Articles - The Ultimate US Road Trip
Mark Reeves - Posted on 04 Nov 2009
This ticklist of alternative classics started out as a mad-capped scheme and transformed into one of the most tiring and enjoyable two and a half week of my life.
We wanted to climb the Bastille, which is two minutes from the car park but were pipped to the post by a five man team. Instead we headed over to the more impressive Redgarden Wall and climbed T2 (5.10), combining the first pitches of infamous classic Naked Edge (5.11) (a bird ban on that route meant that the upper pitches were out of bounds).
Having established ourselves on the upper ramp line of T2, a steep intimidating crack and a thin runout traverse to the finger crack blew away the jet lag from the long flight. It felt like E2 powering up on positive finger jams, and then the crack suddenly became flared. Convinced I was coming off on more than one occasion I fought through the panic and made a desperate lunge for what I hoped was a decent jam. It wasn't but I still seemed to be attached to the rock.
Further up an overhanging barrier of sandstone, most of it blank, seemed to prevent escape from the slab. I came across some typical chalk marks that led out left through a seam of seemingly friable rock. Each hold was like a brick held in by nothing more than another brick - like climbing giant Jenga! As I left the last wobbly peg it seemed to get worse the further I went but at least it wasn’t rusty.
Other classic Eldorado Canyon routes
Rosy Crucifixion (5.10), Bastille (5.7), Naked Edge (5.11)
The Book, Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park
We ended up at Lumpy Ridge by accident after a recommendation from a local guide. The crag is a 'small' 200m granite cliff with some classic routes.
The first route of the day, Fat City (5.10) was a stiff introduction to American off-width crack climbing and when I was met with a hideous slot leading up to a roof on the third pitch, I engaged reverse thrusters and we headed down, tails between our legs. To our left was another classic easier route Osiris (5.7).
We started up a classic sustained 5.6 first pitch and overtook a party ahead of us on the fourth pitch. Topping out we had a perfect panorama of the snow-capped Rockies with lush meadows below. We walked out reflecting on 15 pitches in two days and the excitement of having stumbled across this classic route and crag.
Other Classic Estes Park Routes: Pear Buttress (5.8), J-Crack (5.10).
The First Flatiron, Boulder
We headed back down to Boulder to climb the First Flatiron, which we had seen the first morning from our hostel window. This impressive 300m-plus sandstone slab is on the very edge of Boulder City and we set off to climb the Direct East Face (5.6), one of the crags finest routes. We were the first on the route, and made rapid progress as teams accumulated on the floor below us, never seeing any of them again after the second pitch, our well oiled machine seemed to be moving very efficiently on this easy terrain.
Descending, we wished everyone a good day. My climbing partner Llion stumbled as he greeted a couple, and thought little more of it. The next day it turned out he had broken his toe. But the show rolled on and we got down to the car and headed to the Interstate 75 and west, up and over the Rocky mountains, towards the Colorado State monument.
Otto's Route, Colorado State Monument
Otto's Route (5.9) was something of an accident, in that having seen the distance from Boulder to the Fisher Towers, we needed something to break up the journey, and this four-pitch 5.9 on a desert tower seem to fit the bill. As we descended deeper into the canyon, we realised we were neither cowboys nor acclimatised to the heat. Passing headland after headland, we had almost given up hope when, round the last corner, the tower appeared like a fortress out of the desert.
Otto's Route is named after John Otto, who not only developed the trail system, but also set about climbing the tower in the early parts of last century, succeeding more by rugged determination and cheating; chipping his way up to the summit which he successfully reach on 4 July 1911.
Only when you are climbing up on his chipped holds towards the summit mushroom, the rope arching out towards the belay, do you sudden appreciate the narrowness and setting. The thought of having to hang about here and chip the next hold is a chilling one. As you grasp blindly for the last of his holes somewhere over the roof you realise that this is the most bonkers route that has ever been 'created'.
The walk back was arduous; in fact it nearly killed us.
Ancient Art, Fisher Towers, Moab
Dehydrated and knackered after Otto's route we got in the car and headed back to the I-75 into Utah and through the ghost town that is Cisco towards Moab. As we did the temperature gauge in the car started to soar. It started off in the early 90's but quickly got above 95, then 100. Thinking it was broken it didn't stop there and kept rising until it topped out at over 107F (41.6C).
Getting out of the car was like stepping into an oven. We were very nearly out of fuel and water and were running low on food. Llion grew concerned for my health, as I could barely walk 50 metres without stopping and collapsing. I daren't tell him that any water I was taking in was rapidly exploding out of my arse! It took about an hour to make it half way along the normal 15 minute walk in.
