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Not Every Project Goes Down Easy

Not every project goes down easy.

Sometimes a route takes two tries. Or three. Sometimes more. Sometimes it’s days, or weeks, or months.

Then there are those that take years.

I remember the first time I read about Astroman. I was 19, only a handful of leads under my belt. I’d never been to Yosemite, or anywhere really. I’d grown up climbing on scrappy crags on the coast of Maine, made my way to the Gunks and Adirondacks and now was out in Colorado for my second try at college. But the plan was really to climb—Eldo and South Platte rock, ice in Ouray and Vail. School was an excuse to play in the Rockies.

That’s where I first I read about it, “The best rock climb in the world.” 12 clean, hard pitches up the steep east face of Washington Column. The Enduro Corner. The Harding Slot. First ascent by the Stonemasters. Freesoloed by Peter Croft. This was the land of legends.

Yosemite Valley

I, meanwhile, climbed 5.8. I carried around a rack of hexes like cowbells, and if there wasn’t some kind of sling running bandolier-style across my chest I wasn’t leaving the ground. My rope had never seen a leadfall. Astroman was a dream, a myth shrouded somewhere in the distance. I had no idea what such a thing truly meant.

15 years, however, has a way of changing things. Some projects, afterall, take years.

My first swing at the legend was six years ago. My partner Jim was an old school hardman, the kind of guy you want on an over-your-head mission. I’d climbed a lot of Valley moderates, long free climbs up to 5.10 or those with short 11 cruxes, and put few walls under my belt. Now I wanted the prize.

We warmed up, got ourselves reaquainted with the physical nature of Yosemite climbing, and then got on the Rostrum, the supposed training-wheeled version of Astroman. The route went, with Jim and I onsighting pitch after pitch of perfect crack. The 11c crux fell quickly, a few pulls on fingerlocks. The only ugliness came on the offwidth, which I grovelled up pulling on cams. It was a good reminder that in Yosemite the wide is often the crux.

We topped out and over pizza made plans for the main event: rest, then Astroman.

If only things always went according to plan…

We started early knowing the route might need a long day. Jim strung together the first couple pitches. Soon we were below the Enduro Corner, a shimmering dihedral of overhanging thin hands. I racked up.

It started well, I felt solid on the jams, stuffed gear as I climbed. But the Enduro doesn’t relent: 40 feet later I was still in small hands, then still 30 feet after that. Then it pinchs down. The feet were small, the rock so clean it felt like glass.

I fell. I fell again. And again.

Soon I was aiding, so gassed I could barely bare to shove my fingers into the crack. I was miles from the anchors. I shouted “Take!”

Make a move.

“Take!”

Make a move.

“TaketaketaketakeTAKE!”

And again. And again. The pitch felt went on forever. Barely a jam or a stance revealed itself anywhere.

Astroman. The stuff of legends.

By the top I was dry-heaving, my skin was in tatters. My tremendous rack was gone. I built an anchor and just sat down, dejected. This would not be the day.

When Jim made it up he looked at me. “Let’s do another pitch or two and get out of here,” he said. I nodded, still too tired for a discussion. We climbed two more pitches to the base of the Harding Slot and bailed. The greatest rock climb on earth would have to wait.

Fast-forward six years: February 2016. A group of friends are planning a climbing reunion. We met climbing in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and Georgia, and now our Armenian host was coming to the States to sample American rock. I called my friend Andre: “Yosemite. Will you meet me? I want to climb Astroman.”

It’s funny how an idea can endure, how it can stick in your brain through tremendous changes and come out unscathed. Barely out of high school, more a hiker than a climber, I first fell across Astroman, printed myself a rudimentary topo. Now 15 years later, just off trips to Cuba, the Caucasus and Scotland, I was itching for another swing. This, I figured, was my shot.

We met in Indian Creek, started the tour with sandstone splitters. From there I took a detour to Castle Valley and a quick run up the North Face of Castleton, then on to Red Rocks, where the Armenian (his name is Mkhitar, which he helpfully shortens for Americans to MAH-heek) and I ran up the nine-pitch Texas Hold Em. Things felt good. Astroman was waiting.

Erik Eisele Texas Holdem

But the Valley is not the desert, as Yosemite would soon remind me.

We crossed through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley at midday. We were packed and ready: I wanted a shot at figuring out the Enduro Corner moves, to treat it like a sport climb almost, so at 2 p.m. we started up.

It was hard, but not impossibly hard. I found feet, and rests, and places to jam. But I still took. A lot. The pitch would go, but it would be no easy feat.

