The Zen Master, Curious George and The Puzzler

by Dan

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IMG_3162We had just rappelled from the summit of the Rainbow Wall’s Original Route to the first set of anchors. Steve had joined us in a small cave 100 feet below the summit . It had been a long day. It was dark, the wind was howling through the canyon, and the three of us had been on the move for the past twelve hours. I pulled the rope to thread the anchors for the next rappel, but it came tight immediately. “Its stuck”, I said with frustration. Steve, like a man possessed, tied back in, and launched back up the route to free the stuck end. He returned to where John and I hung over the dark abyss. I pulled the rope again. “Ugghhh, stuck!”, I yelled. We all looked at one another in disbelief. The tension was starting to build. Undeterred, but slightly more vocal than the last time, Steve offered to go up again. He disappeared into the darkness. John and I watched a small mouse run back in forth in the crack system above us. Steve worked slowly back up the wall. The wind shearing off the flanks of the Rainbow Wall made it nearly impossible to hear what was happening above us. Finally, he returned. Grabbing the rope, Steve began to pull. “Noooo!”, he screamed. Steve’s steely calm had disintegrated. Silence hung over us as we shifted around trying not look at one another while dangling from slings. Even though everything had been going well to this point, we were all wondering what next? “Enough of this!”, Steve said. “I am going up, pulling the rope free and then I’m going to down climb back here”, he said without hesitation. John and I stared at one another in absolute amazement at Steve’s unstoppable stoke.

The Reunion

I had flown in to Las Vegas with John Stretch, a/k/a The Zen Master, the day before. We were meeting our mutual friend, Steve Vymola, and now resident of Nevada,  who had recently moved to Las Vegas to explore the climbing potential of Red Rocks and lay down new roots. Our objective was simple. Climb three routes in four days in Red Rocks Canyon, enjoy a night with John’s relatives and then fly back home to Minnesota.

John, Steve, and I had forged our friendship at Willow River. “Willow” sits just across the Minnesota- Wisconsin border, and is probably one of the most amazing crags in the country. IMG_3205Nestled next to a three-tiered waterfall is a cathedral of limestone where some of the best routes come directly out of the center of a cave and hover just above the falls, with spectacular views of the river and nearby bluffs. The climbing is athletic, and ascends steep corners and angular roofs, with juggy pockets  to boot. On a warm day, you can send your project and then go for a dip in the river, shower in the falls, or take an icy bath in the cool springs that flow deep below the hillsides and spill into the river at its banks. John and Steve ran with a tight crew of talented climbers, all of whom had distinct and likeable personalities. Steve, who I would have to describe as the ‘Curious George’ of our little club, was always at the forefront of any outing at Willow. He possessed a prodigious amount of curiosity that teetered between adventure and imprudence. It was as if he was predestined to get himself into some sort of trouble, despite his best efforts to avoid it. But, his infectious humor and daredevil antics left us all to marvel at his ability to escape from certain harm, unscathed.

Some of Steve’s misadventures have become part of Willow lore. One such story has oft been retold to visiting climbers. One warm summer day, Steve, with the help of another dedicated Willow hard man, decided it was possible to climb high up on a route and swing gracefully into the waterfall as if he was on a giant tree swing. Underestimating the rope stretch, trajectory and probably far too many other factors to mention here, Steve rocketed toward the river like a wrecking ball on a collision course with its target. Onlookers watched in horror as Steve, with athletic precision, barely missed a large boulder blocking his path before skidding to safety in the shallowest stretch of the white water. With his body bumped, scratched and bruised, along with his ego, Steve wandered back up to the cliff as climbers and onlookers stared at him in disbelief.

One of my personal favorites is the time Steve decided to explore one of the cold springs that entered the river via a small cavernous opening on one side of the river. Up to this point, the longest anyone had ever been able to soak in the small pool that exited the cave was ninety seconds, due to a constant temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point you turned blue and couldn’t feel your limbs. Finding a small opening that was just large enough for a person to fit through, Steve decided to don a 9 millimeter wetsuit, and penetrate the cave to explore the innards of the chamber. With headlamp on, no leash, and being spurred on by no one other than the Zen Master , Curious George entered through the small opening and spent ten minutes exploring the virgin cave before exiting with stories of how he could sit upright comfortably and see his breath the entire time.

