TALES OF BABEL
Back in 1990, when I was a new to Moab, I wrote this story about a rock climbing experience that I had in Arches Nat’l Park. Sadly, the names of the people in the story, my friends’ Kyle Copeland, Mark Bebie, and Charlie Fowler, have all passed on. My friend Sue Kemp helped me edit this many years back, and get it ready for publication in the now defunct magazine “Mountain”. I decided at a later point, to not submit the story, and it has been shelved ever since. This is it’s first public appearance ever. Sue also gave up the ghost a few years back.
RIP my friends…
It is a land free of disease.. It’s taste is of sweetness, not bitter. Its ancient varnish gleams like rust, redeeming it’s own relic nature. Nowhere is there a place like it. Tower’s and mesa’s touch the heavens’, reaching, searching, wandering.. solidified cathedrals of ancient sands, now standing and waiting to fall, split only by flawless vertical fractures, perfect and parallel, toward the Great Sky.
Sunday morning, a crack of noon start, a religious pilgrimage to the Main Street Broiler in Moab, to fill my lethargic body with life giving caffeine, slaps me into noticing what a fine day it is for desert climbing.
I leave the Broiler, strolling through town enroute to Kyle’s house in hopes of a day of craggin’. No avail; I approach his doorstep, but suddenly remember all too well he is out of town for a couple of weeks. But there is a note stuck to the door from yet another friend:
“Splibb, I got to town the other day, but couldn’t find you to do Zenyatta, so I’m on it solo.. Should be off it in a couple days, maybe Sunday afternoon.” – Mark
I guess Mark knew well enough how to get a message to me, but I wish he’d found me in time. In this red desert, the cracks are sometimes surgically perfect, or the quality of the rock often resembling sugar or mud, forming towers that make you wonder why they still stand as you look at them. The Tower of Babel in Arches Nat’l Parking Lot is one such tower. Though not truly a tower at all really, it sports 6 pitch walls, 1500 feet across, that come to narrow, square cut buttresses at either end. Although it doesn’t appear to be falling down when climbing upon it’s super soft Entrada Sandstone, one may envision it melting away with the coming of a heavy rain. Its most classic route, Zenyatta Entrada, put up by Charlie Fowler in 1986, is a line of all lines that bisects the fin-like southwest buttress. It’s name mimicking a longer, once desperate nailup on a bigger stone further west.
“Shit!” it thought, it’s Sunday afternoon already, I’m too late. “Might at least catch the final act of the show.” With binoculars and gear, I race to Arches in hopes of catching him before he splits. As I pull off the road, I see him even before I exit the van; he is plastered to the final A4 pitch like a slow, mutant lizard in the hot desert sun. I watch through binoculars, gripped for him as he finishes and cleans the pitch. Once done, I scream to him to meet me at the Rio for suds and celebration.
Later, at the pub, I tell him that I really want to bag Zenyatta, but now, minus a partner, it would have to be given the same treatment he’d given it: solo. Mark ponders the last couple of days a bit and remarks, “Zenyatta hasn’t seen many ascents, so it’s not totally beaten out. It’s still plenty scary, with soft nailing and some super dicey nutting; just funky enough to be exciting!”
Leaving the pub in a rather poisoned stupor, I went home to fall into a deep, hazy sleep, with Zenyatta filling my mind as I hit the pillow. I awake, not hungover, but psyched for what lay ahead.
Moab is a place where the world can, at times, seem to pass by unnoticed, a continuing saga of the desert and it’s ancient past. The people that live there are as much a part of the gleaming red rocks and the shrub covered landscape. They survive the unbearably hot summers and the cold, unemployed winters because they belong there. This is where their souls exist.
A lengthy trip through town to acquire the necessities dulled my senses. With mark’s gear beta in hand, I set off to collect what I lacked in the iron department, plus stops at Rim Cyclery to pick up a new lead rope, Pemican Bars from the Co-Op, and a brief visit to Matrimony Springs to fill my bottles, put me at the base by noon.
The first three pitches flew by rather quickly and with surprising ease; an intricate mixture of nailing and nutting in a perfect knifeblade sized crack system that shot directly toward they summit, interrupted only by two short traverses that were cruxes.
This route lies “Where a drop of water will fall from the summit”. Who said that any way? The top of the third pitch, it’s getting late, so I decide to fix and rap. I scan the Canyonlands skyline, burning hot and red, a land time and humankind has left alone. It’s hostile beauty surrounded by three great mountain ranges, The Abajos, The La Sals, and The Henry mountains, as if left there to protect it’s hidden wealth of fortune and splendor.
