Pushing the Grade


A few things have happened since I last updated this blog.  I strained the A2 pulley in my left middle finger (again).  We ordered Zane an 8″ thick bouldering pad from Asana, since he’s climbing pretty high on the home wall.  Oh, and we welcomed our second son to the world.  Meet Kalani Kim.


Kalani @ 5 weeks

A good baby, by all accounts.  He sleeps and eats, and farts a lot.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

kalani wall hang

Kalani posing for our birth announcement. He was not pleased.

Big Bro, on the other hand, enjoys hanging out

Big Bro, on the other hand, enjoys hanging out

Coffin Nail to Traitor Horn

Back to the subject of this post.  Sleeping through our intended alpine start, we reached the base of Coffin Nail shortly after 9 am.  No one appeared to be on route, so we sorted our gear at a leisurely pace, free from the worry of being beaned by dropped gear or rocks from above.  Joey looked as if butterflies were throwing a party in his stomach, but I felt relaxed and jazzed to finally tick the climb.  I led the first pitch (easy-5th) up to the start of the real business, a 5.8 hand crack with some awkward and committing moves.  Working my way up the blocky gully felt secure, and I didn’t place much any gear in the first 50 feet.  After clipping a slung tree, I finally placed a nut in a wide chimney, just before reaching the belay.  The nut popped as soon as I climbed above it, and I made a mental note to inspect my placements with more care.

Joey took his time on the second pitch; one that he has been mulling over for at least a year or two.  It’s always interesting when we finally commit to these objectives; often after months or even years of research and second-guessing our ability.  There was no doubt we were ready for the climb, but it’s a wild feeling as you hang from slippery jams, hundreds of feet off the ground, in the exact location that you’ve only stared at in photos.  Joey onsighted his pitch in good style, and I could see the metaphorical butterflies streaming from his butt.  Wait, that would be an idiom, so I guess they must have been idiotic butterflies?  I saw butterflies flying out of Joey’s ass – that is the point I’m trying to make.

As I climbed up to the belay, I could see the psychological crux of Traitor Horn in plain view.  This would be my lead, and my intestines started to cramp as a bunch of imaginary insects built a colony in my lower sigmoid colon.  These butterflies would eventually get as far as my small intestine, by the time I had disconnected from the anchor and begun the somewhat poorly protected traverse out right, below the traitor horn itself.  Once I got a solid piece of gear in the crack, I felt much better, and I could hear Joey let out a sigh of relief.  I moved up into the alcove at the base of the horn, a sharp fin of rock that juts out into space, and then out to the niche where two rusty old pitons were slung, waiting to be clipped.  Hanging on with just one hand, in a slightly overhanging position, it took me a few moments to successfully clip a one-handed sliding-X.  This was probably the crux of the route for me, because I was trying to stay fresh for the horn and I was fumbling with my gear in an awkward position.  I reached out far and then committed to the horn by cutting my feet loose – my hands were solid enough that it was actually pretty fun, and suddenly I was sitting atop the exposed fin of rock, with nothing but air beneath me.  The climb is a bit of a one-move wonder, but definitely very exposed and fun.

The "true" horn on the memorable "Traitor Horn" route

The horn that one must surmount to climb the route

The rest of the route went down without a hitch, though we were slowed by a party above who were finishing Jensen’s Jaunt.

Flower of High Rank

I’d like to wax poetic about this climb, but I’ll spare you the hyperbole.  I’ve got a napping infant by my side and a 3-year old whose interest in cutting paper with scissors has a finite end, so there is no telling when this particular post will come to a screeching halt.  Simply put, it was an amazing route.  “The Flower” has been on my tick list for years, and is reputed to be one of the finest 5.9 cracks in California.  Now that I’ve led it, I can attest to the beauty and purity of the line. Wait, there I go – I need to stop myself.

We hiked up to the base of Suicide Rock and it took us another 15 minutes of searching to locate the start of Flower.  Joey spotted it first, and I think he said something like, “Ohhh… Damn.”  I’ve looked at dozens of photos of the route, and I didn’t even recognize it.  I spotted the unmistakable pine tree, growing right out of the middle of the crack, and my heart sank.  THIS is what it looks like?  It appeared to be vertical down low and overhanging up top.  Such a perfect cleft in the rock; it was far more intimidating than any other climb I’ve looked at from the ground.  I could feel my motivation to climb the route fizzle off into the sky, in the same general direction as the imposing crack.  Maybe not today.

Over to my right, there was an emergency litter tied to a huge pine tree.  Hmm.  That’s not comforting.  I’ve seen pictures of those litters, and they’re usually suspended hundreds of feet in the air, from a rescue helicopter.

