Last month I took a job rigging ropes for a video shoot in Yosemite. I took the job knowing nothing about the details of the shoot, other than I would be rigging for another video guy (unnamed at the time, ending up being Andrew Peterson). The video we were shooting for followed a Danish TV investigative reporter, Morten Spiegelhauer, along a year long journey into rock climbing, seeing how dealing with fear on the rock changed his decision making process in everyday life. Morten had come to Yosemite a year ago to start the journey with Hans Florine, who holds the speed record for climbing the Nose of El Capitan (31 pitches in 2 hours and 23 minutes). Through mental and physical training, Morten culminated the experience by leading several trad pitches on El Capitan. It was awesome seeing his cool headed approach to leading, with only 4 trad leads under his belt previously.
I flew into Salt Lake City at 1am, arriving late because a woman with a carry-on dog refused to make her dog sit under the seat in front of her. After taxiing to the runway, we had to return to the gate so she could be escorted off the plane, screaming profanities, and the other passengers clapped once she was gone.
Andrew met me outside the airport with his Diesel Jeep Liberty, having slept for 3 hours in preparation for our 12 hour all night haul to The Valley. We made it somewhere into Nevada, but even with switching off driving we had to stop and sleep. Google was telling me we’d arrive 3 hours before we had to be there, so I reasoned we could sleep for two hours. We pulled off onto some gravel country road and made a quick bivvy.
After a mandatory In-n-Out stop outside of Sacramento, we started the drive back east towards Yosemite. We knew we were in a hurry (unnecessarily so, we beat the rest of the crew), but we stopped to take photos.
This being both of our first times in Yosemite, driving in was pretty magical. There are 3,000 foot cliffs towering over you with waterfalls dumping huge amounts of water on every side. The sun filters through the thick trees as slowly drive the one way road. Around every corner you catch sight of the sites you’ve heard of before: Horestail Falls, Bridalveil falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
El Capitan towering over Southside Drive
Yosemite Falls, taken through the sunroof
We met up with Hans Florine and the Danish crew in the meadow below El Capitan, discussing our plans for the shoot. Morten, the subject of the video, wanted a warmup climb to get used to the rock, so Hans took us to climb Pine Line (thin 5.7) and the first pitch of Salathe (5.10c, dual crack fingers!!). We had limited time, so I top roped Salathe, with Hans telling me I only had 8 minutes to climb the 120′ route. It was a fun exercise in speed crack climbing, with Hans yelling, “30 seconds!”, “10, 9, 8…”
We reconvened with the rest of the crew, who were scouting locations and doing timelapses, and jet off to Hans’s Basecamp. We ate well for the week, having grilled steaks and pork pretty much every night (except on the wall).
The last light bouncing off of El Capitan
Dusk scene from Tunnel View
The next morning we do another warmup climb, with the full crew out taking video. I take Andrew up some variation of After Six so he can shoot down on Morten and Hans.
At the top of Manure Pile Buttress, waiting for Morten to finish the climb
Hans Florine in his natural environment
After we got down, Andrew and I went into full tourist mode. We drove around the loop, 1 mile, taking us an hour and half (mostly because of construction). We stopped at Yosemite Falls to get a closer look. There’s really not a great viewpoint of the falls that doesn’t include being sprayed with ice cold water and high winds, so we left the path and found some cool boulders.
These rocks are constantly wet with the spray from Yosemite Falls. It amazes me that it doesn’t look even more rainforesty
This couple has the right idea
We then drive the 45 minutes up to Glacier Point, overlooking Half Dome. It’s pretty incredible. Click on the image to see bigger
Andrew wanted to get a timelapse of the last light on El Capitan and climbers’ headlamps from Tunnel View. I wandered off, following random trails on the side of the mountain over the Tunnel chasing the sun.
I never got to the point where I could see around the other side of the mountain, but looking back, I found these amazing wild flowers with the entire Yosemite Valley behind them. To get this photo, I was precariously perched on loose soil, holding onto a tree above a couple hundred foot cliff. I wished I had had my climbing equipment.
I made my way back to Tunnel View, where Andrew was still working on his timelapses. These guys were too cute not to get a photo of.
Looking up at the El Capitan headwall from pitch 4 anchors
This was my first time in Yosemite. This was my first time on a big wall. The most pitches I’ve done in one push is eleven, I think. I’ve never ascended (climbed a rope fixed to anchors rather than climbing the rock) more than one pitch (100-ish feet) at a time. I typically do not have problems with heights or fear while climbing.
This time I was legitimately terrified, more so than I can remember in recent history. Climbing someone else’s old climbing rope they retired and donated as a fixed rope that has been hanging for an unknown amount of time in unknown weather conditions and is in an unknown state of health, attached to unknown anchors did not inspire confidence in me. I was attached with two Petzl ascenders that lock in one direction, which allows me to move up but will not slide down the rope unless I remove them from the rope. Both ends of the ropes were attached to anchors, but if for some reason the rope above me snapped, my ascenders would fly off the loose end instead of allowing me to stay attached to the anchor below. All of this is pretty irrational fear as these ropes are used quite often by climbers descending from Freeblast or by Jimmy Chin and other filmmakers to get to different vantage points.
Also, adding to my fear was the 50lb haul bag riding below my feet. Every step that I took into my stirrup attached to my ascender pulling on the frayed rope, I was adding 50 more pounds. I think if it had just been my weight, the fear would have been a lot less.
Every time I attached myself to an anchor, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Every time I had pulled out all the stretch in the old dynamic ropes and I had to transfer all of my hopes and dreams onto that rope, I had to overpower my fear…”F*$& F*$& F*$& F*$&”…”Guh, just go, the only way out of this is up!”. Six pitches up, I reach the Heart Ledge, and I finally am able to breathe normal again. There was a fixed line on the 5.10 up to the Mammoth Terraces, which I was happy I wouldn’t have to lead on the one static line we brought up.
Andrew jugging up the fixed line to the Pitch 4 Anchors
Andrew topping out pitch 5
After a final struggle to get my haul bag unstuck in the corner roof of the 5.10 I made it to the Mammoth Terraces and traverse the wide ledge to the anchors above Pitch 10 of Freeblast. Hans, Eric (Han’s employee), and Morten are just starting into pitch 6. I quickly rigged our static line to the anchor so Andrew could rappel down and shoot them on the exposed face before they were hidden by the Ear of Pitch 8 (or Half-Dollar). Andrew rappelled down to pitch 9, to shoot Hans coming over the edge of the “Half Dollar”.
Eric Griffith leading pitch 9, Hans Florine belaying, and Andrew Peterson jugging the static line
While Andrew was shooting them below where I could have a decent shot from the top, I took the opportunity to change. But I couldn’t resist getting naked and taking photos from ~ halfway up El Capitan.
Morten led the final pitch, and I captured video of him topping out. Andrew and I continued shooting video with the little remaining light before setting up our bivvies on the ledges. I took some opportunity to take photos in the fading light.
The weather on the ledges was perfect, good temps and very little wind. The stars came out in full force. I balanced my camera on the ledge to get this long exposure.
