“David!!!!!!!!!!” It was no use, he couldn’t hear me over the cars and wind and tumbling stream. I was only 60 feet above him, but positioned in the chimney and above a big ledge, no noise could reach him. Or could he hear me but his voice just couldn’t reach me? Either way, I couldn’t communicate with him. Things weren’t looking good; I had to figure something out fast.
Two hours earlier, I called David on the phone, “David, what are you doing right now???”
“Nothing, was thinking about going to the game, why?”
“Wanna go climbing?” I asked.
“Sure” David accepted as nonchalantly as ever. (He has a bad habit of joining me in my bad ideas.)
“Cool! Meet me at my place ASAP, we don’t have much sunlight left!”
I gathered my gear together, downloaded some MountainProject pictures of the intended route, and filled my water bottles. David pulled up, I threw my gear in and we were off. The sun was going down, but I was confident we had plenty of time.
“Where are we climbing?” David asked.
“The Bowling Alley. There’s a sweet multipitch I wanna try there.”
That alone should have sent David. First off, he’d never even lead a sport route, and had limited lead belay experience. The most climbing we’d done together was climb a handful of times at Graveside. I would lead the routes, he would toprope them. We had even done a short sport multipitch.
“Okay,” calm as ever.
This was gonna be a blast! We were in ignorant bliss. It was a warm early Fall evening, there was a sweet breeze, and the town was alive with the excitement of the football game. Was I worried about David’s inexperience? Yeah, but we would be fine. Nothing would go wrong, I had enough experience for the both of us.
The Bowling Alley is a climbing area that’s not quite a five-minute drive from town. It’s beautiful in the canyon, and is the perfect place for an early evening climb. The sun was lower still, and we started gearing up. We found the base of the route, tied in and I started up. The rope drag was a bit heavier than I was used to because I was tailing an extra rope behind me. David didn’t have climbing shoes, so at the top of the route, I would clip my shoes to the extra rope and slide them down to him. I nervously made my way up the route, named “The Direct Route.” This pitch was rated 5.8, but felt harder. I had second rope, more gear than I was used to, and my experience trad climbing was limited. This pitch followed a seam running under a left facing dihedral. I only had a full set of stoppers, four tri-cams, and #.75, 1, 2, and 3 C3 camalots. I stitched the crack with nuts and tri-cams, wanting to save the cams for a moment when I was pumped, needing a quick go-to.
I pushed past the crux, and easily made my way up the last bit to the anchors. The hard part was done! I built my anchor, tied in, sent my shoes down to David, and pulled up on his rope till I heard “That’s me!” The pro gave him some trouble, but he made quick work of the climb. David joined me at the belay ledge. I restacked the rope, David transferred the gear to my harness. It was all downhill from here: the trad section had been conquered, and all that was left was an easy 5.9 sport pitch.
“You on belay?”
“Yup, you’re good.”
Okay, watch me on this first part, I don’t wanna fall on the anchor.”
I put in a #3, then gained a ledge. “Wait... Where do I go?” I came to an intersection, a buttress of rock loomed over me, and I had two choices: left or right. I could have sworn the description on MountainProject said the route veered left, but the section to the right looked like a 5.9 sport pitch. “I guess it’s this way” I shrugged, and started moving left. I couple sketchy moves placed me in a chimney rising up and left away from the belay. “Watch rope drag!” I shouted.
Once in the chimney, I started to get the feeling something wasn’t right. The rock was loose. And because the chimney wasn’t too steep, it filled with scree and dust. I didn’t want to down climb, and I figured we would find a way to the top through the chimney.
