Desert is a dish best served cold

Goodbye California, it’s been a blast! Time to go sweat it out in the arid deserts of Utah. I had spent a lot of my early teens gawping at pictures of the pristine cracks breaking through the desert towers and I spend the drive imagining myself crucifixed out way above the orange plains like I’d seen Tom Cruise do in Mission Impossible 2. Most of all I am looking forward to climbing topless in the baking heat. Turns out we don’t understand deserts. As we roll over the pass into Moab at midnight the Dolphin is sliding out of control and we are struggling to see though a blizzard of snow. This drive probably makes me the most scared I have been on the trip so far. It’s around midnight and we are both sat in the front with our sleeping bags over our legs and terror is etched into our faces. To the great surprise of both of us we roll into Utah in one piece.

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The Dolphin enjoying its first morning view of Utah

Right, first things first. Get to the top of a Utah tower. Out friends, Brady and Spencer, are still with us and suggest we pick the Kor-Ingalls Route on Castleton Tower. One of the “Classic fifty climbs of North America”, it ascends a beautiful 120m narrow pillar shooting out of the desert. A quick trip to the supermarket to restock the Dolphin with eggs, cheese and bacon then we are on our way. As the tower comes into view we are straining our eyes to check it out. But we are not only ogling the tower. There seems to be a faint line connecting the tower to the nearby stacks 500 meters away. Turns out that we have rocked up at the same time as some French dudes that are attempting the world’s longest highline! (you can check out some amazing footage of their feat here). Arriving too late to begin the route, we spend the afternoon watching the attempts at the highline through binoculars and the evening busting out the cards for copious rounds of shithead.

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Spencer Smokey and Brady hiking up to Castleton Tower

The next morning we hike up to the base of the cliff past patches of snow that the sun has failed to lay its eyes on. Brady and Spencer are accompanying us and will climb to the top of the nearby stack. We arrive at the base, rack up and set off. The route climbs the inside of a corner all the way up to the top. Most of the time your whole body is squeezed deep into a crack. I get pretty stuck a couple of times and at one point Smokey’s view of me is just my legs sticking out at 90 degrees from the rock face. The climbing is fairly easy but still feels sketchy in places. As Smokey leads a pitch both his last pieces of gear fall out as he’s pulling through the crux leaving him with a potentially deadly and very long fall. Got to sound positive I tell myself as I shout “Keep going buddy! You’re doing great!”. He pulls though fine and puts some solid protection in while I check my trousers. We eventually reach the top and are rewarded with a stunning view of the desert covered in patches of snow (see the title picture at the top). It’s time to relax and watch the Frenchies walk the highline and when they are finished we get to watch as one of them base jumps off the top. Wish that was an option for us. We get down via a series of abseils which take ages due to our ropes getting stuck and tangled a couple of times. Its dark by the time we’ve reached the base and we start the walk back. I’ve forgotten my head torch so use the light on my phone. We cross over steep icy patches and this proves to be the most nerve racking part of the day. One random guy slips and slides towards a large drop which will certainly result in a couple of broken legs at best. He stops sliding pretty quickly which is lucky because if I had to dive after him I almost certainly would have scratched my phone’s screen.

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The crack gives birth to a Smokey

The next morning we drive to the crack capital of the world. Indian Creek! Thousands of world class crack routes everywhere. A climbers’ paradise, unless of course you can’t crack climb. It turns out I can’t crack climb. There are many techniques used to climb cracks, Brady and Spencer skillfully give us a masterclass in all of them. The main one is the hand jam. To hand jam simply slide your hand into the crack up to your wrists then by tucking your thumb into your palm you can tense your hand so that it becomes wide enough to get jammed. Then you can simply hang all your weight off it. When executed correctly this is a comfortable painless process. When I’m doing it most of the valley can hear me screaming profanities, kicking the wall and throwing a right old hissy fit. I don’t enjoy sucking. Smokey is a big fan of crack climbing and had a great time honing his skills with interest and patience, he’s still howls like he’s been shot in the knee at times though. Fortunately, I end up figuring out that I could just layback most of the creek which appears to be a bit of a taboo subject in this area of the world so the less said about that the better.

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Brady gives us a lesson in the strenuous art of hand stacking

One of the treats of Utah was watching Lauren climb her hardest routes of the trip. Lauren had joined the crew in Yosemite. She is a funny, energetic goofball and a climber with endless psyche. Lauren was the youngest in the group and because of that she doesn’t seem to require rest days and while we would tend to our aching joints, she would get bored and go for a run. Since arriving in Utah the dolphin has started making some funny noises and doesn’t appear to be handling the cold very well. Lauren kindly squeezes the 5 of us into her 4×4 and chauffeures us around. These trips are made extra enjoyable as we share a similar taste in music. I call it Folk, Smokey calls it high pitched wailing. We had a lot of laughs in Utah and by the end Lauren could dispense a Rick and Morty quote for almost any situation. It was great having her as part of the team.

