The AstroTour of the West
What makes a great climb? Ask a sport climber and you might get told that dynamic movements on overhanging limestone is as good as it gets. The big wall ace will proclaim that thin nailing on expando flakes is where it’s at. Crusty old trads measure a climb’s merits on how many hundreds of feet of splitter hand and finger cracks there are. Some people will tell you granite is the end all, beat all. Others will expound about sandstone, tuft, limestone, or basalt. The bottom line is that if you ask ten different climbers what the best route is, you will more than likely get ten different answers. In the words of Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?” Why can’t climbers agree on the best?
Every other sport has its pinnacle of achievement, the event by which all others are judged within that arena. The Super Bowl, the Tour de France, The Masters, The World Series, the Final Four, etc. As climbers, though, can we really say that there is A CLIMB that defines our achievement? Do we have a Super Bowl? Now certainly climbers can claim to be above all that comparison junk. After all, we just climb to climb, not wanting to be pigeon-holed into other people’s boxes, right? Yeah, you can tell yourself that all day long, but then why do we all seek out all the 5 star lines at every area we go to? It’s because we all want to climb the best routes.
So then why not climb them all? I wondered if it was possible for two average Joe’s with full time jobs to climb all the Astro’s in the West. Better yet, was it possible to do them all in a week? After all, if you’re going to compare the quality of 5 different great routes, you might as well have the memories of them all fresh in your mind. And so began the dream of the Astro Tour of 2005, to climb all the Astro routes of the West in one week. Of course before I even started, I realized the entire idea would be steeped in controversy. After all, how could I omit such classics as Astro Elephant, Astro Hulk, or Astro Yam. Well, considering that the only time I could go was in mid-May, and this meant that they were all still under snow, my decision was easy. Plus, all great climbing stories seem to stir up some sense of debate, so why should the Astro Tour be any different? I was just trying to keep with tradition!
Given that the Climbing Magazine corporate jet wasn’t available, I knew that this ambitious plan would be heavily dependent on ridiculous amounts of driving. My first course of action was to acquire a dependable set of wheels. The guy at the rental car place told me to “drive it as much as I wanted”. As I headed off in my new Jeep Grand Cherokee, somehow I don’t think he envisioned me putting 4500 miles on his rig in 7 days, but what can you do? Next need was a new leg. I was scheduled for knee surgery in 2 months and was having a difficult time walking up and down stairs. A quick trip to Dr. Cunningham and his wonderful steroid shot to the knee and I was feeling no pain. Once he assured me that I probably wouldn’t screw it up worse than it already was, I was confident I could climb. Aren’t drugs great?
We knew that leg one of the journey would physically be the hardest of the trip. We were going to climb both Shune’s and Cloud Tower in the same day. It’s only about 15 pitches of climbing, which by today’s standards isn’t that big of a deal. But given the fact that one route is in Zion and the other in Red Rocks, separated by two 20 minute bus rides, approaches, descents, and 3 hours of driving between them, the day gets a tad bit harder.
Pulling into Zion at midnight on Friday only to find all the campgrounds full was a rather auspicious start to what was going to be a long week. Luckily Mosquito Cove, the free bootleg camp spot, had plenty of spaces and the cars weren’t too loud. Between the lullaby-like sound of jake brakes and the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes, I think I actually slept an hour or two. Perhaps the best part of rock climbing in Zion is all the strange looks and riveting questions you get from the tourists on the busses. Robbie stared in disbelief as we toyed with the sightseers. Yes, we’re going all the way to the top. No, I haven’t climbed Mount Everest. Actually I don’t think I could cut my arm off like Aaron. Why of course I’m sure Sylvester Stalone and Tom Cruise did all those awesome stunts in Cliffhanger and Mission Impossible. Just try to remember that they mean well.
