Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mission: Failed (But Not Really)

Definitely a day to remember. Skyed it to August Canyon on a Tuesday afternoon, no one around, temperature soaring well over 100. Actually, there were quite a few cars in the parking lot considering the temp, maybe 10 or so.

I felt very privileged to be going on such a decadent adventure, and able to write it off as work. As always on such scorching days, the others at the mountain were the hard-people, the ripped dudes and dudettes who bound up and down Camelback like ibexes. I had my big gray approach pack:

Inside was an orange, two big Nalgenes of ice water, my 160' rope, harness and assorted gear, sunblock, knife, phone and climbing shoes. Notice I didn't say chalk bag. I left that in the Jeep. Realized that sad fact just as I got up to the top of the second handrail section, too far to go back. Who needs chalk. Just a crutch, really. Even on a hot day like this, possibly the only kind of day when chalk might be necessary, I talked myself into believing it wouldn't matter. Thankfully, it didn't. But it could have on a different day, on a different route.

As the firefighters had said, once I turned right at the top of the handrail parts (not the first steep part, but the second one), I found the class 4 back door to August Canyon. I passed this route at first, believing it might be the 5.7, Line of Fire. The trail keeps going from here so I followed it until it dawned on me that, no, as much as I didn't want to believe it, this was the class 4. Karabin's Camelback pamphlet calls it a 5.2. This is the spot the rescue victims climbed, according to a fire captain I talked to. Though the firefighters call this a class 4, I'd say it's at least a 5.0 or 5.1. Some moves are comparable to a 5.5 in the gym.

I had walked up to this thing and taken a closer look on the first pass, so I knew the beginning was doable. But it had the look of a serpent's mouth to me - it was balls-to-the-wall free solo and I'd wanted no part of it.

A few minutes later I found myself at its base again. I put on my climbing shoes and danced up the first 40 feet just to see how things were going to go, ever mindful of how I would down-climb. I decided to practice that start twice because I knew I'd be coming down with less energy, and I wanted to try it with the pack.

Here's a picture that ran with the blog post I wrote for NT.

This was a mini-epic for a few different reasons. One is that I was alone, and the southeast side of the Head was deserted, which it probably would have been even if it wasn't about 107. The heat meant few people were hiking the Echo Canyon trail -- put it all together and that means if I fall, odds are slim anyone would know for a while, especially if I was unconscious and couldn't yell for help. In that case, I'd be totally screwed. This is one of the realities of solo adventure, but the risk, paradoxically is also one of the joys. Taking on heavy responsibilities and meeting challenges, in this setting, is somehow like stealing jewels from the dragon's lair.

The climbing was easy, but only just so. The footholds were solid and positive, but thin, so that my heels stuck out on much of it. I saw at least three bolts on this section. After the first 20 or 30 feet the angle mellowed out and more good holds appeared. The rock quality, however, took a turn for the crappy. (No more bolts, either.)

A solid route exists there, but I had to pick my way carefully 'cause this was no place for a rush job. I wasn't gripped on the ascent. Highly focused, yes. I was happy to make that right-hand turn at the top there and ease on up to the August Canyon plateau.

This is a shot of my hiking shoes and a water bottle that I left at the bottom. There's a big eyebolt up here, but I think rapping it would take a double rope. My guess is this about 100 feet up; the eyebolt might be a bit more.

This was from a little further up. It was fun scrambling, pretty much, from the top of the 5.1 to this point.

I found this cozy little nook and thought it might be the access point to the north face. After I hopped up on the bulgy part in the middle, though, I heard a loud buzzing sound -- bees. My catlike reflexes went into action -- or so it seemed in retrospect. I'm sure it didn't look pretty, but I jumped off the rock with a bit of a spin, landing in that sandy part there and running back out nearly in panic. My only thought was to put as much distance as possible between me and the hive before they targeted me. I knew a swarm attack here could be deadly -- probably the biggest objective danger at Camelback. You could be as cautious as a mouse and a world-class climber to boot and still end up dead with the venom of 500 stings in you. Or maybe you only get one or two hundred stings before you do something crazy and slip off a cliff face. I tiptoed back in here after I realized they weren't coming after me. Sure enough, there was a hive in there. Look at the formation on the left -- see how it looks like a whale lying on its right side, with the big crack becoming the dark line of its mouth and the pocket above it the whale's small, black, set-back eye? The hive is the eye. Dozens of bees were flying in and out of it every second, and I tried not to breathe too heavily, thinking they might not like that. I wondered -- if they attacked, which would be the best course of action: Try a single-line rappel or down-climb the 5.1. Having a rope to descend would be safer, of course, except the bees would annihilate you during the set-up. You'd have to do it blind, with your shirt pulled above your face, else you'd need your hands to scoop the bees out of your eyes. A quick figure eight on a bight, quick biner clip, then either batman (possibly tearing all the skin off your hands) or rappel, but the rappel takes another minute to hook up and the bees are all over your arms, your chest, your neck. The rope would be tangled -- of course it would. A bad tangle would mean death. Then there's Option B -- climbing. As mentioned, the bees go for the eyes and mouth -- it might not be possible to downclimb and keep the bees from the eyes at the same time. Blindness could occur rather quickly as the eyes swelled up. But route-finding on the 5.1 is essential. Going more than a few feet off route could mean disaster. You'd quickly downclimb to a blind alley, then have to climb back up and try another path, assuming instinct didn't keep you downclimbing until a slip occurred. The guy I interviewed for the Trib managed to downclimb Hart Route while being stung by wave after wave of bees, but I know Hart Route fairly well and it's hard to get off route there. It's very straight-forward. Not like this 5.1, which requires extra focusing of the eyes just to see the route under ideal conditions. Whether Option A or B would be chosen would probably depend on the severity of the attack. A heavier attack might prompt a decision to downclimb, though in fact the downclimb might only be possible under a lighter bombardment, which would mean the right decision would be counter-intuitive and thus less likely to be chosen in an emergency.