The next day we came back, Andre wanted his shot. We were fired up for the top; after the rehearsal the day before we thought it might go. But it was to no avail. The Enduro spit Andre out, left him as smoked as it had left me. We climbed to the Harding Slot and descended.

No big deal. We had time.

A few days later we were back. We eschewed the second rope, got an early start, sprinted up the first few pitches and were soon looking at the Enduro once again.

“Go,” Andre said. “You’ve got this.”

I started up. The jams felt solid. I dropped in a cam, climbed, then dropped in another. I punched it, placing less than I’d like but enough to be safe. The clock was ticking. The first rest was 40 feet up, a handjam with a stem. I had to get there. So I went.

Erik Yosemite 2016

Over our repeated missions I’d discovered enough jams of substance to know I could hop between. It meant running it out a bit, but cams in amazing granite kept it safe. I jammed, placed, then punched it. Again. And again. Soon the end was in sight.

Then my foot popped. I was off, flying through the air.

“CRAP!!” I yelled as the rope came tight. “I wasn’t even pumped!”

It was a lie, I was pumped, but I wasn’t out of gas. Inattention that caught me, poor technique, not a lack of forearms. I yarded back to my last piece, got back on route and climbed to the anchor.

Andre was next to me a few minutes later. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to do?”

“Keep climbing,” I said. “I want to send that pitch, but we might as well keep going up.”

The fall, however, broke my resolve. We climbed to the Harding Slot, which I started up, but when things started turned physical I backed off.

“I want to send this thing for real,” I told Andre back at the anchor, “not hangdog my way up it. I want to go down and come back later.”

“Later?” Andre said. We had one day left, and neither of us would be in shape for a second go tomorrow.

But some projects take days; others, weeks; others, months. And some last years. The best climb in the world would have to wait.

“Later,” I said threading the rappel.

Dirtbagging, Deserts, and Disaster: The Perfect Climbing Road Trip

I stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

From there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country  road trip

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country road trip

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

That’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

Tips to Hips

Lobotomy

On the road. 
One new adorable nephew, Henry.  Congrats to my brother and sister-in-law.  
One lost wallet scare…luckily just called the restaurant in Sedona where I left it.   
One snowy bivy near Flagstaff and 
Tons of amazing company and adventures packed into this week already!!!

I left the front range April 2nd with Randy the Forester,  packed for 2 months of adventure.  First stop, Indian Creek in a snowy push.  Great friends, some unexpectedly, were in the area.  I spent one joyous day elbow deep in the beautiful sandstone.  Our posse took over the Cliffs of Insanity.  I warmed up on MC’s Hammer, followed by a quick and lovely lap on an unnamed 5.11 just to the left.  I googled at Broken Brain as Clay and I clumsily meandered our way to his climb of choice, Lobotomy.  

Clay digging deep!























So proud!!!  


He styled the lengthy off-width section quickly.  The 150 foot splitter quickly diminishes near the finish to fingers.  I top roped this climb, working on both my double fisting technique and a good grunt.  


My plan was to then attempt Broken Brain.  The first half of the climb starts as a not-easy finger crack before getting into a series of hand cracks through pods.  This puts you at the base of an awesome head wall, and one of the steepest splitters at the Creek. Go from good hands, to thin hands, to ring locks, to hard finger stacks, all a bit offset!!  I was exhausted from Lobotomy and honestly thankful that we didn’t have the necessary 70 meter available.  Lazily, I hopped on another short unnamed 5.11, finishing just as the sun began its habitual bedtime ritual…tucking behind the North Six Shooter.  Returning this weekend to give it more than just a good look!  


The Pond, running for once!  

We all hiked out in darkness, lounged on the tailgate sipping the beer we had buried in the cool earth.  A quick bite and I was off to Durango.  

Chris with a big smile and blue duffel bag piled into Randy Friday afternoon.  We landed at my parents house in East Mesa shortly after sunset.  Saturday I woke early, excited to hit one of my favorite 4 mile runs.  This run has become a “gage of fitness” trail run for me over the years.  Surprisingly, I ran a personal best!!!

Afterward, we escaped the valley heat by climbing in Queens Creek at the Pond area.  Shade chasing was the name of the game at this sporty volcanic climbing area.  We climbed many pitches of 5.10, a few 5.11’s and I hopped on a Desert Devil a 5.13a.  This climb is super steep with good edges and sadly some cemented holds.  I put together the lower moves quickly but was stymied after the 4th bolt or so.  Big move with right hand up then cross to a pocket with your left….not sure if that right hand hold was still there?  Fun to try anyway.  Video shows the moves…http://vimeo.com/35871188
   

Weaver’s Needle from Fremont Saddle.  