I drive back to Moab in my archaic van in search of shower, suds, and Mark. Two out of three were all I found, as Mark has left for Seattle to prepare for an expedition to climb a new route in the Karakoram. “Lucky bastard”, I think, yet I know of the magnificence that lie right here.
Jumaring up fixed lines in the morning, I’m happy I’ll be on top by dusk, if all goes well; satisfied in knowing that yet another dessert tower is in The Bag. The next pitch, one of the route’s cruxes, is like an interminable disease. My mind is fighting me in this stretching traverse of tied off knifeblades and strangely stacked leeper’s. Sixty feet of horror puts me to a few bad RP placements, and and one crumbling hook, earns me a perfect #1-1/2 Friend crack, that, were it right off the ground, would be one primo 5.11+ free climb. Soloing with clove hitches sees me aiding past with ease. I polish off the last 20 feet and clip the belay. Relief washes over me. It’s over, only 3 1/2 hours after starting.
I rap, clean, and jumar, trying to get psyched for the next pitch – an A3 nailing corner capped by a large roof leading to yet another crux traverse. Sliding up the corner, glibly dabbling in sideways lost arrows, the roof above somehow plants the seed of fear in my soul. Ten feet below the roof,the only thing I can get in is a shitty #1 RP with it’s wires badly frayed from repeated sloppy removals. I test it and the wires snap, leaving the “opportunity” for a more creative placement: a leper hook in the back of blown out pin scar. A Bird Beak and some other nebulous bullshit finds my aiders clipped to a drilled pin, half sticking out, beneath the five foot roof. Once out the roof, the only placement in sight is a perfectly bottomed out, 1″ deep hole. I fire in a 2″ bong, tie it off, and start bouncing it. Seeming do-able, I get on it, realizing all too well the rope now lies it’s course over the outside edge of the dihedral. Sweating bullets and filled with terror, I understood it’s implications; I have no choice. Reaching eye level with the bong, I am catapult into the atmosphere like a reject astronaut, rocketing straight towards hell and the scorching desert floor.
Enough slack in the system allows me to drop 25 feet before the rope begins to come tight. As it does, I hear the sound of death, the sound of rope being sawed, the sounds of threads and fibers being ripped apart. Flying around the back side of the moon and back, I look up to see if I’d been spared or not. A 6″ section of utterly mangled rope was all that kept me from becoming a part of the talus below.
Adrenaline shoots painfully through my body as I tie the rappel line to every placement in the corner I can find. Only then do I gingerly begin to jumar the wretched rope and onto the marginal safety beyond the cut.
Once there, a quick examination reveals less than 1/3 of my new ropes core still intact!! I’d had enough. At the drilled pin that held my fall, I drill another next to it and decide to rap. So much for that.
Driving back to Moab, I begin to fully respect the seriousness of the testpieces found elsewhere on the Tower of Babel; the Jim Beyer nightmares put up just a couple of years back, in the late 80’s.
For the next two weeks, I didn’t climb at all. Only when another friend from Seattle, Lee Cunninham, shows up and talks me into doing Standing Rock in Monument Basin, did my interest spark again. Driving to Grandview Point, in Canyonlands, my thoughts were excited, but my memory still fresh with Zenyatta. After downclimbing 1000 feet of 4th class chose, we crossed the White Rim and made a short rappel into Monument Basin.
Standing Rock is one of those towers that seems as though it could topple if the wind blew hard enough: a 400 foot totem of Cutler Sandstone that is, at best, 35 feet thick; a toothpick.
We fix the first pitch and bivy at the base under the spring desert sky. On the summit by ten o’clock the next morning, we are delighted to find that ours is only the 16th ascent in 20 years.
Filled with an enlightened feeling of beauty and obscurity from climbing in this spiritual place, we hiked backed to the car in 95 degree heat, lusting for the warm beer stashed in the trunk. We knew why we climbed here and why so many did not. There is no fooling anybody in Canyonlands, where the climbing and the environment seem more real to me than any other place on earth.
Every time I drive past the Tower of Babel, I see it smiling at me, giving me the finger as I hurry past, yet I know I’ll return to this place time and time again, for when life’s bizarre scenarios seem like a wasted hell, the red rocks whisper to me, telling me that it really doesn’t matter.