Here's evidence of some of the "gardening" the firefighters did. This was after I found the notch that led to the north face. There's a wonderful little cubby spot here with a sublime view. There's also a fair sprinkling of garbage up here, lots of empty water bottles which I assume are also from the rescue.

The view from this notch is fantastic, and strikingly different than what 99 percent of hikers will ever see at Camelback -- as are many of the views from the various climbing routes. This scene looks north past a section of the Echo Canyon trail. That's the main bouldering boulder in the middle of the trail slight left of center.

A view of some of the upper bluffs.

Here's another reference from where this was. Above is a shot is from the parking lot...

And this is a shot of the parking lot from that spot. I still find it hard to believe it's 400 feet to the ground from this perch. More like 250 or 300 max, I'd say.

Anyway, I consider the mission a failure because I never made it to the rescued dudes' perch. I descended about 40 or 50 feet from the notch opening, down a fairly clean dry water fall -- not totally dry, though -- there were at least three pools of water ranging from about one to two feet in diameter, each with a dozen or so bees taking a sip. I gingerly picked my way around those and stopped about 40 feet above the perch. I would go no farther, making this trip a failure.

The downclimbing from that point became sketchier, in the neighborhood of the upper part of the 5.1. It looked potentially doable, but it was about 6:30 or so by then. I decided to abort the mission since it was going to take some time to climb back up to the notch, trek across August Canyon to the downclimb, then do the downclimb (the prospect of which had left a seed of anxiety growing in my stomach from the second I reached the top of it).

This is such a great area -- I'd love to go back soon. Exploring around the Canyon would be fun, and I'd like to find the four-chain rappel for Suicide and Suicide Direct, which should be accessible a bit further west in the canyon. The growth gets kind of thick in places and the potential for bees or rattlesnakes are the only bad things about this place. It's about as good as it gets for a desert hideaway.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Initial Recon

Here's the rescue site outlined in yellow. Had a good chat with the firefighters today - it's sure tough to try to second-guess them. I will withhold judgment either way until I do the class 4 up the back side and climb to this spot. It looks a little hairy to me in terms of exposure. The climbing might be easy, but one slip and it's a 400' death fall. Even from the bottom there appear to be decent pro opportunities, though that's another thing that can only be verified from the actual spot. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to explore the area after my interviews. And to some extent I misjudged just how long it would take to get to the site, since until today I didn't know where it was. One surprise was the height of the site from the ground. These guys estimate 400-450'. And it's obvious there are no good ledges with pro placements on that wall directly below the site (which is mostly blocked by rocks in the foreground, in this picture). Rappelling with my 160' rope not an option. But it would hardly be necessary -- the only logical place from that roost is back up and over, onto the back side of those bluffs, and the firefighters say that is class 4. I may consider fixing my rope back behind that "v" notch to the right of my yellow circle. It sure is a long way down. Here's a picture of the firefighters I never used for the NT blog:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sunday Appointment

Talked to a captain from Phoenix Fire -- we're going to Camelback on Sunday so he can show me the site of the rescue. I'm now convinced this will make a good blog for work. Still not sure what terrain is like near the cubby where the "victims" holed up as they waited for help. It looked easy on the video, but there's a 300' cliff right below, supposedly. The captain tells me these guys ascended the headwall from a 140' class 4 section located on a southern exposure accessible from the summit trail by taking a right at the top of the steepest handrail section. I think that's where the 5.7 "Line of Fire" route is, something I've always wanted to climb. The dudes hiked all over August Canyon while looking for an easier way down and eventually found the cubby. That's the point where they called 911, I guess. Captain says the weaker climber was scared out of his wits. So now the only question in my mind is whether or not the fire department response could have been minimal instead of the multi-hour, multi-fire-station event it was. One firefighter with climbing shoes goes up the Class 4 with a backpack full of climbing gear and ice-water. He belays the guys as they climb down. The only problem with my scenario: Lawyers. If something went wrong, the family would be asking, "Why didn't you use a helicopter and 30 firefighters?"