My sleeping quarters for the night
While on the ledges, we tried to stay connected to the rope via ferrata setup by Hans from the bolts on Mammoth Terraces. While sleeping, I remained attached to the via ferrata and clipped my sleeping bag to the fixed line to Heart Ledge, since it was conveniently located. I did not consider that someone might be climbing up from Heart Ledge early in the morning. I woke up to my sleeping bag getting tugged towards the ledge and a very sweaty Jimmy Chin, National Geographic photographer and film maker, popped up onto the ledge. “Oh, hey Jimmy,” I said super casually. “Go back to sleep! Go back to sleep,” he said as he stepped over me. It was like a weird Santa Claus moment.
We saw Alex Honnold climbing up pitch 6 on Freeblast (Freerider), and figured Jimmy was filming him on some unknown project. Little did we know that Alex was training for his now famous free solo a week and half later.
On the ground again, looking back up at where we spent the night
The majesty of El Capitan. Alex Honnold and crew are the little specs in the shaded area
Andrew really wanted to get his timelapse from Tunnel view and was electing to stay up all night working on it. I went with him, getting a few shots I really wanted.
El Cap and Half Dome from the other side of the Tunnel
Moving the tripod, happy little accidents
Sunrise over the Dome
Andrew getting one last shot before we left Yosemite
Yosemite was amazing! I definitely want to go back and climb more, though I haven’t made up my mind whether I want to do big walls or not. There is tons of climbing away from the crowds to be done. We had bluebird weather all week, which is amazing for climbing, but not ideal for photography. I wished that we’d had a bit of inclimate weather to give the valley a bit more drama.
The taxi came right at 9, I was quite surprised by its timeliness. A classic maroon 4×4 that spewed black exhaust every time it accelerated, the model I couldn’t figure out. I was directed to sit in the rear, on a small bench facing the opposite side. I was in with the luggage, just like it always was on family vacations when I was a kid. Five other foreigners joined us, filling the luggage compartment. A young lawyer from Switzerland and Portugal joined me in the back, separated from the rest by the wall of luggage. We struggled to find a comfortable way to sit on the tiny seats.
In general, most travelers you meet in places like this are agreeable, easy to get along with. But every once in awhile I come across a westerner that conflicts with something inside my inner being, I despise their presence before they even open their mouths. I met such a man in the collectivo. The 4×4 taxi sat parked in the narrow street of Chinatown for 30 minutes waiting for the skinny, hunched, no neck man in his late 30s with shifty eyes partially obscured by aviator sunglasses. I feel like it’s rare to come across a face more in want of being punched. I’m not a violent man, but my fists clenched unintentionally when his image was burned into my brain. Then he opened his mouth, every word spoken with an angry self-importance which just intensified my desire to hit him. I don’t know what causes such a animalistic response to someone’s mere presence. I wish I did.
Cuba seems to be mostly flat farmland, but towards the end of the two and half hour journey we left the highway and got on a narrow, winding mountain road, mountains that are very reminiscent of Thailand, Laos and China.
Viñales is a small, colorful town where every house seems to have a room for rent. Lots of tourists come here to explore the coffee plantations and take horseback rides. Everyone seems to be surprised I’m staying for eight days. Most are here for only a day or two.
The driver dropped me off in the central park. I asked a local if they could call my AirBnB host, when soon enough a man comes by asking if I’m Scott. We walked further than I would have liked from the main strip into a quiet neighborhood and are greeted by a lovely, girl-next-door sort of brunette white young woman. Marisex (Marisay?) is the owner of the Casa Particular, and is expanding. Her mother is the cook and her boyfriend, a lawyer, seems to run all her errands.
I settled into my small but nice room and ask for a suggestion for lunch. The boyfriend led me to a restaurant filled with tour bus patrons, but with an awesome view of the mountains and limestone cliffs. The menu didn’t have any prices, so I asked. $10 for any item which included the “buffet style appetizers”. I don’t know what they meant by buffet style, but they just kept dropping off more and more food on my table. There was no way one person could eat even close to all of that.
I’d been communicating with Raul via Facebook before my trip, and he found me at my table. He announced he was taking some friends climbing and described how to find them at the cliff. After I finished what I could of the meal, I changed and went looking for Raul.
The road gets progressively worse as you walk further from town, and digresses to a dirt path. I reached a metal gate with the sign, “la cueva de la Vaca,” (the cave of the cow), and followed the arrow to a group of small houses. The path continues through the patio of one small hut, which offers fruit and drinks to the hikers and climbers who pass through. From there you can see the cave where Raul told me to meet him. There are a hundred broken concrete steps that lead straight up the mountain to the entrance of the cave.
George and Imarta were preparing to climb a 5.10c. It was their last day in Viñales, and they were trying to make the most of their five days here. The next morning they were returning to Havana where they are professional dancers. George let me climb the route with the condition that I cleaned it.
After I cleaned the route George asked if I wanted to do one more. He pointed out a line of bolts that skirted the entrance to the cave I later realized passed all the way through the mountain. I jumped on, unsure of the grade, but it looked easy enough. I clipped the first two bolts with no problem. As I reached toward an undercling I felt a sharp pain in my right arm. I looked to see a swarm of wasps coming out of the undercling. Another stung my arm as I swatted them away and simultaneously moved up the rock to the left, away from the bolt line. The wasps gave up as I moved a satisfactory distance from their nest. I had officially met the Avispo de Viñales. I finished the route, moving around their nest to the left and extending a draw from the route to the left. I think I missed the crux because the route I did didn’t seem to have a crux besides the wasps.
Raul, Henry, and Tito were trying a hard route with an extension out the roof of the cave, which they thought was 5.13. I watched them climb the first part before the extension and thought it looked fun. Raul told me it went at 5.12b. The draws were already up, so I might as well try it. Raul shouted Beta as he belayed me, not expecting me to get far since I told him I generally climb 6c/6c+ (5.11c/d). The route was powerful and gymnastic, just my style, and with Raul’s beta I ended up flashing the route which went through a series of toufas and stalagtites! I hadn’t sent 12b before, so that is very exciting!
Raul cleaned the route on top rope, flying up with no problems. It was getting a bit dark, but he recommended I try a 6c+ before I left for the night. I got into the crux and fell several times in a row, getting my right hand stuck in the sharp pocket. The light was low and Raul recommended I try again later. He finished the route easily and cleaned it.
I was still full from the massive lunch, so I skipped dinner and took a short nap before going back to the parque central to meet all the climbers at 10pm. I was finally a bit hungry and went to grab a sandwich for dinner.
Three fat, older Israeli men (who easily could have been mistaken for cubano) sauntered down the street and into the small restaurant. “I want a cola,” said one. “I want orange juice. Oraannge Juice,” said another to the server who looked lost. “orange juice. Orange Juice!!” he said again. I spoke up. “Jugo de Naranja.” The server understood and left. “Why doesn’t anyone here speak English,” said one of the men in a heavy Israeli accent. I laughed. “You’re in Cuba!” I thought to myself. I chatted with the men from my table, and they continuously conferred amongst themselves for the correct translation in English. They barely spoke English; I laughed more to myself.