As a teenager, gripped in the throes of the beginnings of a long love affair with rock climbing and mountaineering, I, like many young neophytes of the time, was drawn to such books as Yvon Chouinard’s Climbing Ice, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, and Jeff Lowe’s The Ice Experience. These books taught me about the things I hadn’t yet done, and the places I hadn’t yet seen. The black and white photographs and haunting wordsmanship regarding miserable conditions, long approaches, and terrifying climbing escalated the already intense imagery in my eager and unspoiled mind. From the early forays to the Rocklin Quarry in California,at age 15, to my first real route ever at lovers leap, which I swung leads with my partner Seamus, and also taking my first ever lead fall, to the V-Notch Couloir in the Palisades just a year following, I had built up a thirst for wanting to expand the horizons of climbing locations to include farther away places and to up the ante in difficulty. Another book of the time that had fired my imagination and spawned a sensible and healthy desire for the great routes was Steve Roper’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America. Now, grant you, this book became, in a short time, to be regarded by some as a joke. Eventually it became not so lovingly known as “50 Crowded Climbs”. It included some routes that were incredibly obscure, some that were not so good, and one route that hadn’t even seen a second ascent. Nonetheless, it had purpose and the result was profound on me. One of the routes in the book was the North Face of Mt Edith Cavell in the mighty Canadian Rockies. in 1988, after a couple of season’s climbing in the Rockies, I decided that it was time to do this thing. There were other routes in the Rockies that were more aesthetically pleasing, more remote, and possibly of better quality, but after all, it was in the 50 Classics book, right? It had the earmarks for a good outing I thought; The approach was short, the route moderate, and the descent reasonable. Why not? I also figured it would be a good warmup for Kitcheners’ Grand Central Couloir.
In the mid and late 80’s, often times, my climbing partner was the notorious Brian Knight, AKA “Mr Way”. Way had a talent for irritating people in a way few can do; his knack for debate and arguing was legendary. It is no wonder that years later he became a lawyer. He tended to piss a lot of folks off from time to time, but, in those days, he rarely got under my skin. That’s not to say it didn’t happen; one time, on a road trip to the East Side, I demanded that he pull over and I jumped out and hitchhiked far away from him. However, we managed to climb quite a lot together during those times and even managed to get up a few things. Way had an interest in Edith Cavell as well, and we both had been to the Rockies before and both cherished what it had to offer. So, in the fall of 1988, we set off, leaving from Tahoe and heading north in Way’s beater 1980 Subaru wagon.
We stopped in Bellingham to visit way’s friend and spent the day water skiing in the Bellingham Sound, eating, sorting gear, and telling tales of past climbing forays. The next day, early in the morning, we took off, into Canada and across southern B.C., enroute to Alberta, and the Banff-Jasper Highway. As we approached the mountains from the B.C. side, a storm was starting to brew, and the climb to Vermillion Pass was obscured in clouds, as were the surrounding peaks. We descended the pass in near whiteout conditions, creeping the old Subaru down the snaking road, painfully slow. So slow, in fact that by the time we got down to the Icefields Parkway, there were a dozen trucks behind us, all furious, and seething to get around these absurd Americans who cannot drive in a snowstorm. The trucks passed, one by one; and after the last one disappeared into the storm ahead, we then saw the red and blue lights, an unfortunate and familiar sight for me in those days. As the cop approached we wondered what we had done to warrant this pullover. It seems, one of the impatient truck drivers had actually called the cops on us; the fuzz had stopped us for going too slow! This was a first, for sure. Next, the RMCP asks for our registration, driver’s license, and last but not least, proof of insurance. “Uh, how ’bout two outta three, man?” Way replies. No good. After running our records, the cop calls a tow truck and soon our little Subaru was loaded up and driven to the impound yard in Banff, until we could provide proof of insurance, which was going to be difficult, since we didn’t have any. The cop drove us to Banff, and allowed us to gather what we could carry from the car. So there we were, Way and I, standing there, in Banff, dressed in full mountaineering suits, complete with double boots on and full packs to boot. It started to snow again.
Back in those days, I rarely had more than two nickels to rub together and another rogue trip to the Canadian Rockies was no exception.