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Lauren hand jams her way up the sun soaked ‘Coyne Crack’

The climbing in Utah is absolutely amazing and the days are still warm, but the nights are becoming unbearable. I stupidly only brought a light summer sleeping bag so the bed time routine is generally; put on all my jackets, drink enough cider until falling asleep is unavoidable, wake up around 4am and jog on the spot in my sleeping bag until I can feel my legs again so I can fall back to sleep, wake up and lie there until my bursting bladder can no longer be ignored, run outside to defrost a patch of dirt.

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The desert makes you wild!

Eventually it was time to head back to Colorado and return the dolphin which beyond our wildest dreams looks like it’s actually going to make whole trip without breaking down. We roll back to Kiff’s house where our trip had begun 3 months previously. As a perfect end to our trip we are treated to a traditional thanksgiving with the friends we have built such a strong bond with over our travels. My only regret is that I got too drunk and passed out before 9 but from what I remember I was a wonderful magical evening!

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Thanks guys!

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After 3 months and 3802 km the Dolphin rest back home in Colorado. Bye old friend!

Thanks America for an incredible trip and even more incredible friends. A special thank you to Kiff, his generosity, patience and selfless effort made our trip what it was. See you all for Sabbatical Year 2: The East Coast Chronicles. I just need to have a quick chat with my boss….

 

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Surreal Joshua Tree

Having come down off El Captain we were greeted with a mini bottle of champagne each from our new travelling buddies Spencer, Brady and Lauren. We spent the rest of our time in Yosemite cancelling big wall plans with these guys and going for multi-pitch trad.

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The gang. Lauren, Spencer, Brady and Kiff

The first time I saw Brady, Pete and I were some of the last ones up celebrating life at camp 17 west (in joke). When we were startled by a cry of

‘Oi, GET BACK, GET BACK’

We look over to see a young man wearing nothing but his beard and boxers chasing a raccoon scuttling backwards dragging his backpack away…

absolutely hilarious.

Brady the SUD is one of the nicest guys you’ll meet, his acceptance of all things and an open curiosity made him a travel partner in a million. Brady pulls hard too. Chatting to himself nonchalantly as he glides up 5.11 trad.

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Rock-stars: Spencer and Brady

Spencer is a man with psyche who crushes, but you meet lots of American climbers like this. What makes Spencer different is his nature, he is calm, funny and a great diplomat often reducing tension. His knack of reminding you why you’re there and bringing you back round to a positive outlook is a great quality in a travelling partner on an extended trip.

And so it was that Pete and I rolled on down (at 50mph) to Joshua Tree National Park with these guys.

 

 

Joshua tree national park is incredible. Its pristine environment, Joshua trees and great big blobs of granite rising out of a plane that looks like its been flattened off with a spirit level, makes you feel like you’re stood in the centre of a Dali masterpiece.

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Brady climbs Southwest Corner in front of a typical Joshua Tree scene.

The oppressive nature of huge walls looming down on you leaves you in Joshua tree and a sense of openness and freedom envelopes you. But and there’s always a but as gran would say, the climbing is committing and physical. The area has a strong ethic, meaning climbs are preserved for when you are ready and not brought to your level by bolts (we saw worse casualties here than in Yosemite). The desert granite leaves physically demanding cracks and bold slabs. Although it did feel nice to be close to the ground, with an easy escape. My favourite easy climb there was The Bong and my favourite hard climb (for me E3) was Hobbit roof.

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Smokey climbing Hobbit Roof as Halloween wackos observe.

Halloween crept up on us in Joshua tree and before we knew it Hidden Valley Campground was filling up with people. Climbers coffee on that Saturday was strange with tens of climbers arriving in fancy dress, drinking coffee and making plans for the day. The day quickly progresses to boomboxes and beer as strange fluorescent multi coloured shapes ascend the rock all around. The drinking carries on into darkness as climbers coalesce like matter into one clump and party.

‘Chasm! Chasm’ is chanted and the Joshua tradition is maintained, a night time ascent of a long diff is conga lined by climbers and non climbers alike. Pete being a climber falls down a hole in the pitch black half way up and badly sprains his ankle. His self rescue with some aid from our team is impressive.

Next stop Utah.

The Valley

Our first view of El Capitan.

Our first view of El Capitan.

As the Dolphin trundles along the Californian mountain roads we reach the object of the climbers pilgrimage. Yosemite Valley. As I steer around the meadows and rivers we are both craning our necks, faces pressed against the windscreen, looking straight up at the massive towering face of El Capitan. It’s bloody huge! Our gaze is broken as I swear and turn sharply to avoid crashing off a bridge.