Given my knee, coupled with the fact that I am inherently lazy, I love Shune’s Buttress as the approach is a casual 15 minute stroll up a decent path. The first pitch starts off in a laser-cut dihedral with a perfect finger crack for protection. Rob power liebacks and stems his way up to the roof at about 100 feet. Now from the ground the climbing above this roof appears to be much easier as the angle of the rock kicks back considerably. In reality, though, the splitter finger crack turns into a seam, the nice footholds suddenly disappear, and the rock quality turns from black desert varnish to loose manky sand.
After plugging in several pieces of “gear” that probably would have slowed him down in the event of a fall, Rob fires the pitch to the first belay. As I gingerly follow on one and a half legs, I am very glad that it was his lead. The next pitch we like to refer to as "The Daddy". With a 70 meter rope and 15 meters of simul climbing, you can actually link pitches 2, 3, and 4, making for one of the best pitches in the desert. 50 feet of fun 5.9 hand crack is followed by a great 5.10+++ chimney and offwidth. There is sucker bolt high up in the chimney that I don’t clip due to the heinous rope drag it would cause. Instead, I stuff in a bomber number 4 Camelot and venture out onto 75 feet of splitter fists capped by the final section of fun 5.8 fingers.
Rob follows me up in a flash and quickly dispenses with the next short section of face climbing. Pitch 6 is considered by most to be the crux as well as the most spectacular pitch on the route. 15 feet of traversing and down-climbing brings me to a unique finger crack that splits an otherwise flawless shield of red sandstone. The three foot roof halfway up the pitch has huge buckets just where you need them, keeping the grade to a reasonable 5.11. Another 60 feet of slightly overhanging hand crack have me battling the pump to make it to the belay without crying "take". The last pitch is a perfectly diagonaling hand and fist crack with gigantic patinas on both sides of the crack. Pure fun. Rob hikes it in about 3 minutes and I receive the traditional candy cane belay as he snaps pictures from above. We sweat our way through 5 nerve-wracking simul raps down the route on what are often less than ideal anchors, grab our shoes, catch the bus, and are back in the car by noon.
Rob claims to be endowed with a unique cop-detecting sixth sense. As I redline the Jeep Southbound on I-15 at 100mph I can only hope that he has recently calibrated his reception. Thankfully his mental radar detector works just fine and we roll into the Oak Creek parking lot at Red Rocks around 3:00. We have actually called ahead and arranged for a late exit pass, so for once we’re not going to receive a ticket. Lady Luck continues to smile on us as a large bank of clouds rolls in over Juniper Canyon, shielding our tender, pasty, white flesh from the 92 degree sun. Unlike Zion, Red Rocks is the home of long bushwhacking approaches.
After a very long hour we finally reach the base of the wall. Cloud Tower starts with 3 pitches of entertaining moderate climbing followed by the business pitch. We simulclimb the easy stuff in about 10 minutes and arrive at the crux pitch just as it fully goes into the sun. Rob is not super psyched about the 5.12 stemming that awaits him in the rubber-melting heat. Because I’m too much of a wuss to lead it, though, he heads up and gingerly places micro nuts and #00 TCU’s as he works his way along the overhanging corner. Just as he is about to reach the key finger lock, Rob’s right foot blows out and he’s off for a ride. Luckily the thin gear holds and after lowering to the start of the pitch, he fires it clean next go.
The 5th and 6th pitches of Cloud Tower are classic wide hands with large scoops on either side of the crack to stand in. They can be run together for an excellent pitch of 5.10 cruising topped off by a grovel through a chimney to the opposite side of Cloud Tower, making for a truly unique 200 feet of climbing. The last pitch is right out of Indian Creek. It’s a textbook hand crack corner that climbs through 3 progressively larger roofs. Even though it's rated 5.11+, it climbs quite a bit easier if you’ve got big mitts like I do. Easy as it may be, by the time he reaches the chains, Rob is so smoked that he can barely hold his head up. He has definitely given everything he’s got for the free ascent. We carefully work our way back to the ground and plod towards the car which we finally get to just after dark. Robbie G has gotten some great pictures but I think he is beginning to question the intelligence of hooking up with us, and it’s only day one. Once we put down some much needed food, gas, and caffeine, the two R’s pass out and I start the long drive to the Valley. Astroman, here we come.
