• The Crack of Doom, Part II

    Click here for Part I:  http://cruxn.com/2011/09/18/the-crack-of-doom-part-i/

    I had chosen our last day at City of Rocks to attempt what would be my hardest traditional send. I woke up feeling psyched but trying to stay calm and not play the thing up in my mind. I wanted to take the approach that this route was well within my limits and all that I had to do was execute.

    “Crack of Doom” is a sustained 5.10+ finger and hand crack with a small changing corners roof at about half height. It is 80 feet tall and has perfect jamming from tips to fists.  The crack, however, is guarded by a 20 foot sequence of technical and somewhat powerful .11c face climbing that is a bit overhung. It involves a credit card crimp, a powerful move to an undercling and technical smearing – all above two large, backbreaking boulders.

    The route was originally done circa 1965 by Keith Johnson and Steve Meyers, who used a “shoulder stand” to place a pin and bypass the opening sequence. A few years later Greg Lowe freed the route from the ground. Supposedly a hold has broken off of the lower section since the FFA, making it a bit harder than it was back then. Either way, this could have been one of the hardest routes in the country at the time.

    There is still a pin (not the original) about 12 feet of the ground, and until few days before I got to the City, there had also been a fixed stopper. Both are/were hard to clip and the first chance you’d get to place any gear is at about 20 feet so the local (modern) ethic is to stick clip the rusty pin. I don’t own a stick clip, but I am in no way opposed to them either, especially if the landing is horrible, as was the case with this route. So we go to stick clip the pin, making sure to set the biner properly so the nose doesn’t get loaded, and what do you know, the pin falls out!

    “We just made the ‘Crack of Doom’ a much more serious climb,” exclaimed Paul. I agreed, and we both just stood there and stared at the rock for a few seconds.

    After some deliberation and discussion about what to do, we decided that Paul would head back to his truck to get his crash pad and I would search around for some spotters. But before Paul left, he said that he thought we should place a stopper with the stick clip.

    “It won’t be any different, in terms of style, than just stick clipping the pin,” he said.

    “I don’t want to do it that way” I said, but Paul was already fiddling a stopper into a notch. “I dunno man, if I did this where I live I’d get beat up!”

    “In England? Really?”

    “Hell yes! And in North Carolina I think the reactions would be even worse! No, I don’t want to place a stopper that way.”

    “OK, I’ll go get the pad, you stay here and get psyched!”

    For some unknown reason, I began to fiddle with a stopper and the stick clip myself. In just several minutes I had gone from saying that I wanted to do it ground up to having a stopper placed and a rope clipped. I still don’t know what changed my mind. I guess it was the back breaking boulders and Paul’s comment that it wouldn’t be any worse style than the locally accepted way to do the route. Either way, the abandonment of my original feeling and personal ethics was the beginning of a string of events that will haunt me for years to come.

    Paul returned with a pad and I had found a few climbers from Telluride who had agreed to spot me. I felt psyched to get up on this route, but in hindsight I was just psyched to do the 5.10+ crack with the changing corners roof and all, and wasn’t taking the boulder problem start as serious as I should have.

    I racked up, trying to stay calm and not over think. In my head, I was telling myself that “if I just relax and focus, I will be in the crack before I know it, where I will be nice and comfy. Don’t stress over the beginning, just climb.”

    After a bit of my normal pre-route antics, I bounced like hell on the stopper that I had placed blindly. It held me just fine. Before I knew it I was pulling onto the opening pinch and then surprising myself with how well I was able to hang the tiny left hand edge. Everything was going well until I slapped for a horrible side pull, skipping the obviously bomber undercling. My hand came off the side-pull and I was immediately on the rope. This attempt helped me figure out the correct moves, but also gave me false confidence in the stopper.

    Take Two: I came down and visualized myself doing the correct moves this time, using the undercling, smearing the foot, crossing over, bumping to the rail. I had it wired… here we go.