The queue of climbers every night looking for a spot in Camp 4.

The queue of climbers every night looking for a spot in Camp 4.

Yosemite is the arguably the most famous climbing destination in the world. Camp 4, the climbers campsite, is full and every night people sleep in a queue to get themselves a spot. We don’t own a tent so we’re disappointed to discover that sleeping in the van is against the park rules. We save money by paying for a single pitch in which I lay down a tarp and sleep ceiling free. Smokey opts to take his chances with ranger detection and sleeps in the van. For the first few days the threat of bear attack looms in our minds but this system will go on to operate smoothly for the next 4 weeks.

Excited to try our first big wall (a climb that generally requires more than 1 day to scale) we pick the South Face on Washington column. We get up early-ish and start sorting out all our gear and water on a tarp. We pack it all into our haul bag and at that moment we realise we have no idea how to climb a big wall. We unpack and decide a training day is probably a better idea. Sunset slabs is just around the corner so we head there and try our hand at aid climbing. Climbing big walls usually requires a some amount of aid climbing which is where you place protection in the rock, clip a small fabric ladder to it and then walk up the ladder. Basically climbing with as much cheating as you like. We find a route to practice, a nice gentle slab with a crack going up it. This is my first attempt at aid climbing and it is going great. I’m making good time and am near the top where I place a nut into the crack, it looks good so I clip the ladder in and stand up. I hear a metallic ping and find myself sliding 8 meters down the rock. I didn’t die so I count it as a success. Smokey tries some jugging and I try a bit of hauling, that works out too so the next day we pack the haul bag and head off.

Walking to the base of The South Face

Walking to the base of The South Face

An hour later and we are scrabbling though a steep boulderfield a little lost. The haul bag is heavy and the blazing sun has made us sweat through a significant percentage of our water supply before we reach the base of the route. We are disappointed to see that a queue has formed. There are already a couple of parties climbing the first few pitches and about 7 or so climbers waiting to go. This doesn’t look good so we decide to stash our bags in some boulders and plan to return that evening and sleep at the base so that we are first in line tomorrow. When we return we hear that most of the parties have given up, one of which is in the process of coming down as we arrive. One particular climber looks a little pale, he takes off his harness and curls up on the floor. We hear that the ledge at the top of the first pitch is free of people so we head for there to sleep instead. I unravel more of the pale climber’s story as I climb though a part of rock covered in vomit. Poor dude. I chuckle at his misfortune as I climb on. As we set up camp it starts to get dark. Its a super clear night and stars are everywhere. The ledge is a little small so we lie there with our feet hanging off the edge. We share wine out of Smokey’s goat skin flask and stargaze listening to ambient trance. #bestnightever.

Smokey aids pitch 2 of The South Face

Smokey aids pitch 2 of The South Face

The next pitch requires aiding and Smokey takes the lead. It’s a difficult lead and all the protection requires offset nuts, which we don’t own. The pitch takes longer than we were planning and when we reach the top of pitch 4 we have to decide whether to give up or stay the night and continue tomorrow. We have only packed supplies for 1 night but we happen to be sharing the ledge with 2 girls from search and rescue who offer us some extra food. We decide to stay. I abseil back to the ground to grab some more water and jug back up (jugging is when you climb up a rope using an ascender which can go up not down, we will be doing a lot of this in the days to come!).

The next day comes around and the first pitch is a famous one called Kor’s Roof. It involves climbing a crack to an huge overhang then aid climbing up bolts that have been put through the roof then up another crack above. I tie into the sharp end and set off on my second ever aid climb. The exposure is immense as I hang off the bolts in the roof but all my years of experience red pointing routes in Swanage have given me plenty of practice at this sort of climbing and I am soon working through the crack above the overhang. I’m not far from finishing the pitch when the crack gets steep, luckily due to the 1000’s of climbers who have climbed the route over the years the crack is full of climbing gear that got too stuck to remove. I clip into one of the fixed cams and stand up on it. There is a familiar metallic PING! I see rock shooting up in front of me and then it disappears as I fall past the roof. Luckily Smokey is paying attention and the rope catches me. I am now hanging in open space looking at the half of the cam that is still attached to me, the rest still lodged in the crack 15m above. That was a big one!I jug back up the rope and I drink all my water once I finish the rest of the climb. Its so hot! We should have hauled more water. I see Smokey is also feeling the heat as he jugs up next to me. I can see in his face that he isn’t feeling it and we end up bailing. Yosemite 1 – Pete and Smokey 0

The look on Smokey's face after jugging Kor's roof.

The look on Smokey’s face after jugging Kor’s roof.

The view from the fall off Kor's roof. (Taken while abseiling down)

The view from after the fall off Kor’s roof. (Taken while abseiling down)

The remains of the fixed cam and a whole one for comparison

The remains of the fixed cam and a whole one for comparison

Some wuss I found on the internet climbing Snake Dyke in the daytime.