But despite Steve’s curious ways, he possesses great talent on the rock and a tenacity that I have always admired. Almost routinely, at the end of any day at Willow, and with darkness fast approaching, Steve would offer to put on his headlamp and climb in the dark to retrieve all of the gear still hanging high on the routes. Between Steve and John, these two friends supported me and allowed me to grow as a climber, achieve climbing goals that I never thought possible, and opened my eyes to the natural world just a little bit more.

The Warm Up – Drifting

Trying to sort out the best way to tackle three routes between three climbers is not always the easiest task. We each had our own idea of how to complete the objectives, with Steve’s plan trending toward the most extreme, John somewhere in middle, and mine being the more logical of the two. I can probably be best described as the ‘puzzler’ in our little climbing trio. I am always thinking, contemplating, and calculating how to achieve the objective at hand. It almost always holds me back, because I think too much, worry more than I should, or labor way too long over how to get from point A to point B. That is where John and Steve routinely save my bacon.  The plan is refined, I realize I am being way too conservative, and we are able to come to a consensus that is worthy of the cause.

So after much consternation, we agreed to attempt Drifting, which is rated at 5.11c, as our “warm up”, and hike into the Rainbow Wall on Day 2, leaving the Angel Dyno boulder problem for our last day in Red Rocks. When I put together the list for the 50×50 Project, I selected Drifting because it was a route that had been put up more recently, and described as a route that “has demanding climbing both mentally and physically, and is thoroughly enjoyable.”  I also was relying on Steve and John to lead the “business” pitches because of their bouldering prowess, and get-r-done mentality.IMG_3312

The day had started out casually, with coffee, bagels and catching up. We were on the trail by 11:00 a.m., planning to catch the climb as it came into the shade and avoid the hot afternoon sun. Little did we know that the hike would involve a long, slow grind, up what seemed like an endless slab, and steep grade, before being deposited below the route. The cold I had picked up before leaving Minneapolis was still brewing deep inside my chest, and between the dry desert heat, and my thirst for as much water as I could swallow, my raspy voice sounded like Marvin Gaye with emphysema. With 5 pitches waiting for us, Steve was ready before I had even found my harness, and John offered to belay.

Steve blasted off and was soon at the first crux. Staring at the bolt and ready to clip, his foot peeled off, and he was instantly airborne. Half surprised, and partly annoyed, he jugged back up to his last bolt and reassessed the sequence. A few minutes later he was climbing and making his way up the 5.11c terrain located immediately off the deck. “So much for warming up,” I offered. Once Steve reached the belay it was almost 1:00 p.m. and we knew that getting three climbers up and down the route was going to be a challenge. The Zen Master gracefully offered to do the first pitch and then retreat to the base where he lazed in the sun, so that Steve and I could continue on in good style and complete the route so that we had time to spare for the hike back out. As I followed Steve up the route, the climbing was sustained and nearly at my limit, as I wheezed and coughed my way up each pitch. Steve kept the mood light, even though not a single pitch was easier than 5.11a, and offered to lead every pitch, allowing me to enjoy the climb without sticking my neck out on the sharp end.

By the time we reached the final pitch, I was doing all I could to summon the energy to reach the summit.  Despite feeling under the weather, the route was amazing, sustained and everything I had imagined. At the summit, we celebrated briefly and took in our surroundings, and remarked on the climb’s amazing quality but serious difficulty. Three rappels later we were back on the ground, joining John, who had enjoyed watching us complete another of the fifty climbs.

The Business – The Original Route, Rainbow Wall – Day 2/3

The next day, and after what seemed like months of planning, I found myself hiking to the base of the Rainbow Wall on an equally warm, but incredible spring morning two of my favorite climbing buds. The hike was slow, and the desert heat was intense. We moved quickly across the trail, heading straight up into a drainage that led to the grueling approach to the Rainbow Wall.