We heard there was a hostel there, so we trudged, through the woods and the freshly fallen snow, towards salvation. Except that we certainly could not afford to stay there. However, we did in fact stay there, we just did not pay. We snuck in and we snuck out. In fact, the whole trip had been pulled off with just a couple hundred bucks between us; in order to conserve money, we pulled off a series of “dine and dashes” across Oregon and Washington. Once, in Spokane, after an especially filling all you can eat breakfast buffet, Way and I decide that it is time to split. You go that way, I’ll go this way. After casually exiting the restaurant, and circling the block in opposite directions, we meet up again a block down. We begin strolling down towards the car in a care-free fashion, when suddenly we hear the shouts. “Come back here you punks!” We spin around to see the chef of the fine establishment we had duped, chasing after us, at a full run, complete with Chef’s hat and butcher knife in hand. We ran. Hard. Back in opposite directions and down a back alley to meet at car and a fast peel out towards the freeway. Onward… That was the last dine and dash of my career.
After we left the Hostel, we decided not to go back and set up camp in the woods near town, grabbed some clean duds, and headed for the bar. Maybe we could find a ride up to Edith Cavell, a three hour drive by car. As luck would have it, we meet Alex, a local climber, who not only agrees to give us a ride the next day, but lets us crash at his house to boot.
A late start the following morning puts the three of us on the road by 11:00, and soon we are flying past the Icefields, and soon after, cranking up the side road leading to Edith Cavell. Way and I hop out, grab packs, say goodbye and thanks, and start hoofing it towards the base of the Route. The North Face of Edith Cavell consists of 4000 feet of Ice and Limestone, with the bottom portion of the route a glacier and it’s tongue, flowing downward at an angle of about 55 degrees, and higher up, still below the main face, 2 or 3 sections of icefall and crevasses that must be negotiated in order to gain the “real” climbing. We hike in, with the wall above us staring us down, and find a bivy directly below the first ice pitch. We awake, at 4 am and realize that we are actually getting a late start, but decide to go for it anyway. A 2 am start would have been desirable in order to climb the 4000 foot route in a day, without a bivy. The Initial ice pitches flew by with ease, and soon we were hauling ass up the low angle glacier above. Crossing the ‘shrunk, we spy a ramp leading left to a narrow ice gully, which ended, it appeared, at a blank looking limestone wall, maybe 500 feet up. Again, the pitches flew past and soon we were climbing good quality 5.8 limestone in crampons, Canadian Rockies style. After a couple of rock pitches, another ice pitch leads to a big horizontal icefield that splits the face. At the ice field, it starts to snow. Heavily. Within minutes, we are engulfed in whiteout conditions. Before the storm hit, we though that a quick traverse to the left was in order, in hopes to gain a chimney/corner system that we thought was the key to gaining the upper face. However, here, now, in this storm, everything began to look as though we had never laid eyes above before. A horizontal pitch of snow and ice to the left, and all we could see were massive overhangs above us. These looked nearly unclimbable, and at the least, would require the use of aid. Mind you, the route is rated IV 5.8 AI3, which meant we were clearly off route. We could not see more than a few feet in the storm, and after a full hearted attempt at finding a way through the ceilings above, I lowered off and traversed to the right again; this time over an arete, my hands gone totally numb, crampons scraping the limestone in desperation. I gain a small ledge and bring up Way. After he scrapes up this last pitch, we sit there, bewildered, not knowing where to climb. Above us, more big overhangs; more desperate looking than the last ones. We knew we were sunk. It was 2 pm and we figured we had just enough gear to rappel what we had climbed. If we were lucky.
