El Cajon Mountain


Ryan and I were talking about spending the weekend in Joshua Tree, but I got busy with work and he had a cold, so we decided on an easy day trip to El Cajon Mountain, instead.  I hadn’t climbed outdoors since Red Rocks in December, and I felt rusty and out of shape.  No problem, though; Ryan was prepared to tackle his first trad lead and I was a willing belayer.

The approach

I’m really starting to like El Cajon, the more I go.  It’s close to my house (30 minute drive) and though it’s a bit of a slog to get to the base of the cliff (1,800 feet of elevation gain over ~2 miles), it feels wild and secluded.  It’s an enormous wall as compared to Mission Gorge and the other climbing venues near metropolitan San Diego.  I also like the texture of the rock itself, which isn’t too slick or chossy at all.

Nearly there

At the start

Getting to the wall does take some time, but I’m happy to report that we found the proper start and saved ourselves the awful bushwhacking at the beginning.  The weather was good and I think it was cold enough to keep the rattlesnakes in their dens.  Hiking up through the tall grass, I’m always worried that I will stick my hand into a snake’s open mouth.

The last time we were here, it was sunny and hot and we underestimated how much water we’d need.  By the time we finished rapping down from the top of Leonids (5.9), we were seriously dehydrated.  This trip, I brought 3 liters of water and a big Gatorade, and hydration was not a problem.  I also enjoyed some M&M’s while we hung out at the top of pitch one.  There’s nothing like a mouthful of M&M’s to draw one’s attention away from the fact that your toe feels as if it is about to break off.  But that is a story for another day.

Ryan at the start of Bright Eyes (5.6)

Ryan and I have climbed together a fair amount, but this would be his first trad lead.  I was excited for him, because this route was one of my first trad climbs and I remember what it felt like to enter that chimney, not knowing what to expect.  I gave him some beta and off he went.  He told me that he intended to “sew it up”, a strategy that any new leader would be wise to follow.

Upward progress

Approaching the crux of the climb

In order to climb safely, the leader must place protection into the rock at frequent intervals.  Leaving the ground, the leader might carry 15 or 20 pieces of gear, along with all the associated slings and carabiners that are needed to attach the rope.  Figuring out when and where (and how) to place this gear is both art and science, and this is really what makes trad climbing so fun.  If you place too many pieces at the beginning of the climb, you could run out before you reach the end.  If you don’t place your pieces at smart intervals, you risk hitting something should you fall.

The belay

Any new leader is faced with a serious problem.  There is no way of really knowing if your placements are sound, unless you actually fall on them.  So you climb conservatively, well below your personal limit, and slowly gain experience placing gear.  But until you take that first whipper, how do you really know?  How can you trust that little chunk of aluminum is going to catch you, should you fall?  Even if you climb with a mentor who has vast experience, at some point, you have to cast off on your own and put the theory to the test.  And in doing so, you are taking a calculated risk.  But I suppose that this is one of the rewards of trad climbing.  High on the rock, you have to be pretty clear-headed about what you’re doing and why.  Nothing else matters.  There are moments of gripping terror, and then sweet relief when you sink that cam into a fat crack.

Bright Eyes (5.6)

Praying to the gods?

Sewing it up

Ryan led the first pitch slowly and methodically, and he did a much better job of protecting the climb than I did a few months ago.  I think I got a little nonchalant in the chimney section, opting to gun for the top rather than spend time looking for the best pro.  I made a mental note to be more conservative on future climbs, especially so early in my climbing career.

Belay station

El Capitan Reservoir

I led the second pitch, which felt pretty easy except for the very last section, which was a bit exposed.  Ryan commented that the top of pitch 2 felt just as hard as the chimney in pitch 1, but I disagreed.  Perhaps it was my broken toe, but I felt totally insecure as I was stemming up that thing.

Up high

Rapping down

And no, my toe isn’t really broken (at least I don’t think it is).  It just hurts like hell, and stemming is not my friend right now.  Time for more ibuprofen.





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