I only have two basic rules when driving: one, no Grateful Dead music; two, if you get tired, pull over. No matter where you’re going, it will surely be there the next day (the importance of this rule would be slammed home 5 days later when we pulled a lady out of her overturned car on I-70 after she fell asleep at the wheel). Somewhere around 1:00 am I give in to the gravitational pull tugging at my eyelids and decide to park it for a quick nap. It would have been easy to ask Robbie G to drive at this point (after all, the rental car company would probably never know) but for once I stick to my ethics.
Four hours later we’re back on the road and Rob is bound and determined to make it to the base of Astroman by noon. I try to cover my eyes and not think about the consequences of a head-on collision as Rob does his best Mario Adretti impersonation on Hwy 41 leading into Yosemite. Fortunately for us, Rob pulls it off and we park outside the Awahnee Hotel right at 11:30. I’ve been looking forward to Astroman for a long time and I’ve definitely got butterflies in my stomach as we start up the approach hill and the route comes into view for the first time. Looking at the watch and noticing that it’s already past noon does little to ease my anxiety. After all, this is Astroman, and I am most assuredly not Dean Potter, Peter Croft, or Rob Pizem for that matter.
The strength of a great partnership is knowing that I won’t be second guessed by Rob for saying that I think we need to throw in the towel. He has total confidence in my judgment just as I do in his. Even though he is by far the stronger climber, I can see in his face that it’s just not in him today. The decision is quick and decisive. We stash our gear and head to Curry Village for pizza and rest. We’ll get an early start tomorrow and be done afternoon. As usual, talk is cheap and the Astro Tour is just about to show us her true colors.
Rob picks out a beautiful spot in the backpackers’ campground right by the river. We’re sound asleep by 9:00 as it starts to drizzle. A few drips on the head from my haggard old Mega-Mid seem like a minor inconvenience as I drift in and out of consciousness. We are all sleeping like babies when around midnight Rob notices there’s a stream running down the middle of our sleeping area. So we abandon ship and wade over to the bathroom where we lie on the urine-encrusted floor and try to fall back asleep without dwelling on the multitude of communicable diseases we are sure to be catching.
As daylight dawns, the mighty Merced River is entering full flood stage. We realize quickly that no climbing is happening today, and that we need to get out of the Park… fast! Rob’s pants have mysteriously disappeared with the raging torrent, so he sprints back to the base of Astroman to retrieve our gear wearing a rain jacket and tighty whities. Fortunately everyone else in the park was still asleep or he surely would have been arrested for indecent exposure. In the meantime, Robbie and I tear down our camp and go retrieve the car.
The drive North is uneventful and when I wake up 20 minutes from Smith Rock it’s 6:30 pm and the weather looks great. Rob again finds us a choice sleeping spot at the state park, this time on much higher ground. This is my first trip to Smith Rock and I am blown away at the climber-friendly attitude that streams from the place. Particularly given the Gestapo tactics we encounter at so many other climbing destinations, it is refreshing to see such a well run area. Spotless bathrooms (I’d happily sleep on those floors in a pinch), HOT showers, clean cooking areas, great parking, easy to use trail system, and a helpful, glad-you’re-here-vibe from the rangers make me more than happy to pay the nominal user fee. Note to climbing area around the country…buy a ticket up to Oregon and see how it’s done right.
After a stellar dinner I am ready for some serious sleep. I know that I am beginning to feel the effects of exhaustion when I bite Rob’s head off over some tedious comment about how we should rack the gear. We both head to our neutral corners of the ring in the hope that I’ll wake up on the right side of the bed tomorrow. Poor Robbie just watches in silence as he gets a free lesson in group dynamics 101.
