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On Probation


by Larry DeAngelo

August 30, 2002

In the age of the Internet, it has become possible to "meet" a new climbing partner without ever going anywhere near actual rocks. A chance posting with reference to my location in Las Vegas led to contact with Lou. I am probably too naive and trusting to survive Internet match-ups, but Lou seems to have a more cautious approach. He suggests climbing Tunnel Vision (5.7), one of the local Red Rock classics. Since he has done it many times, he feels he can get himself out safely if I turn out to be a truly dangerous companion. I've never done the route, but it has been on the target list, so I am gung ho.

As we hike in through the early summer heat, I have an odd feeling of being on probation. Each move is being watched and evaluated. Since my own techniques and equipment are a little anachronistic, this is a trifle unsettling. I would hate to make a bad impression simply for using an approach that was tried and true back when Royal Robbins was on the cutting edge. Lou does not seem to sense my apprehension, and provides a running commentary on the route and his experiences as we climb the approach trail.

I am tying in for the first lead when Lou says, “A lot of new guys find that first traverse to be a bit of an eye-opener.” Since he already suggested skipping pro at that point to avoid rope drag, this does not seem like good news. Oh well, it cannot hurt to look. By the time I get my hands into the horizontal crack it seems more important to climb than to worry about pro, so I quickly cross to the chimney. No problem - except that the chimney is blocked by an assembly of chockstones that collectively weigh about 8,000 pounds.

Probably those wide-eyed new guys just hauled up on the chockstones without a single thought to the environmental damage that could be caused by grinding blood and bone fragments into the sandstone with four tons of boulders. But I am both ecologically enlightened and intensely paranoid, so I do some contortions on face holds to avoid the threat. I arrive on the shady belay ledge thinking the route might not be quite the stroll that Lou had said.

The next pitch was a stroll, however. Lou led up easy 4th class to another pleasant ledge below a knobby chimney slot. Relaxing in the shade, he gestured at the rock above. “Straight on up, then bear left where it bends. There’s a good thread anchor at the belay. Here, you’ll want this,” he said, clipping a cordalette and some other gear onto my hardware sling.

The chimney starts as a cruise with good holds, followed by back and knees through a lower angled section. Then it steepens and turns into a left facing dihedral with a squeezy, off-widthy crack in the back. I place one of Lou’s large Tri-Cams and head up. Hmmm, getting a little strenuous up here. Not feeling too awfully secure, either. The Tri-Cam twenty feet down is starting to seem rather academic, since a fall would probably result in a thirty-foot parabola and permanent wedging in the converging slot below. Before gravity can get me, I fiddle in a tube chock, and the world is suddenly a much friendlier place. It is not a perfect placement, but it’s good enough. I carefully climb past and set up a belay on another shady ledge a short distance above.

I watch as Lou follows, wanting to see how he will handle the crack. And the answer is-- he doesn’t. A few toetip moves and he balances up the face, arriving at my stance without even breaking a sweat. There is a comfortable ledge about thirty feet up, in the shade of a large overhang. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I’ll just lead up there and we’ll get set up where we have more room.” And he waltzes up the easy thirty feet and sets up a belay.

I see a pattern developing here. I do a scary pitch- he leads a short 4th class pitch; I do a scary pitch- his is class 4. Surprise, surprise, the next pitch involves a large roof! Mercifully, it goes easily with some face holds on the right, and we are soon gathered at the entrance of the famed tunnel.

The tunnel is formed by a huge flake separating from the main face. Inside, it is cool and smooth. Undulations on the right hand wall allow easy face climbing, and Lou runs up it without stopping to place protection. Class 4 again.

I follow through the cave-like slot and emerge into the sunlight just below his belay niche. Lou points at the rock above, and says, "Both of those cracks are pretty reasonable. Pick the one you like and go for it."

I look up. The cracks look fine, but I am more concerned about the overhang where they converge. My paranoia goes beyond the rock. I can't help wondering about my partner. What is he thinking? I think I have led with efficiency and safety, but what is going through Lou's mind? Why doesn't he say something encouraging like, "good lead," or "way to go." Is he just biding his time until we get off, so he can ditch the old-timer? Well, no time for doubts, we've got a climb to finish, so I head on up.

The left crack isn't difficult, but it's not quite trivial, either. I spend a few moments placing some pro beneath the overhang. When I do the moves, I am pleasantly surprised to find them easier than they looked. In the knobby crack above, a few easy steps lead to the belay ledge at the top of the wall.

On the top, we are in full sunshine, and things are getting pretty warm. I coil the rope in silence as Lou changes his shoes. He stands up and reaches out to shake my hand. "Hey, great route," he says. "You know what we ought to do next? Frogland."

The sun is hot. My dry throat may have produced a hoarse lisp in my voice as I shook his hand and said, "You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

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