I stayed in the plaza with Raul and the other climbers, as they were wishing the prohibition of Fidel would be lifted. Finally I said my goodbyes just before midnight.
The breakfast Marisé made for me was far too much for one person to eat: an omelet; 3 pancakes (the flat, dense, sweet kind, more similar to a crepe, that most places outside of the US make); a plate full of sweet bananas, pineapple, and papaya (which for some reason is always terribly disagreeable to me, the smell and taste are nauseating); bread with butter and chunks of ham and cheese; and some sort of pie, maybe coconut, with flan?? I think. I made a dent and definitely didn’t eat lunch.
Raul greeted me in the street outside of a casa particular where he was waiting for two guys he was guiding for climbing. I was joining and helping put up easy routes for the two. Andrew from Seattle and Johannes from Austria had both climbed a little before. Raul took us to another area, further south than the Cueva de la Vaca, a narrow slot between two tall cliffs, maybe 15 feet apart. We climbed three 5.8s for the two, and I tried an 5.11c. I fell at the powerful crux, not seeing a jug on the top of a toufa nor the feet in the low light of the cave. Raul put up and Andrew attempted a 5.10c. For me this climb was pure type 1 fun. Big moves through a long overhang on amazing holds. I kept shouting, “wow! The perfect hold!”
After collecting the gear from his clients, Raul wanted to go to the cave and climb with his friends, but when we got close, all of them were on their way out. It was maybe 3:30 and just getting to the right time for climbing in the cave, but at 4pm the prohibition ended and everyone wanted to drink.
We climbed onto the roof of Henry’s bare bones house still under construction while Raul went to find rum. Raul’s best friend, Fidel, described for me how close knit their friend-group is. I’m always jealous when I find friends like this because it’s something I’ve never really had, being the social butterfly jumping between too many friend-groups. (Also, how Cuban – Raul and Fidel).
By 4:30 I was drunk on Havana Club (I quite like their spiced rum). I understood very little of what was actually said between friends, but they were hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was thankful that such a tight knit group allowed a stranger into their circle.
We separated to get food and then met at 10 in the plaza, like every night. More rum flowed and kept finding a full glass in my hands. Thankfully, I remembered to drink water before I passed out, and I woke up with no hangover.
Marisé had set up a touristy horse ride for me, and a man with a bicycle walked me to a tobacco plantation where the tour began. A man with character and decent English pulled a group of foreigners into a barn and described how tobacco plants are selected and grown, and why Cuba makes the best tobacco. He then showed us how they roll the cigars and gave us each one to smoke. For the best cigars they take out the stem of the leaf which apparently contains the nicotine, so the cigars had a very neutral odor and flavor, far less harsh than anything I’ve smoked. They used honey as the glue to keep the cigar together, and dip the mouth end in honey, so you get a sweet flavor through the smoke.
The horse I got really liked to trot, the bounciest thing to ride. Walking is somewhat smooth, and when a horse breaks into a canter or gallop it’s easy for your body to move with the horse’s. Trotting jars your body with every step, but I finally figured out why English Style makes sense, standing in the stirrups and sitting in the saddle in a rhythm that matches the trotting, making it a far less jarring experience. It would have been easier if I didn’t have a backpack full of photo gear bouncing with every step.
My guide took me solo along the established tourist route, stopping at a coffee plantation and a beautiful vista. I tried to take portraits of as many of the farmers that caught my eye, but I had yet to capture a portrait I really loved.
I know my Canon system inside and out, but I brought my Sony camera and Flashpoint strobes. With my Canon I can set my camera to aperture priority ⅔ stops underexposed and set the off camera flash to plus ⅓ automatic exposure, and the mix of overall exposure and added light is beautiful and just a bit past natural looking. Most viewers wouldn’t notice that it’s artificially lit. The results on the Sony and Flashpoint with the same settings are completely unpredictable, but the strobe is typically the key element of the exposure, making the appear very artificial. I can find the right mixture with manual, but it takes experimentation and time that my subjects don’t always give me.
I had worn shorts, which was a mistake, my legs rubbing on the leather saddle. My butt was also quite sore by the end of the 4 hour tour.
I found Raul guide two girls from Bulgaria in another area of the climbing. The girls were beginners and already tired by the time I arrived. Raul was going to set up a rope swing in the cave and invited me to come. We climbed the steps to the cave and Henry and Fidel were waiting for us. Raul climbed a long, severely overhung 7b+ twice to prepare rope, once leading and again to clean. The other end of the rope is walked/climbed to a comfortable stance between a stalactite and the wall. The swing takes you far out into space beyond the cave and pendulums you back toward the rock. It was definitely a freeing feeling.
A house I passed everyday walking to the climbing at Cueva de la Vaca
The two girls invite us to join them and several more friends from Bulgaria for a family style dinner at the cafeteria next to the climbing area. I arrived after dark and Raul, an older farmer that runs the farm, was waiting expectantly. No one else was there yet and he had prepared an impressive table of food. He asked where the others were, but I had no idea. I had had no contact with them. We waited till 8:30 and Pablo got increasingly more anxious. Finally they showed up, the two girls and two couples. We had quite interesting discussions on politics, traditions, families, relationships, and the state of North Korea.
The food was served family style with plantain and banana chips as starters. We had some sort of meaty, salty blackened fish, and goat with the bones just chopped into it making it hard to eat with any real style. There were green beans, a pear/potato like fruit called choyote with a nice subtle flavor and a similar starch called chuma/Yuma? Both were quite nice.
I was just glad not to be eating another meal alone. I expressed thanks that six Bulgarians were speaking English so one American could be a part of the conversation. They said something to the effect of, “we can barely understand each other in Bulgarian, so why not English?”
I met Fidel and Raul in the plaza and went into the bar next door with a live band playing pretty amazing regatone and salsa.
I woke up late and rushed to meet Raul in the plaza. He was helping me find subjects to shoot and working as my assistant. We went back to old Raul’s farm and took portraits of several of the workers and an older woman in a house a bit further away. After, Raulito found some La Sportiva Solutions that were the perfect fit so I didn’t have to walk all the way back to my casa, and we went up to the cave.
I climbed an overhanging 11a, scaring up wasps every several feet. I did not want to get stung again and tried to stay at a safe distance from them, the crux of the send. Raul cleaned the route, stopping to swing his chalk bag at the wasps, destroying the nests and scaring away the wasps he didn’t kill. He came down upset, two wasps had stung him.
After I jumped on the severely overhanging 12b(7b) that Raul had climbed to set up the rope swing. The first part was maybe 11b, and you skip some anchors, back clean a couple bolts while moving between stalactites in the roof and get a no – hands rest, straddling a stalactite, before attacking 20 feet or so of 35 – 40 degree roof. I fell making the last move, a mono for your right hand, an undercling for the left. I moved my feet up, and my finger in the mono was stuck and quite painful. After taking and changing the finger in the mono, I made the throw to the last jug before clipping the anchors.\
I was absolutely wiped after. Raul cleaned again, stopping to swat some more wasps and getting a couple more stings.
