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Shiprock, New Mexico

 Shiprock, New Mexico

by Dan Russell

December 29, 2001

On November 3, 2000 Ryan Sayers and my brother Jeff showed up at my apartment at school at 10:30 at night. We packed up our gear, filled our water bottles, and left Gunnison, CO on the 5 hour drive south to Shiprock in the NW corner of New Mexico. I drove the whole way, while Ryan and Jeff tried to sleep a little. Jeff slept fairly well, but Ryan decided to employ the same philosophy that I was following out of necessity: If you sleep you'll be more tired when it's time to wake up then if you stay up all night. It's strange, but I always perform better on an early morning climb when I don't sleep the night before. It's almost like it's not worth sleeping at all if it's not going to be more than 8 good hours.

We arrived in the town of Shiprock at around 4:45 AM and Ryan and I wasted some time looking at stuff in a convenience store for about 20 minutes while Jeff continued to sleep. Soon we made the short drive out to the peak, and with sunrise just around the corner, started packing our gear and preparing to begin the climb. We hiked up to the base to the beginning of the Basalt Gully, the gateway to the upper portion of the peak. Three or four 5.8 moves and we were into the easy section. Loose rock abounded, but we stopped to belay for just a few short sections for the next 1300 feet of scrambling, simul-climbing the rest of the way. The gully topped out at Colorado Col, a notch between the two main summits of Shiprock. To reach this, I led a short 5.7 pitch up a basalt headwall to a good anchor. From here, Ryan led an airy pitch to Colorado Col involving a short downclimb, then a stemming move to jugs on an exposed face. Soon we had all reached the Col. We fixed a 100-foot rope and rapped down into the another gully. Then another rappel, this time only 20 feet, and we reached a rain gully that opened up into the upper mountain area.

From here we faced a route-finding dilemna. The route description we had read in The 50 Classic Climbs of North America had described the Traverse Pitch as winding around an exposed corner underneath a double overhang. We saw an obvious ramp below us and under an overhang, so Ryan set to work. After he was out about 60 feet and facing a pendulum into a huge void, he still had not found an pro. Jeff was belaying, but since we had no anchor to belay from I tied myself in to Jeff as a backup. Still, if Ryan went now, he'd surely be injured by the long pendulum, and Jeff and I would almost certainly be launched over the edge. Nervously, we shouted across the void, debating whether or not we were on route, but couldn't figure where else the route would go. Just as Ryan was about to commit himself to an irreversible corner, Jeff remembered a bolt we had spotted above us. Looking up, he immediately traced a line over to a ramp and under a double overhang we hadn't noticed at first. Ryan made his way back and we all moved up to the newly found (and correct) line. Ryan led his way across, finding moves no harder than 5.6 or 5.7, but exposed and psychologically challenging nonetheless.

The next pitch was a short one, only 15 feet or so, but at 5.9, the most technical pitch on the route. I quickly led this. It was a strange pitch, strange to find a boulder problem in the middle of an alpine climb. The next pitch traversed out around a corner and onto a face. Jeff led this, and as soon as he was onto the face, a couple hundred foot drop loomed beneath him. Fortunately, the rock was solid and he continued up to a good anchor with no difficulty. We then simul-climbed upwards a couple hundred more feet to the base of the Horn Pitch, the most famous, and most exposed, section of the route.

Ryan led the Horn pitch, which started out on rotten rock, but moved up onto the summit ridge and good rock. On the ridge, the rock dropped off a long ways to the left. We weren't sure how far it was, but we counted twelve full seconds before impact when a loose rock fell off. The climbing on this pitch was fantastic. While looking off to either side we ascended solid crimps and superb pockets. Soon we were all atop the Horn, thinking we were just a scramble from the summit. Instead, as Jeff led onwards, we found that two additional pitches were involved in reaching the summit, though they went quickly and were no harder than 5.4 at best. The summit anchor was actually at a spot 15 below the summit proper, so one at a time we belayed each other to the top so we could stand on the very top, at about 12:30 PM. It was a ledge maybe two feet wide by five feet long, and the view was fantastic, ruined only by the Four Corners Power Plant spewing pollution into the clean desert sky. It was at this point that we also took serious notice of the clouds turning a shade darker and the first raindrops hitting us. Anxious to get on with the long descent, we opened the summit register to find that we were the 426th party to reach the summit since its first ascent in 1936. Considering how few people climb Shiprock, we were surprised to find that a group from Durango, CO had summitted the weekend before. We signed the book and placed it back in the ammo box we found it in, and began the rappels. Ryan Sayers partway up Long's Couloir on Shiprock, photo by Dan Russell