After that we do a bit of cragging and bouldering with Kiff and Griff, unknown to us Kiff is hatching a plan. There is a route called Snake Dyke on Half Dome that he has climbed every time he has been to Yosemite, but this time he wants to mix it up. The full moon is almost upon us so he suggests we give it a go by moonlight. Sounds awesome! A few days later we trudge the 4 hour walk in and arrive at the base just as the sun sets. We set off up this bizarre ridge of granite sticking out of a huge slab. This strikes me as coolest climb I have ever done. It has bolts every 45ft or so and the climbing is fairly easy. Kiff sends me the wrong way up a harder route at one point which got a bit hairy but all in all it goes to plan. The moon is bright enough that you could get by without a torch at times and the view from the top was incredible. The one downside was the 14 mile walk back with waning headtorches. We arrive back at camp at 6am and are asleep as soon as we are horizontal.

Smokey crack climbing at the Cookie Cliff

Smokey crack climbing at the Cookie Cliff

We have really been sucked into the Camp 4 life. Right next to our camp there is a playground of slacklines that Smokey has been frequenting. We have made some new good friends, Spencer, Brady and Lauren, who we have been hanging out with. We do a bit of casual bouldering that always seems to end up with either a silly highball problem or some stupid rule like ‘flip flops only with no chalk’. One day we are sat by the river watching the boys try a waterline with El Capitan as the backdrop. Spencer lends us his binoculars so we can gawp up at route we’ve come to climb. The Nose. Its the most famous climb in the world and we have a lot of fun searching out the sections we’ve spent our climbing lives reading about and watching in movies. Looking up at it gets Kiff excited too and we set a date to go for it.

Brady on the waterline

Brady on the waterline

Not long after and we are waking up at 4am to have a quick coffee and then pack the haul bags. The walk in is short. The sun hasn’t risen yet but it is still light enough for us to see the vast intimidating sea of granite towering above us. Kiff has started climbing the first pitch as the sun rises. He gets to the top and fixes his rope to wall. A shout of “LINES FIXED” and Smokey starts to jug up the rope and retrieves the protection that Kiff has placed. Once Smokey reaches the top I begin to jug. While we do that Kiff attaches the other rope he has dragged up and starts to haul the bags up. The bags are heavy, they contain enough food and water for 4 days (about 30L and many portions of boil-in-the-bag Indian curries) as well as all our roll mats and sleeping bags. Hauling them is exhausting work. Me and Kiff lead in batches and Smokey does all the belaying and cleaning. The first day we move at a reasonable pace but with very little experience in this type of climbing, our systems are slow but not as slow as the people in front of us. The problem with the most popular routes is how popular they are. After we make good time through the first 4 pitches we end up in a queue and spend a couple of hours sitting on a ledge. We discover that most of the climbing parties above us will sleep on the ledge where we were planning to so we are forced to set up camp on a much smaller ledge a couple of pitches down.

Pete climbing some of the early pitches

Pete climbing some of the early pitches

Sleeping on ledges is super fun. The views are spectacular. We cant afford to buy a fancy portaledge so we have to find natural ledges flat enough to sleep on. We lay our roll mats down and slide into our sleeping bags with our harnesses still on. Tipsy on wine, muscles aching and having just seen the biggest shooting star of my life I drift off to sleep, feet hanging off the side of the ledge.

The next day we quickly make it to the ledge where we planned to sleep. Unfortunately we are back in the queue and worse, we discover that the weather will be making a turn for the worse tonight. With no portaledge and limited waterproof clothing we make the difficult decision to abandon our attempt. We leave some of our water on the ledge and abseil down with our bags. It takes 6 long abseils down vertical granite, most with highly uncomfortable hanging belays, but we make the ground. I’m feeling glum. I failed and failures don’t deserve cider or wine. Fortunately I manage to forgive myself and that night have plenty of both.

Pete having his first wash in about 2 weeks.

Pete having his first wash in about 2 weeks.

We spend the next few days drinking and bouldering with Spencer, Brady and Lauren, keeping a close eye on the weather reports. The reports give us the all clear and we make another 4am start. This time we decide to use some fixed lines that are already set up and jug the first 4 pitches. Unfortunately Smokey discovers that the haul line is not long enough to reach the anchors and abseils back down. Kiff jugs up with our second lead line which is long enough and after a few hours of hard work I’m setting off on the first batch of leads. Me and Kiff split the pitches in half. My parents taught me to share genrously so I make sure his half is bit bigger than mine. Things have gone fairly smoothly and the sun is slowly setting as I’m jugging up the last pitch of the day. Suddenly there is a load roar like a rocket as a base jumper shoots past us deploying his shoot very low. Awesome. There is plenty of room up on this ledge despite the other 2 climbers who are already set up for the night. Through the darkness the stars seem to flow onto the cliffs around us as the headtorches from other climbing parties shine out on routes miles away . The traditional “OOK OOK” calls from climbers, imitating the monkeys we are, echo from all around. Things go quiet for a while and the we can faintly hear a climber from a portaledge a long way away call out

“People on the Nose … you’re doing great! People on the Tempest … you’re gonna die!”