While we were shooting, my legs suddenly became very itchy. Raul said maybe it was ticks, which I thought he was misinterpreting chiggers. When I got back to my room I used the flashlight on my phone and started seeing barely visible objects moving on my legs. Looking closer, they were in fact tiny tiny ticks looking to bury their tiny tiny heads in my skin. I pulled off probably close to 50. I must have crouched in a nest in a field while I was shooting. I’m hoping they are all gone.
I received several emails in a row about job requests, all for the week I was supposed to get back in Boulder. I’m thinking of cutting my trip short and buying a new ticket home Sunday night, skipping 2 days in Cuba and a day in Miami. I would have to forfeit my original ticket, but it could be worth it.
I found a last minute ticket on Delta for $180 from Havana to Denver on Sunday, which simplified my return by quite a bit. I was going to have to get to Santa Cruz from Havana, then I had a 24hr layover in Miami before finally returning to Denver on Tuesday. I bought my original tickets from Miami round trip for $205, then used Southwest points to get to Miami. But it ended up being a pretty big hassle since Southwest flies into Ft Lauderdale and I flew out of Miami. On the way in, I ended up having to pay for a hotel room in Miami which pretty much negated any savings I made by this schedule. So, by just missing my original return flight (net loss $102.50) I didn’t have to take a taxi to Santa Cruz ($25), find two more Casa Particulars ($40), pay for a hotel in Miami ($80) and Uber to Ft Lauderdale ($45). I guess I saved $90….oh and I got my Southwest points back to use again later.
I was planning on going to the beach with Raul today. I woke up early to try and rent a scooter, but I could not find one available in all of Viñales. So, I thought I could quickly buy an Internet card. I stood in line behind maybe 5 people waiting for the telecommunications company to open its doors. I was in line for over an hour. It’s amazing how slow some people can move. An Israeli man came in line after me and we talked for a bit, the usual things travellers talk about. But then I realized that they might ask for my passport, which I don’t carry. The Israeli man asked if they would take Euros. He told me they will definitely want my passport and I told him they definitely won’t take euros. So we ended up combining forces. He provided identification and I paid for his card as well as mine. He then paid me back in US dollars.
My climbing pack had been quite badly ripped for some time, I had performed ill-advised surgery on it, causing it to rip even more. I walked past a warehouse full of women wearing matching candystriper uniforms working away behind ancient looking industrial sewing machines. Raul had mentioned that one of them women might be able to fix my bag. I ask the man who appeared to be in charge, and he disappears with it into a back room, motioning one of the women to follow him. After 20 minutes or so, the woman comes back out with my bag looking better than it had in years! I ask how much. “No es nada,” she said with a smile. It’s nothing. I insist, but she insisted harder.
I ran into an American climbing guide who had come to check out La Cueva de la Vaca the day before. He had come solo and was looking for someone to climb with, which was perfect. I had neither rope nor draws, and since I wasn’t going to the beach I might as well climb.
I took Pete to the other side of the cave which has morning shade. It was definitely cooler than climbing in the sun, but not by much. The air was perfectly still and the humidity swallowed us. We climbed a 6a, 6a+, 6b, 7a+ (5.12a, but definitely easier than a lot of 11s I’ve climbed). By the time we finished these it was 2:30, perfect time for the sun to be leaving La Cueva de la Vaca. Pete put up the draws on the 7a/7a+ that I’d failed to finish a few days before, struggling at the crux but sending. I led again and felt much better going into the crux, but a foot slipped and I fell. When I tried the move again, right hand in a painful undercling, left hand on a bad pinch, feet awkward, I was able to get my left foot high and reach static with my left hand to the good pocket. Pete said it looked far too easy. He convinced me to leave the draws and try again. He then onsighted Wasp Factory (7b, but more realistically 7a). I tried the 7a+ again, failing again to go static to the pocket. Once again trying the move I was able to go static. I was pretty tired after and told Pete I would belay him, but I was done. He tried La Playa (7b+) at my recommendation, but futzed around on several parts, tiring himself out before he reached the crux, at the top of severe overhang making several hard moves separated by short rests on stalactites. Because it is so overhung it’s pretty much impossible to clean while on lead, so I volunteered to try to follow it. I ended up feeling quite good, floating up the 6c+ first section and through the 7a+ section before the severe overhang. One of the cruxes felt pretty strange, and I don’t remember how I pulled through on my onsight attempt, but the last crux went much better. From a rest on a small stalactite, my right hand was on an undercling of another small stalactite, my left foot pasted on the side of the resting stalactite and my right toe hooked behind it. My left hand went a little far left to a pretty good undercling. With the right toe hook, I could move my right hand to a mono I took with my pointer finger. I bumped my left hand far left to a small but positive flake. Moving my right foot to the smaller stalactite, I set myself up for the dyno to the finish hold, a thin but positive triangle flake. Pete was thankful he didn’t have to climb it again, mentally preparing for the possibility if I was too tired.
We made plans to climb the next day and separated to find dinner. I was going to go back to the plaza after a shower, but… sleep.
I ate breakfast at the casa and walked to meet Pete and two Germans in the plaza. We were taking a taxi to a climbing area a few kilometers north, Cuba Libre, above a cabaret club built into a cave.
The taxi driver promised to come back at 6 to pick us up, and we found our way through the jungle to the steep approach trail, 5.2 scramble up loose rock. Pete had downloaded the guide book on his phone and went to work locating the climbs. We warmed up on the easiest climb that wasn’t in sun, a 6c that was very difficult to spot the bolts from the ground. It was incredibly weird, awkward movement to get through, around, and over several stalactite features. Not my favorite. Pete lead and it was overhanging enough that I needed to follow to clean.
We jumped straight onto a 7b/7b+ we thought was called Moscow Mule, but wound up being a new climb not in the guidebook. It was proper hard and realistically 12a, but very good. Steep climbing out several stalactites brought you to the crux, a bit of an awkward stance on mediocre holds and a deadpoint/dyno cross with the left hand to a progressively better hold the higher up right you go. With 2 inch advantage on me, Pete was able to get it a bit easier. But after you’ve expended your energy on the dyno, the struggle isn’t over. Several big moves left, then right, then left, then right lead you to another crux, a throw to a die shaped hold and cross with the right to a better hold, this being your first rest since before the first crux. To gain the ledge both Pete and I took an extremely painful hand jam with the right and carefully move across a slab to the anchor. We both took at both cruxes the first go. Pete sent his second go and I cleaned, taking again at the first crux.
Pete climbed the route to the right, which was apparently actually Moscow Mule, but he felt the 7b rating was quite the exaggeration, 6b+/11c was more accurate. I elected to spend my limited remaining energy on the 7a+ on the arrete to the right. I got my hands mixed up in the crux and took a big whip out into space. I was able to get back to the wall by a combination of boinking and swinging, which for some reason is becoming more and more worrisome in my head. My trust in ropes and equipment is for some reason diminishing, and I can’t figure out what is going on with my head. I took another short fall at the top when another German told me the holds were left but meant right. I had found a mono crimp inside a scooped sloper and was pulling up, only to find more slopers. I had ignored a large tufa to the right that had several good holds that you couldn’t see from below. Pete climbed and fell at the top in the slopers, and I climbed again to clean, absolutely destroyed and taking my way up after the first crux. I felt my climbing trip coming to an end, my body was tired.