So down we went. Rappels, one after the other, snowing hard now, wind coming in on the face; rime ice is beginning to plaster every feature, including us. Soon, it is quite obvious that we will not have enough gear to rappel from as we have brought a meager rack: 2 camming units, 4 stoppers, 1 Lost Arrow, 1 Baby Angle, 1 KB, and 3 Ice Screws. We figure there is just enough gear for us to rap the route utilizing single anchors, which meant that the first person to go down got 2 anchors, and the second guy pulls the backup. Dicey. In fact, the anchors were not great to begin with. The rock was extraordinarily compact, and finding suitable cracks was difficult. After about 10 raps, some long some short, some off of slings on natural features, we finally reached the Glacier and then realized we had left all of our rock gear on the face; it couldn’t have been more perfect. We still had to descend the Glacier and then rap/down climb the tongue. Fatigue, dehydration and cold were taking their toll, and soon it was dark. We did not know how far down it was to the base, and with only 1 ice screw left, and downclimbing in the dark out of the question, we find a ledge the size of a love seat, and decide to bivy. The temperature seemed to be dropping even further, and the snow, coming down harder. We donned all of our clothing, put our feet in our packs, and weaved the rope over us like spaghetti. After a couple of miserable hours, we realize that it is far too cold to merely sit, so we get up and jam the ice screw into a crumbling rock crack, tie in, and proceed to run in place off and on for the remainder of the night. With all of this going on on such a small ledge, it is no wonder that somehow, we managed to kick off my ice hammer, and my helmet. It was along night indeed. At one point, agonized by the misery of this bivouac, Way even threatened to pitch himself off the face to end the suffering. I encouraged him so that I might have peace and quiet; alas he feared death more than he feared the cold and heinous night, so pitch himself he did not. Just before dawn, we belayed off the shitty ice screw rock anchor, and I down climbed a half pitch of chose to find 45 degree blue ice of which made for quick front pointing down. After a short while, we could see the bottom of the tongue, and the ice steepened significantly. We thread the rope through some ice tunnels made with the ice screw and made a couple rappels to the bottom, where we pulled the rope hastily and bee lined it for the world. Luckily, the hike out was without incident and we even managed a quick hitchhike back to Banff, all in pretty poor weather. It was early November now, and this signified the end of the fall season; soon, these kinds of routes would be “out of condition” so to speak. It was time to leave Canada.
Way managed to secure some wired funds for a quick getaway which included a temporary insurance policy and some gas money; just enough to get us to Salt Lake City, where we though perhaps it would be a decent place to spend the winter; skiing, climbing, and making money for the next adventure. About an hour north of Ogden, the mighty Subaru blew it’s lid, and there we were again, on the side of the road, with a mound of gear and a dead car. A tow truck came to retrieve us, and took us to a service station, but we had to give the tow operator the car as payment! What’s the point I ask?
In the end, I wound up hopping a bus to California, got my old job back at the ski shop in Sacramento, and Way, having hitch hiked to SLC, spent the winter in the Wasatch.
The day has finally come; obligations, chores, work and goodbyes taken care of, I head out of town and on to Martinez to fetch my friend Dennis. Hook up onto Highway 101 and wind up the coast to Crescent City and up a beauty of a road to Grant’s Pass. Up I-5 through Seattle and on to Bellingham to re group at Pat’s house. A couple of beers and an Avocado Tostada, put Dennis and I back on the road that night to the Eldorado Peak trailhead.
A crack of 8 start, an obligatory log crossing to get started, puts us on the undeveloped climber’s trail leading directly upward and into the bowels of the North Cascades. The route we have chosen, the East Ridge of Eldorado Peak, rises 6800 feet from the road. We are heading to the ridge separating the 2 lower basins beneath the Eldorado Glacier. This ridge is situated at about 6,000′, which makes our approach 4000′ in about a mile. That’s damn steep.
The approach was steep indeed; an undeveloped climber’s trail without switch backs, heading nearly straight up for 2000′, ending at the dreaded “Boulder Field”. Luckily for us, it was mostly melted out at the start, but higher, a post holing episode of monstrous proportions ensued. We post hole in deep snow for hours.
That evening at our bivy, the sky is clear as a bell, and the magnificent alpenglow become the stuff of fantasy. A 360 degree view of all the high peaks of the North Cascades are a dizzying notion to my mind. I want to climb them all. To me, there is nothing finer than being in big, alpine, glaciated peaks.
A 5:00 am start see’s us descending slightly to the level of the Eldorado Glacier, then up said mass to it’s junction with the Inspiration Glacier, to form the largest continuous ice sheet not on a volcano in the lower 48. These peaks are fault block, glaciated, and made of Granite. This combo makes for my favorite kind of mountains.
Eventually, we climb up the last bit of it’s knife edged ridge, and on to Eldorado’s Icy summit; at just under 8,900′, we are just about as high as Carson Pass in California, but here, in the Cascades, this elevation and latitude and close proximity to the ocean, create an alpine environment that is unparalleled. The glaciers here are sizable indeed.
We descend the 6800 feet in a few short hours, that, over the last bit, had taken us 13 hours to ascend. Back at the truck by 5:00 pm, we head off to Pat’s for the evening. In the spirit of keeping the adventure alive, we experience a tire blowout on the drive out. A quick roadside fix and we are at Pat’s in Bellingham by 6:30.
Tomorrow I head out to San Juan Island to visit with my old friend Ben; then off to catch the ferry to Skagway and start pedaling to the Arctic… Onward.