Rock Climbing at Smith Rock
April 30-May 2, 1999

This was another outing of the Boealps Intermediate Climbing Class - a chance to practice our technical rock skills, and get a multi-pitch climb or two in. Maren, Bryden and I headed down on Friday afternoon, and had a very pleasant drive past Mt. Hood. The weather was looking great as we drove by Smith Rock and headed for the camping area at the Grasslands. We took a quick tour of the camping sites, and were surprised not to recognize anyone there yet - it was about 6:00, and we thought other Boealpers would probably be there already. No matter - one of our favorite camp sites was open, so we pulled in and started setting up the tent. No sooner had we started this then the James came driving up, soon followed by other vehicles full of Boealps climbers. Our camping area became the de facto Boealps camp site, and a few of the folks who had come down a day earlier even moved their tent down to be by the rest of the crowd. (They didn't bother taking their tent down - we just saw this tent come bobbing down the road with two pairs of legs sticking out from underneath it as it "walked" towards us!). Rob, Cathy and Lizzie headed into town with us, and we grabbed a pizza for dinner.

After dinner and back at the camp site student-instructor assignments were handed out, along with the routes we were going to do. I was going out with Dave Wagner, and we were headed to Sky Ridge, which surprisingly wasn't on the list of closed climbs yet this spring. Sky Ridge is a 2 pitch, 5.7 R climb - the R rating stems from the sparse protection and long way to the first bolt on the first pitch, which follows the ridge up (thus the name of the climb). The second pitch is taken up mostly by a long hand traverse to the end of the route. Since this was my first time out on real rock this year, I was pretty sure I wanted Brad to lead the first pitch, but I was looking forward to leading the second.

We got up early enough the next morning to grab a hot breakfast before meeting at the parking lot. We headed down the trail and across the bridge en masse, and then student-instructor pairs started heading off to their respective climbs - Left and Right Slab Crack, Cinnamon Slab, Easy Reader, Lichen It, Lion's Jaws, Spiderman and the Pioneer Route on Monkey Face being some of the other routes we were seiging. Dave and I headed up to Asterisk Pass, and took a look at what we were going to do. We pulled out the double ropes and rack, and traded our approach shoes for our rock shoes. From the Pass, we scrambled up an easy but exposed bit to a nice belay alcove at the start of the climb. By this point, I was sure I wanted Dave to lead the first pitch - it just looked like a little more than I was ready for this early in the day and season. We threw together an anchor, and I huddled down behind a large flake to get out of the stiff and chilly breeze blowing in from across the desert. Dave capably lead the first pitch, although he stopped several times to complain that his fingers were numb because of the cold rock and steady breeze. Until he got to the first bolts, the protection was mostly "slow me down", not "stop me", and having to climb and set gear with numb fingers didn't seem pleasant. Soon enough, though, I heard him call "off belay", and I started getting ready to move up after him. The climbing was fun, mostly on little nubbins, with the odd flake or crease here or there. The natural gear he placed was, um, creative in certain places - I felt quite comfortable with choosing to let him lead the pitch!

Matt following Dave on the first pitch of Sky Ridge
Matt following Dave on the first pitch of Sky Ridge

After getting up to the belay station and swapping the rack, I headed up and over. The first bit of climbing follows a little 5.6 face on old bolts - easy and fun. Then you drop down to the long traversing crack leading over to the end of the climb. I was studying it, trying to figure out the best way to go when Dave reminded me, rather insistently, that this was a hand crack, and not for my feet! That pretty much set my approach, and so I dropped down to find that the lip of the crack provided great purchase for my hands, and that there was just enough texture down below for my feet to take the weight off my hands. The crack also ate up protection, mostly larger stuff - #1 and #2 Camelots, larger hexes and nuts. I think I even placed a #3 Camelot at one point. The pro was great, though, and the exposure tremendous - I could peak down between my legs all the way to the Crooked River, a couple of hundred feet below me! The traverse was over too soon, and I set up my belay by wrapping the rope around a huge boulder on the far side. Here is where I made my only tactical error on the route - I wrapped the rope around the front of the boulder, then up top and back down. This left me very secure, but with no view of Dave following my lead. The correct way to set the belay is to go up over the top of the boulder and down the far side - that was you can watch your follower coming across and get a great picture of them with all that air under their legs! I guess I'll just have to do the route again!