We have a good laugh.

The team on El Cap Tower

The team on El Cap Tower

Struggling behind the Texas Flake

Struggling behind the Texas Flake

We wiggle out our sleeping bags as the sun rises and have coffee and porridge. I’m very excited. The first 3 pitches are mine and 2 of them I have been looking forward to for a long time. The first one is the Texas flake. For this pitch you have to climb behind a huge flake of rock (that is the shape of Texas of course) and climb the chimney behind it. I find this pitch a huge struggle. My hips get stuck the second I get behind the flake and I spend about 10 mins trying to get free as my legs pedal stupidly underneath me. Finally I’m in the flake and its time to chimney. I manage to climb the first half with out much difficulty but then the chimney starts to widen until, with my back against the wall, it is just narrower the lengths of my arms. I really start to struggle now and my feet start slipping all over the place and I have no idea what to do with my arms. This trip is really teaching me the hard way that I still have a lot to learn about climbing. At this point a climber who is trying to climb the whole route in a day shoots past me. I copy his technique and emerge from the flake panting hard. Time to start hauling again.

Smokey jugs up the Texas Flake

Smokey jugs up the Texas Flake

The time has finally arrived. The pitch I have been itching to do since I had first heard about The Nose. The King Swing. At this point in the route you run out of cracks to climb. There is however a crack way out left so what you do is get lowered down on a rope and then start running back and forth along the cliff until you build enough speed to swing over reach it (the whole time trying not to think about the rope rubbing on the edge way above you). This is my sort of climbing. The sort where there is no climbing at all just swinging around like Tarzan after too much caffeine. I’ve ruined plenty of new ropes doing this sort of thing on Portland with Marcus so I get the job done fairly quickly. That pitch was by far the most fun I’ve had on this trip! I’m exhausted though and glad its time to let Kiff take over the lead.

Pete pegging it on the King Swing.

Pete pegging it on the King Swing.

To get an idea of scale! This picture of me on the King Swing was taken by Tom Evans. Please check out his website here

To get an idea of scale! The picture of me on the King Swing was taken by Tom Evans. Check out his website here.

Me soaking up the rays at Camp 4. We managed to sleep all 3 of us on that single block.

Me soaking up the rays at Camp 4. We managed to sleep all 3 of us on that single block.

The next few pitches start to traverse left. Smokey’s screams of terror can be heard on the valley floor as he takes wild unexpected swings whilst cleaning Kiff’s leads. With a worrying feeling of deja vu we have to camp on a ledge lower than we had planed due to crowds above us. We have to sleep at a ledge known as Camp IV. The topo describes this ledge as ‘poor bivy for 2’ and its not wrong. The ledge is smaller than a standard door and half of it slopes dangerously downwards. Me and Kiff fit most of our bodies on the sloping part while Smokey wedges himself in a crack by the side that we have stuffed one of the haul bags in and sleeps in a sitting position. I say sleeps but we each probably only get about 3 hours of it. The slope doesn’t bother me too much but I am kept awake by a mixture of dull and shooting pains in various limbs. If I do manage to fall sleep I’m soon woken up by Smokey kicking my head as he readjusts his position in an attempt to regain blood flow to his legs.

We wake up pretty stiff and look above us. There is still loads of climbing ahead and we hope to be done by today. Having to stop at camp IV has added 4 more pitches to our day so we get moving. I’m up again and this time its arguably the most famous pitch on the climb. The Great Roof. This pitch involves a massive overhang that you traverse underneath and, compared to the rest of the route, is a fairly serious aid climb. With a 100% record of falling on aid routes under my belt I set off. I make slow work but manage to the roof. At this point I need to stop leaving protection behind so Smokey can do a big scary lower out without hindrance. I begin leapfrogging cams as I crab crawl my way along under the roof. At one point a cam I place explodes out the crack when I stand on it but I’ve learnt from my mistakes and this time I just slump onto my daisy clipped to the previous piece. I finish the pitch and look up at the pitch above me. The Pancake Flake. This one belongs to Kiff and it looks amazing.