IMG_2823We sipped on our water bladders every so often to keep hydrated while Steve led us up the slope and  into the main wash choked with giant boulders and Junipers. Eventually, we found ourselves staring up at the main approach to the Rainbow Wall, with the Original Route staring us down like thieves in the midst of a bank heist. We grabbed a fixed line that allowed us easy access to the upper slabs, carefully reaching for the next knot, until we were perched on a long slab of sandstone that stretched up to the base of the climb.

High above us, a peregrine falcon let out a shrill cry as it cut across the skyline at mock speed. Only a few minutes later, a family of mountain goats stared us down as they crossed the giant boulder strewn slab without a care.

After a half hour of calve-burning hiking we were near the base of the climb. We dropped our packs in a plush bivy site that overlooked the lower canyon and the outskirts of nearby Las Vegas. Steve, bless his heart, had stocked our site with food and water only the day before, and we settled in to enjoy our new outdoor patio and plot our strategy for the climb.

The plan had been to climb the first two pitches, which were rated 5.12a, and 5.11d, respectively, and then fix our lines and return back to the base for a good night’s rest. John had been wanting to get on this route for months, and he offered to take the first pitch and lead the 5.12 crux. Steve followed next, and then I shuttled up behind and got in queue.

I knew the climbing would be hard, but once I saw John trying to pull the crux, I realized the day ahead would not be easy. John eventually unlocked the sequence of moves that were athletic and powerful, demanding a cool head and a high level of commitment. I followed next with a secure top rope and was grateful I had not been on the sharp end once again. Once at the belay, Steve came up behind us, and the magnitude of the day ahead had become a little more real.IMG_2858Back at our bivy, we watched the desert fade into blackness. A ringtail cat soon appeared near our fixed ropes and we watched it move stealthily from ledge to ledge. The stark contrast of the wild desert, and the glimmering lights of Vegas in the distance reminded me of the two worlds that I seemed to move between, but somehow always being pulled back to nature.

Morning came quickly and given that I was the only parent in our midst, I was the first to awake. I took in our surroundings, and enjoyed the solitude of the towering sandstone walls that shot up above us, with the sun inching across the desert floor. I fired up the stove for a round of coffee and tea, and soon we were getting geared up.

Despite the good company and beautiful surroundings, I was not feeling well. I had been fighting a cold for the past few days, and my throat felt like I had swallowed a mouth full of desert sand. My stomach bothered me, and I wrestled with thoughts of whether I was truly sick or just nervous about the day ahead.

We ascended the fixed lines back up to the top of the 5.12 pitch. John volunteered to take the 5.11d corner that awaited us. Steve and I settled into the belay as John launched upward, clipping a few bolts and placing some natural gear. John stalled out after about 35 feet of climbing and moments later was falling, before being arrested by the last piece of protection he had placed below him. John’s instincts kicked in and he worked through the next series of moves without hesitating. Once at the anchor, John belayed Steve up and I quickly followed.

Steve took the next pitch. He wandered up steep 5.11b terrain, but remained calm and carefully pulled through a bulging roof before reaching the anchors. John and I followed and then it was my turn to take the lead. After linking two easier 5.10 pitches, we were just below some easy fifth class scrambling that placed us on the fabled “Rainbow Ledge.”IMG_3329

Once on Rainbow Ledge, we refueled with water, power bars, and the Zen Master’s massive sandwich which he had lugged up the route with us. I offered to lead out on a traverse pitch that would place us just below the crux section of the route, which was airy and awesome. There was only a couple hours of sunlight left and John and I were uncertain of whether we could make the summit. We talked about bailing, my deteriorating condition, and all the reasons we could turn back, as I puzzled over all of our options. Steve had been on the route before and had been turned back. He was determined to press on.  To this point, my climbing had been subpar. My voice was raspy, stomach unsettled, and I felt incredibly fatigued. While I remained committed to completing the route, I realized that I was going to have to dig deep and summon all the energy I had left. John was equal to the cause, and the decision was made – we were going to the summit.IMG_3339

Steve battled his way up the hardest pitches of the day, summoning everything he had to fight his way to the top of each set of anchors. John and I quickly followed as the sun began to set on the horizon. I grabbed gear, crimped on small edges and climbed with as much determination as I could muster. John followed in good style, executing all the moves, even though his energy stores were depleted. After one last pitch of much easier climbing, we all stood on the summit of the Rainbow Wall with big smiles on our faces.Since the wind had picked up, and darkness was upon us, we took some photos, shared what was left of our food, and relished in our success.