Pete wanted to climb a 5 star 6c in the next alcove, which required down climbing and re-approaching another sketchy loose scramble. Pete struggled through most of the climb, muttering about how terrible it is. I followed up to clean with Pete top belaying me, grabbing a couple draws instead of the shitty holds. He was not mistaken, it was an astoundingly terrible route, the 5 star rating a complete mystery.
We waited to well after dark, the taxi failing to show. A couple from Spain offered up one spot in their car, which I said Pete should take, since he spoke the best Spanish, and send back a taxi for us. A worker at the restaurant told us it was unlikely Pete would find a taxi willing to come that direction at this hour. About 20 minutes later another couple from Spain drove up with enough room for myself and the German couple. They dropped us off at a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, Pete did find a taxi and went back to find us about when we left.
The previous day my stomach had been quite unhappy. I woke up with an emergency run to the toilet and 4 or 5 more after. By 10, it had calmed enough I could go out.
I was dedicating my last day in Viñales to taking more portraits, and I figured out a system for my light where I didn’t need an assistant.
I was trying to meet Pete and Raul in the plaza before they left for climbing, but I got distracted taking a couple people’s photos. I arrived 12 minutes late and they were already gone.
I walked around the streets for three hours taking portraits of anyone that allow me. I was surprised at how willing everyone was. I would walk up to a house with everyone out on the porch and ask to take portraits. The parents would smile and send their kids out to have their pictures taken. I don’t think I had any negative responses to my request; lots of smiles and laughter.
I finally found my brain starting to make sense of Spanish, able to comprehend some of what people were saying and formulate a somewhat intelligible response, something resembling a conversation. Of course, the day before I’m leaving I’m starting to be able to effectively communicate. Everyday, Marisé’s mother asked me about my day, and I was happy I could actually respond.
Marisé called a friend who had a collectivo going to Havana and we waited on the street for them to pick me up. A panel wagon full of Europeans drove down the dusty road. A man threw my bags onto a roof rack and I took one of the last remaining seats. The wagon had two from France, two from Spain, two from Greece ( and a couple more, I can’t remember) Most were headed to Trinidad or the National Parks, I was the only one actually heading to Havana.
Listening to the two Spaniards, who were strangers to each other, converse in Spanish, I thought, “It sounds so crisp and clear!” I could understand so much of what they were saying compared to the Cubans, who’s thick accent and use of slang makes it very difficult for a novice to decipher.
The driver pulled off the highway into a rest stop and everyone was confused. The driver told everyone to get out and grab their bags from the roof. He was continuing to Havana, and I was his only passenger. Everyone else was transferred to another collectivo going to Trinidad.
The driver drops me close to the address of the AirBnB my girlfriend had booked for me (the AirBnB website refused to let me book it while currently in Cuba), and I wandered around the block looking for the correct address. I stepped into a coffee shop and asked to use their phone. The madre de casa particular told me which house it was and to ring the buzzer when I got to the door. It was a large brick building and setup much more like a guest house, taking over the entire 3rd floor with five or six separate rooms, shared living room and kitchen.
After settling into my room, I went in search of internet. I walked the several blocks to the Riviera Hotel, but as I got close I watched massive waves crash over the Malecón waterfront promenade. The high tide and an incoming storm were causing larger than normal swells. I tried my best to capture the swells without getting myself and my camera soaked.
The kids getting their internets
I had picked this casa particular because of it’s vicinity to Fabrique de Arte, a club in Vedado that featured art galleries, live music, and interesting culture events. I had been told by many people I had to check it out, including by Cubans. I arrived before the doors were supposed to open, and despite the rain showers there was a line wrapping around the block to get in.
I liked their system of payment. As you walk in you receive a card that gets filled out by the bar staff or food vendors. You hand the card to a cashier as you’re leaving at the end of the night to pay for everything all at once. If you lose your card, you pay something like $30, which depending on how much you drank, might be a deal.
I ran into some friends I made in Viñales and spend the night watching a fashion show, looking at the galleries and listening to some awesome jazz in a room that makes you forget you’re in Cuba, although I’d guess 50% of the patrons of the club are Cuban. Definitely worth going to on your trip!
The madre de casa particular called a taxi driver friend to take me to the airport and a small Russian made car arrived on the curb. I arrived at the airport several hours early, hoping to not have the same holdup I did at the Santa Cruz airport. I was let through security and immigration without issue. With two relatively quick flights I was back in Denver.
I loved my time in Cuba, despite cutting it short by two days. Travel was quite easy, the landscape beautiful, but really the best part was the people. They are so incredibly hospitable and laid back, an amazing combination. I worried going in that the people would (rightfully so) have a negative opinion of America, but everytime I answered the question, “Que pais?” “Estados Unidos” was received with a huge smile and the response “I love America!” There were more American flags worn casually on clothes than anything I’ve seen outside of a NASCAR race. I wondered to myself if they knew the extent to which the American American embargo on Cuba caused much of their country’s poverty. But they remain an beautiful, happy, fun loving people, welcoming strangers into their lives and wanting to share whatever they can. I cannot wait to go back!
I’m from the Midwest, and I don’t particularly like leaving Colorado to go back, but I regularly have Red River Gorge, KY on mind. My girlfriend can attest that I compare pretty much every climbing experience to ‘the Red.’ Basically, most complaints fall under “it’s not overhung enough.” I was psyched when she said she needed to use 5 vacation days and wanted to see what climbing in Kentucky was all about.
Melissa getting a sit-down rest on EGBG (5.10a) before 60 feet of overhanging jugs at the Chocolate Factory
She loved it! I love it. And I can’t wait to go back.
I got to explore some new areas and go back to some of my favorites. The first day I accidentally took her to Bruise Brothers at Muir Valley (was aiming for Tectonic Wall, but I went on autopilot and walked almost all the way to BB before I realized it). Rat Stew and The Return of Manimal are superfun routes to really get you in the RRG mood. We then explored Bibliothek, an area I’d somehow never gone to before. Incredibly aesthetic, overhanging jug hauls, a less steep Motherlode. I jumped on a Josh Thurston original with a tag at the base that says 5.12a, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was psyched to get the onsight but felt it was easier than 12a. Turns out most everyone agrees that it’s 5.11c. I then tried The Fury, which is a beautiful arching overhang that you see from across the amphitheater. My leftover pump from Unbearable was too much, and I ended up taking 2 or 3 times.
Day two we drove down to the Motherlode area by PMRP. I’d spent a lot of time at the PMRP but never stopped at the Motherlode. Cars were parked all over the road leading to the big hill down to the parking lot, which I thought was odd. In the past, this was frowned upon. As I make the turn to go down the hill, spray painted signs warn entrants, “4×4 only!!! Do not drive 2WD Down.” Typically the low flats areas are the problem, mud pits that I used to rally my Mazda Protege5 down with mostly no problem. So in my dad’s 2wd Toyota Tacoma I thought it would be fine. The hill was the worst I’ve ever seen it, enough I worried about getting stuck at the Motherlode parking lot.
