Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Red Rock, Nevada - Day 2: Cat in the Hat, Pt 1

Feb 21, 2009

The next morning I awoke once again very early local time. Everyone else was still snoozing. I tried to go back to sleep, but it wasn't meant to be. I looked at my watch in the dim light of the room. Hmmm. 5:30? Maybe I should get up...

I got up, grabbed a shower, then quietly back into the room. No one's moved. I heard Michelle's voice ask what time was it. I went back to my watch, this time with a flashlight.

It read 4am.

"Urrrr....4am", I whispered, realizing I had misread the time earlier.

"What the #&%@ are you doing up?" as she threw the covers back over her head and went back to sleep.

I was well awake now (it was 7am East Coast time). While the rest slumbered, I decided to take a walk around downtown Vegas for an hour or so. There were some geocaches in the area I might be able to try for, and the walk would do me good (the 'fresh' air of downtown Vegas was crisp and invigorating, compared to the warmer atmosphere of five bodies in a cozy motel room ;-) ). I slipped out quietly, trying not to disturb my companions any further, and set out to do a little exploring Vegas, using the geocaches to guide me.

I wandered about for about an hour. I found all three of the caches I set out to find (two of them were virtual caches - caches that have no container, but you have to locate and identify an object, or take photographs of it; in these cases one was the giant MGM lion and another was the M&M World store), and got to see a mostly, but not fully, quiet Strip. Still a fair number of people walking about (and about half of them drunker than a college frat party), but it wasn't wall-to-wall pedestrians. And of what little I got to see of the Strip, New York New York was still the most impressive thing.

Back at the hotel room the gang was slowly stirring. The sun was juuuust starting to brighten the eastern sky as we resorted gear and piled it all into the cars. Over to CoCos for breakfast again, and this time the food was better. The wait staff was still very personable and fun. Even the manager. No pretentiousness or anything between anybody. It was all very cool. After breakfast we headed out. I was to climb with Francesca today up Cat In The Hat, while Carlos would take Michelle and Claudia up Cookie Monster, a 5.7 route that ran parallel to Cat In The Hat, and finished on the same last pitch of Cat.

Part of the reason for my non-sleep was the time shift; I was still on East Coast time. The other part was today's upcoming climb, Cat In The Hat. I could easily climb at the difficulty level of that route (5.6), but it was the unknown nature of the route that was nigging at my subconscious. I tried to ignore it so no one would know (after all, I had been climbing since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and other than Carlos, was the only other experienced multi-pitch leader of the group; I didn't want to let anyone down - besides, I really did want to climb the route). But Francesca and Michelle picked up on it pretty readily, discussed the situation amongst themselves, and made a command decision to swap places. They both figured I'd be more comfortable climbing with Michelle (since I've climbed with her more than Francesca), and since Francesca has climbed with Carlos a fair number of times, he'd have someone who he knew, whereas he has only climbed with Claudia a few times, and I don't think ever multipitch. Decision made, we headed out.

As we drove out, I noted again (but forgot to mention in the Day 1 entries) that some of the overpasses along the beltway were decorated with interesting rock art or petroglyphs. I snapped photos of several, but haven't "decoded" what they mean yet. It was a nice touch to the bridges, especially considering the rest of the highway between overpasses was just grey gravel rocks.

Cat In The Hat is a 500-1100' tall 4-5 to 7 pitch climb, depending on whether or not you climb to the very top of Mescalito. Most parties just climb the 500' 4-5 pitch section, as the last 600' of the climb is not as well explored and getting off is...well, a bit of an adventure (the guidebook referred to it as "serious"). For the lower half of the route, there are rap stations set up at each belay ledge. Easy exit action. In the photo here, Cat In The Hat climbs the southeast buttress following the red line until it ends. The dashed portion of the line means it is climbing up the other side of the buttress.

The guidebook I have listed the pitches to be 5.5, 5.5, 5.6, 5.4, 5.6 in difficulty. As I climbed, I would have rerated the pitches to be 5.6, 5.5, 5.4 or 5.5, and 5.6, combining the last two pitches into one. But I get ahead of myself here.