Smokey lowering out under the Great Roof

Smokey lowering out under the Great Roof

Kiff climbs the Pancake Flake

Kiff climbs the Pancake Flake

Kiff blasts through the next bunch of pitches with ease, slowing a little on the aid pitches as he makes up his own systems. Its getting late and Smokey and I are exhausted (even Kiff is starting to look a smidge fatigued). The lead passes over to me. I only have 3 more pitches to the top and Kiff tells me I can skip the first belay to link the first 2 pitches into 1. I set off and am aiding everything. I start at a good pace having now had plenty of aiding practice but we have been climbing for about 10 hours straight and my body begins to slow. I pass the first belay as Kiff suggested and keep on trucking. About an hour later and I’m still climbing. Surely I should have reached the belay by now but I cant see any bolts up ahead. I start feel anxious. “HOW MUCH ROPE LEFT?” I shout down. “ONLY ABOUT 10 METERS … NO WAIT … LOADS.” I climb on, my anxiety levels no better. It starts getting dark and the levels get worse.

Pitch black now I start climbing into a loose trough of rock. I reach into my pocket and pull out what looks like a tatty piece of toilet paper. The topo has all but disintegrated, luckily for me the last few pitches are still readable under my headtorch. I figure out where I am. Unfortunately I don’t think I have enough rope to get to the belay I wanted so I set up a heinous belay station and haul in the trough. Soon I am on the last pitch. This is mostly just pulling through bolts, my speciality, but my body is too tired to obey my wishes and I can tell my climbing is getting slower and slower. There are bolts because this section is very overhanging. Suspended in my harness I look past my feet with my head torch. There is nothing but blackness but I know that if it was daylight I would be looking at a 2800ft sheer drop. I forcefully decide it is less scary this way and push on. The climbing becomes vertical, then I’m climbing a slab. Sooner than I expected I reach a belay. This is it! I shout down a victorious whoop. Soon the others have jugged up and we are shuttling bags up the slab. I can see the tree that signals the top of the route! I slap it and give it a small hug. We’ve done it! The main goal of our trip to climb a big wall has been achieved after 2 failed attempts. The feeling of accomplishment for some reason doesn’t hit me straight away but instead seeps in over the next couple of days and I catch myself at various points grinning like a maniac to no-one but myself.

The team and the tree

The team and the tree!

Kiff’s iPhone tells us its gone midnight. We have no intention of walking down in the dark so we start climbing into our sleeping bags and cooking curry and mash. I can’t believe how good it tastes. We gorge on water and discuss which parts of our bodies are in the most pain. For me its my hands and feet but my hips and back are a close second. That night as I lie under the stars my brain is busy processing away, If we just completed our trips goal .. what shall we do next?

The Dolphin

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Griff

A little brown bird traces a sine curve across the road as our van rolls and bumps rhythmically across the desert of Nevada. We see scrub in yellows, pinks and purples with a backdrop of large red desert mountains on the horizon. The van is a Toyota Dolphin. Produced in the middle of the eighties at some point, it’s slow to start, does 50 mph tops and has a few strange rattles. It drove us consistently for nearly three days through the desert from Colorado to California and it felt like it might break down. In many ways it’s like my van at home. After initially thinking we would buy a van, Kiff introduced us to our new friend Griff who’s landlord had the Dolphin sat outside. For emotional reasons he would only sell us this rusty, dusty former gem for $3000. That seemed a little steep considering the amount of duct tape holding various bits on and so we eventually settled on a borrow/rent scheme for $300 a month.

Brian fixes the brake lights with a biscuit tin.

Brian fixes the brake lights with a biscuit tin.

Brian lives in a typical boulder craft house with a beautiful garden and some great pieces of 1970s americana inside. The evenings were fun sat in the garden laughing and drinking with Kiff and Griff, hummingbird feeders refracting the light above. He’s an absolute hippy at heart and in fact negotiations were halted for a three day Fish reunion concert which took quite some recovery. Griff lives in Brian’s large shed at the bottom of the garden. He and Kiff have made the journey to Yosemite with us. Griff and Kiff live to climb. Griff works part time in retail and has a sponsorship deal going on, quite frequently he would amuse us with counter boulderite-sociolite rants (of which he loathes and loves to be part of!). A talented climber he and Kiff shared a great week with us where they ticked off a trio of Yosemite classics. This guy shares a lifestyle similar to my own and for as long as I enjoy starting my day with a ‘hippy speedball’ he’ll be a close friend. We met Kiff in Wales 6 months ago, he is a rock climber in the true sense of the words. When on routes he is stoic, psyched and consistent. Kiff is well read and has little bits of trivia tucked up his sleeve concerning all sorts of things. His sense of humour sits perfectly with ours meaning we laugh lots.

Kiff

Kiff

Back to the Dolphin, Its full of character and obviously has had a colourful history. This glorious history is fading now as the only thing that works is the engine and the lights. “well obviously that doesn’t work!” was a phrase used often on the initial tour. It looks great though and we can sleep comfortably, we’ve also been informed Toyota engines don’t die.

