Aug 6, 2011
[Author's note: this is my first post on MP and probably too long for most people to want to read, but I think it makes for an OK story and I wanted to remember all the details for myself. I'll try to add pictures soon. Enjoy.]
TR: Epic on Glass Menagerie
Is Ďepicí too strong of a word? Nobody was seriously injured and we didnít require a rescue. But we did have many of the elements present in a typical epic: nasty weather, loss of daylight, lack of water, a few close calls, and two rookies biting off more than they can chew. This is the story of my friend Dave and I attempting Glass Menagerie, a seven-pitch 5.13 or C1/C2 climb in Looking Glass, North Carolina.
The trip started off as a Ďpractice aidí weekend for Dave and me. Itís not that aid climbing itself is actually appealing in any way, but weíd like to climb some big walls in Zion and Yosemite, and learning to aid C1/C2 seems easier than learning to free climb 5.13Ö call us lazy. So we resolved to meet at Looking Glass, where we thought we could practice on a few lines that are typically done free, and then maybe try our hand at a real aid route. Neither of us had ever made a single aid move before, but we read some books and watched some videos and it didnít look that hard. We both arranged our schedules so that weíd have Saturday morning through Tuesday evening on the rock, which we figured was ample time to become expert C1 climbers.
Saturday we each managed to aid and clean our first aid pitches. I wonít go into much detail about these pitches because it would be the same story of everybodyís first aid pitches. In short, they were awkward, painful, and ultra slow. A couple of guys climbing nearby good-naturedly pointed out that people have climbed El Capitan in less time than we aided and cleaned a single pitch. Thanks, guys. We were utterly exhausted after a total of two pitches so we hiked out and discussed plans for our remaining three days. We decided that we might as well go ahead and jump on Glass Menagerie, a seven-pitch test piece that goes all free at 5.13, or can be taken down to 5.10+ or 5.11 depending on how much C1 or C2 you add in. All the belay stations are equipped with rap rings and we had two 70 meter ropes, so we figured we could retreat pretty easily whenever we had to. We decided to haul some food, water, and extra gear, partially just for practice, but also in case we actually made it past P1. Our long-shot goal was to fix as many pitches as possible on Sunday and then finish on Monday. More realistically, we just wanted to see how high we could get before retreating. We were slightly concerned about gear, especially since we didnít have any hooks, which we had heard were necessary unless you could free some of the moves. Dave and I typically free climb around 5.9+/5.10-, so the hooks seemed liked a good idea. But we didnít have any, and we wouldnít really know how to use them anyway, so we just decided to give it a try without them.
Sunday starts with us heading to Looking Glassís North Side to begin our trial by fire. Dave takes the first pitch, which most people free climb at 5.11, but weíll be aiding. Heís doing a great job, but itís shockingly slow. Twice he gets stuck at spots where he thinks he needs a hook, but he changes into his free climbing shoes and just barely manages to pull the free move. As he nears the anchors it starts to rain, but weíre dry enough due to the overhanging nature of the route. And although weíre slightly concerned about rain water seeping down onto the pitches above us, I know that we realistically wonít make it very far at our current rate anyway. As I clean the pitch the rain picks up, and by the time I reach the anchors itís an all-out monsoon; thereís no way weíre going any farther today. Weíre staying somewhat dry at our anchor, but water is running off the top in torrents. The ground near the base of the climb, where we still have our packs, haulbag, and two thirds of both ropes, has turned into a lake. I look at all our gear just lounging around in the lake and Iím actually a little jealousÖ Iíd rather be swimming in a lake right now. We decide to fix our lines to the ground and just hang out on the ledge out of the rain. A few minutes later we see the first lightning strike, and thirty seconds later weíre on the ground, or in the lake I should say. We grab the portions or our ropes that are stacked in the lake and hang them around tree branches. Then we take the rest of the gear to a dry area under a big roof and take stock of the damage. Everything is soaked but OK, except for my North Carolina guidebook and aid climbing instructional book, which have taken on an additional two pounds of muddy water and are definitely ruined, just like our lofty goal of a two-day ascent of the route. No problem, we still have Monday and Tuesday to do the route, so having P1 fixed will just give us a nice jump start.
Itís about two oíclock when we finish regrouping in our dry area and we realize that we should use this time to make a trip to Looking Glass Outfitters for some more advice on this hook business. So we stash the gear, hustle out of the forest, and drive in to town just before they close at three. The guy working at LGO is super helpful, and although heís never climbed the route, he calls around asking for beta. He finally gets in touch with another store employee who suggests two or three different kinds of hooks that we need. Unfortunately they donít have any of those in stock, so we just buy the one size they do have, laughing to ourselves at the silliness of buying something that we donít want to use, but wondering if it could be our ticket to the top. We pass the remainder of the day just wandering around the town of Brevard and thinking about the long day we have ahead of us; not knowing yet just how long that day would be.
