Saturday, 11 January 2014

Part 2: America

By the time it came to leave Squamish I was more than ready for a change of scene. No matter how good the climbing is you are never more than a couple of 100m away from the highway. Words such as ‘peaceful’, ‘remote’ and ‘tranquil’ don’t exactly spring to mind. Upon leaving I couldn’t help but think how amazing it would have been to climb there before the highway was built and couldn’t wait to be away from the sound of oversized vehicles and buzzing electricity lines. So apart from the slight trepidation about the reliability of the car (that we were hoping was going to drive the 1000s of miles around America) I was excited to head to California with Howard and a new found Canadian/Welsh friend Neil. America answered all my prayers; beautiful scenery, great climbing and peaceful settings. First stop was The Needles. The scenery was breathtaking, and looking out over the sierra from the burnt down fire lookout (ironic I know) was a special moment. There isn’t a road in sight and it seems the 2 hour approach keeps the crowds at bay. After battling with the dirt road leading up to The Needles, for which a 4x4 would have been helpful, we set off on the approach. Although the walk is quite long it is mostly flat and I feel like it definitely adds a different dimension to a days climbing when you have to put in some effort just to get there, I didn’t get tired of it during the 4 days we spent there. What I did get tired of was the unrelenting cold. Everything was freezing at night and was not thawing in the day. Wind whipped in between the granite spires stealing all your body heat whilst you hung stationary at the belays. We were climbing in all our layers and even wearing down jackets, which made it hard to remove gear and generally detracted from the climbing experience. Fuelled by the aesthetic granite we crawled up some of the shorter routes with the main highlight being Don Juan Wall (11c). After 5 days the cold got the better of us and we descended to a small Californian village for sun, a night in a motel room and a Jazz and Blues Festival!
Neil successfully getting the Taurus up the The Needles

The view of The Needles from the burnt down fire lookout
Next stop... Yosemite! I had been looking forward to going to Yosemite for about a year, thinking of how fun it would be to learn some big walling techniques and try some aid climbing. However, the American Government put an abrupt stop to this and we were told on arrival that we had a couple of days before having to leave due to ‘the shut down’. At first I thought that it was a bit of a joke, surely it would never materialise. I had clearly forgotten that we were in America and in fact, yes, the government was closing the outdoors! Eager to get a taste for the burly Yosemite granite we headed to the Rostrum (11c) the next morning. I don’t think I have climbed many routes that are as much fun as this one. It’s steep, flows and climbs quickly. We were up and off the route in about 4 hours, it felt great to be climbing so efficiently and given the burly nature of the route (not exactly my forte) I was happy to onsight it. The next morning we had a couple of hours playing on the boulders before packing up our stuff and heading for Lake Tahoe. Having got a taste of Yosemite it was pretty hard to be driving away from the big granite walls. 
Howard seconding the steep 11b pitch at the top of the Rostrum

The shut down in Yosemite!

Yet, every cloud has a silver lining and after spending a week in Lake Tahoe I was glad that I was going to get to see a bit more of America, places that I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. The scenery around Lover’s Leap area was stunning and there is great multipitch climbing around the 5.7-5.9 grade. Neil and I had a great time simmel climbing the routes and doing some easier climbing made me realise that I was ready for a bit of a break. I enjoyed romping up easy ground in the warm sun before heading for a dip in the river and finishing the day sat by the fire in a small lodge. Neil clearly didn’t feel the need for a break and watching him onsight Grand Illusion (13b) was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen! Hanna (our Swedish friend) had a couple of torn out magazine pages with some information about a place called Calaveras Dome. After what felt like a million hours driving along tiny, winding roads we arrived in the dark, completely unaware of our surroundings, with only the tales from the Swedes of the cool granite climbing in this isolated valley. From the limited topo information we had it seemed like Silk Road (11c) was the classic to go for. The route had everything; pumpy layback corners, technical slabs and an amazing stemming corner. Climbing this route was a great end to our time with Neil and the Swedes, the next morning we said our goodbyes and promises to visit Sweden and headed to Bishop.
Beautiful pool near Lake Tahoe
The drive to Bishop was stunning, which is a relief since it takes about 9 hours! When I thought of Bishop I imagined huge granite boulders with a mountainous backdrop, natural hot springs, a range of technical walls and powerful crimp pulling. I was not disappointed. I think the climbing in Bishop was the most similar to British climbing that we got and I loved it. The height of the boulders makes it exciting but most of the time as you get higher the climbing gets easier. It’s hard to pick out highlights as we did lots of good problems and I can’t wait to go back! Whilst in Bishop we were keeping an eye on the news hoping that Yosemite would open again before it got too late in the season. After 5 days, when we were just getting into the climbing in Bishop, it was time to head back to the Valley. I was having so much fun in Bishop that now I was a bit sad to be leaving even if it was to go back to the Valley.
Mark on top of a big boulder in Bishop

Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody boulder
  Howard and I decided to try and climb Half Dome in a day. Due to the long approach up the slabs we set off the day before and slept at the base of the route. There is definitely more of an alpine feel to Half Dome due to its aspect (it only gets sun late in the day) and the long steep approach. Before the sun had risen we were a couple of pitches up the route and trying to move fast when I felt groggy from not really sleeping felt disgusting. Nevertheless, as the sun rose so did my spirits and it wasn’t until the bottom of pitch 20, after some exposed (the topo appropriately used the word ‘airy’) but exhausting 5.9 chimneys that I started to feel tired and realised I hadn’t yet eaten anything! This was such a stupid error and made the remaining pitches much less enjoyable as I struggled to catch up energy wise. The crux pitches looked brilliant but with only 7 hours of daylight at this time of the year we never set out to free them and proceeded to French free (i.e. pulling on gear). We made it to the top in good time with plenty of light to find our way down to the base. Although it was cool looking up at Half Dome knowing that we had covered all that ground in 12 hours I didn’t feel the sense of satisfaction that I get when I free climb a route. On the descent down the slabs I fell and hurt my wrist, marking the end of my climbing in the Valley.
"Are we nearly there yet?"
With bad weather forecast we decided to drive over the Tioga Pass before the snow came and say Goodbye California and Hello Utah. During the drive to Utah the change in landscape was drastic. The mountains of California shrink into vast nothingness as you enter Nevada, where the road forms a perfectly straight line from you to the horizon, until visions of high sandstone protrusions from the otherwise flat landscape tell you that you are in Utah. After a couple of months crack climbing I thought that I had learnt a lot, however, Indian Creek felt worlds apart from granite crack climbing. The complete lack of friction brutally outlined how much I was relying on my feet climbing granite cracks and as soon as the crack go too small for good foot jams you are left trying to do one arm lock offs on your finger jams with your feet swimming beneath you. If you asked any America which were the classic routes to do in Indian Creek they would undoubtedly give you a list of ‘splitters’ and I admit that the straight crack up a orange sandstone wall gives a good line but the climbing does get quite repetitive. A lot of the time in the Creek I opted for the ‘non-splitters’, which offer more varied climbing with corners, roofs, changes in size of the crack, which I found much more interesting. I did many good routes in Indian Creek including many onsight battles (you know it’s going to be a fight when you do the first move, find it hard, then just think ‘ok’ I’ve only got to do that 50 more times to reach the chains!) but perhaps the highlight was red-pointing Ruby’s Cafe (5.13a). This route is perhaps a little over graded but it’s a cool line with some funky moves on it. The two cruxes, a baggy finger changing corner and steep roof section with a knee bar, are separated by pumpy finger jamming and lay-backing. Climbing this route made me realise that all grades in the Creek should be taken with a pinch of salt since climbing this route didn’t feel much harder than some of the 5.12a/b that I did and felt significantly easier than Big Baby (11c offwidth that I failed to top rope clean!). Every size of crack requires highly specific technique; whether it’s the shape of the hand jams, how to use the foot jams or just learning to trust those ‘pretend jams’ on sizes such as baggy fingers. Maybe the grades only apply once you’ve learnt to do all the sizes equally well! 
Coyne Crack (11d, onsight)
Towards the end of the trip winter arrived and it’s not like England where you get months of endless grey and drizzle, one day it was sunny and the next it just snowed, winter arrived over night. The main highlight of the last week was being able to shelter from the snow in a motel in Moab and drink beers in the hot tub. The onset of winter weather made me ready to go home and there was just time for me to enjoy my first day skiing before we flew back to the UK!
Snow in Indian Creek

The tent collapsing under the snow

Making up for 3 months of camping!

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