Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rock climbing in Unaweep Canyon

John and Scout at the base of Lower Sun
Tower, with Wilson and "Crack of Don"
in the background 
Back in January, when I was hiking Serpents Trail with my friend John Sasso, we talked about doing some rock climbing together. John is an avid climber and gets out every chance he has. Me, I haven't rock climbed in 25 years, not since moving to Colorado from Wisconsin almost twenty-five years ago. Friends and I used to go up to Devil's Lake State Park, a little ways south of Baraboo, and top-rope the nice quartzite faces in the Bedroom Amphitheater west of Rainy Wednesday Tower. At that time, I could make it up climbs with a difficulty rating up to 5.8. Since then, the only rock-type climbing I have done has been in some tight situations while climbing all 54 of Colorado's 14ers, where I was thankful for the earlier experience with using dicey hand and foot holds.

John rappeling down after climbing "Crack of
Don." Note the rope going up "Sunup."
So last week, when John proposed that we go rock climbing this weekend, with the idea of getting in some fairly difficult training climbs before tackling the moderately difficult Independence Monument, a climb we had discussed during our Serpents Trail hike, I wondered if I was up to it after all these years. John emailed me Mountain Project links to descriptions and photos of the climbs he wanted us to do, and they didn't look too bad. Both are in the Lower Sun Tower area of Unaweep Canyon, about 20 miles south of Grand Junction. "Crack of Don" is a 5.6 climb that follows a meandering crack, as the name implies, up 80 feet of good granite. "Sunup" is a 5.8 climb that runs parallel to Crack of Don but without the advantage, from my viewpoint, of the big crack.

Me grimacing just below the first bolt
on "Sunup"
Except for today's temperatures in the 30s and some rain and snow, the weather here in Grand Junction has been beautiful the last few days, with temperatures in the high 70s yesterday, the day John had picked for our climbs. Scout and I picked him up at noon and the three of us headed down to Unaweep Canyon. We parked along the shoulder of Highway 141, just before the driveway of Bob and Lise Eakle, the owners and caretakers of the property which contains the Sun Towers. We hiked up their nicely maintained trail past their nice log cabin and climbed up the switchbacks to the base of Lower Sun Tower. Two other climbers, Wilson and Conrad, were already there and climbing the Sunup route, which worked well for us because I was hoping to start on the easier route. We geared up with climbing shoes, seat harnesses and helmets, and then John gave me a quick refresher in knots, belaying techniques and climbing protocols. He described how he was going to lead-climb the route up Crack of Don, placing protective cams every dozen or so feet, while I belayed him, and how I would then follow, removing the protection as I climbed, while he belayed me from the top.

John rappeling down "Sunup," with Unaweep
Canyon and Highway 141 in the distance
Away John went up the crack, climbing steadily, placing protection, and making it all look easy. When he reached the top, was off belay, had pulled up the slack rope, and put me on belay, I started to climb. The first few moves were pretty straightforward and felt right, like it was all coming back to me. Soon I was 30 feet off the ground. I looked down to see Scout staring up at me and that made me smile. But then the holds that were available to my right hand petered out and I struggled to keep myself from hinging off until I found better holds to the left of the crack. The verticality eased after that and soon I was standing on top with John. Scout had lost sight of me and was barking far below. John rigged a rappel setup and sent me down first. I kept my eyes on the wall in front of me as I jerkily descended, not wanting to see how high off the ground I still was.

Scout and me with one of Lise Eakle's totem
poles. Note "The Twin Owls" rock formation.
When John had rappeled down, we switched routes with Wilson and Conrad. Sunup presented a whole new set of challenges. There are so few cracks for placing protection that anchor bolts have been drilled into the stone. The first one is almost 12 feet off the ground. John had me spot him until he had secured protection to it and I could begin to belay him as he climbed the rest of the route, again making it look easy. When he reached the top, he rigged up a single-rope rappel and rappeled down while picking up the protection he had attached to the bolts on the way up. This left the rope doubled to set up a top-rope belay so that John could belay me from the ground while coaching me up the difficult climb.

On my first try, I made it only a few feet off the ground before falling. John eased me back to the ground and had me take another look at the first few moves. The key was to move quickly up to a place where I could get my right foot onto a thumb-sized horn. That would give me a resting point from which to figure out the next set of moves, with the help of John's experienced advice. In this way, I moved slowly up the 80-foot face, relearning along the way that I needed to keep my center of gravity as close to the face as possible, and put all my weight on my feet while using my hand holds only for balance. When I reached the top, John cheered and Scout barked. I leaned back against the rope and John lowered me slowly down to the ground. I was whipped, partly from the exertion and partly from the innate fear of falling. But I had made it to the top, and John told me that others he has belayed on Sunup have not made it.

We packed up our gear and hiked back out, pausing to take some photos with one of Lise Eakle's hand-carved totem poles. On the way home, we discussed plans for our next climb, a 3-pitch 5.6 rated climb up "Betty and Ray's Adventure" on the Upper Sun Tower. John wants to see how I do on a multi-pitch climb before we attempt Independence Monument, which is a 5-pitch climb with a 5.8+ overhang at the very top. I'll let you know how it all goes.

1 comment:

Sun said...

Michael's Belay Glasses: http://belayglass.blogspot.com/ Don't crane your neck while belaying. Wear these glasses and look forward to gaze upward saving on neck strain. They allow the belayer to more fully concentrate their attention to the task at hand, especially on long, protracted sessions. They accomplish this at roughly a 1/4 of the cost of the other product on the market, putting this easier into the average climbers budget.