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A Short Moab Roadtrip, Sep 2000


by Kelly Bates

December 29, 2001

We weren't really sure what to do for Labor Day 2000. That's how it started. My partner, Scott, is big into mountain biking and kept telling me how great Moab is; I did some rudimentary research and decided it had some great climbing, too. I got talked into going with him and his girlfriend, Andrea.

Moab's only about 7 hours on the interstate from Colorado Springs, and we left on Friday afternoon, piled into Andrea's packed Bronco (mostly full of bikes and camping gear, they found some way to shove me into the back seat too). We didn't really have a plan; not really. I wanted to climb and have some fun; from the way the truck was packed with bikes, I kinda figured from the outset that I'd be doing more biking than climbing. I'm not a biker; I've never figured out the thrill of riding something downhill really fast or climbing something without waxed sticks and loose ice beneath me. We only had two bikes for the three of us anyway, so I thought that maybe I'd be safe.

The drive through Colorado was rote enough, having done it to Glenwood on my way to Utah or Aspen several times, but I hadn't been through Glenwood canyon since I'd been climbing; the backseat experience was pleasant, viewing the potential scary lines for 30 miles through both rear passenger windows. Of course, we ran out of food and soda as we rode past Grand Junction and stopped for munchies, which weren't sufficient to last us all the way to our destination, but the desert scenery along 128 from Cisco almost was. I had to keep telling myself how boring driving through the desert was, after having grown up in Farmington, Las Cruces, and Alamogordo, New Mexico - it just all kinda looks the same after a while. Except for the big sandstone walls. The vertical, non-crumbly part was new. For some reason people who've been beach- or city- or country-people their entire lives like the desert, at least to visit. They think the wide open dry places are exciting. I got to know better growing up there. I definitely prefer the mountains, preferably diverse ones like we have all over central Colorado.

My previous experiences with the desert had been pretty wholly bad; no rattlesnakes or dying of dehydration or anysuch, but generally not pleasant. Divorcing parents, odd family, poor school systems, lack of social interaction, too many people happy with the status quo. Still, I'd be a wonderful tour guide in most parts of NM. This trip changed some of my perspectives and reminded me how beautiful and fun parts of the land can be (you know, when you get rid of the people parts).

Since Scotty'd been there before (as usual, for some strange reason the less-traveled guy knew more of the special spots and less of the overall; makes me wonder, sometimes, so I'm trying to get better at both the large- and small-scale stuff now), we followed his lead to the typical mountain bikers' campspot at Sandy Flats, above Slickrock on the big plateau overlooking Moab from the East. We drove back well into the area, back by campsite groups G, past all the mountain biker and 4x4 groups camping pretty much in the open. Back by areas F, G, and H the terrain gets all broken up by sandstone hills and there's plenty of privacy and places to get out of the wind. Plus there's rocks to climb. The sandstone there is pretty soft, and dirtier than even at Garden of the Gods, but with some nerve there are some definite possibilities for fun.

I was pretty excited to get out and onto the rock after the drive; unfortunately the only wall (about 45 feet) in the campsite that looked climbable but absolutely unprotectable (without drilling, of course) and had nothing on top to anchor to, except some flakes that flexed and bent when you touched them and rang completely hollow to the old thump test. 'Hmm. I guess this means no falling,' I thought. I think I used 7 separate anchor points spread out on the front and back of the rock, all magic-xed and fully equalized. I hoped that spreading out cams to a whole mess of flakes and pockets would hold the static load of a rope and body.

I had Scott belay me as I tried to find a way up small, round, dirty, slopey ledges and more hollow flakes; getting more than 4 feet off the ground was proving to be an interesting exercise. I started out on the right, traversed all the way across nothing to the left side, expecting with each move to find something better than where I was. It actually got worse; the slope backed down to where it was more friction than face-with-nothing (frictioning up a face is an interesting concept and I showed how poorly it worked here), but the lesser slope had a thicker layer of soft sandy, uh, rock to burn through to stand without being feeling like you were trying to balance on ball bearings. Eventually I worked up the face to a big ledge with a walk-around to the anchors, and they looked fine (I hadn't yet put any real pressure on them). I started to lower, ready to turn and run if the line went slack or started jerking from failing anchor points. But no problems.

