Originally posted to ydnar.vox.com in November 2006.
This weekend I learned to lead belay, rappel and climb on real rock. As other people have put it, climbing on plastic doesn't quite completely prepare you for the experience of hanging off the real thing.
My friend Janet and I went to Pinnacles National Monument on Friday morning after an impromptu trip to REI for some necessary gear. After setting up camp, we drove in to see what we could before sundown. A ranger at the visitors center was incredibly helpful describing where we should start climbing and things to watch out for, particularly the rock.
The rock at Pinnacles is volcanic breccia and things tend to break off. There were some completely unnatural-looking holds on some of the walls. We definitely thought “this hold can't be real!” The ranger let us sample a few pieces of the different type of rock we’d likely be encountering on our trip, gave us copious safety-related material and sent us off in search of our first wall, Tourist Trap.
Tourist Trap is probably the closest wall to the east side entrance, about 150 feet in from the top parking lot in the Bear Gulch area. We parked, hiked in with our gear and found a half-dozen climbers at the wall. A French pair was climbing Rat Race and a couple of guys had set up a short toprope on the next wall over. They graciously offered to let us use their rope if we’d clean it, so we harnessed up and Janet belayed my first, pathetic attempt at climbing real rock. I went up about 10 feet before becoming completely stumped and burning out my arms trying to hold onto the overhang figuring out what a hold looked like. I wish I could have blamed it on the dying light, but this was just a case of pure newbie. We switched off and Janet made it to the top with ease, cleaned the gear and I lowered her down.
We hiked & drove back to camp and finished off the day with a fire, sausages, a bottle of Chimay and a tipsy game of Scrabble. Ah, geekery. Incidentally, it was really cold. Note to self: invest in warmer sleeping bag.
The next morning we fired
up the camp stove for tea & blueberry pancakes . In addition to
leaving my jacket at home (Pista ate it while we were away), I'd
forgotten some essential pancake ingredients so we had to improvise. We
substituted water + lots and lots of butter for the [soy] milk &
oil portion of the recipe. In the end the pancakes, save one, turned
out perfect: tender and moist on the inside, crispy on the outside. I
<3 blueberry pancakes.
We got to Toprope wall by sheer accident, following the trail up around the backside of the Monolith and scrambled up on top of a series of interesting looking rocks when we spotted a pair of anchors. We checked some more, referred to the Book, double-checked and finally ended up asking the couple whose anchor we saw on the 5.8 climb if this was Toprope wall. They confirmed it, so we hiked down to the base and decided to set up shop.
Toprope wall has 3 sets of anchors, one for a relatively short 5.3, a 5.7-5.8, and a 5.9. We set up our anchor on the 5.3, which only had two bolts. Physics dictates that you want about 20 degrees angle between anchor points to spread the load evenly between the bolts, so we rigged up our anchor with a pair of slings, two quickdraws and a couple locking crabs. It’s an interesting engineering problem that we’d face a few more times over the weekend: crafting an anchor that’s fault-tolerant, redundant and as resistant to shock-loads as possible should one side fail.
I hiked and Janet rappelled down to the base and we set up belay. I climbed first, and made it to the top of my first real rock pitch. Trusting my feet was the main problem, but grabbing onto real (sharp, crispy) rock was interesting too. I ended up stuck at the roof for a few minutes trying to mantle up over it with poor footholds (poor to me) and less handholds than I was accustomed to. Eventually, I made it and was standing next to the anchor we’d crafted. The feeling was sublime.
Janet lowered me, we swapped and she scaled it quickly, getting past the crux at the roof with ease. Her experience + my foot taller + 70 pounds means her moves were almost entirely different (and more elegant).
I scaled the 5.3 again, this time with a bit more confidence and then moved our anchor to the 5.8 bolts. There were 3 bolts here, so we restrung the slings & quickdraws to make a better anchor. Rope drag was the only problem we had after that.
We switched off climbing the 5.8, which as expected was way harder than the previous route. This time Janet climbed first and gave me the beta on my attempt. Hard. By this point, the other couple had departed, so we decided to move the anchor over to the longer 5.9 route. This was harder still. After we both had scaled the 5.9, it was getting on in the day so we decided to pack it in and hike back via the upper trail.
We decided we didn’t want another freezing evening in the tent, so we drove to Hollister and had tasty barbeque. It was a bit of an ordeal getting into town, with every. Single. Parking. Space. Taken by an assortment of SUVs, trucks with lift-kits and the occasional Prius. Which we found particularly amusing, as there were a comparatively large number of non-lifted, non-gas-guzzling vehicles in the immediate vicinity of Pinnacles, contrary to the surrounding area.
The reason for the parking/traffic problem was Hollister’s annual Lights On parade. We think it has something to do with Christmas lights or something. After BBQ and beer, we drove back to camp and had lights out.
On Sunday morning after a late (er) start, we made for the Balconies area of the park, hiking in via the Old Pinnacles Trail. After going through some spectacular (dark, confined) caves, we made it to a half-open area underneath some massive (100+ foot in diameter) boulders wedged into the canyon. Our choices: go left and follow the trail or go right and scramble up the hillside on a 45-degree rock face. So we strapped on our climbing shoes and went right.
This turned out to be another serendipitous moment: At the top of that scramble we found the base of Chockstone Dome, where a father-daughter pair were ascending the Regular route using some seriously vintage equipment. Turns out to be the exact wall we’d set out to find: a two-bolt lead (with a somewhat scary long runout) on a 5.4-ish route. Sweet.
Janet led the climb up and belayed me from the top. It was interesting not having my belay partner below (telling me where to put my feet). I made it up to the top, cleaning the protection as I went. A little scary, particularly since we were doing this on what was essentially a boulder wedged 50 feet above the ground. When we got to the top, we cleaned the anchor and set up for rappel. Another first for the weekend, just to round it out. Walking backwards down a cliff with nothing but a rope and your right hand keeping you from decking on the pavement is an interesting place to be. It all worked out, and by the time we’d packed the rope it was starting to get dark in the valley so we decided to head back to the city.
We hiked back on the high trail and stopped for a late lunch on a fine crag, splitting when it started to rain. We made it back to the car before getting completely soaked, passing hikers going out for the day!
I can’t wait to get back on a cliff. When we went to the gym on Monday, the big safe holds looked different, and I wanted more of a challenge. Guess I know where my summer’s going...
 I’ve been making blueberry pancakes while camping for years. It’s sort of tradition.