September, '05


Pushing Boundaries  on the

Tower of Babel

with Pavel and Ian



    I suspect that if you asked 10 climbers how they go about picking their big climbing objectives you would get 10 different answers. My take on the equation is straight-forward. You tally up your team's skill and chutzpa and then consult the guidebook for the biggest thing that you think you can pull off. The trick is to push your limits but still come back safely and with the summit. It's a fine line.

    A combination of circumstances this autumn brought myself and two of my strongest partners to Moab. It was time for one of the more intimidating towers. At the top of Pavel's tick list was Standing Rock in Monument Basin. Complicating that plan was the fact that Koren, Heidi, and Amanda were with us on this trip and planned to bike while we climbed. In the end, this and the lack of a suitable vehicle moved us to consider other objectives. I should mention also that Ian, who had declared his retirement at the end of our Bugaboos trip a month earlier, was talking seriously about going biking with the girls. I went to work on him immediately.

    Eventually, we decided that Zenyatta Entrada at 5.6, C3 seemed marginally attainable. None of us had ever climbed in Arches but we figured the stories about the soft Entrada sandstone were exaggerated and that it would be no worse than the Fishers.  After spending the first day at the River Road Dihedrals in intermittent rain, I had almost cajoled Ian into having a go at the Tower with us. After all, he had just gone up and finished the crux of a route that had kicked my arse.

    Back at camp, the final nail in Ian's biking coffin was the 20 mile mountain bike ride the girls were planning the next day. He was in and with his addition to the team I felt a twinge of opprobrium at having talked my friend into attempting a somewhat dangerous climb. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything and let him go biking. I kept this to myself of course not wanted to further complicate anyone's head space.

    Pavel was as game as ever to climb and was having a great season. He had quit his job to go to the Bugaboos and upon our return he traveled to Estes Park for a week of climbing with Lisa which culminated in an ascent of D1. The Moab trip was the last segment of his vacation before he headed back to California to look for work. The Tower of Babel seemed to fit his bill.

     At the base I received only silent looks when I asked who wanted the first pitch. It seemed fair enough that I should take the first pitch since I was the motivation behind the route choice. Weighed down with an aid rack and climbing in boots I found the 5.6 moves off the ground to be spicy with only a poor #5 Camelot for pro. Soon I was on the top of a 15 foot boulder and looking at the pin scarred crack above.  Several exciting, offset nut placements got me started and in a couple hours I was clipping the anchors at the top of the pitch. Things were looking up. There was a spacious ledge, the bolts had been recently replaced by the ASCA, and best of all, I had two pitches before I had to think about leading again.

    Ian took off next on the "C1" second pitch. Poor Ian. He keeps getting sandbagged in the desert. His first tower was the Titan. Then we climbed Dolomite Spire for his second aid route and I hurt my ankle forcing him to lead most of the route, and now he was stuffing black aliens into some of the softest rock any of us had ever climbed. None-the-less, he was managing famously until a black alien he was standing on shifted and little pebbles started to rain out of the crack from around the placement. After that he was just a blur of motion slamming shady placements into the crack trying to avert a fall. It was a tense moment for all of us. I tried to will him to success from the belay, not wanting to see my friend hurt his ankles on the lower angle rock below. Again I debated the wisdom of pushing someone to climb in the desert who isn't wholly committed on their own. When he finally finished the pitch, I asked how he was doing. He yelled in an audibly shaken but purposefully comedic voice... "I DON'T KNOW.... I CAN'T THINK!"  I mentioned to Pavel that he was really going to love that lead in three weeks and we shared a somewhat uneasy smile as we prepared to jug.

    Pavel was up next and his pitch started with thin pin scars on a steep shield-like wall. I thought it looked grim. Adding to his excitement was the wind which had picked up to a gusty 25MPH. Ian belayed while I took pictures and held the tail line to prevent it from blowing around the tower and getting stuck. Pavel said very little and frowned a lot, which we all did on lead. He worked his way up slowly and steadily and found a bolt at the pendulum point. This took him down and left to the lip of an overhang where he was standing on a hook. A few minutes passed and he yelled down something about not having any other placements though the wind made it difficult to hear. After looking around a little more on tension, he high-stepped the hook and then stepped onto the top of the hook itself using it for friction to gain the nice hand crack that led to the end of the pitch.   Wheee...  Pavel, who climbed El Cap twice the previous season said it was one of his hardest aid leads.

