Sometimes the mountain conquers you
'I suppose this article could be titled "The Conquest of El Capitan". However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.' - Warren Harding
Tl;DR - I got spanked in the alpine, and I want to share a story that didn't end with fireworks at the summit.
Earlier today my climbing partner and I arrived the Glacier Gorge trailhead in RMNP at 4:15 in the morning. Our objective for the day was to summit the Petit Grepon via the South Face. The weather has been spotty at best and depending on which weather forecast service you wanted to read, the chance of rain ranged from 15% - 80%. We decided that a quick romp up the South Face was going to be a better day than struggling our way up a route that was at our limit, while racing thunderstorms. Back to the car by 3 was our plan. We both were running on less than 3 hours of sleep, caffeine, sugar, and psyche. Oh man we were so excited, this was my first alpine climb of the season. My partner recently moved and the access to dozens of huge alpine routes was a new thing, with all of his alpine experience in the last 2 weeks. He had a new toy, and the mountains call to me. We'd known each other for several months and were comfortable with each other.
Half sprinting, half wheezing from the altitude we arrived at the base of the Petit at 6:10. As I started to unpack beneath the south face we started discussing the beta, and what pitches should go to which person and that's when it dawned on me. I had been reading up on the South Face and he had been reading up on the Southwest Corner. After a quick discussion we decided to head up the Southwest Corner. I mean, 5.9 compared to 5.8+? Pffftt...I'm working on sport 12s. What could possibly go wrong on a 5.9? Plus I have Mountain Project, with beta photos downloaded. *brushes dirt of shoulder*
I start racking up to take the first pitch and we discuss simul-climb options. I tie in and set off at 6:45. We both are at the top of the first pitch by 7:00, and I decide to abandon the attempt at simul climbing the first 3 pitches. The entire day so far has been exceeding my expectations, no need to take silly risks. There is no possible was we won't miss the storm. I look across the gash as my partner is organizing his gear, and I had that feeling of happiness that only comes when you're pushing yourself in the mountains. He turns to me and we talk about him simul-climbing pitches 2&3. He doesn't think it will be needed, and I tell him it definitely will if we wants to get to the top of the ledge. Fast forward and our first lesson of the day hits us as I start to climb while my partner creeps towards the top of pitch 3.
I pull out my phone to take a picture of the stunning beauty when I notice the time, at 8:45. A small twinge of panic sets in. We are way behind schedule. I rack up and set off along some nondescript flakes and cracks to what I think is the "Shoulder" of the Petit's Southwest corner, at just 1/2 rope. The route descriptions say this is a long pitch, and what I had climbed wasn't what either of us considered long. There was much confusion. I don't see anywhere else to belay. The pitch descriptions don't quite match what I'm looking at. And our two sources of information are slightly different. Second lesson.
After some discussion my partner set off on our 4th pitch. After I arrived at the belay we both is agree is the best belay in the area, a 4 piece anchor of microstoppers and C3s. Still the descriptions don't quite add up and we decide to aim for the summit "blade" that starts the traverse pitch. I look at the time again, and its 10:00. The fact that we won't be back at the base of the climb by 1:00 PM sets in. I make the mental note to prepare for rain. As I start to rack up, I get really nervous. Some untold fears creep their way into my mind. I set off on our 5th pitch slowly. I have to convince myself that every placement is great, and every movement I want to make is the right one. I can't get it out of the my head that we're going to end up in some 11a R territory. If I weren't so scared at the time, I would have realized how amazing the climbing was. I reach about 100 feet higher and as I reach down to place a nut, I find that I don't have any slings left. Or any cams that will fit in the cracks provided. I fashion a hasty belay via back cleaning, and bring my partner up. He loses a nut that is now fixed at our belay.