By the time we hit Bend again, it’s raining hard. We feel like we cheated the weather gods by sneaking in Astro Monkey and we’re definitely hoping that we have similar success back on Astroman. After the second near head-on collision caused by the torrential downpour, I turn the wheel over to Rob who proceeds to motor all the way to within 20 miles of Yosemite. When he pulls over it is still raining and there is no way I’m setting up the tent so he ‘sleeps’ in the driver’s seat while Robbie and I snuggle up next to each other in the back of the jeep. At least 2 of us are comfortable. Once it is light enough to see, Rob and I switch places and I continue the rest of the way into the park.
Another important aspect of a strong partnership is trusting your teammate(s) not to raid the food supply while you are sleeping or otherwise incapacitated. In my haste to get all our gear back into the Jeep, it seems that an entire apple pie got left behind. Rob and Robbie still cling to the incorrect belief that I scarfed the entire thing down while they were busy spooning one another. Just because I’ve been know to eat more than my fair share of desserts doesn’t mean that they should choose not to believe my story, right? I know that somewhere on the outskirts of Yosemite there’s a very happy family of raccoons with apple pie crumbs in their whiskers and that’s all that matters.
Now my mind had had plenty of time to draw a very specific mental picture of what exactly the ‘boulder problem’ looked like. I can assure you that 15 feet of tips liebacking with no feet was not at all what I was anticipating. Suffice to say that on my topo the ‘boulder problem’ of Astroman is now referred to as the ‘aid section’. Rob laughed hard as he casually strolled up this pitch behind me. It must be nice to be strong and have good footwork. Unlike the ‘boulder problem’, I actually had a perfect mental picture of what the ‘enduro corner’ entailed as well. Rated 5.11hard, I can assure you that it feels every bit of 5.11 when it’s nice and wet for the first 100 feet.
Rob was casually resting at the bomber hand jam 60 feet up when suddenly he fell. No warning, no nothing. Just a quick yelp as he shot out of the slimy crack. To say that I barely hung on for the toprope onsight would be the understatement of the century. I honestly believe that if a fly had landed on me I probably would have fallen off. Wow, what a pitch! There is a good reason so many other pitches around the world compare themselves to Astroman’s ‘Enduro Corner’. Unlike most things in life, you can definitely believe the hype! The next two pitches can easily be linked for a monster of a pitch. Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Let’s Get Physical’ comes to mind whenever I think of this marathon.
The Black Canyon is an amazing place. The stories of dangerous runouts, scary pegmatite, and heinous poison ivy have all combined to make The Black an ominous destination. Rob and I both sleep restlessly that night as we battle our inner demons, which seem to be fueled by the energy of the deep chasm below. Anyone who has read stories about climbing in the Black Canyon has heard accounts of the voices that people inevitably hear when they’re trying to sleep the night before a big climb. Those who have never been to the place probably snicker about such cowardly emotions, but I can assure you that Rob and I both succumbed to the sound of the voices that night.
A pre-dawn wake up finds us both feeling raunchy. Robbie wishes us luck as he starts the 90 minute drive to the North Rim to take our pictures from the other side of the canyon. Right as he pulls out of sight, another truck screeches to a halt in the parking lot containing Brad and Andy, two climbers who are obviously bummed that we are doing Astro Dog. Amazingly, there is little posturing and we let them know that if we are holding them up, they are welcome to pass us. Neither Rob nor I is feeling like we’re going to set a speed record today. Brad and Andy seem relieved at our offer, but it’s obvious that we’ve acted as a serious buzz-kill to their day. Astro Slog is the series of 12 rappels that get you to the start of Astro Dog. While the raps used to be a terrifying affair of sketchy protection, today they are fairly sedate as a certain magazine editor equipped most of the anchors with bomber new bolts a few years back (thank you Jeff Achey).
While simul-rapping into the dark abyss below, both of us stay extra alert as we think of our good friend Ari Menatove, who broke his arm on these very same rappels. Fortunately we reach the bottom of the canyon without incident in about two hours. Brad and Andy end up being very happy that we’re on the route as Andy dropped his belay device and Rob gave him his extra. The Astro Tour is all about spreading the love.