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Night Hike

Started from the bottom of the hill, the last parking space on Echo Canyon Drive, just south of McDonald. As before, I was impressed that the lot was full. It was 105 and humid, with storm clouds on the horizon. I threw a flashlight in my backpack due to the late start -- 6:50 -- and fast-walked up the asphalt. Warmed up by the outings from last week, I bounded up the rocks like a kangaroo. Oh, there were a couple of times I thought my heart would explode out of my chest, and I had a head rush near the windy point that looks south near the top, but otherwise felt terrific. Pinched a nerve in my right shoulderblade while reaching around to put the iPhone earbuds in the backpack -- somethin' had to go wrong, I guess, but that cleared right up. Came down in the dark and was happy to have the flashlight. I passed a few folks coming down who were moving at a snail's pace, seemingly close to being trapped by the darkness. I didn't worry about them 'cause they were all near the eastern headwall section, where you'd have to be a complete idiot to miss the trail. Three people were still moving up with the last of the light long gone. I've been thinking a lot about the hikers who got lost, heat-exhasted and needed three fire stations and a helicopter to help them get down. I put in a public records request with Phoenix Fire and will talk to some of the guys who did the rescue. Once I get the location nailed down I'll go out there and try to rate the climbing. Seeing the video of one of the "victims" walking around the area gave me hope I'd be able to climb to the cove his buddy had to recuperate in. The firefighters rappelled to the spot, which I could always do, (using my Gibbs ascenders to come up, if need be). But I suspect it's reachable by class 3 or 4 terrain.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Camel's Head

This looks like the skull of some long-dead, big-eyed bird or crocodile, doesn't it? It was one of the pleasures from my day on the Camel's head, besides the joy of just being out for an afternoon on the mountain. With a few hours to kill today, I opted to try to find the spot where those yahoos got stuck. Now, I know as well as anyone how tricky the head bluffs can be to traverse. But I figure I ought to be able to climb to anywhere they did and return to my car safely, and without too much problem. As mentioned, the exact location of the dugout they'd found was hard to pinpoint from the media coverage. I never found it, but I did see a few possible candidates. I decided my true goal would be to thoroughly explore the westernmost high bluff on the head, with the hopes of finding a back door to the Ridge Route/Yellow Wall plateau. A wonderfully long rappel point can be found there, but as far as I know the minimum climbing rating to the plateau is at least 5.1 (the top part of Yellow Wall) and not safe to free solo. I suspect there's a safer class 3 or 4 scramble that gets you there, but I didn't see it today. What I did see was the western bluff and the area around the Camel's Foot. Though I began at about 1 p.m., the climate was kinder today, only about 100 degrees, with the occasional blessed cloud and a friendly breeze.
Took Bobby's Rock trail to north side of bluff, scrambled up class 4 terrain to the trail system on top of the bluff. I'd been there before and knew to look for these markers:

At the top I also found this "gem" mounted on a rock:

Isn't that sweet?

Here's the full context for the arch. A spectacular Camelback formation not easily visible to the masses.

A few years ago, my friend and I were on the Ridge Route plateau looking at the arch from the other side. It dawned on us that a dog was standing in it -- we decided it must have been a coyote. No sane pet would ever try the climbing route up to the eye. I'm still not sure if 4th class will get you there (and to the set of bluffs directly east) or if I'll need to break out the ropes. I need to pick up a copy of Marty Karabin's guide. A guy I met last year at the Pyramid boulder told me he'd climbed about 100 routes at Camelback. Not all of those are documented, undoubtedly, but if I run into him again I'll ask him about the route possibilities near the Foot. I saw a few slabby gullies that might lead to the top of this formation and beyond. As it was on Sunday, I decided I'd have to rappel about 90 feet to the base of a cliff, then scramble up what looks like a loose system of trails on the south face, behind some houses. I might have done it except for my landing spot was too close to the undefined back yard area of a multi-million-dollar home. The space could be private property -- gotta be respectful of that. But when I tried to find another break to the east, I met only sheer cliffs, a very steep and loose and gully, and slanted gravel zones directly above more sheer cliffs. I had a very enjoyable break in the shadow of an overhanging boulder, chomping on Ritz crackers and drinking chilled Tang. Spent about two hours scoping out the bluff but saw no signs of the rescue.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Summer isn't usually rescue season

This is a scene from an impressive rescue effort on Camelback July 30, ripped from Channel 3's Web site. You can read all it about on their site at Two young dudes, Sean Sullivan and Anthony Edwards, thought they could handle a romp across the headwall. They were wrong. They ended up stuck in a small canyon somewhere -- it's always hard to tell from the news coverage exactly where these things occur. TV news people never have a clue when it comes to mountain rescue stories, most of them having come from stations in other states. One of them said he was vomiting and thought he'd gotten heat stroke. In the raw footage interview of Edwards never makes it quite clear what their flight plan, if any, was. A helicopter plucked one guy out before dark and the other guy sometime that night, or maybe the next morning. That's one thing I love about Camelback -- with the right set of circumstances, people have true life-threatening mountain adventures, right here in the heart of a big city. If you're not careful, you can even lose your life. I don't think it's too dramatic to say every outing to Camelback contains potential risk. What a wonderful thing, too. Camelback is a special place that challenges all parts of your being, physical and otherwise, no matter who you are. The fittest folks can find mind-blowing adventure here as well as the most unprepared, out-of-shape folks who stop after the first staircase and just gaze at the geology.