We put Scotty on next and he repeated most of my swinging, traversing route up the rock, without any of the big mistakes or getting off course and downclimbing I'd had. I'm amazed he climbed with the anchor situation, but I guess after he saw me lower off it and declare it good he felt okay with it too. Andrea's turn! Again, getting onto the face at all was a problem, and we held her slips and penduluming twisty falls several times to get her up to the lower-angled upper half. I was getting more and more impressed with the difficulty of the climb, seeing them both struggle too. We let Andrea finally lower after a half dozen friction slips.

It was getting late now; no direct sunlight, and the light evening breeze was starting to kick in. I'd been wandering back and forth from observing Andrea climb and the wine on the picnic table, and decided I wanted one more shot at the direct climb. Maybe it was the wine talking. I don't know. The light was failing fast, so I hopped up onto the first ledge (I'd figured out the start from watching the other twos' flailing). Scotty probably figured I'd go up a bit and then lower off; we already knew how much he likes climbing in the dark (another story, but the short version is 'even less than he likes heights'). I figured differently. The last good 30-foot leader fall I'd taken elicited a nice 'Gasp!' kinda sound from a hundred tourists at the Garden of the Gods, and I'd unwrapped from the rope mess, wiped off the immediate blood, and proceeded to reclimb the adjacent crack with one arm. I'm good and stupid like that. If I got on this, I was going to the top if it took me all night to figure it out. And the headlamp had fresh batteries. Of course, I didn't have it with me. It was in the tent with the handgun and medical kit (we carry strange things climbing from some of our stranger past experiences).

For some reason it's easier to climb when you just feel the rock instead of searching all over it visually for the best placements. I have no idea how, but I spidered straight up the blank sandstone, to just below some large flakes that, if granite, would've been perfect holds. I was afraid of knocking it off onto the belay team, who at this point had my headlamp out and were trying to see both me ('the black spot that's kinda moving') and the rock. I don't know if there was enough light to help me see what I was doing, but I don't think a few stray photons were hurting me, either. A couple of awkward ledge-to-ledge moves to avoid the flakes and I was at a small roof; at least it seemed like one in the dark. I was actually all the way up at the walk-around ledge, but I couldn't see that the anchors were just above the roof until I'd pulled it on ridiculous little sandstone nubs. Lowering to a waiting glass of wine was a great end to my best TR red-point to date. In the dark, no less.

The next day was slated as our primary rock day; we'd stopped by the local climbing shop for some suggestions and to peruse the local guidebooks on the way into town and decided that Wall Street was too hard in general for Scott and Andrea to start on, so we headed towards the 5.8 crack area in Kane Springs Canyon at the Ice Cream Parlor. We almost didn't see it as we drove down the canyon; I had Andrea pull the truck over and jumped out as I spied the distinctive curving dihedral of Good Day to Die through the rear window of the truck. I had to convince them from several angles walking up and down the road that we were there, until we finally spotted a sling at the top of the ramp.