We wake up around 6:30 on Monday and scarf a quick breakfast before making the easy approach without packs. We grab our stashed gear and start racking up with wet harnesses, soggy shoes, and ropes that are definitely heavier than they should be. By 7:45 Dave is 15 feet up our fixed line and struggling to make progress. This is our first attempt at jugging a free-hanging rope and it somehow seems harder than just aiding the pitch on lead. I clip into the haul line, which we have also fixed, and start jugging it to show Dave how itís done. Iím making a little more headway than him but Iím definitely not doing it right and itís wearing me out fast. Ten minutes later, weíre both no more than 25 feet off the ground and only a few feet apart on separate ropes, and Dave is unleashing an expletive-laden tirade on aid climbing. He berates every piece of gear, curses each attempt at upward movement, and finishes his rampage by growling the rhetorical question, ďWho do we think we are that weíve each struggled up one pitch of practice aid and now weíre suddenly ready for Glass Menagerie!?!Ē I secretly agree with him, but Iím tired of the negativity, so I snarl back, ďFine, screw it, letís just get down and go home and I guess we just wonít ever bother to climb El Cap!Ē This escalates to a loud argument and Iím glad no one else is there to see how dumb we look dangling a few feet apart and yelling at each other. We hate jugging. We hate aid climbing. We hate Glass Menagerie. We hate Looking Glass. And right now we hate each other. We eventually stop fighting and strain upward in silence, but thereís as much tension in the air as there is on our anchor as the two of us spasm towards the top. When we finally get to the anchor thereís another few minutes of silence before we apologize to each other and resolve to just continue upward, if we can, for the sake of practice. But getting to the top of P1 took us longer today than it did yesterday, and weíre not even remotely thinking about finishing this route even if we had a full week.
P2 is a 30 foot 5.8 traverse through loose, rotten rock with little or no gear. I take the lead and manage to place one questionable cam before making some committing moves along a slight roof. I feel like Iím climbing a Jenga game as every hold I grab slides in one direction or another, but I manage to pull the moves without pulling any boulders in my lap, and I make it to the next anchor without incident. I belay Dave across and we pull up the haulbag, which is actually just an old military issue cotton canvas bag that Iíve had since I was kid.
Itís 10:30 now thanks to the first pitch debacle, and itís time to get back to business. P3 is rated 5.12+ or C2, both of which seem unobtainable to us, but weíll give the C2 version a try. We decide that Iíll lead this pitch because some of the moves on fixed gear look really long and Iím a few inches taller than Dave. I keep my free climbing shoes on because the first bolt is a good 12 feet off the ledge and thereís no place for gear below. I canít imagine how Iím going to reach that bolt. After feeling out the free climbing moves and realizing that I canít even get myself off the ledge, we remember than this is one of the moves that people sometimes hook. So I throw our new toy onto the only feature available, give it a yank, and watch it pop right off. After closer inspection I find a place where it might sit a little better and this time I can fully weight my daisy chain with the hook still in place. I gingerly step into an aider and move up. The hook holds so I step higher, somewhat expecting for the hook to pop off and hit me in the face at the same time I hit the ledge. I move up to my 2nd step and clip in to the top of the aider with a quickdraw, but Iím still a good bit short of the boltÖ I guess itís time to practice top-stepping. I pull in close to the wall and step up one higher as I feel the opposing force of the draw keeping me precariously balanced above the hook. My free foot floats helplessly in the air and Dave tries to grab it to steady me, since a belay wonít do me much good at this point anyway. With every bit of height that I have, I stretch my free daisy toward the bolt and just manage to clip it before toppling over, now weighting the bolt. The rest of the pitch goes without incident and I even mix in some free climbing at an easier section towards the top, which brings my time down to less than what it would take to watch Gone With the Wind. Dave does a good job cleaning the pitch at a reasonable pace and now we feel like weíre at least accomplishing something.