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Driving across Nevada

Our first destination was Vedauwoo a granite monolith in the middle of the desert of Wyoming. With fierce crack climbs encircling the outcrop, here we learnt to make tape gloves and tried to refine the art of flared crack climbing. We started the day off with the easiest thing there a gulley filled with offwidth climbing (climbing were the crack is bigger than any one part of your body). Nice lead Pete! Next we thought about something slimmer, a 5.9 flaring hand crack. Well to cut a long story short we both tried and tried hard to no avail. Pete dogged to the top then I cleaned on toprope just making it in a oner and we were done. Our amateur tape gloves and crack skills definitely highlighting us as the tourists of which we were the only ones.

Pete's first attempt at tape gloves.

Pete’s first attempt at tape gloves.

We’ve been in Yosemite for a couple of weeks now and Kiff joining us on the Nose tomorrow which is great news.

Baptism of Fire

What a first week! Its been non-stop since we arrived in Colorado (well, we landed in Colorado then spent the night in the airport but after we left the airport it was non stop). First stop Kiff’s house. We were lucky enough to bump into Kiff while climbing in North Wales and over a pizza he offered to put us up in Boulder, show us some climbing and help us find a van. He delivered!

After a good nights rest on the floor of Denver airport we were ready to go. With address in hand we jumped on a bus and an hour or so later we were at Kiff’s door. “You guys are magic!” he exclaims as he open the door. He’s awake and cheery despite us arriving at 7am (god knows what we must have looked like after almost 2 days of travel). He shows us inside and there are a few other people sat at the kitchen table pouring over some climbing guidebooks. “We’re about to head out climbing if you guys are up for it?”. Course we are!

Boulder resides right next to a long stretch of rocky outcrops called the Flatirons. A 5 minute drive and we are at the car park, rucksacks on and away we go. Behind us all you can see is endless flat terrain. In front of us are huge flat spikes of rock sticking out of the ground creating some amazing looking slab climbs on one side and crazy overhanging routes on the other.

Us at the Flatirons, CO

Us at the Flatirons, CO

20 mins of walking uphill and I’m cursing myself for not getting fitter for this trip. After another 10 mins and our group of 5 make it to the bottom of one of the giant slabs of rock. Everyone solo climbs in Colorado apparently. As our 3 local guides set off, unattached to anything, up the fairly gentle 400ft slab Smokey and I tie into our rope. This news will probably get mixed reviews but as the last thing almost everyone said to us was “Be careful” I think they will be mostly pro (plus we were jet lagged, unfamiliar with the rock and walking at altitude so cut us some slack!). It ended up being more dangerous anyway as there was almost nowhere on the route to protect us with the rope so it ended up being soloing with the added fun of rope drag. After that we fitted in some sport climbs and watched our new buddy, Griff, work a spectacular 8a roof crack.

Smokey about to reach the summit of the one of the Flatiron slabs.

Smokey about to reach the summit of the one of the Flatiron slabs.

Smokey receives his animal spirit name through song.

Smokey receives his animal spirit name through song.

At this point we probably should have gone to bed but instead we headed into town for some beer and slices of pizza. On the way back we had a run in with a fairly odd looking busker who preached about global health, sang us a song in which he gave Smokey his spirit animal name, Spartua, and then asked for a small donation so he could write 14000 love songs for the world. Being poor travellers on a budget we politely declined.

Fast forward 2 days later and Kiff is driving us to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Its pitch black because we woke up at 3am. I’m in the back seat holding a jet boil stove trying make coffee on the go. I mess it up and struggle to keep hold of the stove and turn it off as boiling water pours over my hands. Those mild burns won’t be fun later. We arrive in the dark and set off, head torches on, for 5 miles up into the mountains. Its windy and cold. Sun rises as we reach the end of our hike. It’s difficult to decide how much is altitude, how much is jet lag and how much is general lack of fitness but we are shattered! We are high. By the time we finish walking we are at close to 4000m (the summit of Ben Nevis is at 1344m) and we haven’t even started climbing yet.

Our route up the Petit Grepon

Our route up the Petit Grepon

Smokey on one of the early pitches up the Petit. The summit is the spike on the left.

Smokey on one of the early pitches up the Petit. The summit is the spike on the left.

This is alpine climbing. Which is basically normal climbing but in worse conditions. We are climbing The Petit Grepon, a 1000ft 8 pitch 5.8 (or HVS in British money). Its hard work and feels very exposed, but that’s what we came here for! Halfway up and I’m pulling through some burly cracks and I’m starting to feel the rope drag. We have no topo but I have a feeling that the crux may be coming up so it seems like a good place to set up belay and let Smokey take it on from here. I decide I made the right choice as I hear Smokey cursing his way up a awkward dihedral with a finger crack at the back. I’ll promise myself I’ll take the next crux and reassure myself that I’m a good person. The views are spectacular as we reach the peak with smiles on our faces but both feeling like we are about to die. There’s time for a drink of water and a few photos then we start the 4 long abseils to the bottom and walk back to the car. It was a long day and I doubt that the huge burrito we got on the way back home tasted better to anyone else in the diner.