It was my lead (cracks aren't apparently anyone else's favorite) and I chose the 5.8 Crack 1 as a good warmup. Scott and Andrea belayed from a rock in the sun and up I went. The bottom quarter was blocky steps and crack similar to a lot of the alpine rock I'd trained on, and the rest typical Wingate sandstone, slick-looking but not at all glassy, with a finger crack straight up to the anchors. I had a little bit of flailing the first time up it, trying to get my feet comfortable on something that looked so this-ain't-gonna-work. By the top I pretty much had the jist of it, and felt good about the lead. I lowered on down to let the other two play some. Scott and Andrea both TR'd the route with no problems, letting me know how much they appreciated having a rope above them the whole way up. With a bit of pendulum risk you can climb both Crack 2 (5.8+) and Crack 3 (5.8) from the same TR anchor, and I wanted them both. Crack 2 involved the same bottom portion and a step out to the left and up to an even thinner crack, but the feet to the crack were pocked like crazy and held perfectly. The crack itself was great thin hands the fingers the whole way up and I raced through it, feeling confident. Crack 3 would have some good R potential as a lead, so I hopped up to the sloped smooth ramp and wandered across from the base of Crack 2 to avoid a face section; I was here for cracks, not face. 3 was an even better climb than 2, and the 25' pendulum at the top wasn't even a bother. An easy traverse at the top led me back to the main anchor, and I lowered on down. Scott bagged both 2 and 3 after me, but Andrea'd had enough after 1 and 2. I wanted one more shot at 1 to get it right and cleaner than my lead, and talked them into one more belay up it. Unfortunately, that was about all they could take for the day, so we went down into town for some Italian, a grocery and booze run, and a walk around town.

We ate, drank, and were merry around the camp that evening, and made plans to do a little mountain biking the next day. I had to be a good sport after a satisfying albeit short day of climbing. We picked up a rental bike for me and headed to an easy moderate north of Arches, ending on top of Klondike Bluffs. I've probably only been on 10 rides ever, and remembered why as the sandtraps and constant uphill zigzags on the petrified dunes had me for lunch. The ride down, I'm told, is what all the uphill work is for; the bumping downhill, into the wind, was almost as much work as the ride up. I don't think I'll ever get it. Scott said we had to go to Slickrock, too, and we headed back to Moab. I was pretty sore and knew that 13 miles of up and down was way beyond me, so we settled for the practice loop (2 miles). I guess if I ever want to get okay at this I'll have to figure out the gear-switching more quickly. All the controls are dead opposite from my dirt bike. So, I can say I rode on Slickrock, but I can't say I didn't have to get off the bike a number of times to keep from falling over or starting to go backwards. I could barely sit by the time we got back to the parking lot.

A few miles south of town, on the way to La Sal, there's a reservoir with a nice waterfall (tunnel-diverted stream feeding it), and we went for a couple of hours to wash the sweat and dirt off of ourselves and bask in the sun. Cold water, but much appreciated and free. We drove down to Dead Horse Point and on to Canyonlands later that afternoon; unless you're there for longer than a few hours, it's just more desert, and not nearly as entertaining to look at as the rest of the area until you go way into it. We went out into the middle of the BLM land on the northern edge of Canyonlands and set up a small camp. I was too tired to do much but sit, relax in the sun, and drink while Scott and Andrea went for another bike ride. And ya can't really climb alone anyway. I keep realizing that.

We let Scott ride back out to the main road and down the long downhill towards Moab on Monday morning, our departure day. Our last planned excursion was to Arches, where I hoped to get one quick climb in on Owl Rock, the easiest tower there at 5.8 and something I was sure I could get Scott and Andrea up and down quickly. But alas, there was already a group on it when we got there, and although there was only one more on the ground that looked like he could get up and down quickly, the girl halfway up was confused by her spotter on top telling her to 'grab that jug.' After no progress in the ten minutes we watched, we decided we probably weren't helping and that her rap would take them several more hours to negotiate. Oh well. We wandered around the park and hiked out to Delicate Arch viewpoint and Double O Arch before deciding that 1pm wouldn't get us home until at least 8 that night.

I'm planning for a full week climbing trip back out there sometime this spring, if I can keep from breaking anything else before the telemark competitions and find a partner who'll play with me on the .9s and .10s. Scotty's moved to California now (Feb 01), so maybe after a long fun time in Moab this spring I'll venture out to J-Tree with him and give him a hard time for giving up climbing for surfing.

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