As Michelle and I stopped so I could grab something to eat for lunch, the others continued on to Red Rock. As we followed behind, I could see in the distance the Mescalito (denoted by the red arrow in the accompanying photo lower right). Being a mere 110o' tall, it was dwarfed by the neighboring mountains. Size is amazing out here. And to this little pyramid of rock is our destination of the day...

We arrived at the parking area to Pine Creek Canyon, same one Carlos and Francesca were at the day before, just as Carlos and Crew were getting on their packs to head in. We ended up milling about a little bit, then they headed down the trail. 15 to 20 minuntes later, after I finally got things reorganized in my bag one last time (still a bit nervous about the upcoming climb), Michelle and I followed.

The trek in was mostly straightforward: follow the Pine Creek Canyon Trail until we had to turn off. I knew from the Supertopo guide and my guidebook where we had to evntually end up. The getting there was the trick. From the main trail there was an intermittent "climber's trail" to the corner buttress, and we lost it several times, bushwhacking or doubling back around thick foliage, and crossing an active stream several times. As we drew nearer, we heard someone calling out from the rocks above. It was Claudia, waving at us, letting us know they were there. We could just make her out from her red jacket, and Carlos and Francesca from their yellow and green helmets respectively (in the adjoining photo, the red arrow points directly to a blue-jacketed dot that is Carlos). They hadn't started the climb yet, but were at the base, getting the ropes ready. Well, we'd see them higher up. While Carlos was climbing in a team of three, they were already at their route, and I figured they'd beat us to the top, particularly since I'd be going slow, even in a team of two. Plus they were about to start, and we had yet to get to the base of our climb. Thoughts of leading some of the scariest 5.6s I'd ever done at the Gunks suddenly came to mind. My palms began sweating all over again. We headed up.

Moments later there was very friendly and cheerful guy on our tail named Janis He and his party (somewhere behind him) were also going to Cat In The Hat. There were four of them, in two groups of two. Janis and his leader, Aaron, were from Colorado Springs, while the other two (Pawel and Agata) were from Poland. They all eventually caught up to us as we scrambled up the steeper slopes of the approach to the beginning of the route. Aaron cheerfully pointed me at the route, and told me where, in his opinion, the crux (one of two) of the route was ("right there, 25-30' up"), how to do it ("smear your feet against the wall on the left, because there are no footholds"), and what I needed to place at it ("a #4 Cam"). Urrrr...I didn't own a #4 Cam (which is rather big). Largest I had was a #3, and that wasn't going to fit in the crack at the crux. Far too small (the #3 covers a range from 2-3.5 inches; the #4 covers from 2.75-4.5 inches; this was a 4 inch crack). I always considered the #3 to be large, and the #4 a boat anchor sized thing. Never wanted to drag that thing around climbing. Already carry too much gear as it is.

I had almost calmed down until Aaron mentioned the #4 Cam and lack of footholds at the crux, then I got unnerved all over again. :-( I offered to let him go first, if just to see how to get through the crux. As I looked at where he was pointing I thought I could see a smaller crack where I could get a smaller piece of gear in just above where he indicated the #4 should go. But he insisted, and in a show of amazing generosity, loaned me his #4. He just asked that we leave it in place for when he comes up behind us. Sweet! Thanks, man!!

I was still having second thoughts about going first, but finally Michelle said, "Get your ass up there!" So I tied in and started up pitch one.

Note: I didn't take many photos while climbing up. ;-)

At the crux I saw that I could reach a little higher and probably slot a smaller cam, but hey, I had this big, beefy, heavy boat anchor on my rack - no sense in carrying it up 150' if I could ditch it here! So I got it in, to the cheers of Aaron and his buds. I felt...okay, and continued on up.

As I climbed, I found lots of places for placing gear. I found lots of places for hand and footholds (but occasionally I'd have to actively look for them, as they weren't always obvious or apparent). I got to within about 15' or so below a huge ledge, the end of the first pitch, and was a fair bit above my last piece of gear. Still feeling nervous (this was my first real trad lead of the year), I slotted a small camming device in a bulge to my right, and looked up at the steep, steep ramp of a detached pillar before me. All I could see was the 6-inch wide maw of the crack that ran up for 20' to the top. And all I could think was that the #4 Cam was way, way, WAY down below me! I had nothing that could protect that cavity! Yep, I began feeling really unhappy at this point.