Our descent was interesting - there's a rappel station that drops off of the west side of the ridge, and Dave and I knew it was going to take two raps to get down, but neither of us knew exactly where the second rap station was. Dave went first, exploring as he descended until he saw another rap station. I say "another", as opposed to "the", because the rap station he then headed for was not the second station for the standard way down. Instead, he traverse a looong ways north down sloping ledges - I'm not sure which route we were rapping, but it worked - although if either of us would have slipped as we approached this station, the pendulum would have been huge, scary, and very, very painful! Dave continued the second rap in this vein, with us ending the rap directly under Asterisk Pass, with almost no walking needed to get back to the Pass - not quite the standard method, but, hey, it worked!

We scrambled back up to get our packs and talk about what to do next. Dave thought Spiderman would be a good route for me, so we headed over to the east side of the Pass to work our way north to Spiderman Buttress. Dave was carrying the rope bag (I had the rack and slings in my pack), and he was having to swap the rope back and forth from hand to hand as he worked his way down the Pass. I suggested to him that he toss the rope bag - the bag was penty tough to take treatment like that. He told he he would do that, but he had to get a little further, "otherwise," he said, "the rope will roll on down into the river." It didn't look like that would happen to me - there's plenty of trees and brush to stop it - but I figured he'd been here more often than I so I'd leave it up to him. A few feet later he said he was in a good place to toss the rope, and he chucked it towards the base of the Pass. Sure enough, it rolled over once, then again, then started picking up speed, and we both watched with huge eyes as it bounced it's way around trees, though bushes, and down towards the Crooked River! Dave took off running after it to try and catch it, and I started wondering if I had just lost $300 worth of ropes! I was quite relieved when I heard him say he found the ropes, and I continued on towards Spiderman to meet up with him. When I caught up he told me that he had found the rope bag inches from the water, stuck on a little tree that had nothing on either side of it for three feet. Just a few inches either way, and the ropes would have been gone! I learned a lesson there!