“We can deal with that later.” I wanted to check out The Chocolate Factory since it had several highly rated moderates. Wonkaholic 5.10a felt quite a bit harder than the previous day’s Rat Stew. We then did EGBG, which is new and not in the book. Fantastic! Way better than Wonk.
Melissa after finishing EGBG
I tried the fun Hip to the Jive (11b), which starts with a superfun handcrack at the bottom and moves into shallow pockets in an overhang. I missed a hold at the top while above a clip and took a 30-some foot whip, sending Melissa far into the air. My thought while falling, “Man, I hope I don’t hit that face to the left!”
We climbed the classic 10’s, just to the left of the incredible looking 5.14c, Pure Imagination. The Glass Elevator, Oompa, and Loompa. All felt hard for their grades but are fun routes.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention, the best part of going to Red River Gorge the first week of November was being in the magical sub-tropical forest with all the beautiful changing leaves.
We met up with an old friend and her boyfriend, and climbed at the Gallery on day 3. I forgot how awesome this place is. The classic five star warmup, 27 Years of Climbing, had a line, so I put up A Brief History of Climb (5.10b). So so very good, and incredibly beautiful arching overhang. I quickly ran up a second time with my camera so I could shoot Melissa on her Onsight attempt.
Johnny B. Good, Guernica, and Preacher’s Daughter rounded out the climbs in the main area. Preacher’s Daughter is soo soo good! (this is a continuous theme in the Red. Even 2 star routes here would be 4 star classics in most climbing areas)
Another climber on A Brief History of Climb
I tried Gold Rush with our friends, a stellar 5.11d with a stout, overhanging crimpy crux to a dyno finish. It’s exciting! Then after I was pumped out I tried Random Precision and felt rather shut down. I put up the draws again on Johnny B. Good and Melissa one hung her first 5.11a!
Thursday it was supposed to rain, so we went to the area near our cabin, Military Wall. Always a classic with climbs like Fuzzy Undercling and Tissue Tiger, it’s a safe place to climb it does start raining. The start of Fuzzy has been eroded down, and so the climb has been upgraded to 5.11b, purely because of the very powerful, hard boulder problem start, getting to the second bolt. Day four on and my skin was finally tired after pulling on the crimp undercling too many times. once to the second clip you get to enjoy overhung plate goodness to a no-hands knee bar rest and fun jugs to the finish. Our friends put up Tissue Tiger (5.12b), so I gave it a try. I was very surprised how easy the bottom 3/4’s of the climb felt, just good-enough jugs to a couple of rests. But then you hit a series of big moves through powerful crimps and side-pulls. It’s going to take me a few more times of sussing out the crux before I’m able to clip those chains.
My goal for the trip was to send one of my two 5.12a projects, so after 3 climbs on day 4 decided to take it easy, especially after the rain came. Melissa and I went to discover what Natural Bridge State Park had to offer.
Awesome views on a moody late afternoon.
We woke up on Friday surrounded by a deep fog. I wanted to get on my project early so we could get back to Bloomington at a decent hour to see old friends. Driving to The Zoo I couldn’t help but stop and photograph this scene before sunrise.
But even after sunrise I couldn’t help but shoot some more.
Finally, we get to the Zoo and I warm up on my project, Hippocrite (5.12a). I thought I might send, putting up the draws, but messed up what has been my crux, clipping bolt 3. I’ve tried this climb for years, and I was ready to put it to bed.
Melissa wanted to record my attempts, which I’m happy she did. I’ve never had a video of me climbing before.
I love Red River Gorge. No matter where in the world I’m climbing, I don’t think I’ll find a place I love more. I can’t wait to come back!
My girlfriend had never been to the desert near Moab, a mecca of crack climbing. So, along with Vincent, we make the 7 hour drive on a Friday night to get to Indian Creek. We drive in under a clear night sky filled with an almost full moon and a multitude of crisp, bright stars, arriving just before 1am. We find our campsite, and get some sleep. I’m excited to get up early to get as much climbing as we can in.
I wake up to see the alpenglow on the Bridger Jacks and the Six Shooters. Sometimes, it’s hard to get out of my tent early enough to catch these things, but when I do I’m always glad that I did.
We go to check out Pistol Whipped, an area I’d never been to, down Beef Basin Road. A pretty quick approach gets us to the base of the climbs with only a few other climbers at the crag. We “warm up” on the 5.10 Cowgirls Like ’em Big. One hell of a warm up! I forgot that #5’s are perfect butterflies and teacups, and I wished that I’d had two #6’s for the top.
Melissa channeling her inner Pippy Longstocking
We then climbed Wounded Knee (5.10+) and Coyne Crack Simulator (5.11-). I forgot to use the left crack and fell in the .75 size crux of Wounded Knee. After you find #1’s and #2’s, you find yourself in a super weird wide pod that’s best protected with a #5 (which I didn’t have). I don’t know that there is a smooth way to do that section, but I definitely understand why it’s named Wounded Knee.
Vincent sending Wounded Knee the hard way, without the left crack.
Coyne Crack Simulator starts with a .5 and .75 lieback to progressively bigger, perfect hands, with a short finish. I was excited to on-sight this one, and it was the only thing I sent all day.
Vincent making the lieback look easy
The fall colors were on point that weekend. The desert is always beautiful, but this is extra special
Vincent really wanted to climb a tower while we were out there. I was resistant, I wanted more crack cragging, but time-wise it made sense. We drove in the morning into Moab, got breakfast and slowly made our way to Fisher Towers. After a 4×4 detour down Onion Creek, we made it to the parking lot, left the crowds behind, and found ourselves at the base of Ancient Art (5.10)
View of Ancient Art, the corkscrew tower on the right.
There was only one party ahead of us, which I think is rare. Another party arrived a few minutes after we did. Since Vincent had led all the pitches on another trip, I led pitch 1-3. Pitch one starts with an easy scramble to a 4 bolt bolt-ladder that goes free at 5.10 (hard). It’s incredibly balancy and tenious and requires good footwork.
Melissa climbing the crux of pitch 1
Melissa belaying Vincent up with the Titan in the background
Pitch two was an incredibly fun section with several roofs and decent gear up to a chimney. I probably could have protected the chimney, but by the time I realized I was pretty far above my last piece the options were pretty slim. I ran it out till just before the anchor ledge.
Pitch 3 is a super short, stout 5.10 (or 3 bolt bolt-ladder) that you climb pinching tiny pebbles. The exposure starts to get to you here.
Melissa and Vincent preparing to climb the money pitch!
I made Vincent lead the money pitch again because I wanted a photo of him on it. Definitely worth it.
Vincent attempting to show how windy it was…it was windy!
The run across the spine is pretty intimidating, with a several hundred foot drop on either side. You have to jump across one section before coming to the awkward diving board.
A 30+ stitched image panorama of Vincent topping out. This image is HUGE!
Vincent missed my jump, but got the awkward, manditory hump of the diving board.
Now watch Vincent Whip…right before he Nay Nays.