I looked to the right, at the bulge where I had slotted the Alien. I looked back at the maw that threatened to engulf me and everything I had on. I called down to Aaron, asking him which way I should go.

"Go up the crack to the left!" came his voice, some 130' below me.

I looked at it one more time. Oh, screw that! I could see a way to go up and along the bulge! And I was right at my protection piece, no penduluum swings should I slip in the crack (I never, ever saw the plethora of hand/footholds on the face just left of the crack, so absorbed by the scary darkness was I). So right I went, struggling up and over the bulge, willing my feet to not slip on the couple of friction moves I had to make, and....bingo! I made it to the ledge! Sweet!!

I started to set an anchor to belay Michelle up on, but stepped around the corner only to discover there was a three-bolt anchor already there - woo! I clipped in, felt MUCH happier, went off belay, and pulled up the slack in the rope (which was 200' long, so barely 35' on this 150' pitch; remember that the knots we tied in with take up almost 5-7 feet of rope alone).

Michelle came up fairly quickly, and as we were restacking the rope to move it over to the next belay, Aaron arrived. As he brought up his second, Michelle and I moved over and up to the start of pitch 2. This would be a shorter pitch, 50' instead of 150'. And looked imminently easier. It had two "hard" 5.5 moves on it at the start, but the rest was pretty easy and straightforward. Not boring, but not "spicy", either. I made it to the next belay in short order, then belayed Michelle up.

From our belay position at a nice tree we could see the first half of pitch 3. I gazed at it, seeing two cracks about 10' apart, running up to a short roof. I couldn't remember what the guidebook said, other than "climb the crack to the roof, traverse under it to (one side or the other), and continue to the top". Hmmmm. At that moment Aaron appeared. He indicated that I should go up the right crack, then at some point below the roof traverse left and follow the left crack up to a small belay ledge. Yeah, okay, sure thing. I got my gear from Michelle, reracked while she restacked the rope, then headed up.

The first couple of placements I felt nervous on. In fact, at the second I wasn't in a good stance, but wanted to get something in and worked a nut into the crack, feeling just slightly off balance. Once the nut was set, I moved up and for the first time I really began to feel the flow of the climb. I dropped in a couple more nuts and continued up. Then 10' below the short but wide roof I got stymied. I saw some chalk on some holds straight above me, but wasn't sure I saw easy traverse moves to the left. Looking left I saw two chalked holds up to my 10 o'clock on an otherwise blank, featureless and sheer rock wall. There were no fricking footholds over there! I called down to Aaron, asking him his opinion. "Yeah, just traverse someplace up there". Great, THAT helped!

But then I saw them. On the blank, featureless face were...footholds! They weren't there earlier, I swear. But hey, I could TOTALLY do this now! Plugging in a small nut where I was, I made my way over and up diagonally to the left finger crack, on fun moves across the face. At the other crack I plugged in a small Alien cam. Never felt nervous the whole time - in fact, it was downright fun! (photo to left is of me just before the traverse up to the left corner of the roof) I continued up and out of sight from Michelle to the upper belay ledge. The climbing from this point up the rest of the pitch was pretty uneventful.

On the next pitch (#4) I saw that I'd have to downclimb to a ledge (downclimbing is always harder than going up, because you can't easily see where your feet are to go), traverse over and up a ramp, then around a slight corner which I couldn't see where to set up a belay. All the relaxation I felt on the previous pitch evaporated from me into nerves again. I really wasn't looking forward to doing the downclimb, and knew that Michelle would be nervous as well, having to follow and have no rope above her, but rather below (thus if she slipped while downclimbing the 7' to the ledge, she'd take a much bigger fall than if the rope were above her). From what I could see from my perch on the belay station I could not make out any ledges for me to set up a comfortable belay. Blurg. That could suck.

Also, I could not see the fifth and final pitch of the route, so had no idea what I was in for. Carlos' voice came unbidden at that point, as I remembered him telling me that the final pitch is a crack up a wall to an unprotected slab with a single bolt, and the crux was getting to the bolt. Then another runout section of slab.

A crack that disappears, an unprotected slab except for one bolt around the crux, and an unprotected runout finish. Gee, that last pitch sounded like fun...

(continued in part 2)

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