Following Cairns

Thirty people in tents rarely move quickly or in unison and it takes a while to get the herd moving this morning.  After much deliberation, tracking down the necessary gear, a double set of cams .5 through 3, we stand around for a while, wait for a bit, then hold off on action for a little longer.  We will still be the first vehicle out of the lot this morning. 
Around the campfire last night, Harrison recommended a multi pitch route for me, the South Six-Shooter tower.  The spire is visible from the campsite and the pinnacle must command an inspiring view of the valley.  The route is a 3 pitch 5.8 with a fairly substantial approach, but I’m told it is absolutely worth it. 
Brian and Paige, who I met in passing at the Red this summer, are going as a pair and need a ride, so after some question, Skye and Brent, both from Denver, are going to come up with me. Skye has been up a multi pitch route before and Brent has been climbing for 3 months. The rear bench of the Jeep is in storage, to free up space for the drive to from DC to Denver, so Paige, Brian, and Skye pile in to the back, along with the gear for the day and much of my gear for the trip.
The drive was described by 3 people, separately, as the hardest part of the climb, having caused Harrison and crew to spend more than an hour digging a car out in previous years.  It follows a winding, narrow trail for about 5 miles, to a wide river bed where there will be a prominent cairn at the start of the approach.  What that actually entailed is easily the most fun I’ve had in my Jeep to date,  and certainly the first time it really got to shine as a Jeep. 
We passed through a closed cattle gate at a sign for [Dawson’s River], 9 miles down the dirt path.  Almost immediately, there is a stepped rock shelf that drops down six feet into a gully with a sharp uphill, right turn to avoid running into the cattle fence.  Having never really done anything like this in the Jeep, I have Brent jump out to watch my line and give direction from the side.  I drop into 4 wd and creep down the ledges.  Once I clear the rock, I crank to the right to line up and gun the Jeep up the hill. She handles it like a champ and I suddenly find reinforcement that owning a Jeep is awesome.  This scenario repeats itself as I drive down terrain that I would never take a car and probably wouldn’t have tried the S10 against, the Jeep brushing off rocks, sandy slopes, tight turns and shrubbery as though it were intended to manage such terrain or something.  After a wrong turn, with a dead end into a canyon wall, and about an hour of ducking through, winding around, and bounding over, the trail indeed opened up into a wide riverbed of deep sand and we shortly located the cairn.  We arrive around 11 am.

The approach works it’s way through a flat plain, up a 100 ft lip to a Mesa, then on to a longer scree slope, about 200 ft tall, where the base of the actual climb starts. The path is clearly delineated by an entirely reasonable spacing of obvious cairns and the approach took about an hour.  Upon arrival at the start of the first pitch, we discover two things. First, clouds have rolled and the wind has picked up, shifting us from a wonderful and breezy morning to a frigid afternoon, and second, another group had approached from the opposite side and just gotten on the first pitch.  It becomes a cold 40 minute wait. 


As soon as the party ahead clears, Paige starts up the first pitch, with Brian attached to a proudly placed 5, giving her a belay.  By the time ever we relay that Paige is indirect to an anchor, the wind now making communication all but impossible, Brian’s hands are shaking uncontrollably from the cold.  We decide to try to make things move as quickly as possible. He heads up the first pitch, I give him a little space, the I start leading up for my trio.  The climb itself is an easy 5.6 with great protection,  but it meanders a long way, eventually wrapping almost entirely around a boulder.  The groves worn in the sandstone from previous ropes are testament to the absurdity of the rope drag along the route, even significantly extending each placement.  By the time I get to the anchor Paige had set up, I have to haul on the two tailing lines like a sailor hauling in the main during a storm.  Brian offers a helpful laugh at my struggle as he belays Paige up what turned out to be the middle of the second pitch.

The second pitch goes much better, but Paige gets stuck on the third and down climbs back to the start. We decide that I’ll swap in and Brian will belay me up to the third pitch, to the peak, so I won’t have to deal with two trailing ropes.  I move quickly to the point that gave Paige pause and see exactly why.  The move is a very committing mantle on to a narrow ledge, with your only protection a sketchy cam 3 feet below you, in a rock that sounds as hollow as a drum.  Even if that manages to hold, you are likely to deck on the ledge below that anyway, if not drop all the way back to the start.  There is a bolt above that, the last protection before the top out.  I take a few breaths, remind myself that it’s only an 8, and trust that I’m going to make the move.  I get my weight up and over my right hand, bump my right foot quickly and stabilize on the ledge.  I snag a draw from my harness, clip in and let out a sigh.  Good move.  I make the last couple moves to the peak and top out to see a gorgeous view of not just the valley,  but the distant snow-capped peaks to the north that I hadn’t known were there.  As I set up the belay to start bringing everyone up, I take in the incredible vista. This is what I climb for.
The sun is sinking and lighting  the western sky in an array of reds and oranges, silhouetting other formations.  The sun is setting.  The sun is setting and the wind is howling.  We took much longer than expected to get up and will definitely be walking down in the dark with light clothes.  I hand off a flask of 18 year Glenmorangie to each as they reach the summit and enjoy the view for a few seconds, prepping the rappel.  Thankfully, because we have 2 70 meter ropes we are able to get down in one rap.  Unfortunately, that #5 was horribly overcammed and stuck. Brent had left it when he came up, unable to dislodge it. Being a $120 piece of gear and an owner with a college-student budget, we weren’t leaving without it.  20 bone-chilling minutes later, Brian gets the piece out and we can start the hike out.
It turns out, following cairns in the dark is a lot harder, especially if not everyone in the group has a headlamp with them. 2 and a half hours later, we find the Jeep and make the same drive back out.  Seriously, I love my Jeep.  We make it back to camp just before 9 and Harrison tells me they were getting ready to send a search party out and were just waiting on someone to get back from the bathroom.

It was a fantastic day.