If the first 4 pitches of Astro Dog were at any single-pitch crag in America, they would be the most popular routes on the wall. Impeccable finger and hand cracks give way to dead vertical liebacks grabbing the corner of a flake so perfectly tailored that you’d swear it was chiseled by the hand of God Himself. Three or four more pitches of nondescript 5.9ish climbing on better-than-it-looks rock gets us to the midway point of the route and the two bolder bivy.
We have made a major tactical mistake as the route has been in the sun since the second pitch. Rob and I both look like we just stepped out of the shower as our shirts are soaked with sweat. We hang out at the two boulder bivy trying to muster up the strength to continue upward, but neither one of us is feeling particularly motivated. When Brad and Andy join us, they too admit that it is way too hot for climbing on the jet-black rock. When I can’t sit around any longer, I start up the unbelievable 5.10 corner pitch, moving slowly and complaining the entire way about the fact that my left foot is on fire.
Not wanting to belay in the sun, I continue through the next pitch and collapse at the belay with nothing more than a locking ‘biner and a 3.5 Camelot left on my harness. On the next pitch I know that Rob is feeling the effects of the previous week’s trials as he spends what is for him an eternity fishing in tons of gear to protect easy 5.9 moves. While I gingerly feed out rope and blindly yell up beta to him, I am extra nervous as Rob yells ‘watch me’ on several occasions. I am all too aware of the terrain that he is on and I’m certain that a fall here would end in serious injury. Proving once again that he is the man, Rob musters up the inner strength to fire the pitch and soon I hear those beautiful words, ‘off belay’! Only one more pitch to go and then it’s 700 feet of simul climbing to the car.
Now as I look at Rob curled up in the fetal position still regaining strength from his awesome lead, I am far from brimming with enthusiasm for the task at hand. I finally pull myself together and make my way up the overhanging corner above, pulling on multiple pieces of gear in the process. Due to abysmal rack management, I have to climb the last 20 feet of 5.10+ crack with no gear while fighting atrocious rope drag. If this pitch is truly only 5.11, then most of the other climbs we’ve done on this trip are 5.9. I crumple onto the belay ledge an exhausted wreck. Rob has to wait for 15 minutes while I put together an anchor. Once I have him on belay, he somehow manages to fire the pitch clean, keeping our record of free ascents intact.
We simul the last several pitches at a very slow pace and when I top out I simply keep walking, finally belaying Rob off the fencepost next to the car. Disintegrating in the parking lot, we both know that we’ve given every last ounce of energy we have. Rob somehow gets us back to Eagle in one piece as pass out in the back.
Sitting at home a week later nursing my throbbing knee, it’s hard to put into words what I feel. People have asked me to rank the climbs we did. They each stand out in their own right for different reasons. Every one of them would be a worthwhile destination by itself. Astro Dog is by far the hardest. Astro Monkey is the shortest, while Astroman has the most consistent climbing. Shune’s provides 2 of the best pitches in all of the desert, and Cloud Tower offers plain, simple fun. While hanging out at the Two Boulder Bivy on Astro Dog, Brad and Andy just shook their heads in disbelief as we told them about our adventure. One of them suggested that we write an article describing the Astro Tour, saying that it could turn in to a modern testpeice for the truly masochistic climber.
Photo by Mike Brumbaugh
Get yourself a decent set of wheels, a strong partner, and a week off from work and you too can experience the World Series, the Final Four, the Indy 500, the Tour de France, and the Super Bowl all in the course of 7 days. If two average Joe’s with full time jobs can pull it off, you too can climb the best that our sport has to offer. After all, with a name like Astro, it has to be good!
Mike Brumbaugh lives with his wife Jennifer in Eagle, CO, where he has easy access to I-70. His secret to climbing success is to recruit partners who are far stronger than he is. He figures he will sleep when he is dead.