The first rappels were very frustrating, as the ropes got stuck or twisted each time and alot of heaving and effort went into coaxing them down. The rain was falling harder now and we were anxious to reverse the Traverse pitch before the rock became too wet for our shoes to be effective on the slabs. We saved some distance by rappeling directly over the double overhang, and soon reached the Traverse Pitch. Jeff led out, and after going 100 feet, spent ten minutes or so attempting to remember where the route went, had to come back. As Ryan had led the route and had some difficulty determining its path on the ascent, he felt he could determine exactly where it went. He made his way across safely and began belaying Jeff and I. I found this to be very stressful, not because of technical difficulty, but because at this point I was cold and wet, and my shoes were muddy. I didn't think my shoes would grip the slab as well as I needed, but they did and soon we were all back to our fixed lines. From here we needed to prussik back up the lines to Colorado Col, after which the descent would become much easier as only rappels would be involved. The first short line went easily, and Jeff started up the 100 footer. By now the rain was falling much harder, and as were we in a rain gully, the water was collecting and flowing directly down through the notch we were moving up. Jeff reached the anchor. I led Ryan go next, because he had been standing around longer and was colder than I was. He reached the top and they started setting up the next rappel while I made my way up the line. The first section went fine, but the last 40 feet or so was vertical. Everytime I slid the prussik knots up the rope, they squeezed the rope like a sponge and all of the excreted water dripped on my glasses, down my shirt, and all over me. By the time I reached the Col I was dripping. But at least the rain was letting up, or so I thought. Soon I noticed a few snowflakes in the air, and while it didn't snow much, it reminded me how cold we all were in our two shirts and warm hat each, especially since everything we had was wet.

From the Col, we decided against descending our ascent route, instead opting to rappel a line we had taken in November of 1999, mistaking it for the Basalt Gully. Long's Couliour it was called, and we thought it would make for a faster descent as it did not involve significant amounts of slick downclimbing, while the Basalt Gully did. The next four rappels were nearly identical. We rapped in good fashion, only to find that despite our efforts to the contrary, the ropes had somehow twisted themselves up and we were unable to pull them down. Several times, Jeff volunteered to climb back up the ropes to fix the problem, only to find them still stuck. So Jeff continued this tiring process until we finally freed the ropes, only to encounter the same problem on the next rappel. By the last three rappels, it had grown to dark to manage the ropes safely, so we broke out our headlamps. We were freezing cold at this point, and fortunately the ropes pulled smoothly over the final section and we all reached solid ground by about 7:00 PM. We stopped and admired some low-lying clouds in the distance, and the gorgeous half moon. Then I hiked about fifteen minutes back to the base of the Basalt Gully where we had left our shoes. By 8:00 we were comfortable and warm, back in the car.

As if the mountain needed to take one last swing at us, the clouds we had admired now moved across the network of dirt roads we needed to navigate through to reach the highway. After several wrong terms, we became totally disoriented, unsure of which direction we were headed in the dense fog. We knew we had to keep a tall dike on our right, but could find no shadow of it. Finally, we stopped, desperately hoping that we would not have to wait until morning to find our way out. I shut off the headlights and Ryan and I stared into the fog bank for a few minutes, when Ryan suddenly observed a thin spot in the fog through which he saw the dike, on our right as it should be, not 200 yards from us. We drove out to the highway and drove the 7 miles back into Shiprock, where we hoped to find a Denny's where we could find something to eat. We ended up having to drive another 40 miles to Cortez, CO to find one. We ate our food in about a minute flat. We had intended to drive all the way back to Gunnison to sleep that night, but now I realized that I had been awake for 30+ hours and was in no shape to drive. We all piled into the back of the truck and slept for 10 hours despite the lack of comfort. Morning came and we drove back to Gunnison, our drive slowed by snow over many of the mountain passes.

Shiprock, because of the isolated desert setting and the committing nature of much of the climb, as well as the less than desirable rock quality, made this one of the more memorable climbs I've been involved with. I have no desire to go back to it, but I'm glad that I was able to make a successful ascent of a historic route on what was once the greatest climbing problem in North America.

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