One of the most striking parts I remember about Free Solo, featuring Alex Honnold trying free solo 3000 granite feet of El Cap, was when he was filling out his mental health questionnaire before an MRI to measure his fear tolerance. He was discussing in classic Honnold fashion about how much of a no big deal free soloing is, but then pauses on a question. “Am i depressed… huh…” he contemplates.
Death Valley feels like a place people are told to visit but then don’t know what to do when they get here. It’s an American road trip destination where people drive through to stop for ten minutes at various pull offs. However, if you are a canyoneer and don’t mind a solid hike there are nearly one hundred documented canyons out here with big drops and with no water (rated A). Just make sure you have a GPS device and all the beta recorded before you go, there is zero cell service here. Unfortunately, the style of canyon seems to lend itself towards kairn anchors: piles of rocks stacked on top of a single slung rock. Our first experience with this sketchy cannoneer “anchor type”.
Some of the most enjoyable trips I’ve had are pulling into to medium-small climbing areas where I have no expectations and being blown away by the rock and route quality. The availability of camping and access. The lack of crowds. Places like the crystal crusted granite Needles of South Dakota, the steep North Shore cliffs of the Palisade Head in Minnesota and splitter gray cracks of Woodfords Canyon in East Tahoe. On my pilgrimage out to the Great Salt Lake for the Thanksgiving holiday, Sadie and I discovered a new such area in Saint George. Choosing to leave the lines behind at Red Rock for exploring the mysterious 1000+ routes around Saint George just two hours away.
I live my life in nature, with the environment, so I’m especially invested in conservation, keeping things wild and #protectpublicland. I bicycle everywhere, eat mostly vegetarian, don’t fly that much and only rely on a car to go to the mountains so I have felt particularly good minimizing my climate impacts. However, driving tens of thousands of miles and flying tens of thousands more over the last year made me start to worry I had unbalanced this equation. People who earn more, produce more carbon and by taking a sabbatical with so many flights, I definitely felt like I was #livingThatLife. What to do?
The Rae Lakes Loop is a 38 mile, ~8,000 ft elevation gain loop that, even with those statistics, makes it maybe the easiest loop in SEKI. Not only that, it hosts strikingly wide valley views of lake filled meadows contrasted with high sierra alpine. Finally, the whole loop is abundant in water either from large rivers or larger lakes 90% of its length. I discovered, on trail, these are the reasons the Rae Lakes Loop is a common name among outdoor enthusiasts who are often used to the steep High Sierra in a water starved California.
“I could actually die or get seriously injured out here”, plunged into my brain stem at 12,500 ft, six hours into my climb of Temple Crag on Moon Goddess Arete. I had just lifted my foot off a refrigerator sized block that had shifted and nearly tumbled 1000 ft down the mountain. I also didn’t love the single cam in a short horizontal crack laid 30 ft diagonally to my left as the last piece of protection I had placed. This was what the last hour was like as I searched on lead to find a long ‘4th class ledges’ traverse using conflicting information among deteriorating rock quality. Things had changed drastically since my emboldened attitude that we could probably link neighboring Celestial Arete Venusian Blind with a scramble or traverse up Mt. Galey.
The California Needles can be described as alpine cragging. A mix of Lover’s Leap style multi-pitch and Toulumne Meadows dome extrusions with decent approaches. Most climbs are on splitter cracks 5.9 or above. The cracks vary more than Indian Creek or Yosemite, sometimes widening out into slab sections. Fist or wider is not uncommon on a ‘splitter hand crack’ and we used our #4 more often than not. Over the course of three days I was thoroughly tired after climbing a total of 3000+ ft of 5.9+ classic routes. Definitely a place for any 5.9 and especially 5.10 climber to check out.
Shuteye Ridge is a place I love sharing with people. It has crazy interesting granite unlike I’ve seen anywhere else with its dark runnels and plates of knobs. It is also the place I lead sport for the first time, went on my first multi-pitch and placed my first trad gear (all in one trip!). On a Memorial Day weekend when you cannot seem to get away from traffic and people, even one of the most popular areas of Shuteye (Big Sleep) was a respite. Yes, there was a ten car group of 4×4’ers and a few other groups out on the big sleep slab camp area. However, we never waited in line and most of the time were completely on our own or only ‘near’ one other party.
This last year I’ve been trying to break into 5.10- trad. Being the stronger climbing partner of my team, that often meant pushing myself on lead. However, decking from blown gear last August lost a lot of my lead head and confidence to climb, even at the levels I was previously confident. However, I’ve had a resurgence over the last month of not only getting my confidence back but pushing into 5.10 trad. I’m really proud of myself and feel empowered by what I’ve learned.
Leaving Las Vegas after four full days climbing on abnormally bomber red, black and tan sandstone, I found myself contemplating how special the climbing community really is. This trip centered around a meetup hosted by Mountain Project for Admins of their climbing areas. Here, I met climbers from the Gunks, Devil’s Lake, SoCal, Oregon and Quebec, route bolters out of Idaho, traditional first ascentionists from Red Rock, boulderers from Grand Junction, gym owners in Missouri and the people who started Mountain Project and Mountain Bike Project. I also climbed one day with a person sporting a Senior’s National Park pass and another with an existing friend I originally met online, trying to climb near Mt. Rushmore.