Sunday, Chris and I adventured into the depths of the Superstition Wilderness area for a solo of Weavers Needle.  The 8 mile hike with about ~2800 total elevation change took us 4 hours CTC.  The class 5 climbing was very mellow, albeit typical Superstition chossy conglomerate.  We on-sighted the bushy approach, did no running and soloed both up and down.    

Anvil Boulders, Sedona






Monday the west was blanketed with bad weather.  We both tinkered away the morning inter-webbing and sipping bailey’s and coffee.  As the clouds persisted, we settled on a lovely boulder session at the Anvil Boulders.  We scurried about the unique sandstone boulders, some splitter cracks, intermingling push-ups between problems.
In the afternoon I went on two rainy runs.  

Soloing Anvil Rocks



The first run followed a great single track trail for 5 miles around Courthouse Butte, outside the Village of Oak Creek.  The second run, feeling like I didn’t get enough in, took me on a short loop and summit of Sugarloaf in West Sedona.  This town has some amazing trail systems I could get lost in!!! 

Wednesday the clouds finally broke and the sandstone was dry.  Through much discussion we settled on climbing the Mace.  A great choice!  Moderate climbing and fantastic summit.  The 3 dimensional chimney/off-width on the 4th pitch was really enjoyable!!  

Thursday we were back in Durango for a little work.  Breakfast was a 2000 meter swim, lunch was a fantastic yoga class on main street, and happy hour was climbing at East Animas,  6 pitches (and jugging two more).  

Integration

I love climbing.

Central Park this fall
I enjoy moving in the mountains for hours at a time.  
I love a good glass of wine and laughter filling the room.  
I love falling in love, playing the piano, learning, teaching, and a full breathe filling my lungs.
The list could go on.    
This fall was filled with some unbelievably good times along with some heartbreaking ridiculousness.  
I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than 3 nights since September 1st.  This in part to–too much travel, a break-up turned sour, and two residential moves.   
2nd Meat Wall -Indian Creek (Photo Nathan Welton)
We have had two fires in the town of Estes Park.  The first one, in June, saw KMAC evacuated and the boys running around to save Harry’s house and property.  As I write, the Fern Lake fire continues to smoulder over Eagle Cliff –closing in on the 66 corridor.    
Top Sirloin — Nathan Welton
In early November, I took a 25 foot fall in Zion, thinking I broke my hand and my femur.  Fortunately, my helmet-less-ego-hurt body faced only minor injuries considering the rock broke, my blue Alien popped and I fell upside-down below my belayer and the ledge he was standing on.  Andrew caught me abruptly.  The only other piece I had placed was a .03 Black Diamond Cam and it was only 4 feet above our belay.  I limped noticeably for 2 weeks with a giant softball muscle wad in my left thigh and a purple thumb/palm that still refuses to hold a plate or zip my fly without pain.  
We also elected, as a Nation, to keep our current president.  I am happy about that.  I had an amazing 80’s prom themed birthday party and I have made some moves towards forwarding my company Dovetail Mountain Endeavors.

Lightening Bolt Crack-North Sixth Shooter (Nathan Welton)
All of these events have thrust me into a whirlwind of thoughts and actions.  Learning to trust myself, my instincts.  More importantly, to ask for help and take it when it is given selflessly. 
  
I am learning to place less value on the things in my life.  I am thankful for the people within the moments and the moments as they happen–good or bad.    
The gang atop the N.Sixth Shooter– Nathan, Quinn, Dustin, Prairie, and Matty.  

I continue to climb because it is ingrained in my soul to move, to explore with a sweaty brow, to push through my fears with tears welled in the corner of my eyes.

I continue to teach, to learn, to grow.  I feel a little slow in my attempts towards integration…but better than not at all….Right?

Taking in the vast Canyonlands vista


“Think of the state of mind you were in before you began reading.  It was a fresh mind.  With no ideas, you came with a fresh mind to look at this book (blog).  If we can maintain that state in our daily lives, that is known as integration.  To be fully integrated means to integrate oneself totally from the body to the self and also to live in integration with one’s neighbours and surroundings….. In this way we remain ever fresh, ever peaceful, and with ever growing intelligence.”

BKS Iyengar–The Tree of Yoga

  
Lungs filled, hearts sighing.  

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