    Having no chance to make the top that day, we fixed ropes and went to find the girls in town at the Brewery. Ian was conflicted again as we had hoped to climb the route in one day, leaving him free the next day to bike with the girls. Now he was torn between finishing the climb and keeping his girlfriend happy. Fortunately, Heidi was exceedingly understanding and told him he would regret it if he didn't finish. I was already giving him grief about how he should enjoy the summit since he had led some hard stuff to help get us there. I suppressed another twinge of guilt for being such an oppressive influence on my friend in a matter of some danger. The thing is, some part of Ian wants to do this stuff. His mind is not malleable. He could easily tell me that he's got my bitch and he will do whatever he wants, thank you. Maybe I'm an enabler... not a pusher.

   In the morning, all three of us jugged to the top of the fixed lines.

    The next lead was mine and offered a couple bolts off of the belay and then some somber placements up to a big roof. I thought this was perhaps the hardest section of aid I had ever climbed. The placements just below the roof anchor were alarming. After clipping this anchor for protection, I started to relax. I was surprised by how easy it was to tension around the corner from the anchor and I found a great .3 Camelot to get me moving again. Soon, I was over the roof, lassoing fixed pins with my aiders, and traversing straight to the right to end my last lead of the climb. The next pitch was the crux hooking pitch and it was Pavel's. Life was damn good!

    Pavel's lead took him a up a tiny crack on brass offsets and aliens for 40 feet and then traversed to the right in some small overhangs on better gear. Once through the traverse, he found a newer bolt and above that, nothing but holes in the rock. He stood there for a while looking at the possibilities before committing to something in one of the boxed out pin scars. More shenanigans would be required but the end of the difficulties were only 20 feet away. Time passed. Then the hooks came out and as he shifted his weight to the first hook, it blew and he almost went sailing. Shaken, he climbed back down to the bolt to regroup. This was not a place to be taking falls. There were small ledges big enough to catch a toe and snap an ankle if things went awry up higher. He went up again and looked around and then came back to the bolt and asked if I wanted to have a go at it. Well that was an easy question... "No thanks, you can go ahead and finish ". Ian and I had a good chuckle until we realized that I was going up to try. Then only Ian chuckled, and only halfheartedly.

    Not wanting the girls to arrive before we finished this pitch, I climbed up Pavel's placements without testing any of them risking a serious pendulum by the start of the traverse. I clipped into the other side of the rope with a draw to prevent this and started moving more slowly. By the time I got to the bolt I was feeling relaxed and confident. I wanted this climb badly. Looking up at the hooking section, I was first struck by how low angle it was. I suspected it could be free climbed at 5.10 or less. However, as I examined that possibility I realized that the rock was sandy and the air was big and stepping out of my aiders was scary and I borrowed hooks for crying out loud, and I was wearing boots and I needed my mom.

    Committing to a tri-cam in a very boxed out pin scar I eased up off the bolt. The placement was really marginal but I had a bolt just below so I felt reasonably safe. I remembered a fall in Zion from a similar placement and quickly tried to put that our of my head. Next up was a big alien in a pin box. This placement was also dismal and was making grating noises as I stood on it, trying to grind out of the scar. Oddly, it felt good to get on the next skyhook placement. At least it didn't feel like a time-bomb. I stood there trying to see the sequence that would see me through the last of the difficulties. I was at a loss and starting to worry when I found an incut bathole and stood on my first bathook. This didn't feel as good as the skyhook but it still felt fairly solid. I looked up at the next hook placement and then down. The tri-cam had fallen out. Deeming the possibility of down aiding unappealing I concentrated on finishing. One more skyhook placement and I could see the anchors 8 feet away. Having run out of positive hook placements, I put all the hooks on the bottom of one aider and started gently whipping it up at the anchor slings. 14 tries later, I actually slotted the biner the hooks were attached to around a large protruding angle piton and hauled myself up to grab the anchor with great relief.

    I fixed the ropes and sat down to relax. We were going to make it!  I was on a low angle shoulder and the summit was only 30 feet above me. Looking down I saw that the girls had arrived which meant that we were already late.  Not good!  I called down to them in my most pleasant voice and Heidi took some great pictures of us from the ground. After watching for awhile, one of them yelled to us that "Time was up; time to come down!". We figured it was Heidi since she had to work at 6am the next day and had a 6hr drive home.  It turned out that it was Koren, my wife, and she was joking (well, sort of). The girls disappeared into town for some food and drinks and I presumed to lambaste us for being selfish and egotistical not turning back once we knew we were going to be late. I felt very deserving of such abuse and hoped that they would be mad at me and not Ian. Ian was the one keeping them from leaving.  Warding off another twinge, the addict in me surfaced and my internal monologue became a stream of reasons we should finish the climb and stand on the summit.   'We had worked so hard, We were so close. We would regret it if we bailed now...' 

    I noted with mixed feelings that my thought process was the same whether I was trying to convince a partner to climb something or myself.

