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The Worst Pitch I’ve Ever Climbed

It started with a botched approach. We couldn’t discern trail from gap-in-the-trees because the forest floor was covered in snow. After walking a mile further than the vague Mountain Project description, it was evident that we’d gone too far. We aimed our noses toward The Legs, a proud granite formation and our destination, and spent 20 minutes bushwhacking and postholing through knee-deep slush. 

The Legs is an offshoot of Questa Dome, a granite face just outside of Taos, New Mexico. I’d partnered with my friend Ryan for his first-ever multipitch. A team of more-experienced friends, Brandon and Lexie, would follow us up the route. We were visiting the area and had a time constraint, so I’d suggested Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre, a three-pitch, three-star 5.8. Easy peasy. 

“We are going to fly up this thing,” I said, several times.

I’d bruised my ribcage the day before snowboarding and it hurt to breathe, but I could still lift my hands over my head. It was only 5.8. I figured I could handle it, and Ryan was psyched to climb his first multipitch. 

The approach took three-times longer than we’d accounted for, and our cutoff time was looming. Still, we decided to continue. The wind that had been calm down in the valley was now screaming at gusts of 40 mph, and my hands were losing feeling before I tied in.

The first pitch was a low-angle slab, supposedly 5.7. I could see the ledge and tree that marked the first anchor, and without double checking Mountain Project, I racked up and set off. 

The first couple of moves felt tenuous for 5.7—smeared feet, awkward undercling, lunge around a corner—but it had been a long, cold winter of snowboarding. Perhaps I was rusty. The corner inserted me into what I can only describe as a shit-gully—a flared, shoulder-width gorge down the face that was dripping wet, caked with mud, and filled with vegetation. On either side of the shit-gully was blank, unprotectable slab. I was more or less obliged to the line I’d committed to.

Also read: Young, Rackless, Cold, and Psyched

I began writhing my way up the gully, squeezing my shoulders between the flaring walls, wincing at the pain in my ribcage, digging my fingers into the mud, and slinging the occasional bush for protection. The gale force winds screamed up the wall, blowing debris into my eyes and freezing my hands numb. I moved headlong into bush after bush, twigs getting caught in my hair and filling my chalk bag. The abrasive granite shredded my climbing pants, and soon my hands, knees, and ankles were dripping with blood. I grunted, groaned, and screamed. I may have been off route.

I reached a bulge in the gully that was home to an imposing bush, this one so large that it could not be climbed through. My temperance was waning, my poise dissolving. I could try to rip the bush off the wall or find another way. I fiddled in a cam at my feet, and made a delicate and unprotected slab traverse across the face and around another corner, hoping to find more passable terrain.

What I found was a ledge to stand on below shallow roof. There was an undercling finger jam above that I could just reached with my arms fully extended. I pushed a #.4 up into the roof and managed to find good contact with three lobes. Standing on my tippy-toes, I got both hands into the undercling and an onslaught of dirt, lichen, and decaying rock showered down into my eyeballs. My vision would be blurry until the following morning; I felt granules of debris under my eyelids when I blinked.

I ignored my new lack of vision, I grit my teeth and committed to the moves, smearing my feet on the exfoliating rock face, pulling hard on the undercling, and throwing to a No. 5 offwidth. My arm swam around in the wide crack to find it caked with sopping wet moss. I’d left my large cams at home, expecting a casual 5.8, so there was no way to protect it. I worked a knee in and groveled my way up, making my peace with God with each movement, all too aware of the deckable ledge below me. The moves could have only been 5.10+, but it felt like I had a 60-pound weight tied to my harness as the rope pulled around two 90° corners below.

Brandon shouted from the ground: “I think your rope is stuck!”

“No fucking shit!” 

What followed next was one of those sequences that is so desperate, so unreasonable that you think to yourself, Not a chance. There is absolutely no chance that I won’t fall. And then you hang on just long enough to find yourself in yet another shit-gully. You sling a sapling for protection and carry on as you were, though more dirty, more bloody, more nauseous, your clothes more shredded, 60% of your vision gone, and with your mind made up that you will never, ever rock climb again after this. We’ve all been there.

I groveled some more. I swung my rock shoes into the mud like crampons into ice. I took a twig to my left eyeball. It was windy.  And then, to my overwhelming relief, I topped out the first pitch.

Almost.

I was six feet away from the tatted tree, but those six feet were made up of blank, unprotectable granite.

“I can jump that far,” I told myself out loud. “I can fucking jump that far.”

However, I now had what felt like 80 pounds of rope drag on my harness and my last piece of “protection” was 40 feet below. My self-talk hadn’t accounted for this. Instead, I re-entered the shit-gully, squirming my way up and above the tree, and then down-climbed. The nightmare was over.

Also read: All the Way Down and Out: Lessons From the Colorado Alpine

I made the executive decision to bail. I didn’t want to subject the rest of my team to such hell—plus we were running out of time. Ryan lowered me while I made huge pendulum swings across the face to clean my gear. I was out of breath, psychologically spent, and so thankful that I would soon be safely back on the ground.

“You have one meter of rope left,” Brandon yelled.

I was still 40 feet off the deck, and there was no place to build a new anchor.

Brandon took over the belay so that the less-experienced Ryan did not have to be involved in the shitshow that was about to ensue.

Bandon counterweighted me and walked up the face as I walked down. Then, holding onto one another, we pushed off the wall and made a big pendulum swing around a corner and into a thin ledge in a steep gully that put us closer to the ground. 

“Just untie and down solo,” Brandon said. “It looks like you’ve had enough, I’ll take care of the rope.”

I down soloed the remaining 15 feet and choked back vomit as my feet touched terra firma. Bending over to untie my shoes, I went nearly cross eyed from the pain in my ribcage. I pulled one shoe off and a dozen shards of granite fell out, my ankles covered in blood and blood blisters. But it was finally over. 

As I untied my other shoe, Brandon yelled, “Rope!” and all 70 meters coiled onto my back.