    Again, the crimp felt tiny and sharp but solid, and the crux moves went relatively well. I got to a rail at about 18 feet and things began to go wrong. This rail wasn’t huge, but was big enough for 8 fingers, single pad. I could dead hang on this thing forever when close to the ground, but I was searching for comfortable feet so that I could place some gear and didn’t find any. I lost control of my breathing, and began to get nervous and shaky. I cautiously and tensely smeared my feet and locked off with my left arm, reaching up to an even smaller pinch-crimp type thing that was positive enough to pull on and get my feet up onto the larger rail that I had just been hanging on.

    At this point my feet were 18 feet off the ground and the nut was well below them. I really wanted to get a stance and place gear, and I was having a hard time. I know now that I was in a state of panic, not able to relax by standing on the solid rail below. Tunnel vision was preventing me from spotting one of the crimps that I had already used, which now would have been perfect for my left foot.

    Instead of breathing, and talking myself down like I usually do, I was hyperventilating. I had only focused on how to get through the crux, thinking that once I had, I’d be in my comfort zone – a finger crack. I had not prepared for this transition period between the crux and the crack and I was rattled, big time. At this point, even as panicked as I was, I could have down climbed and taken, or even jumped onto the pad and safely landed with spotters helping. But no, my dumb ass decides to climb even higher, into the crack, where I knew that I could place gear.

    From here it’s kind of a blur, but I remember getting my left hand into the base of the crack, and thinking that “if I just do one lie back move in this tips section, then I’ll be in solid green and yellow Alien territory where I can place gear and relax.” I am struggling with a high left foot, the side pull is terribly insecure, someone says “there’s a better left foot down lower,” and then, pop, my hand comes out of the crack and my feet launch me away from the wall.

    I hear, and sort of feel a little “ting” and then just as I realize that the ground is coming at me… IMPACT!

    I slammed into a boulder, crushing one of my spotters. I felt her compress under me, and then disappear. To keep from smashing my head on the second boulder, I instinctively turned and sacrificed my left elbow. I then slid down between the two boulders, landing again on top of Jackie, who had fallen to the ground after I flattened her. I immediately asked “are you OK!?!” and she replied “Yes, are you!?!”

    Things were kind of crazy for a few seconds while we all checked each other and ourselves for injuries.

    “Let’s all calm down” says spotter number two, “I think we are all fine.”

    Turns out, the nut wasn’t that great. I think that when I fell, I pulled it out sideways as I flew away from the wall.

    I couldn’t believe that none of us were hurt, and began to replay the events in my head. I was really upset and embarrassed and all I could get out of my mouth was that I didn’t know why I was panicking and that “all I had to do was step down onto that crimp with my left foot and breathe…”

    I felt really stupid and apologized for putting everyone in that position. “I wasn’t mentally prepared for that,” I said. “I wasn’t taking it seriously and I put you all at risk of having a really shitty day. I’m sorry, but thank you!”

    The Telluride crew was very chill, and even invited us along to climb with them for the rest of the day. Paul and I were planning on leaving that afternoon though, and needless to say we were both a little spooked. After trying and failing to convince Jackie and her gang to let us buy them beers, we geared down and headed back to camp to pack up.

    We went to grab a bite to eat and had a few beers to calm down and headed back to Paul’s place in Logan. We talked about the incident during the drive but I honestly wanted and needed to get it out of my head for a while and revisit the day when I was a little less emotional.

    We ate dinner with Paul’s folks and some of their friends that night. It was a relaxing affair with good scotch, better stories, and an impromptu jam session consisting of a guitar, an oboe and an accordion! It was just what I had needed to get my mind off of what had happened.

    Over the next few days and weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about how close I had come to catastrophe. This was not the first time that I have had gear rip out and it was not the first time that I had decked. It was certainly not the first time that I had made poor judgement calls or gone into panic mode, but none of that had happened in quite some time. I was determined to analyze exactly why I had regressed, mentally, to such a poor state.