We got to Spiderman, and it was apparently very popular. There were several teams already on the route, and a few more in line. In order to get some practice in, Dave had me lead up the funky little crack on the left hand side of the buttress in front of Spiderman - I think it goes at 5.5. Once up to the first belay bolts I brought Dave up so he could inspect my gear placements, and we rapped off to get back out of everyone's way. I then led up the bolted buttress itself - (Squashed Spider - 5.7), and brought Dave up again. At this point we realized that the group on the first pitch of Spiderman proper were just doing the first pitch, and if we hung out here we could jump onto the second pitch after the next group cleared it. So we waited - and waited - and waited! The group ahead of us was really, really slow - at one point I started leading up to the next belay station - one of the gals in the next group looked down, saw me coming up, and told me to go back - she said there wasn't enough room at the top of the pitch for me, and their next to the last climber was still on the route, then she would head out. I downclimbed back to our belay bolts, by now getting cold, and kind of tired. We'd been hanging out for a good 20 minutes, and the wind hadn't quit. At this point I should have started to listen to my gut feelings - I was starting to not feel so good about the climb, and I was starting to think about backing off. Dave thought it'd be a good lead for me, though, and I really wanted to do well, so after another 10 minutes or so I headed up once again. This time I got to the bottom of the crux of the route - a little 5.7 hand crack that bulges outward. Well, my hand jamming technique sucks pretty badly, and I would have to do 8 or 10 feet of jamming to get up this thing. I hemmed and hawed, looking at the crack, sticking my hand into it. I placed a great #11 stopper up fairly high in a constriction, and tried to convince myself that it was a bomber enough piece that I should just go for it and improve my hand jamming technique on lead (what a bad idea!). A couple more minutes of considering bailing off the route followed (why wasn't I listening to myself?) before I came up with the great(?) idea that I could probably lay back the crack! (Those of you with some climbing experience probably know exactly where this is going now!) The crack provided a great lip to wrap my fingers around, and there was just enough texture on the face that I thought I might be able to pull it off. I got my feet positioned and moved my hands up a move or two - hey, not too bad. Another skootching of my feet, and another three or four feet with my hands - okay, I just might make it. Oooh - next placment for the feet was getting kind of sketchy, but my hands worked their way up a little further - gosh that #11 stopper is looking small 8 feet below me! But, now all I need is some way to exit out on the belay ledge - any way - any thing! I can see the eyes of the woman getting ready to leave the belay cove, and I'm sure she could see that mine were huge! I could feel my arms weakening, and my feet start slipping, but I was out of crack to move my hands up any further, and I couldn't see anything I could move one of my hands to to help heave me up into the alcove. My legs started shaking and I knew I was in trouble. I knew it was far too late to try and down climb, so I leaned forward, hoping I'd find something for my right hand to grab onto before it was too late. Wrong! As soon as I leaned forward I felt the weight come off of my right foot behind me. Since I was kind of stemming across the face, as soon as the right foot came off, my left foot had no opposing pressure, and I felt it start slipping. Screaming a profanity I felt myself start to fall. I've done the calculations since then, and I was airborne for just over 1 second, but in that second I had plenty of time to realize: "I'm falling"; "Oh. no, I'm falling upside down and backwards"; "I'm falling headfirst, and my head is going to be the first thing that hits"; "I hope my stopper is as bomber as I thought"; "There's the tug from the rope - my head didn't hit anything!"; "Uumph - my back just swung into the rock"; and finally "Crack - there's the back of my helmet smacking the rock". Amazing how time slows down during an experience like that! I just hung there, upside down in my harness, for a few seconds, assessing my situation, trying to take a quick inventory and see how I was. Dave very quickly asked if I was okay - I was surprised to hear his voice coming from so close to me, since I had been almost 30 feet above him when I fell. With rope stretch and all, however, I had fallen backwards and upside down for about 20 feet, and had pulled him up off of his feet for about 2 or 3 feet, so we ended up almost head to head. I didn't answer Dave right away - I wanted to make sure what the correct answer was before saying anything. After checking what I could, however, everything seemed to be all right. I told Dave this, and asked if I could please be lowered back down - I didn't want to continue, and I didn't really want to down climb! He was quite pleased to do that - during the few seconds I was figuring out if I was okay or not, Dave said he thought I was dead - it was a pretty scary looking fall. Once back down at the belay station, I noticed that I had somehow tweaked my right ankle (I'm still not sure how that happened - I don't remember hitting it at all. On the other hand, I also apparently broke the little toe on my left foot, and I have no idea how that happened either), and told Dave that I thought I was done climbing for the day. He definitely agreed, but did lead back up the pitch to clean my gear. He said the stopper that held the fall was still set just right, yet it was still easy to clean - I'm kinda proud of that, but I sure hope I never get to test a placement in that way again!

My ankle was gimpy, but it was okay to climb back up over Asterisk Pass and walk back to the climbing area. Word spread faster than I could walk back, and by the time we got back to the parking lot there were lots of folks with lots of questions, including a very worried Maren. Fortunately, I escaped with very minor consequences for obviously exceeding my abilities on lead. During the pot luck dinner that evening, I had the opportunity to recount the incident many times to all the other students and instructors. I hope some of them can learn from my mistake, and not have to repeat it themselves!

I chose not to climb on Sunday with the class (I went out the following weekend to Leavenworth with some of the instructors and worked HARD on my crack climbing technique!), and instead spent Sunday morning with Maren and Bryden, and Cathy and Lizzie. (The weather was damp and cool, so playing outside wasn't such a good idea. Instead, I spent more time in a McDonald's than I d ever spent before (almost 3 hours!) - but they had a Playland, and the Bryden and Lizzie were thrilled to play there, and we were pleased to keep them inside! We headed for home around 1:00 - I wasn't going to climb anymore, so there was no reason to stick around until everyone else was done. Maren and I talked about the fall at great length on the way home, and I've (obviously) thought about it a great deal as well. It's not going to stop me from climbing, but it sure is going to make me listen to those inner voices a little more carefully, and pay a little more attention to red lights on my personal warning panel a little more. Oh - and I retired my helmet. It's done its job, and I was happy to spring for a new one in this case - I'm certainly glad I was wearing it - I'm not sure I would have walked away from this incident if I hadn't been.

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