IMG_3334IMG_3340 As we waited one last time for Steve to retrieve the rope and continue down, the rope landed in my lap and Steve safely returned to the cave. Multiple rappels and two hours later we were back at the base of the wall. We gathered up the ropes, scampered back up to our bivy, and burrowed into our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning we hiked out with perfect views of the Rainbow Wall as we each recounted some of the more memorable moments on the wall. Back at the truck, we dropped our packs and began plotting the final objective- The Angel Dyno.

The Problem – Angel Dyno – Day 4

I hate dynos. When I think of all the types of boulder problems that I could try, last on the list is one where I have to make a series of hard moves and then leap for a hold that is well beyond my reach, snag it in desperation, and then heel hook and mantel the top out. Ughh! But when I had prepared my list of fifty climbs, I wanted to include a boulder problem or two, because bouldering is my Achilles’ heel in climbing. Finding a V7 that would push me to my absolute limit seemed fitting for what I was trying to do with my 50×50 Project. In hindsight, I was a fool. But, if I am one thing, I am stubborn, and so send or no send, a dyno problem was added to my tick list.

I have only sent one V6 boulder problem outdoors, and attempting a V7 would be a challenge. John had suggested The Angel Dyno, located  in Calico Basin just outside of Red Rocks. The goal on this trip was not to send it, but to find out just how difficult it was going to be, work out the moves and return prepared for a full effort  in a few months. As we pulled out the bouldering pads, shoes and chalk bags, I was reminded of the simplicity of bouldering. No big packs stuffed with gobs of climbing gear, slings, helmets, and ropes. Instead, all we needed were the essentials, and a lot of determination.

I won’t say I suck at bouldering, but it is definitely my weakness. It usually takes me three times as many tries as anyone else to usually get up a problem and I can never seem to understand why anyone would choose bouldering over rope climbing. But, after I have tried and tried, and my ego is put in check, I start to find myself immersed in the movement and the camaraderie of unlocking key beta and powerful sequences. Climbing, in all its forms, seems to always suck me in.

In true bouldering style, we began late in the afternoon by finding a few easier problems to warm up on, and then the Zen Master and Curious George began to make things a bit more interesting. We tried a problem that I couldn’t get one move off the ground and another that was super high and scary enough to remind me why I like rope climbing so much! Slowly, but surely we arrived at the Angel Dyno and stacked up the crash pads to protect the landing zone.IMG_2873

John went first to show us the sequence, having successfully sent the problem before, followed by Steve who put in a solid attempt by nearly latching the finishing hold on his first go. Per usual, I was able to pull the initial moves, but as soon as I was set up to launch for the big throw to the top of the boulder, I peeled off before I could even attempt the move. It felt hard, discouraging, and I swallowed hard, trying to remember it was V7.

After a few more attempts, John was almost wrapping the finishing hold every time, Steve was equally close, and I was making incremental progress. Even though it seemed impossible, I started to believe that I had a chance. But with each attempt, after already climbing two significant routes over the past few days, my energy level and reserves had reached diminishing returns. Steve and John continued throwing themselves at the problem in rapid fire succession, as I watched the mastery of my friends at work. I grabbed my camera and captured some video of John’s beta as he nearly stuck the dyno.

After a few more attempts, Steve’s motivation was waning and John shrugged it off for another day. The desert sun dropped below the canyon walls behind us. Dirty, tired, and hungry, we hiked back to the truck to enjoy some time with John’s relatives, grill some burgers and plan our next trip. The trip was a success. We had combined our talents through a wild twist of thoughtful, Zen-like curiosity, resulting in adding two more routes to my 50 climbs and laying the ground work for a future ascent of the Angel Dyno.

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