Dave takes off for P4, a 5.11 or C1 thin crack that will take us to just below the huge ominous roof. After starting strong, he encounters an extremely thin section that wonít take any of our gear. Weíre pretty sure this is where weíre supposed to use the cam hooks in sizes that we donít have. The guy at the store specifically told us that the hook we bought was too big for this pitch. We do have a pretty good selection of micronuts so Dave goes back and forth from harness to rock just trying to get something that might fit. After 15-20 minutes he gets a #1 micronut halfway into something passing for a crack and steps up to gain another 12 inches. He still canít reach the next spot he sees for gear so he spends another 15 minutes playing with all the micro-gear, all the while hanging on a hunk of metal with the equivalent mass of a penny. Finally I see him delicately step onto another piece and place a Black Diamond C3, which might as well be a 3-bolt equalized anchor compared to his previous gear. As I look to see what gear gave him that one necessary move, I see the cam hook fall out of the crack. Way to go, Dave! If this is C1 climbing then Iíd like to do some C0 please. As I clean the pitch Iím first horrified to see some of the gear he stood on, but then elated to see two orange metolius booty cams at what seems to be the crux move at the top. As I go to remove them, Dave stops me and says that he thinks we should treat them like fixed gear and that he couldnít have made the move without them and therefore thinks itís the right thing to leave them. Neither of us knows much about aid climbing etiquette but this seems crazy to me. There are two perfectly good cams on a pitch that will come out easily. It looks like someone bailed off these cams and I see no problem with taking them. I suggest that if heís worried about karma, we could take them with us and then post on the internet to see if we could find their owner. But Dave wonít have it. He says that weíre already in over our heads and thereís no need to anger the Glass Menagerie gods. Satisfied with that theory, I reluctantly leave the booty in place and finish the pitch.
Itís mid-afternoon now and Iím really impressed with how weíve picked up the pace. It now seems totally reasonable that we could do one more pitch, fix ropes to the ground and come back to finish it off tomorrow. I lead off on the infamous P5 roof pitch, 5.13 or C1. Itís intimidating for sure, but itís had enough fixed gear added over the years that it actually feels easier than anything weíve done so far. Twenty minutes into my lead we realize that I forgot to tag the haul line with me and I canít lower down to it because Iíve been traversing over nothing but open air. Rather than aiding back to the belay, we pull off a miraculous lasso and foot catch maneuver, and Iím able to finish the pitch at blazing speed. Iím pretty sure that if a snail had tried to race me up the pitch, I would have won. Dave also moves fast on this pitch. Due to the traversing nature, he pretty much just aids it the same way I did, instead of jugging the rope. We think thatís a valid technique for traverses, but we canít quite remember if weíre doing it exactly right. But weíre confident that weíre safe, and weíre moving faster than before, so all is good.
Thereís been an interesting force at work this whole time weíve been climbing today. After what was surely the worst start to a climb that Iíve ever experienced, we started to get it together and make good progress. And as we surmounted each new obstacle, we gained confidence that maybe it wasnít crazy for us to attempt this route. And now that weíve done the roof pitch, there are only two more pitches left, which can be free climbed at 5.10c and 5.9. Without a word of discussion, Dave and I had each started to think that maybe we could do the whole route today, and avoid the unenviable task of ascending ropes again tomorrow. It was close to 4:30 when we met at the top of P5, plenty of time to free two pitches and find the descent. So as if weíd planned it all along, I rack up and start P6 without us ever acknowledging that we had originally planned to fix lines to the ground if we even made it this far. We agreed that Iíd take this off-width pitch and Dave would lead the final hand crack. Dave is a significantly better face climber than I am, but he doesnít get much practice on cracks, so we thought Iíd have a better chance at the 5.10c off-width.
P6 is tricky because it seems that youíre supposed to aid a short section off the belay and through a traverse, and then start free climbing the 5.10 section. So I complete the aid part and look up to see a heinous looking flaring off-width inside a flaring right-facing dihedral Ė Iím not excited about it. Iím low on gear due to the aid section, and Iím afraid that the traverse will create bad rope drag. Dave and I discuss the situation, and I think I need to build a belay and bring him up so I can re-rack. Dave doesnít like the idea of me building a belay. Heís concerned that the spot Iím at doesnít have good gear for a belay and that building a belay is a lot more committing since we wonít have rap rings like weíve had at all the other anchors. And if we have to rap off my gear anchor, thereís no guarantee that we could get to another rap anchor to take us all the way to the ground. Plus, splitting P6 into two pitches means more time spent hauling, organizing, hanging at a belay, etc., and less daylight to get us off the route. After much discussion, I tell Dave that building a belay is my only option because Iím not willing to continue upward without more gear, to which he responds: ďYour other option is to aid back to this anchor, so we can go home alive and sleep with our girlfriends.Ē For the second time today I secretly agree with him, even though I donít want to. But I still think we can finish this route, and my girlfriend is out of town, so I promise him that Iíll build the best gear anchor heís ever seen and Iíll have no problem with the free climbing. Accepting my word, he packs up shop on his end, and cleans the short pitch.
