Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trip Report: Sour Mash and Windy Rappel Epics

The Black Velvet Wall tops out at '1200 feet, and is home to excellent bolted, mixed, and tradition climbs such as Prince of Darkness, Sour Mash, and Epinephrine.
Photo: Matt Kuehl

It was our second day climbing on the Black Velvet Wall, and today we were determined to move more efficiently. We had expected our first day to be an adjustment day, and after sitting in a car for two days we knew we'd be moving slower, not to mention it was our first multipitch climb together as a team. There weren't any crucial mistakes on day one, but rather just some unnecessary hang-ups. Frequently tangled double ropes, extremely sore and numb feet, and running out of water before the last pitch were just a few of the problems we encountered. The route we climbed day one was "Prince of Darkness" 5.10d, and it was well protected with bolts after the first pitch, and the risk of long dangerous falls was pretty much out of the picture. We had picked this route for this very reason, and we knew it would be a safe climb to "warm up" on, while getting all the kinks worked out in our multipitch communication and team work.

A topo map of the Black Velvet Wall found at the base.
Photo and find: Andy Hansen

Day two meant improvements and efficiency. We had already done the approach, and knew we could hike to the wall in 45 minutes without getting lost. We brought more water and food to fuel us along the way. We were both feeling well energized for another full day, the only exception being that I still couldn't feel either of my big toes due to mild nerve damage because of the relentless small foot holds on "Prince of Darkness" the day before. Today we were going to attempt "Sour Mash" 5.10a. It featured seven pitches of mixed and tradition pitches, and we hoped it would present us with a much different climbing style than what we had just endured the day before. Being a tradition/mixed climb meant that there was a little more risk due to the lack of permanent protection on several of the pitches, as well as being more difficult to navigate. Tradition climbs such as this require the climbers to place their own gear in the cracks and features of the rock to clip the rope into as they progress upwards. Traditional climbing is the heart and soul of rock climbing. The pioneers of sport were all traditional climbers well before the mass production and development of more sophisticated climbing gear. Climbing in this traditional way gave climbers a versatile way to use temporary protection on untouched rock and was the most common way to achieve ascents that had previously been unclimbed. Although this type of climbing is not the only option that exists today, it is still extremely popular and a fundamental element to the sport of rock climbing. "Sour Mash" felt like a mix of several climbing eras and skill sets; but I just deemed it classic. The route utilized a nice mix of tradition climbing pitches, with a little added security at points because of the (mostly) bolted anchors and several bolts placed on route in sections of the rock to protect the sometimes crack-less terrain. But enough about climbing lets talk about EPICS.

I love apples... 'nuff said.
Photo: Andy Hansen

After pulling through the excellent crux sixth pitch, Andy and I had decided to lower and call it a day. We enjoyed the view of Vegas in the distance from a small ledge about '650 feet off the deck as we coiled up our ropes and prepared for a rappel. At this point in the day, the winds had picked up significantly, and beyond making it difficult to communicate, the wind was blowing our gear and us wherever it well pleased. We soon got adjusted as much as we could to the wind and each ate an apple, we threw our ropes for a pretty standard rappel down to the next anchors about '200 feet below. Our ropes didn't get tangled much and even with the wind the toss was pretty good. Andy decided to rap off first, and we continue on with high ambitions that this rappel would go smoothly, even with the high winds. I watched Andy descend, and took time to look for Longhorn Sheep, which we had been hearing and watching from lower on the route. But after about ten minutes of enjoying the view, I knew something wasn't right. I tried to tug on the ropes to see what was going on, but they were still taunt from Andy's weight. So I yelled down at Andy. No response at first, but then after a few attempts my voice managed to penetrate the howling winds. Andy's voice was barely audible, and I wasn't sure what the problem was, I was just hoping he could anchor in direct to the wall, so he could go off-rappel and I could rappel down to figure things out. When I got lower down, Andy said that the rappel anchor was a few feet below the reach of our ropes. I was pretty surprised our relatively new 60m ropes wouldn't reach, after all, that is the standard rope length and is what most rappels are bolted for. We brainstormed on what to do, and decided to build a simple anchor with gear, also utilizing one bolt, to act as an intermediate point between rappels. The process was cumbersome, but at least one other crisis avoided.

Not down yet. Stuck ropes force us off the rappel line.
Photo: Andy Hansen

Once we got situated at the next rappel station, I decided I would rap off first. We didn't let the anchor problem get us down, and we kept level heads and kept progressing downward. The wind was as strong as ever, and I wasn't even half a rope length down when things started to get interesting again. The wind had blown one of our ropes into a large crack about 30-40 feet to the left of our anticipated rappel line, which is generally straight down. I had no choice but tofollow the ropes, and traverse over in an attempt to free to stuck ropes end. To my surprise, I found a set of anchors not far from where the rope was stuck, so after working my way over on the wall, I was able to anchor directly into the wall and use both my hands to frantically whip, thrash, pull, yank, and tug the rope until it was free. I was relieved the rope was no longer stuck because I knew I would have otherwise had to cut the rope to free it, which means ruining a rope just to get down. Thinking pretty positively, I yelled back to Andy to come rappel down to me. I don't think he could actually here me, but since we were still able to see each other I could wave the ropes to show the slack illustrating I was off rappel. Although our rappel line had been changed because of the wind, I was confident we would see more anchors on our way down, otherwise our ropes might just be long enough to get directly to the ground. Either way I was relieved that our rope was free, and it seemed as if everything would continue as normal, we just had to improvise a new rappel line, which didn't seem terribly difficult because of the high number of routes on the wall. Spirits were high, and we were relieved I didn't have to use the knife to free our rope, at least not yet...