    I learned many things from the events of that day, but there are a few lessons that stand out.

    First, I didn’t spend enough time scoping the route or mentally preparing. I missed key holds on my first and second attempts, and once I got through the crux, I was surprised that I had another hard move to make before getting into the crack. I should have been ready for things to go differently than planned – ready for the unknown. Climbers need a mechanism to calm themselves when in situations like this, and I did not have one that day.

    I didn’t have my gear dialed either. I knew what piece I wanted to place, but hadn’t rehearsed it in my head thoroughly, or else I would have relaxed and placed the gear before deciding to climb higher. I had more than one chance to get bomber gear above the stopper, but was too flustered to do so.

    Finally, and maybe most importantly, I failed to go with my gut. I should have tried to do the moves ground up without the rope clipped above. This is how I begin every hard route. I do a move, maybe a second move, then jump down. Sometimes I go up and down ten times before committing to the route. If I had approached “CoD” in this manner, I probably would have taken a few safe falls/jumps onto the crash pad until I had the opening moves wired. This would have given me more time to understand the sequence and steadied my mind for the hard transition to the crack.

    I look back on that morning and wonder “why in Hell did I think it was a good idea to place gear with a stick clip!?!” The only answer I can come up with is that I wasn’t thinking. It might work for some people, but it has never worked for me… why would I start on a route at my limit?

    Call it style, ethics, whatever you want… I didn’t adhere to my own set of rules that day. It wasn’t Paul’s fault; he simply has his own set of rules and no two climbers are alike. We have to make decisions based on our personal strengths and weaknesses, not someone else’s.

    Reflection is an important part of climbing. It is essential to analyze events such as these and to learn from your mistakes, as well as the mistakes of others. This is what I have done here, if only in a concise manner. It has been a positive experience for me, and I have since done similar routes with much more composure and success.

    There is one thing, however, that I immediately realized after the fall but before I did any analyzing or discussing:

    Someone freed that in the ’60′s. Probably in tennis shoes or boots. How humbling.

    Ryan Williams

    Ryan grew up in the south and learned how to climb in the mountains of North Carolina and West Virginia. Upon graduating from NC State University in 2007, he travelled all over the world working as a guide, bartender, furniture mover, farm hand and anything else that would fund his next trip. Ryan is currently living in London with his wife, trying to get his life together and use the UK as a home base from which to explore the mountains of Europe.

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Discussion 6 Responses

  1. October 11, 2011 at 7:21 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this  –my palms are sweaty now!  Great insight to heady trad climbing.  Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • October 11, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks Matt.  My hands were sweaty while I was typing it!

  2. October 12, 2011 at 6:10 am

    Yeah, great story. I never woulda thunk to place a piece with a stick clip! Glad you are OK after bouncing off the boulders, man. One part of your story rang really true to me–that feeling that if I just climb a bit higher, I’ll be able to get in a piece. To me, this is the heart of trad climbing. You’ve got to be able to push into that unknown with confidence; otherwise, you’re too distracted by thoughts of downclimbing or the fall you might take. I don’t know how many times this has bitten me in the ass though. One of my scariest moments trad climbing was on Y crack, a 5.10 in the Valley. I was in way over my head at the time and never felt comfortable to stop and place gear in this awkward flaring fingery crack. So I kept thinking….next move Ill get gear. OK, maybe the next move. I climbed about 40 feet of the top of the 70-ish foot route without gear and was in decking potential for much of the runout, never feeling solid the whole time. I still feel lucky/nauseous when I think about that route.   

  3. October 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    stick clipping a pin.  Where are we, boulder Colorado??

    • October 13, 2011 at 6:38 pm

      Guess I deserve that…

    • November 6, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      Good point Erich.  The pin is silly, the route needs a bolt. 

      Good recount of some scary events.  I found it interesting that your takeaway was that sticking the nut was foolish.  Ground up is proud for sure, but you have to show your back to the ground while pretty committed on those opening moves, above a poor landing.   

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