After a brief reunion the night before, the rising sun breathed fresh life into the coming day. Glad to be surrounded by amazing people, I couldn’t have been more stoked. Garth, a fellow Apogee leader and the guardian angel of my European cycling tour, had brought Anna, his girlfriend, down for a few days of climbing. Serendipitously, we also connected with Eric and Mike, two more of Garth’s friends who were bouncing around Moab before heading back up to Jackson. Surrounded by this much competence and excitement, the breakfast conversation quickly turned to plans for the day.
I had encouraged Garth to join me for the Moab section of my visit for many reasons, one of which was that I needed a quick refresher on my rope skills in the climbing department. An accomplished climber himself, he quickly jumped into some quick, but thorough lessons about safety, belaying, and sport climbing. Before I knew it, I was climbing on real rock. Garth had picked Wall Street as the site for our lesson and for our first climbs. This abrupt cliff face rises sharply above the road, looming ominously above the Colorado River below. Despite the glaring sun and desert heat, I couldn’t have imagined a better spot to reintroduce myself to climbing.
Wall Street’s ease of use makes it an incredibly popular place for climbing. With more than a few sport routes and a nice collection of trad routes, it is a great location for beginners and experts. On either side of us, groups of climbers had set up their own ropes and were quickly scaling the sheer sandstone faces. Every now and then, we would all take a break and congregate under the lone olive tree that cast leafy shadows on the sandy ground. There, we would share beta and swap ropes with one another, giving everyone an opportunity to take a crack at a variety of climbs. Every now and then, a young blue heeler puppy would careen out of the back of a truck, rolling around in the sand before clumsily wandering in our direction, hoping for attention. He was rarely disappointed. Without fail, at least one person was continuously showering the 6-week old puppy with the kind of adoration that only a puppy can invoke.
As our climbs progressed from a 5.7 warm-up to a 5.10 a/b named Lactomangulation, I realized that the strength of my fingers and hands had diminished greatly since my CrossFit days. Clearly, I needed to be gripping my steering wheel a little more tightly while I was driving… With aching forearms and a side of minor heat exhaustion, we decided to head back into Moab for a snack and a bit of downtime. After checking in at a few coffee shops, we ended up closing down the Red Rock Bakery and scored some free baked goods as a result!
Revitalized, we headed into Arches for a two-pitch trad climb up Off-Balance Rock. Disregarding the sinking sun, we hastily headed for the lumpy monument just next to the infamous Balanced Rock. Garth led the initial climb along the lower, exposed face. After clipping into the anchor bolts, he belayed Anna and I up as we followed his route upwards. The three of us crowded onto the tight ledge, leaning into the hardware that anchored us to the cliff.
From there, we headed into a tight chimney that led all the way up through the rock to the summit. Once again, Garth led, placing gear as he went. The chimney, however, was only about two or three feet wide, meaning that the only way to ascend was by pressing your knees against the rock in front of you, while wedging your back against the wall behind. It was an extremely uncomfortable climb and the going was slow. In the tight chasm, light and sound seemed to fade away, forcing you to focus on the pain in your knees and the necessary pressure for upward movement.
I headed up after Garth, wedging myself into the walls and committing to the darkness above. When I was most of the way up, a voice from below highlighted the growing darkness outside. Without realizing it, we had begun climbing later than we had hoped. Now, the setting sun was casting long shadows across the alien landscape of Arches National Park. We decided that we were running out of time for a daylight ascent, let alone for Anna to complete the climb to the top. The clock was ticking.
Minutes later, I made it to the top. I transferred my anchor and stood up to take in my surroundings. Well over a hundred feet above the surrounding desert, the wind whipped powerfully among the pillars and rounded domes of the surrounding rock. To my right, the silhouette of Balanced Rock appeared to shiver in the swirling winds. Far below, the beams of departing vehicles swept across the landscape like search beams. We were alone in the park.
Avoiding the chimney on the way down, I rappelled down an overhanging rock face until I reached Anna far below. Once I had reattached myself to the anchor, Garth began rappelling down the chimney, cleaning his gear off the route as he went. Once he was back, we started tugging on the belay rope to bring it back down to us. It didn’t budge. We whipped it back and forth hoping to dislodge it from whatever it was snagged on. No luck. Not good.
We still had our short rope, but it wasn’t long enough to get us back down to the ground. With darkness pressing in from all sides, we talked through our options. While we talked, I headed into the chimney to try to dislodge the rope from a different angle. As I tugged and whipped the rope back and forth in the darkness of the tight chasm, we shouted back and forth about the best course of action. We could rappel halfway to the ground, build another anchor, rappel the rest of the way, then return tomorrow to retrieve the rope. It was doable, but not ideal. The other option was to climb up the chimney and free the rope.
We chose the latter. With a grim smile, Garth headed back into the black chimney, his nemesis. While he simultaneously climbed and belayed himself up the rock, I anchored the other rope to my harness. In the silence of the desert, Garth’s grunts of discomfort and frustration punctuated the moonlight serenity below. Thirty minutes later, he had reached the top and began setting up his ropes to rappel down to us.
Eventually, Anna and I looked up to see Garth rappelling down the wall above us. This time, when we pulled the rope down to us, it came freely. Elated, I tied into the rope for the final rappel down to the ground. With the sand beneath my feet, I tore my climbing shoes off and let my constricted, painful feet breath the fresh night air. Normally, I only spend an hour or two in my shoes. This climb had lasted the better part of five hours. With the feeling returning to my feet, I provided a fireman’s anchor for Anna as she headed down the rope to meet me. By the time Garth made it to the ground, it was past 11:00 and we were all ready for bed.
One we were back in camp, I wolfed down a can of soup before curling up in my sleeping bag. The persistent winds rocked me into a deep sleep.