There was another party on an adjacent route.  “You guys doing Flower?!” the belayer hollered out.

“Uhh, thinking about it…”

“Do it!  It’s great!  We’re warming up and gonna do it next!”

Ah, damn.  Now there was pressure to climb the route.  I thumbed through my guide book, re-reading the beta that was already burned into my mind, in an effort to hold off the inevitable.  Looking up at the crack, I tried to find the best stances and get an idea of the protection I would need.

“Don’t over think it!  Just go!!”

He had a point.  I already knew what gear I needed.  I knew the feet were bad and that I wouldn’t get a good stance until the tree, halfway up the route.  And I knew that I would have to fight my way up the leaning, ever-so-slightly-overhanging crack and that I might be able to milk a crappy rest before firing through the roof at the top.  I sat down and started taking off my approach shoes.  The time had come.

Flower of High Rank

Flower of High Rank (photo credit)

Some teams break Flower into two pitches, but I wanted to get it clean, in one long pitch.  We scrambled up to the top of the gully, just before the rock turned vertical, and Joey anchored himself by slinging a couple of horns and placing directionals to protect against an upward pull.  I was fully committed to an onsight-or-bust mindset and I started up the finger crack confidently.  The feet were slick but not entirely absent, and the finger locks were actually pretty good.  I moved upwards from each shaky stance to the next, knowing that if I could make it to the tree, I’d have earned myself a nice rest and that the technical crux would be behind me.

I reached the tree and gave it a big bear hug, then stepped around behind it and tried to recompose myself.  My heart was pounding and it took me a few minutes to settle down my respiration rate.  My mouth felt intensely dry, as if I had just gone a week without a drink of water.  I could hear someone yelling from below, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  “Joey!  I’m gonna rest here for a bit.  I’m at the tree!”  A vague answer, as the sound of my heart pounding in my chest drowned everything else out.  “I’m at the tree!!”

I stood there at my uncomfortable rest spot, shifting from my left foot to my right every few seconds, for a few more minutes.  I was having a hard time catching my breath, more than anything else.  I wasn’t too pumped, but my feet hurt and now that I’d made it past the first half of the climb successfully, I wanted the onsight badly.  I wanted to be sure that I was ready to send the second half of the climb, which would probably be easier, but more intimidating since it would take me through an arching crack in the rock with nothing for feet, ending at a roof.

I yelled down to Joey that I was climbing again, and I reached out to place a bomber gold C4 in the crack, as high up as I could reach.  I didn’t know if I would make it to the roof without falling, but I was high enough that it would be a clean fall, and the gear was good.  With 100% commitment, I sunk my right hand into the crack and walked my feet out onto the overhanging, smooth-as-glass face, relying on the friction between my hand and the rock to hold my body in the air.  I felt a bit like Christopher Columbus, sailing towards the horizon.  That might sound overly dramatic, but it’s true and it’s one of the awesome things about climbing.  It’s the willing decision to throw yourself into the unknown; feeling confident and prepared, but scared and excited to see what might happen.  The grade doesn’t even matter, as long as you are pushing your own limit.  It’s one of the many reasons why climbing is so addicting.

The jamming was sublime.  It was such an awesome feeling to be inching my way up the crack, fully focused and working hard, but with enough confidence to simultaneously enjoy and appreciate it.  I made it to the base of the roof and placed another cam to protect the next series of moves, and I was starting to feel giddy because I knew that I had it in the bag.  My breathing and heart rate were practically out of control, though.  I was still scared of taking a fall, and moderately pumped from hanging most of my weight off hand jams.  I threw my left hand out, grabbed hold of a nice protrusion, and pulled myself over the roof.  “Hahaha Fucker!!!” I screamed loudly.  Joey and the other party below started cheering and I felt a mixture of elation and relief as I looked up at the remaining 20-30 feet of rock.  Perfect hands, low angle…  No sweat.  I began stuffing body parts into the crack and made quick progress.  I was completely out of breath by the time I reached a flat spot to set the belay, and my mind was racing.  I had just sent Flower of High Rank, and in good style!

As I write this, my mind is already distracted by the next climbs on our tick list.  Joey and I leave for Tuolumne Meadows in three days, where we plan to climb Matthes Crest and the ultra-classic Regular Route on Fairview Dome, which happens to be one of the 50 greatest climbs in North America (Roper/Steck).  Matthes is a mile-long fin of impeccable granite, rising 500 feet above the surrounding plateau.  Fairview is not quite a big wall, but it’s over 1,000 feet of climbing and a serious objective; without a doubt, the biggest and baddest route that either of us have ever attempted.  A full report to follow, soon.









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