Illustrated by Mike Clelland
Back to the basicsStar Date: January 2005.
I’m buried in a massive cleft three pitches below the summit of Patagonia’s Aguja Desmochada.
With my back against a smooth granite wall and both feet planted across from me, I stare into an 18-inch-wide runnel of WI5. It would be great climbing… had I brought screws, ice tools, and
. I shimmy up several inches but slide back down a foot. I’m going nowhere fast.
This is my nightmare.Every alpine rock route has terrain that’ll get your goad. It might be wet, slimy, loose, crumbly, and/or snow-covered rock, and it might even be a slab. But there are no secret shortcuts on such messy terrain. There are only the basics.
Size ‘er upTake an extra 10 minutes to pre-inspect each pitch from the belay. Predict the gear you’ll need. Ask questions (e.g., should I re-engineer the belay to free up that #4 Camalot?). Identify any hazards, or possible variations to avoid said hazards. Aid, if necessary: pulling through difficult sections can be faster and safer than going gonzo at that wet offwidth. Likewise, consider a short rappel or tension traverse to circumnavigate sticky problems. Briefly brainstorming with your partner will often open up better stances and stronger placements, and single out actively dripping rock.
Dress for SuccessKeeping an ice axe clipped to your harness on snowy rock proves invaluable, and I frequently find climbing nasty alpine terrain in my approach shoes or boots to be easier than donning tight rock shoes. Also, in wet conditions, a pair of tight-fitting Neoprene gloves provides phenomenal coverage, as does a hooded, waterproof jacket.
Protect the BelayBefore setting off on an ugly pitch, establish a safe belay: protect from falling rock and ice, as well as from wind, rain, snow, and sun. This may seem obvious, but I once had a partner build a belay under melting snow, with a single drop of water hitting him every few seconds. After an hour of this Chinese water torture, he was soaked and we decided to bail.
Easy Does ItClimbers try to rush through bad terrain. This is a bad idea. Take your time and maintain an open dialogue with your belayer — communication lets him know what you’re thinking and will often calm the nerves. Your belayer, from his perch below, can sometimes spot the easiest passage. Heed his advice. Climb Smart Keep weight evenly distributed on all appendages on suspect rock (i.e., use your feet and don’t overgrip — a classic mistake on sketchy terrain). Just because the rock is wet and loose doesn’t mean the basics of climbing technique don’t apply. Breathe deeply, and keep your shoes dry by invoking creative footwork and proper balance as you tromp through wet spots and small snow patches. We Don’t Need Another Hero Place lots of passive gear — especially right off the belay — looking for horns, threads, and other potential natural anchors, to conserve pro you’ll need up higher. Also, protect blank traverses by climbing a body length or two above, placing a piece, and then downclimbing back on route. As a rule, placing copious pro will yield shorter pitches and stronger communication, giving you a chance to rest and keep your mind sharp. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve blown past a suitable ledge because it’s just 40 meters above the belay, only to find myself at the end of the rope and having to engineer some dodgy anchor, I’d be a friggin’ thousandaire.
Practice!!! Climbing wet, loose rock is an acquired skill — the more you do it, the better you get. Next time you’re at the crags, don’t avoid pitches because they look a little skunky. If you get regular groveling done at home, it won’t feel as strange on a remote alpine route, and who knows… you might start to enjoy the experience.
Freddie Wilkinson knows how accurately to put down the worst rock and make it feel like the dirty choss that it is.