I traversed over to the tree at the top of the West Chimney (5.6) on Eldo’s Redgarden Wall, pouring sweat. I hadn’t touched real rock in a month, so I was pleased to have made it to the top of the first pitch of The Great Zot (5.8+) without falling, without pulling the loose block out from under the roof, and without doing anything really embarrassing. After the difficulties ended, I carefully moved right to get us to the West Chimney, where my girlfriend would take us up Swanson Arête (5.5) (one of her first trad leads), so I could take photos of her for a guidebook project.
I tied a cord around the tree, clipped myself in, yelled down to Hilary that I was off belay, and felt around for my belay device on the back right loop of my harness. Where it wasn’t. I felt the back left loop. Not there either. I twisted to look at the loops, left, then right, because no way did I just climb up here without my goddamn belay device.
Alas, I did just climb up here without my goddamn belay device.
I said nothing. I went over the options in my head. I could lower off, except I was 130 feet off the ground, so I’d need to have Hilary lower me to the first set of anchor bolts, clip in, and then have her lower me to the ground, where I could walk back down to the van, grab my belay device, walk back up the approach trail, and finally re-lead that pitch again. Of course, I’d probably need to drink a half gallon of water to get rehydrated, and by the time I walked down and back up, we’d have a good chance of getting caught in an afternoon thunderstorm, this being Colorado and all. I could lower off and we could go home, depriving Hilary of her first lead in Eldo and requiring me to climb this route again to get the photos for the guidebook. Or I could belay Hilary off a Munter hitch, if I could remember how.
I went with the third option. I twisted the rope around a locking carabiner, playing the “Is this a Munter hitch or not?” game for a couple minutes, making sure it worked properly, because Hilary is not only my climbing partner, but also my girlfriend. I chose to not tell her about any of this until she got to the belay.
The Munter worked, though it kind of kinked the rope and slowed things down a little. We climbed, I shot photos, and at the top, we decided to rappel since no one was below us. I lowered Hilary down each of the four single-rope raps, then rappelled myself, which took forever and turned a three-pitch casual outing into a long endurance day. Low rumbles of thunder got closer and closer as we made our way down the Redgarden Wall, and I continually cursed myself for leaving my belay device clipped to a different harness in the van.
Just as we pulled the rope from the last of the rappels, the sky opened up and started pouring rain on Eldorado Canyon. We walked down the trail and got soaked, but we weren’t stranded up high, we didn’t get struck by lightning, we weren’t injured, and we weren’t having a full-blown epic. I just kind of blew it, and an easy climb took us embarrassingly long.
The next week, when I went out climbing with my friend Chris, I said something about having long days full of mistakes—getting off route, getting rap ropes stuck, getting lost on the approach, and generally just taking longer than usual—but not quite having an epic.
“At the office, we just call that ‘punting,’” he said. His office being Black Diamond’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, where the tradition of Dawn Patrol has employees knocking off half-day skiing and climbing objectives before 9 a.m. on weekdays—unless they punt and show up late for work.
“Ah yes, punting,” I said. “I’m an aficionado.”
I heard the East Slabs descent was straightforward, but we picked the wrong gully and after a couple rappels, we’re going to be late picking our kids up from day care. I picked the wrong left-facing corner, which led to a dead-end unprotectable slab, so we rapped the off-route pitch. Turns out that took a while, and now the sun’s going down and even if we climb the last two pitches super-fast, there’s no way we’re going to make it to that barbecue on time. I couldn’t find the alleged “third class downclimb,” and then the rap rope got stuck, and neither of us brought a headlamp, and if we get back tonight at all, your significant other is never going to let you go climbing with me again. Hell, I’ve even punted in the American Alpine Club Library—I thought I was going in to find one book about one place, and then sat down on the floor with a half-dozen books and… Whoa, would you look at the time!
There is no great honor in punting, no pride of surviving an open bivy or a freak storm. There is also no great dishonor, just a sheepish admission to very few people, and maybe an apology for taking so long. Sometimes you set out with the idea that you’re dialed on everything—“Oh yeah, it’s two hours car to car”—except that thanks to the accidental art of punting, you forget your belay device, and now you’re clocking in at a not-so-proud five hours. But at least in punting, you can learn something. As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. He lives for the relentless pursuit of 5.fun and writes at semi-rad.com.