I started making my way up a ramp of sorts. The climbing was easy, but there were very limited spots to place protection. The chalky sandstone mocked me as I looked in vain for a spot to place a stopper or cam. I inched upwards, looking for anything that might protect me against a fall. The chimney to my right was formed by a shallow depression between a left facing dihedral and that ramp I was sliding up. To the left of the ramp was a clear drop about 100+ feet to the base of the cliff. Don’t look that way I told myself. I would be fine if I had protection in, but there was still - wait! I can sling that hole! I threaded a sling through a weak hole in the sandstone. It wasn’t much, and it would probably break if I weighted it, but it gave me the confidence to keep climbing. I edged up, inch by inch, not trusting myself enough to stand up on the sandy stone. Straddling the ridge, I moved up cautiously, looking for spots to place protection. At this point, I was too far up to attempt to go down. My only escape was up. All I had to do was make it about 30 more feet and then I would be at the top of the steep slide. Maybe there I could find a anchoring spot and bring David up to me. From there, we could walk off the top! I scooted and scooted, it seemed to take forever. And all the while, my head played my death on repeat, each one terrifying my psyche, but I couldn’t stop it. The slow progress, the runout rope, the terrifying shimmy up the saddle, and my death playing in my head added up. I had to stop! And finally I saw it!! There!!! There was a crack I might be able to stick some cams or stoppers in! I went up to the sideways crack that split the ramp in half.
I set up an anchor and pulled up as much rope as I could, but it came taut too soon. What was David doing?!?! Didn’t he know I had to pull all the rope up to belay him up to me? “Daaaaviiiiiiid!!!!!!!!” …No response. I tried tugging on the rope, used as a communication method when voices can’t be heard. I waited a second, then tried to pull up slack. It was still tight on David. “David!!!!!!!!!!” It was no use, he couldn’t hear me over the cars and wind and tumbling stream. I was only 60 feet above him, but positioned in the chimney and above a big ledge, no noise could reach him. Or could he hear me but his voice just couldn’t reach me? Either way, I couldn’t communicate with him. Things weren’t looking good; I had to figure something out fast. It was getting dark, I was stuck in a crumbly, rotten prison which felt like it would spit me out dead any second, and I couldn’t communicate with my belayer.
Things were bad. Why didn’t I set up a communication method with David? Why was I out here? Why do I even climb and get myself into situations like this? There was no time to dwell on it, my rescue was up to me and me alone. I took a deep breath and thought. If I wait for David, will he get the hint and take me off belay and climb up to me? How could he know that I was safely anchored in though? I tugged on the rope again, frantically trying to tell him that I was safe and that he should climb up to me. Pause. Nothing. There was no change in the rope. Think. My only other option was to rappel down to him. But, what if he had gotten the hint and was climbing up to me? If he fell while I was rappelling, that could spell disaster. The rope had stayed taut this whole time though. I argued with myself, then made my decision. I started setting up my ropes for a rappel. Don’t start climbing, David. Don’t start climbing! I worked as fast as I could. My anchor consisted of a piece of cord slung through the crack and a DMM stopper in that same crack. It was the worst conditions I’ve ever built an anchor in, but I did my best with what I had. It was holding and I only had a 60 foot rappel in a less-than-vertical slot. Once my ropes were set up and I was on rappel, I tugged up on the rope connected to David to see if he was climbing up to me. The rope was still tight on him. This was the moment of truth. Would my anchor hold? Was David still at the first anchor? Please hold. Pleeeaaase hold. I weighted the rope carefully. It held my weight, and I lowered as speedily as a dared, trying to be smooth and steady at the same time. I backed down the mini canyon. Each foot farther down was an amazing relief.
By this time, it was completely dark. My little circle of light showed me I was half way down to the belay. I fed the rope through my ATC with consistent pressure. I was thankful for years of experience rappelling on the same device, I controlled my speed with absolute precision. I couldn’t bounce on the line at all, I was terrified that the cord would pop out of the crack. The only thing keeping it in was my static tension on the line and the stopper. Lower. Lower. Still it held. I was at the ledge above David. “David!!!”
“What’s up!” his voice came faint from below me.
I edged over the ledge and blinded him with my light. I started laughing from all the stress rushing out of me. “That was awful!!!” I complained to him. He started asking questions as I came level with the anchor and clipped in. Relief washed over me! I started explaining what happened to me as we prepared the ropes and anchors for another rappel to the ground. He explained to me that he never wanted to take me off belay. “That was the smartest thing you could have done. I was wanting you to climb up to me, but I’m glad you didnt! That was the sketchiest anchor I’ve ever rappelled off!” We untangled the ropes, fed them through the chains, threw them to the ground, and simul-rappelled to the ground.
“The Bowling Alley,” I threw all my frustration and anxiety at the name. “Well I’m never coming back here.”
“Let’s get something to eat,” David replied.
“Best idea we’ve had all day.”