I collapsed into the shade by the car and prayed for the night. If hell is this hot, I really need to be good for the rest of my days! As the sun set the rock glowed, probably one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. So majestic we almost didn't notice the temperature drop to just about bearable.
Dragging Llion out of bed at first light, I was a new man. The Ancient Art (5.10) route was world class, the first pitches up the chimney had no exposure at all, and then you are transported to the most exposed place on earth as you belay at the end of the final ridge.
Llion had the glory pitch, walking nonchalantly along the most exposed sidewalk I have ever sat on. Getting to a small dip he pauses for a second, and simply says “slack” as he jumps across. As he climbs to the summit the sun makes it onto the tower for that perfect shot.
My eyes were almost sucked into a gaping abyss and when I got to that small dip and there was no brave 'slack' and jump from me. I was on all fours quicker than you can say 'chicken'. As we abseiled off we met a couple of Canadians at the bottom who were amazed we had climbed the route already as it was only 9 o'clock in the morning.
Other classic Fisher Towers routes: Finger of Fate (5.8) on the Titan
Day 6 and 7
Rest in Moab and Castleton Tower
After a night at the RV resort with a pool we hung out round Moab, had a lazy lie in and then drove to Castleton Tower. I was already bored so suggested we climb it now, as it looked like the Kor-Ingalls (5.9) route would go into the shade.
It didn't but, from being bright blue skies and oppressively hot, it changed rapidly as a thunderstorm built. Halfway up the off-width pitch, there was a flash followed instantly by a bang, and then by some protestations that I should get my arse up and then off the pitch. I was half in, half out of a tight crack and attempted to remove my helmet because the chimney was too narrow. It didn’t help me.
I got to the belay and insisted that Llion follow, despite his growing arguments about the storm. He hadn't got more than 30ft up the pitch as the rain, thunder and lightning started to hit. It suddenly dawned on me that we were very near the top of a natural lightening conductor, as we retreated in a rapid fashion.
Other classic Castleton Tower routes
North Chimney (5.9), Fine Jade (5.11) on Rectory Tower.
Indian Creek, Utah
Turning up in Indian Creek with just three cam 3’s, one cam 2.5 and a couple of cam 2’s with the thought of climbing hand jamming cracks was like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
I manned up for the challenge of a 5.10b, and made a valiant effort on the lead, and eventually got to the lower off without falling. The thought of going for something a little harder, and more uniform felt foolhardy with so few cams so we quickly left, driving through Monument Valley which was just another set of sandstone towers surrounded by dust and not much else other than Indian Reservations. Onwards through Zion the campsite was full, so we made a snap decision to head to Sin City.
Other classic Indian Creek routes
There are thousands of routes in Indian Creek. Supercrack of the Desert (5.10) and The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10) are the best hand cracks.
Epinephrine, Red Rocks
A few years ago I had guided a very nice American team across Dream of White Horses at Gogarth, and one of them had wanted to climb this route since she was 18 years old. Her name was Joanne Urioste and she help developed and write the first guide to Red Rocks. She and her husband made the first ascent of Epinephrine (5.9) and urged me to climb it. I should have heard the sandbag drop!
After a debauched night on the town we headed into Black Velvet Canyon. What met us was a terrifying sight for a sober man. High above the canyon floor was 120 metres of chimney. I felt my body shudder and my arse loosen. Llion was dead on arrival, so he chose the two easy pitches to reach the chimney.
The first chimney pitch wasn't too bad, but the last 30 metres are the most unrelenting back and footing. You face a dilemma - stay at the back of the chimney where there is gear but the chimney is thin and hard, or move away from the protection where the chimney opens out.
Just before the belay, the chimney closes in like trying to climb up the wrong side of an egg timer. A few feet away from a cam placement above me and 40 ft above the last runner, I started to slither down. I was hit with a bolt of adrenaline that would have woken the dead. Instantly pushing as hard as possible, I wore a hole in the base of my back. Those few feet to reach the runner seemed like miles. At the belay I nearly puked out my breakfast. It was a full five minutes before I could think straight enough to tie in.
The next pitch was even worse and I eventually accepted defeat, at a bolt about 35 metres up the pitch.
Other classic Black Velvet Canyon routes:
Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10), Sour Mash (5.10), The Prince of Darkness (5.10), Fiddler on the Roof (5.10). Other Red Rock Classics include Crimson Chrysalis (5.8), Black Orpheus (5.10), Levitation 29 (5.11).
Death Valley and Tuolumne Meadows
The relentless heat from sun made us leave the tent at about 7am and we headed through Death Valley to the Sierra Nevada. Tuolumne Meadows at about 10,000ft was much colder and it was a relief finding that America isn't all dust and sandstone.