The view back up after rappelling over the ominous roof of "Fiddler on the Roof"
Photo: Matt Kuehl

I rapped first from the anchors again. This time around I tied the ends of the rope to my harness so they wouldn't get stuck in any cracks, and so it was still impossible to rappel off the ends of the rope. Already I felt like we were getting the hang of rappelling in the wind, every hang up meant another forced innovation and brainteaser like puzzle to solve on the spot. I knew this next rappel would be scary because it went directly over a large roof, resulting in a free hanging rappel away from the safety and potential anchors of the wall. I knew this would be the crux of the rappel, and that it was crucial for me to evaluate how much rope I had left so I wouldn't be hanging in mid air with no rope to descend further. Just above the roof I took the ends off my harness and tied knots in the end, then tossed them down over the edge and watched how far they reached. To my disappointment they didn't reach the ground. I now had a difficult decision to make, either ascend the rope by the means of a prusik knot all the way to the last anchors I saw, or rap the roof and hope for anchors below...

Another look at the roof.
Photo taken the next day: Andy Hansen

I choose to rappel the roof, being well aware of the risk of being stuck dangling at the ends of my rope with little chance or getting back to the wall. I also knew that the angle of the wall was just less than vertical, meaning the further I descended my ropes over the roof, the closer I would be to the wall again. I took a risk, and hoped I wouldn't pay the price. I looked around for anchors while simultaneously enjoying the free rappel. I didn't see any bolted anchors, but did notice a slung chock stone boulder in a large vertical crevasse as I was nearing the ends. I immediately swung over to them, and knew that this would be the anchor that would get our feet back on the ground. I added a new sling and biner to the chock stone and prepared to get off rappel. At this point I was at the very ends of my rope, with nothing to spare. The winds were still high, and I held on to the ends of the rope with all of my concentration so they wouldn't blow away and leave me stranded. Andy rappelled down shortly after and enjoyed rapping over the roof too. I told him there were no bolts to anchor in here, but I found a chock stone that was clearly used to rappel the rest of the way down. At this point I had placed the widest piece of gear I had (#3.5 Camalot) as an addition anchor point. I told him it wasn't ideal but it needed to be used to rappel off and that it clearly had been used in the past. Andy didn't seem fond of the anchor, or the tight quarters in which our bodies and the block were held. I handed Andy the ends and told him not to let go. We both attempted to reposition and gain some ground so we could adjust to pull and recoil the ropes for the next rappel. In the two second readjustment period, Andy had accidentally let go of one of our ropes, and the wind had quickly blown it just out of reach. He attempted to grab it, but our positioning was terrible because we were nestled in a deep chimney crack. Before we knew it our rope went from just out of reach, to completely out of sight in a matter of seconds. The wind had blown the rope even further away and into a distant crack that immediately swallowed it completely.

There was a moment of silence. This quite moment was our distant tranquility, and our means of staying sane. In an everyday situation this moment would have been filled with profanity, finger pointing, and egos rather than silence and contemplation. We both knew that teamwork and positivity would be the only way to recover from such a mistake. It goes without saying that rock climbing requires an immense amount of individual mental and physical strength and endurance, but without a solid positive relationship and mutual trust with your climbing partner, the team will go nowhere. Like any survival situation, which climbing can sometimes be, it is crucial to maintain a level head and work as a team to best evaluate the situation. So after this brief silence we started brainstorming. The conclusion I could think of was to pull the rope, with the knot still tied in the end. This would result in our rope being stuck at the anchor '200 feet up, but also allow us to get the other rope back down to us, where we could then untie the two ropes from each other, or cut the ropes apart with a knife. I knew this would be the only way to recover any rope to finish the rappel down. Our best option was to abandon one rope on the wall, so that's what we did.

A successful rappel to the ground off The Black Velvet Wall.
Photo: Andy Hansen

Luckily, we were able to pull the rope down far enough were we could reach the center point in which the ropes were initially tied together. This meant we didn't have to cut any bit of the rope, and we were left with one full-length rope for the rest of the rappel. The remainder of the rappel turned out to be around '100 feet to the ground, so our one rope was the perfect length for the job. We attached the rope to the biners that were slung around the chock stone and tossed the rope down. It hit the ground in a magical way that reassured us that we would indeed be hiking out before night, and in Vegas drinking a beer in no time. We left our beloved blue 8.4 double rope dangling from the Pitch 3 anchors that night, and hiked out contemplating our next move. Our spirits remained high during the hike out, and after getting back down to the ground we reevaluated our situation. We had come to terms with the loss of a rope, and that's all it really was. We were in a less than ideal situation, that turned even less ideal by the wind. We worked around it and could almost laugh about it later. In the end we were both just thankful that the wind had not blown both of our ropes out of reach, which would have left us stranded entirely.

Two days later we went back to retrieve the rope, where we found it still hanging from the rappel anchors between the 3rd and 4th pitches of Dream of Wild Turkeys. The weather was clear the two nights and the rope was still hanging on a wall that receives little sun. The rope was untouched and undamaged and deemed fine to continue use.

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