So Sandbagged on Serpentine
First he was looking at motorcycle-crash type injuries. Then it got worse. A detour on the famous route Serpentine, Suicide Wall.
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Five years ago I had just turned 60 and was feeling like I would never climb again. All of my partners had long since moved away or quit climbing, and a bad knee kept me from bouldering. I still wanted to climb, I just had no opportunities.
That changed when my old climbing buddy Greg called me out of the blue. Greg and I go back to the 70’s, when we learned to climb at Mission Gorge together. It was good to hear from him.
“You up for some routes?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah,” I replied.
“I’m meeting Brad and Jeff at Suicide Rock next month and I need a partner,” Greg continued.
“Sounds great, I’m in,” I replied. I told Greg that I wanted to lead the crux pitch of Serpentine, a three-pitch 5.9 face route on the Weeping Wall.
Knowing that I hadn’t led anything harder than 5.7 in 10 years, Greg scoffed. “You’ll thrash even trying to follow that pitch.”
I said, “Oh yeah?”
A month later I met up with the boys at Suicide Rock, Idyllwild, California, and I was on a mission. Had I trained or practiced, or in any way prepared? No. It wasn’t that big a mission. But a mission nonetheless.
On that June morning I humped up the 25-minute trail and found my friends toproping a 5.10a chute called, I think, Captain Hook. I tied in and climbed up to the slick, flared crux near the top and then spent 10 minutes trying to generate any more upward progress. My efforts were complicated by the need to look like I was casually scoping and testing the holds when I was actually trembling with isometric exertion and on the verge of a full-body spasm and rigor mortis.
After telling Greg in our phone call that I would “float,” “waltz” or “run up” (I forget which one I said) the crux pitch on Serpentine, I knew what kind of ridicule and belittlement flailing on a 5.10a toprope would bring.
I managed to slither up the slippery water course, expending most of my physical resources in doing so. Next we hiked about a hundred yards along the cliff base to the Weeping Wall. Greg was supposed to be my partner, but Brad parked under Serpentine, so I tied in with him.
As Brad took off above me on the first pitch of Serpentine, Jeff led the first pitch of Surprise, a 5.8 that runs roughly parallel to Serpentine, about 40 feet to the left.
I motored up the first pitch of Serpentine, feeling good, grabbed a few draws and led through on the second pitch. I had clipped the second bolt and was scoping the next moves above me when Greg set up the second belay on Surprise, just to my left. He saw me looking directly overhead at a well-chalked line of edges and two bolts.
“Those bolts are off route,” Greg said. “Serpentine goes right.”
Greg’s job was taking climbing photos and he knew the California climbing areas like nobody else, so though we have both been climbing the same number of years, when he gives route info I listen. But on this occasion I was skeptical. A bulge to my right obscured part of the wall, but I could see most of it, a sea of rippled black rock with nary a bolt in sight.
“I don’t see any bolts over there,” I replied.
“You’ll see them when you get to them,” said Greg sternly.
“I think I’ll just climb straight up to that bolt above me,” I told Greg.
“That’s Revelation!” he shot back, referring to a slightly harder route that merges with Serpentine at the top. “Those bolts are off route! Serpentine goes right.”
“But I don’t see any bolts,” I whined.
He was adamant, impatient. “You’ll see them when you get to them. The route goes right!”
I yielded, hoping he was right. I eked out a couple steep friction moves up and right, then made a dicey step across to the bulge. I was now standing on a 5.9 stance 10 feet above my last protection, which was a bolt in an alcove below me.
“Don’t fall now,” said Greg helpfully.
The moves below me were irreversible. The Weeping Wall does have a way of hiding bolts, so I started climbing up and right on friction with few handholds, praying that something would appear. Nothing did, and the wall steepened.
I down climbed tricky friction moves, still traversing right, until I was on the first of a series of horizontal ripples in the black rock, the only weakness in the wall anywhere near me. I was now 15 feet laterally away from my last bolt and six feet above it, looking at motorcycle-crash type injuries if I fell.
Looking at my feet, I realized that I didn’t even have my good shoes on. By now I was coming to the sickening realization that Greg was wrong, there were no bolts out here, and the only way I was going to save my own ass was by climbing a long way on uncharted rock, with no more protection. I should have felt panic, but instead a calm confidence settled in. I had been a solid face climber in my heyday, and I knew that a surefire way to fall on a runout is to freak out. I shifted into high focus, and as I moved, my technical skills came back to me out of sheer necessity.
I climbed a series of no-hands step-ups to where the ripples ended, now a good 20 feet off the bolt and easily 30 lateral feet from a bolt on Serpentine. I found just enough feet to start a traverse back left towards that bolt. That shiny piece of steel became the holy bolt in my mind, representing my salvation.
Every move on the traverse was 5.9 with lousy hands, but I was now on auto pilot, climbing quickly and efficiently, each move my entire existence. After a dozen such harrowing moves the rock steepened, but sharp edges replaced smears and good crimpers appeared for the hands. I surprised myself at some of the thin edges I was toeing on, but kept moving. I was honestly 30 feet above my last protection now, and the holy bolt was just above me and six feet to my left. Of course the last move on the traverse was the hardest, a high step onto a small but sharp edge, with a pair of good pulls. I toed into the edge and pressed my leg out, completely on that edge with both hands at my waist. The next hand hold was a full reach. I resisted the urge to throw for it and tenuously reached higher and higher, praying that my toe stayed on the edge. There. I snagged the hold and pulled up, stepped across to a big solution pocket, and clipped the bolt.
It was then that I realized that I had just climbed the crux move on Serpentine. Not only had I had done it, I had done it without being clipped into the two bolts below it.
Remembering how Greg was so sure that I would thrash on the crux move of Serpentine, I saw an opportunity to be real cool. I looked over at him and said, “Ha.”
Looking down for the first time since my unplanned detour began, I saw that Brad had actually had it worse than I had, staying ready to try and reel in 30 feet of rope if I fell from my tightrope act.
Once we were all on top we coiled our ropes and racked our gear without acknowledging anything out of the ordinary.
Just before we began the descent I said, “Greg, why did you try to kill me?”
Greg could only mumble that he thought the route went right. But Greg’s faulty memory had afforded me an opportunity to do something outrageous, even if not by choice. I kept it together and did a lot of hard moves on a giant runout and never once slipped or felt panicked. I knocked that shit out move by move because I had to. I am still mighty proud of that, and hope never to do it again.
Ron Amick is a longtime route developer and guidebook author who recently retired from engineering after 45 years. His most recent article was an elegy to a boulder, as published in our annual issue of Ascent. “Remembering the Pink Boulder” is membership-only content.