     While Ian cleaned and Pavel jugged, I scouted out the final pitch and plugged 6 mediocre cams into a horizontal crack hoping to save time. I tied into this and scouted out the last few moves which were going to require a crazy boulder problem on soft rock or a quick hook placement. I left a skyhook in place and returned to the anchor as Ian arrived.  I told him what the last pitch looked like and he surprised me by saying "Good I want to stand on a hook".   Hmm...    We talked a little about the girls and how much trouble we were causing them and ourselves but Ian seemed to want to finish as well.

     In short order Ian was tied in and looking at the hook placement wondering how to manage it. The rock was severely overhanging right under the hook and we feared that Ian's feet would swing under the roof and that this may cause the hook to fail or him to pop off backwards. To prevent this we tied a rope from me to the bottom step of the aiders to hold them steady.   Ian climbed up like he was on a bomber #2 Camelot. This was another tense moment for all of us. The pro was well below his feet and he was going to fall onto a 45 degree slab if he came off. Did I mention that this pitch is also rated C1.  My internal monologue surfaced again... We're so close... but the girls are pissed... but we're so close... that is some sketchy shit Ian is doing... we're so close.... I don't like inventing new techniques up here ... please don't fall please don't fall... you can do it...

    Then it was over and Ian was standing above the final difficulties. He fixed the line and continued unroped to the summit. Pavel and I followed and we all shared a fleeting moment on the summit in the warmth of success, camaraderie and the Moab sun. I was elated. This dream had been with me for years and I had finally achieved it with the help of two of my best friends. For now, my inner demons were sated. All we had to do was get down safely, find the girls, and tell them that we loved them and that were sorry for having inconvenienced them so selfishly.

    Back at Eddie's we sorted gear and said our farewells. I wanted to hang out for an hour or an evening and revel in our experiences, but time was against us and we all needed to depart.

    Until next time my friends...

Ian and Pavel getting ready for the crushing 5 minute approach.

Ian trying to get amped up for the days shenanigans.

Sheep Rock.

Pavel belaying me on the first pitch.

  I started feeling better once I was in the corner and had a few decent pieces below me.

Pavel experiences the intensity of aid belaying.

This large picture shows the line up to the roof on the 4th pitch.

Coming out of retirement for one last tick before he has to buckle down and finish his PhD, Ian arrives at the top of the first pitch.

Pavel stopping for a desert "classic" on his way back to California after climbing the Diamond's D1 with Lisa.

Ian wondering how he got hoodwinked into this desert bullshit after declaring himself retired at the conclusion of our Bugaboos trip.

Pavel arrives at the first belay with a smile that says... "ahh Ian's lead".

The master at work on his third desert tower.

He says he doesn't know if he likes it but look at that smile.  :)

"ok........ ok...... ok...............ok........"

He may only have 3 aid routes under his belt, but he has 15+ years of trad experience.

The joviality that comes from knowing you just finished your lead and don't have anything to do this pitch but watch...

Ian gives the typical facial expression while leading a desert aid climb.

Ian, about to get a closer look at that thin. overhanging crack above that is purportedly C1.

This is right before Ian's crumbling black alien incident. (which made me change positions!)

Wheee... ain't sandbagged C1 great!

Guess who get's the next pitch?

Ian at the top of his lead feeling a little mentally disheveled. 

Pavel leaves the belay with his aid-face on for the thin and funky pin scars that begin the third pitch.

Climbing into the wind on the third pitch.

The Organ.

Ahh, the joy of aid belaying.

Of course if you ask Ian to look at the camera you get This Expression.  :)

Check out the wind effect on the tag line as Pavel grapples with the 3rd pitch.

Ian and me at the windy third belay.

Pavel taking a moment to switch to rock shoes for the stand on the hook shenanigans.

Time for a beer.

Retreating at the end of day one with the Three Gossips silhouetted on the Organ.

Self-portrait before my lead.

Pavel wondering if the bolt will stop me before I come crashing into the belay.

Be cool... breath....

Around the roof and trying to lasso the fixed pin that marks the start of the fixed gear traverse.

Pavel cleaning the roof pitch.

Ian self-portrait.

Pavel taking off on the super-thin 5th pitch.

A closer view...

There aren't many options on the 5th pitch other than the crack.

Ian with an expression that says, we're running late to meet the girls, it's hotter than hell up here, and the next lead is mine.

Looking back across the fixed traverse on the 4th pitch. This is a Large Picture.

A close-up of Pavel on the upper traverse.

Our team high on the route.

Heidi took theses photos from the ground which is where we were supposed to be at this point in the day.

Ian walking up the ramp to inspect the hook he will use to get us up the final obstacle.

The final moves to the anchor.

Here's a Closer View.

Not a view you get from the retirement seats eh brother?

Summit self-portrait.

Pavel making the final unroped scramble to the summit to join us.

Oh yeah!

It's nothing but smiles on the way down.

The final rap.

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