Melissa takes in the view on our double rope simul-rap from the top of pitch 2
What she’s looking at
The whole time we were on the route there was a team climbing the Titan. Was pretty cool watching their progress. When we got down, I realized that in the confusion of trying to get Melissa onto the simul-rap and sharing an anchor with another team, I left all of my cams attached to the anchor. So, we got to wait. It wasn’t all bad, though. We got to watch an incredible sunset.
Melissa finds a boulder to play on
The view of Castle Valley at twilight from the Fishers Tower parking lot.
The desert will always hold a part of my heart. It is such an incredibly beautiful place! I just wish it wasn’t a six or seven hour drive. Can’t wait to go back!
Xavi paid the tuk tuk driver, since I had had my wallet stolen in Vientiane. Luckily, Green Climbers Home operates on a credit system, and you pay at the end of your stay for lodging, food, and anything else. Because of this, I had 9 days to figure out how to get funds for the rest of my trip.
Back in the early fall my buddy, Scott Homan, had mentioned that he was going to Laos to meet up with Xavier and climb. He – kind of – invited me, and after a rough fall, I figured a trip like this was just what I needed.
Green Climbers Home sits in a valley surrounded by tall limestone mountains that jut straight up out of the flat earth.
The resort is two large thatch-roofed buildings resting on stilts surrounded by bungalos, also on stilts. Apparently it floods every year. There are also two dorms, and two areas of tented camping. I think in all they can accommodate about 100 climbers at a time.
The climbing is super steep, varied, fun limestone climbing over pockets, tufas, and stalactites. Endurance and core power is the most important thing here. For me, this was mostly a climbing trip, and I barely took my camera out. But by the end of the trip I was feeling that I couldn’t leave without having a few climbing photos.
A climber works up Jungle King (7b) in the Roof
Xavi climbs Jungle King barefoot, because...he can.
An incredibly strong, older Japanese woman gets the send on Jungle King. Everyone was in awe of her grace.
Diana Wendt got the send on Jungle King after a few tries. My endurance kept me from getting this
Chrissi Kuehn and Pete? climb two roof routes
Diana prepares to make the crux move on Jungle King
GCH's original restaurant burned down last fall, so they were busy rebuilding it in the same spot.
I slept in a tent for nine days. It was pretty comfortable, but I was very happy it was not any hotter than it was. The tent was not really made for the tropics, having almost no ventilation. But it was about 100 feet from the river that runs through this cave, so I could go for a swim any time I was over heated.
The cave is pretty incredible, a huge cavern with three entrances. Standing on this rock, you can see two of the entrances, but the third, you apparently have to go wading through chest deep water for a while. I didn’t go explore it.
Xavier and Scott made plans to shoot a short film with Richard Seisl, who wanted to put up a highline (slackline) up in the mouth of the cave. They asked me to help shoot the video. I couldn’t not take stills too.
The morning light coming into the cave was killer!
Here’s the finished video, I shot most of the wide angle shots and a few of the details.
The restaurant's usual state at night
No shoes allowed in the restaurant.
Green Climbers Home is a fantastic destination for climbers in Southeast Asia. I recommend that you check it out. I’d love to go back. I do wish that they would fix their shoddy anchor systems.
Message to Green Climbers Home: It’s incredibly frustrating and dangerous for us climbers. If it’s because it’s expensive to buy chains, charge everyeone an extra dollar. That’s plenty to fund changing out all of the expired climbing rope tying together two traditional metal hangers and a single hardware store d-link. You don’t want to wait until your “genius”, cheap, dangerous method fails.
At the bus station in Vientiane I got situated in my “bed” on the sleeper bus. It looked like I would be sharing the space with about 4 other people. Then a guy in plain clothes comes and tells me I have to get off of the bus. He leads me to another, crappier, sleeper bus a few down in the station and tells me this is my bus. It’s a completely different company, I’m pretty confused. The guy that brought me tries to take off, but I remind him that they still have my bags on the first bus. The bags get placed under the second bus and I get shown to another bed, a tiny space that I’m sharing with an older Laotian man.
This was one of the worst bus rides I’ve ever been on, constant jarring as if the bus had never been fitted with shocks. I got some fitful sleep, but at 2am, I was told to get off the bus. I stepped off into the dark night, unsure of where I was. I was on the side of the road, outside of a city. Once again, they tried to leave without getting my bags.
I shoulder my heavy bags(all my clothes, camera and climbing gear stuffed into an Osprey Waypoint 80, and a 40-liter climbing backpack. I estimate it to be over 60lbs.) and started walking towards what I think is the center of town, hoping to find someplace with WiFi. A woman called me over, “Guesthouse? Guesthouse!!”. I walked toward her, and she points to another woman on a cot behind a floor to ceiling metal barred gate. The second lady sat up and called me over. She quoted a price, a bit high for the shoddy looking place, but understandable since it was 2am and just outside the bus stop. “I have no money. No Kip. No Dollar. My wallet was stolen,” I tried to explain in broken English. I pantomimed my wallet being stolen, my back pocket empty. “I sleep there?” I suggested, pointing to an empty spot on the cement floor inside the gate. After some contemplating, lady number two conceded and opened the gate. I had a Klymit Inertia O-Zone sleeping pad, and they glared at me as I blew it up. I actually had a comfortable 4 hours of sleep.
I woke up to an old man sitting next to me, looking at me suspiciously. I quickly packed away my sleeping pad and stood up, motioning to the lock on the gate. Still eyeing me, the old man unlocked the gate and I wandered off into the morning light. I walked about 4 kms, asking everyone along the way for WiFi or Police Station. Most people just shook their heads and walked away. Some would point in a direction, and I would keep walking. (No one knew what I was asking, apparently. I was definitely not being pointed towards the police station). I finally found a hotel that allowed me to use their WiFi, found the location (I thought) of the Foreigner’s Police Station, and received an email from Green Climbers Home that said they had money waiting for at the gate so I could pay a Tuk Tuk driver to take me the 12kms
Women preparing their watermelon sales for the day and catcalling me...
The view from the Tuk Tuk
My friend Xavi was waiting for me at Green Climbers Home and paid the tuk tuk driver. It was good to be among friends after getting into the predicament of losing all my money.
Green Climbers Home is a climbing resort 12kms outside of Thakhek. Started about 5 years ago in a valley between some amazing limestone cliffs, they offer bungalos, dorms and tent camping. I’ll go more into this place later.
The one big caveat of staying at Green Climbers Home is that it is not Laos. It’s pretty much Europe in huts. The climbing is amazing, but you’re surrounded by pretty much only Europeans. I had to leave several times during my stay to experience Laos.
The best way to get into town was to hitch hike!
Xavi and Scott relax on the way into Thakhek
Monks ride bikes to get around town.
The people, even though most don’t speak any English, are very friendly and want to help out. They also have a saying, “Bopenyoung” (poorly translated to my ears), that means something along the lines of Hakuna Matata, or No Worries. And this is definitely the attitude of the people. They’re friendly and hospitable but not in your face about it. If you need something, you will ask. It’s great, I really enjoyed that about the Laotians.