We arrived in the afternoon and made a rapid ascent of Dike Route (5.9), perhaps the only actual line of Pywiack Dome. It is like an E1 version of Rainbow of Recalcitrance, and a thin ripple cause by an intrusion allows you to teeter along with the minimum of gear. Occasionally there is a bolt on a pitch, but you’re just as likely to keep climbing until you reach the next belay.
Other classic Pywiack Dome routes:
Needle Spoon (5.10)
We climbed a couple of classics on Lembert Dome near the road because the main face was in the shade till late morning. Both climbed water worn grooves in a slabby dome. Parts were smooth as a babies bum, and had the friction of Teflon.
Llion found this out as he rocked over onto one of these polished scoops and started to slip. Looking up in terror as the world turned to slow motion, the next second I was expecting Llion to be accelerating past the belay in a factor-two fall and he had a similar expression.
Pushing hard on his toe he came to rest like the bus at the end of the Italian Job, teetering on the edge of a disaster. Llion had to steady himself to make it to the first bolt, were we both heaved a sigh of relief.
After the warm up we headed round the back of the Dome to climb the three star classic Cryin’ Time Again, a six-pitch 5.10 (E2), made up of many long run out pitches on steep slabs. It was amazing, as most of the climb was on small nodules, giving small slopey crimps and footholds.
Other classic Lembert Dome routes:
Direct Northwest Face (5.10c), Northwest Books (5.6)
South Crack, Stately Pleasure Dome
We arrived at South Crack (5.8) on the Stately Pleasure Dome to have two teams ahead of us so we picked a route to the left to try and leapfrog them.
Running up the pitch I beat the second to the first belay and then brought Llion up. Llion pendulumed above the first party and climbed the next pitch. We had pulled off the overtaking manoeuvre of the century. As I lowered myself into the crack, the team we overtook were more impressed with how I did it, than pissed off with the rudeness of the overtake.
Other classic Stately Pleasure Dome routes
The Great White Book (5.6)
Regular Route, Fairview Dome
This is one of the original Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, so we were expecting company on Regular Route (5.9). Tackling the first pitch, which was damp, I battled upwards thinking I was going to fall several times. I managed to stay in the crack, albeit aiding past the short section that was running with water.
The next pitch while damp was still climbable and this was a trade off of climbing the route in the early season. The other warning in the guide is not to climb the route if there are little fluffy clouds about. That morning there had been no clouds but already by the second pitch they were building. However it had probably taken one hour to climb these two pitches, and the route got easier the higher up you went.
The little fluffy clouds started to build and I feared a repeat of Castleton Towers, however it was still very early, and the thunderstorms hadn't hit the meadow until three in the afternoon. As we topped out we saw the building clouds in the distance.
Other classic Fairview Dome routes
Lucky Streaks (5.10b)
Rest day and drive to Yosemite
A route like the Regular requires a celebration, so we headed back down to the town of Lee Vining and got the biggest burgers in the history of burgers along with 12 bottles of Budweiser. The result of this was a very late start to our drive down to Yosemite and Camp 4.
Snake Dike, Half Dome
The morning came around too quickly, as we started the power march in. It was here that our running training paid off and we made rapid progress up the six mile 2,500ft approach. Stood at the bottom of the route at what seemed like a reasonable time, we had been beaten by a couple of climbers who were two pitches up. Catching them up they offered to let us pass, and we headed up as rapidly as possible, with the daily thunderstorm growing faster than usual.
The route is an amazing hard severe, where occasionally you get a bolt on a pitch and occasionally you don't. The climbing is very easy though, and you can just motor up the route. After the main climbing a section of third class blank slab that went on for 1,500ft made our calves explode as we powered upwards.
Summiting at 11am, we hung about only to have some M&M's and tape up our blisters before descending the infamous cables, which is like climbing two lightening conductors to the highest point in the surrounding area. We didn’t hang around to get fried by the incoming storm and it wasn’t long before lightning was striking the summit. Yet there were still people trying to prove Darwin’s natural selection theory.
We got back to the valley utterly exhausted at about 3pm and we had done the round trip in under eight hours - like doing a half marathon and an easy alpine route in a day.
Other classic Half Dome routes
Regular North West Face Route (5.12 or 5.9 C1), often climbed in one day by very quick parties or two days by mortals
The ultimate road trip
The next day we rested and realising the weather was deteriorating, changed our flights and flew home a few days early. Satisfied that out 16 day holiday had quenched our climbing desires, we had climbed 12 classic routes across the US, racking up an outstanding 80 pitches of climbing and over 2,400 miles of driving. It had been the most amazing holiday I have ever been on, and we climbed some of the best routes in the world.