Starting up our 6th pitch, he places another nut that gets stuck and sets the tone for the rest of the pitch. The mood darkens as dark clouds start to block the sky and the time now reasons 12:00. Neither of us can find the TWO roofs that the route descriptions mention. My partner finds one that has a #3 BD nut(the tiny blue one) about 10 feet below the roof and no protection for 10-15 feet after the roof. Immediately as finishes his anchor and calls for on belay, I feel it. Rain. I start up the pitch and I am unable to remove the nut he got stuck. I move up to the next piece of gear, a red tricam placed in a strenuous stance. I clip the draw to my harness as I've done 1,000 times before, only to watch the red tricam tumble into the talus lining the basin. I slowly move up this 5.9 pitch, getting pumped and worked. As I move higher I don't understand how my partner had the mental fortitude to pull that roof. It was perhaps made harder by the rain. By this point I was convinced we were off-route, only be proven wrong when I arrived at the belay matching the descriptions of both sources of information.
Standing in the rain, two/three pitches from the summit I make that call that if we want to bail, we need to traverse to the rap stations and not head straight down into territory we don't know. I look at the time again, 1:54 PM. I rack up and set off on a traverse around to the South Face upper pitches. As I round the corner, my foot slips a little bit. My adrenaline spikes and I grab for the nearest jug, only to have to crumble in my hands as I'm rounding the most exposed part of the climb. I make some noise between excitement and terror, and traverse onto the South Face as quickly as possible so I don't "blow my cover" to my partner. I make my way to what I think is the "terrace" described in the descent beta, and we begin our raps at what is the Second Rappel station where I don my rain gear and take off my sun protection.
Everything goes smoothly until the 4th rappel. There is a description of a "horn with tat, and bolts below it". The only place I see matches that description also puts me smack in the middle of the worst gully I've ever been to. I dun fucked up. My partner rappels down and we start a simul-rappel and traverse to the front of the rock formation. We arrive at the only thing I can describe as a horn on the whole face, with one piece of brand new tat. I can only assume that a well intentioned climber removed all of the old tat and put a piece around the rock that blends in perfectly with the rock, making the landmark described in every descent beta completely invisible. I sacrifice a carabiner for the new tat so we can make it back to the rappels. If I bought everything new, I think the cost for this route is close to $90.
I have no idea where I am in relation to the rappels, and the time is 4:00. I make the argument to myself that I should just rappel to the area I would put a rap station if I were the one putting the bolts in, and I strike gold. We're getting off this damn rock, and this epic is going to end NOW damnit! I holler up to my partner to rap down to me, and he makes it down in record time. I know we are both thinking the same thing. I thread the rope through, and start pulling. With every heave I am counting the minutes until my feet touch the dirt again. My EDK slides snug against the rap ring and in my most jovial voice I let it echo through the basin, "PULLING ON BLUUUUUE!"
I grab the other rope and pull it through the rap rings above, and start coiling the rope to toss. I see my half rope mark and I start to get excited, when suddenly the rope stops pulling. Its stuck. There is exactly 1 crack on the ledge above us that fits a rope inside of it. This crack sits several feet off the ground, and any statistics major would have said that the rope getting stuck there, is impossible. My partner solos up easy 5th class terrain to retrieve the rope from the constriction. I throw the ropes behind me, skeptical that they can make it all the way to the ground. I speed rappel down, eager to get to the bottom. The sun has returned and I have a 5 mile hike ahead of me. I want to be out of there!
As I get closer to the ground I see that the ropes will make it straight down, and I don't have to swing to the chimney. I look up to make sure I'm not rubbing the ropes on loose rock and I come to a sudden halt a few feet before the ground. Every twist and kink in both ropes sprung to life and entwined themselves around my autoblock. Enraged, I untangle the rope and take off my harness in record speed as I call up "Off rappel!" My partner makes it down without incident, and we pack up. With the sun back out, the reflections from the snow fields start to hurt my eyes so I reach into my pack to pull out my sunglasses. Not finding them, I look back up to the terrace 800ft above me where I had left them on a small rock next to the rap station so I wouldn't forget them. I look at the time again, 4:45. We make it back to the car by 6 and just sit for a while and reflect. My climbing partner recites the quotation above. I knew there was a reason we were friends.
The time is 10:21 PM, and I have been home for less than an hour and a half. After this I am going to sleep to wake up at 2am to begin again.
Hallet peak calls to me...