Me and Smokey on the final pitches of the Petit Grepon

Me and Smokey on the final pitches of the Petit Grepon

2 days later we are at it again, hiking up to a different part of the rocky mountains. This time we are carrying our sleeping bags and roll mats as we plan to bivi in the mountains and start our climb a little fresher the next morning. We pick our spots to lay out our sleeping bags. I decide to pick a spot that is a little more exposed to the wind but will give me a view of the sunrise the next morning. Kiff assures us that its the wrong time of year for bears to be up here but as i drift off to sleep I feel something pressing against my feet. I grab my head torch but luckily it was just a gigantic rat.

The night was cold but the sunrise was spectacular! We get up, brew some coffee in the freezing wind, get all our climbing gear on then suspend our bags from a boulder to stop critters getting at them. Away we go. A 30 minute slog up some scree with patches of snow scattered around and we are at the base of the climb, a very impressive sharp fin of rock that looks very steep.

The Flying Butress. We climbed the biggest fin of rock you can see.

The Flying Butress. We climbed the biggest fin of rock you can see to the left of where I’m pointing.

Victory! Summit view on the Flying Buttress

Victory! Summit view on the Flying Buttress

Kiff leads the first pitch then belays us both up at once. When we I arrive I take the cams and nuts off him to do the second pitch. This pitch is the crux, a 5.10c (about E1 5b), it looks pretty scary but Kiff says there will be protection all the way up. The first half is a lovely hand crack but in the cold wind all the hand jams are painful. For the second half the crack becomes a thin finger crack and my numb stubby fingertips struggle to find holds. I can find a few nut placements but a lot less than I was expecting. The exposure in this section is incredible. I can look down, straight past my feet and see the scree slope below. I feel a strange feeling in my stomach that the Americans call the heebie jeebies. I’ve run out of nuts that fit so I place a very dubious cam at full stretch. I don’t want to pull it to test if it stays in because if it pops out I’ll lose my balance and fall off. I very much doubt it will hold but it gives me just enough peace of mind to pull through the next move and reach a ledge. I give out a triumphant whoop and set up the belay.

The view between my feet as I pass my dodgy cam.

The view between my feet as I pass my dodgy cam.

The next pitches include some familiar Swanagesque overhangs and some unfamiliar offwidth struggling. With sheer drops on both sides of the fin the feeling of exposure is immense. At 4000m of altitude and after hours of technical climbing our bodies are screaming, Kiff’s just led the 4th pitch and looks fresh as a daisy so we graciously let him rope gun the last pitch as well. We finally reach the peak and I look at Smokeys gaunt face with hints of misery but I know he’s loving it. I’m sure I look the same, its impossible not to when you are this knackered! We descend down a impossible looking gully with large sections of ice. Luckily its not as bad as it looks. We get to our bags, and begin the long hike back. 3 hours later and I’m fast asleep as Kiff drives us home.

We’ve had an amazing time in Colorado but with 1109m of rock climbing already under our belts we are ready to hit the road. Now all we need is transport…..

next time on The Sabbatical Boys ....

Next time on The Sabbatical Boys ….

It begins

Its been a long time planning but finally on the 1st of September Smokey and I jumped on the plane for the first leg of what some people say is the greatest sabbatical adventure ever attempted. Most other people say we are a couple of slacker hippies who should work harder and start a family.

 

The big ass haul bag has to go in oversized baggage. We have to drag this up a 1000m cliff apparently!

The big ass haul bag has to go in oversized baggage. We have to drag this up a 1000m cliff apparently!

Both of us have been lucky enough to have been offered a years leave from our jobs as teachers and we are going to spend it climbing around the world. We are really looking forward to scaling the desert towers of Utah and chilling out amoungst the boulders of Hampi in India. But by far the main goal of the year is to climb the 1000m shear cliff faces found in Yosemite National Park. A climb that will take around 4 days to complete and involve sleeping on portaledges that hang from the side of the cliff.

 

Part of our training for this adventure saw Smokey and I heading to Switzerland to climb Motörhead, a 500m 6b. You can watch a few clips of that climb here. The video doesn’t show the couple of hours it took us to climb down the gully in dark, which involved 2 abseils and bum sliding through steep boggy marshland. Great fun!

 

First stop, Colorado. We have an overly convoluted flight path (we are writing this from Dublin Airport where we will spending the night) but will be arriving in Denver on Thurs, excited to climb some rock and find a van that will suit as our home for 3 months!

Watch this space.