Diana and Randall hitchhiking into Thakhek
We went through a large market that had everything from hand bags to pig heads.
I went to where I thought the police station was. No one spoke English and I was trying to communicate to someone over the phone what I needed. I just needed a police report saying my wallet was stolen. They needed my passport and some other information I didn’t bring. So I had to come back another day. On day two: you don’t have a form from this other police station. I had to walk all over town trying to find it. Wasn’t marked on the outside of the building. And it was closed for lunch. I had to come back two hours later. I finally got the form after waiting for all of the police officers to tell each other about their lunches, apparently (everyone standing around, no one doing anything, me just sitting looking stupidly confused). I go back with my form, my passport, and everything I needed.
“How do we know you had a wallet? We can’t give you a letter saying it was stolen because we have no proof.”
“How do you have proof that anything was stolen, ever?”
“We cannot give you anything on our letterhead.”
So I have a long document written in Laotian that recorded the incident, but they wouldn’t write it on their letterhead. Yay insurance.
Harry had a birthday, so all of the Americans and several other Euros went into town to celebrate. Everything was closed except for the liquor store, so we had a party in the town square. Things got a little weird with whiskey body shots off of Harry. One guy didn't want to a body shot off of Harry....so he took the shot out of his own navel. One of the funniest things I've seen.
Then there’s the overabundance of Range Rovers in tiny little towns. I saw brand new Autobiographies ($150k) and well, how much classier can you get than a “gold” Range Rover Sport?
Thakhek was a nice town, but I wish I had gotten to see more of Laos.
I originally heard of Escalante Canyon when I traveled to Ouray for the first time, three weeks after I moved to Colorado, to go to the Ice Festival. I had never been crack climbing in the desert, but it sounded awesome, so I put it on a mental checklist. l’d been meaning to get to this area that’s only about an hour from Grand Junction for three and a half years.
Alex Vidal and I finally made a trip out there a few weeks ago. It was great! Perfect weather, great climbs with awesome people.
We pulled into the campsite just before midnight. I slept on a picnic table covered by a small roof, and in the morning I saw a GMC pickup pull up and suspiciously look around. Neil Longfellow found us. He’s been living in his truck wandering around the desert for a few months.
The climbing is similar to, but shorter than, Indian Creek. After spending quite a bit of time struggling up incredibly stout and powerful climbs in Vedauwoo this summer, the desert hand crack style felt so “easy” and precise (for the most part). After a short, but fun warm up we jumped on an offwidth 5.9 called Junk Corner (given one and half stars, but I had so much fun I climbed it twice). I did junk up the skin on my left elbow pretty good.
Alex squeezes up the chimney on Junk Corner, 5.9
Alex prepares to climb TH Crack (5.8) at the Cabin Area
There’s a lot of vandalism on these walls. People who can’t hit broadside of a barn have to use cliffs as target practice, putting scattered pockets in puzzling locations up the walls. Below TH Crack someone carved a huge “TH”, hence the name. The climb is another awesome warm up.
It was getting hot so we took a break, went back to camp and jumped into the creek. Well, Alex and Neil did. I hate submersing myself in cold water – it was surprisingly cold.
The evening light from the Interiors area overlooking our camp and a bunch of climbing not listed on Mountain Project.
Alex losing his soul.
One of the best parts of camping in the desert is the incredible star-lit nights. I finally got some photos of the milky way I’m proud of.
Neil’s homemade rooftop tent silhouetted against the skyline
We climbed the second day at the Interiors Area again. We warmed up on Unknown I (5.9) which starts out as an overhang roof that you have to pull with offwidth moves, once on top of the roof it goes to extra wide #6 slab crack. Right where it gets desperate you’re able to grab the start of the 5.10+ crack and jump up to a small platform to the bolts.
Neil Longfellow got this shot of me testing my flexibility. I need to do more yoga. He just missed the really amazingly awkward shot of my head being stuck below the roof.
From our campsite we were eyeing the Keyhole route, a 5.10a splitter small hands .75 splitter with “keyhole” pods. The movement through the pods is really awesome, and it was really the first indian creek style crack – uses mostly one size cam the majority of the way up – climb I’ve led. Especially in the size that wasn’t just perfect hands the whole way up. Super-tight hands and fingers is all technique, and if you don’t have the technique it’s next to impossible. If you do it can be like climbing a ladder. Dealing with feet on these kinds of routes is probably hardest part. In the crux of this route I was able to lieback through the thinnest section and paste my feet on the slightly uneven crack.
Alex climbs the brilliant Keyhole route (5.10a) at the Interiors Area
The top of the route opens up to perfect hands.
Neil Longfellow snapped this photo of me climbing Key Hole.
The Interiors area is called that because of two routes that are in a cave created by a detached pillar. To get to the routes you pass through Pinball Chimney 5.9+++R. It only has one confirmed send, but didn’t stop Alex from playing around on it.
The two routes on the interior are amazingly fun and protected from the heat of the day. The namesake route is a 5.9- called Interiors. It starts up this 5.Fun (5.7?) crack ramp, where it seems like most people on mountain project stop and traverse out to a set of anchors for The Shaft, but the meat up the route starts there, and it’s very fun 5.9 climbing up a dihedral for another 25-30 feet. The anchors are on a detached block behind you that you have to chimney up to, one of the most unique anchor clipping motions I’ve done.
The other route in the cave is The Shaft 5.10a, a dirty but fun climbing up a dihedral with a couple different cracks. There’s a suspect internal flake that I wouldn’t place gear behind. Definitely a route worth climbing, slightly easier than Key Hole.
Neil Longfellow took this great shot of me on The Shaft
The light later in the day in the cave is so incredible, but we had to take off back to Boulder before I got any photos of climbers on these routes. Looking back that was a mistake.
I felt far more comfortable and strong over trad gear in Escalante Canyon than I have since I broke my back over 2.5 years ago. I blame the struggle fest that is Vedauwoo improving my technique so much. At the end of the second I was so psyched and energized by these climbs I wanted to do 10 more, but Alex and Neil were wiped. I found one last climb that I knew would wipe me out, a super wide offwidth on the outside of the cave called Fondon’t (5.9++)
“Well, that might hold a wet cat”…tipped out with mud on one side. – Alex Vidal. Photo by Neil Longfellow
I had definitely never led anything like this. I had to fight my way up 20 feet before I could place my first piece, a tipped out #6, the widest cam. I had to worm up, finding body positions that pinned just the right part of a knee or elbow or head or shoulder to keep me from sliding out and landing on the rocks below. The positions where it’s possible to move upward are the positions where it’s possible to fall out. The body positions where you’re locked in to the point of relaxing and taking a breath, I found it all but impossible to move from. Getting in and out of those two main positions I found to be the crux of the route. It’s a full body battle agains the rock to move and keep you in it at the same time. I bumped the #6 higher in the crack till it was finally good enough that it might have held me if I statically took on it, and pulled myself out of the offwidth crack onto a small ledge before the rest of the climb up 5.8 crack and slab. I huge sigh of relief and a proper mount of exhaustion. Now. Now I was ready to go home.