Now itís time to get real. Weíre five and half pitches up without a good retreat option and Iím racking up for a pitch thatís pushing my free climbing limits. Itís at least 85 degrees in the shade, my chalk bag is full of chalky mud due to yesterdayís storm, and weíve already had a long day. I suppose I could aid it, but that would require a lot more big gear (I have two #3ís and one #4 as my biggest gear). Plus itís after 6:00, and we need to get moving. So I start scrambling up what starts out as a nice hand crack with good gear. Thirty feet up, the flaring crack starts to widen and the crack and surrounding flaring dihedral keep trying to spit me out. I place a good #2 deep into the crack and keep moving. I get a few decent fist jams before it widens even further and Iím trying to somehow get my left elbow to jam. I find one section with a slight restriction and can just barely get my right fist to stay lodged semi-securely. Iím starting to get a little desperate and I want some gear quickly. I have racked all my cams on my right side thinking that Iíd have my left side pushed against the left face, and I have my biggest cams in the back where I canít even see them from this position. So I frantically reach behind my back with my left hand, feeling for the right gear. I have the following conversation in my head. Quick, I need a #3, it should be the second biner from the back. Yes! I got it. I am so awesome at racking gear that I can find anything on my harness with a blindfold. Nooooo, Iím an idiot! This obviously wonít fit. I should have placed the #3 in that long run-out below me and now I need the #4. If I can just hold the jam a few more seconds. Yes! I got the #4 with another behind-the-back move and it fits perfectly. Why am I falling? It seems that just as I was pulling slack for the clip, the fist jam unexpectedly gave out, and now Iím in the air. I bounce off a few pieces of rock and tumble in a few different directions before the slack is out and I come to a rest. I look at Dave, whoís not very far from me at this point, and see the look of horror on his face. Heís clearly not interested in performing a rescue after I had assured him that weíd be fine to build the gear belay and head to the top. So I immediately get back on my feet, calmly say ďNo problem, Iím fine,Ē and start climbing the rope back to my #2 that caught me. I realize that Iím bleeding in several places but nothing is too serious, and my body is producing such an obscene amount of sweat that my wounds are immediately cleaned and the blood is just smeared around so that itís hard to tell where it came from in the first place. I pass the #2 for the second time and now place the #3 where I should have the first go around. The #4 is already in place waiting to be clipped so itís much easier this time. I finish the pitch without any more problems and bring Dave up.
Now we just have one more pitch of fairly mild free climbing and about an hour of daylight left. We make short work of it, but then require a few more minutes to finish hauling, flakes ropes, and organize gear well enough for the descent. Though we had discussed rapping the route, we are more inclined to go ahead and get out of the vertical world, and we had heard that rapping the route from the top could be difficult due to the traversing and overhanging pitches. We are also under the impression that we can follow a somewhat obvious trail down a gulley between the North Side and Hidden Wall to get back to the base. Itís time to find that trail.
Dave agrees to take the chest harness loaded with gear, and one rope coiled on his back. I stuff the other rope and remaining gear into the haulbag and we start bushwhacking in search of our trail. As previously mentioned, our haulbag is actually just some canvass rucksack. It has one strap that I can barely fit over a shoulder, but thatís pretty painful because both my shoulders are bleeding from my lead fall. I alternate between a myriad of carrying techniques such as left shoulder, right shoulder, bear hug, dragging it, and throwing it as we tromp through thick forest growth with the last remaining light of dusk. Daveís load isnít much easier as the rope catches on everything he passes. Weíre barely able to catch a glimpse of Hidden Wall before we reach full darkness and bust out the headlamps. We still havenít seen anything that remotely resembles a trail as we thrash through the foliage. Weíre totally out of water, low on food, and sloppily crashing forward down a steep slope that we hope will eventually bring us to the base of the climb. Weíre drenched in sweat, cut up from the climbing and the bushwhacking, and weíre being ruthlessly devoured by bugs. As we struggle forward the terrain gets steeper and rockier, and weíre pretty sure weíre going the right way, even though there is still no trail that we can find. Weíre climbing over downed trees, through tunnels of briars, and down slippery moss-covered rocks, all while awkwardly toting our gear. After we each take several rough falls, we decide that we need to slow it down and be more careful rather than add a broken ankle to our list of woes. Though not discussed, weíre both keenly aware that an injury or a route finding mishap will strand us in the forest all night. We eventually find flat ground and start moving towards where the North Side wall should be. When I finally shine my headlamp on the base of the cliff Iím relieved. A few minutes later we begin to see the starts to climbs that we recognize and we know weíre close to the base of Glass Menagerie. We arrive at our packs, load them up with everything weíre carrying, and make the final push towards the parking area. At last, we reach the cars just after 10:00, split the last bit of hot water that was in my trunk, and collapse for a few minutes.
Though we had originally planned on climbing some more tomorrow, we realize that that would be both unenjoyable and unnecessary, since we had already accomplished more than we could have expected. So we drive to town, rehydrate, sort the gear, and prepare to go make long drives home in separate directions. We laugh as I remind Dave about his early morning rant concerning our ability to climb the route. We agree that he wasnít too far off in questioning our decision to attempt the route, and yet here we are having completed it in one very long day. We pack up, shake hands, compliment each other on our newly acquired aid climbing skills, and go our separate ways. As I start the long drive home I hang the cam hook from the mirror as a reminder of an epic day.