain


El Cajon Mountain might not have the name recognition of a Joshua Tree or Red Rocks, but it is one of the finest destinations for multi-pitch sport climbing in Southern California.  It’s close to downtown San Diego (30 minutes away) and features a range of routes to suit all levels of ability.

On Saturday, four of us ventured out to the crag to climb the 3-pitch classic Leonids (5.9).  The 350 foot route is fun and sustained face climbing up a well-protected line that finishes above the Triton Tower, a large wedge-shaped rock that juts out from the face of El Cajon Mountain.

We passed a couple of hunters on the approach.  Four climbers crashing through the brush and a couple of old codgers in full camo, whispering to us, “Be careful… it’s deer season…”

After 1,800 feet of elevation gain, we reached the bottom of the climb.  We decided to climb in two parties, one right after the other.  Ryan and I would go first, followed by Joey and Joel.  I should note that these photos are all courtesy of Ryan, who brought along his point-n-shoot.

Searching for the start

Looking up at the wall, one sees lots and lots of bolts.  Everywhere.  I suppose that might turn some people off, but I don’t really mind at all.  When I see shiny bolts stretching as far as the eye can see, I’m thinking protection.  If we were in a pristine mountain environment I would probably think different, but this was East San Diego County, after all.

We spent some time searching for the start, and then I set off to lead pitch one.  The holds were small and the climbing was very sustained, and I called for tension so that I could rest at a couple of bolts.  I might have started with a desire to flash the route (to climb it clean without any hanging) but I gave that up after passing through the crux, which left me feeling unnerved and shaky.

Gearing up for the start

It took me about 25 minutes to reach the 2-bolt hanging belay, about 175 feet off the ground.  I used a couple of runners to build a redundant sliding-X anchor, and then brought Ryan up by belaying directly from the anchor using my Black Diamond Guide.  Shortly after Ryan set off, Joel led with his own rope and draws.  The system worked pretty well, and my only complaint was the uncomfortable hanging stance, which was absolute murder on our feet.  It would have been uncomfortable enough if we were swinging leads as a party of 2, but the fact that there were 4 of us made for longer transitions.

Ryan was feeling confident, and he decided to lead the second pitch.  He cast off, leaving me and Joel hanging at the anchor.  We spent the next 30 minutes complaining to each other how bad our feet hurt.  A bit later, Joey made it up to the belay and the three of us winced and shifted our weight around as we waited for Ryan to complete the pitch.  Ryan got stuck on the final move below the anchor, and at one point he yelled at us, “What are my options here?!”  With 160 feet of rope paid out, I had to inform him that his best option was to figure out a way up.  I knew he was scared and out of his comfort zone, but the other option involved downclimbing the route, which would be even worse.  Anyone who leads will eventually face a situation where they are gripped with fear, and learning to deal with that fear is an important part of climbing.  I won’t speculate what thoughts might have been running through Ryan’s head, but he found a way past the crux and he finished the pitch.  I am positive he is a better climber, having faced it.

Looking down from the top of the second pitch

Ryan brought me up the second pitch, with Joey behind on his first lead.  I would occasionally look down and smile – it sure felt good knowing that I was on top-rope.  I was able to enjoy the climbing and the view.  I arrived at the second belay and after some route-finding and discussion, set off on the third pitch, which was surprisingly exposed.  I’m not sure that the moves themselves were difficult, but this short pitch involved a traverse up a little ramp and around an exposed corner, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Ryan joined me soon after, and we started our rappels.  I descended to the top of the Triton Tower and we made 4 more very exposed raps back down to the ground.  I’ll be honest – I don’t enjoy rappelling at all.  You’re 100% dependent on your equipment and there are just so many opportunities for something to go wrong.  I’m paranoid about the rope getting stuck or tangled, and on one of the raps I found myself hanging from a 2-bolt anchor with one of the knotted ends caught on a flake about 30 feet away.  It was a windy day, and it might have been safer to forgo the knots and just be extra vigilant about the rope ends.  Ryan was able to clear the jam on his way down, but it was still unnerving.  We were descending the face of the tower which appeared to be 5.11+ climbing – it wouldn’t be fun trying to climb back up, in an emergency.  We made it down safely, and from start to finish, the climb took us exactly 5 hours.


Joel at the top

The second "comfortable" belay

By the end of the day, I was seriously dehydrated.  I had consumed 64 fluid ounces of Gatorade since we started, but my mouth felt like sandpaper.  We stopped for a brief rest in the shade and all I could do was stand there like a zombie.  I looked over at Joey, who was pouring water over his head to cool down.  What the?  I felt like Steve Martin’s character in The Three Amigos, when they’re dying from thirst and Dusty Bottoms is gargling with water and offers them lip balm.

We hiked back to our cars as fast as we could and then reconvened at the 7-11 in Lakeside, where I bought a quart of chocolate milk, a 32 ounce Gatorade, and a 44 ounce Big Gulp of Coke.  I knew it was a mistake, but I filled my stomach with so much liquid that I nearly vomited on the way home.  I spent the rest of the evening fighting off leg cramps and drinking more fluids.  Coke never tasted so good.




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