I was in midair, at the end of my rope, still 60 feet from the ground. Did I mention I was alone, in a remote canyon, with no cell phone service, and no one knew where I was? Suddenly all those Aron Ralston jokes came back to haunt me. With a sigh, I let the reality of the situation sink in, and thought to myself “I should never have gone rope soloing.”
Rope soloing is a form of climbing which only requires one person and a series of minor complex systems allowing you to make upward progress while belaying yourself. It’s a bit more of an engineering project and logistically harder than a normal day of climbing, but all of the factors are under your control. You move at your own pace allowing the stillness of the environment to settle in.
On many multi-pitch routes you end up yelling against the wind to your partner below in order to make decisions as a team. When rope soloing, there is just the silence of the desert with the occasional company of a soaring raven possibly wondering the same question you are thinking yourself. “Why am I here?”
There are various reasons why someone would choose to rope solo a remote desert tower wearing a Hawaiian shirt on a Tuesday…
- a) They enjoy the challenge of managing intricate rope systems.
- b) They are an introverted weirdo who prefers the company of the voices in their head over anyone with an opinion.
- c) All of their partners bailed to fulfill other life obligations such as work, relationships, yard maintenance, or any other excuse not to climb all the time that is still a bit beyond their personal comprehension.
Well, at this point in time I would have to answer d) All of the above.
I had taken my time and the climbing had flowed well. I was climbing in a style I like to refer to as ‘fraid climbing’, a mixture of free and aid climbing in which you free climb whatever seems manageable and pull or stand on gear when you feel it to be necessary. It’s a system that maximizes efficiency, especially important when you’re rope soloing and required to climb each pitch twice. This style also tends to blur all the climbing together. There is less memory of certain movement or scary sections, just consistent calculated upward progress.
Before long I found myself on top of the small tower. The summits of desert towers have always been my favorite, small islands in the sky with 360 degree views. There is an added sense of accomplishment in getting to the top of something you have to climb. When there is no way to simply walk to the top the view is one that must be earned. Taking it all in, I sat back and relaxed.
After I felt satisfied with my time on the summit, I prepared to rappel. My old and tattered climbing guidebook said nothing of what to bring for ropes. Unwilling to tag a second line, I brought a single 70 meter and trusted I would figure it out. The only beta I had to go on was to “rap the route” so I was confused when I found the summit anchors to be on the opposite side of the tower from which I had climbed up. Assuming there might be another rap anchor below, I threw my rope over the edge and rappelled into the void, hoping for the best.
This is how I found myself 20 feet from the bottom of my rope, 15 feet out from the tower, just hanging in space, more alone than ever. The wind was picking up, spinning me in circles, unsympathetic to my cause. I felt helpless and stupid for getting myself in such a ridiculous situation.
Unfortunately, feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to get me back to the ground. Eyeing a large flake potentially within reach I took inventory of the items that I carried. I grabbed a loop of cordelette and untied its double fisherman’s knot making it into a single strand. Attaching one end to a large cam and the other end to myself I swung it around my head like a lasso and threw it at the flake. I missed, but I came close. Admittedly, I’m no cowboy. The ultimate goal was to hook the cam onto the flake allowing me to pull myself into the wall, where I could free climb up and left to the first pitch’s anchors.
Once again, I twirled the camalot around my head attempting to throw it at the wall while the wind continued to blow me in circles. It took close to ten tries before… It worked! Two lobes of the camalot had hooked the flake. In somewhat disbelief I tentatively pulled myself toward the wall unsure that the camalot would stay hooked to the flake, unsure that the flake would stay attached to the wall. Finally, I grabbed a hold of the wall and was able to climb over to the safety of the anchors. Clipping myself in I was still in disbelief that my MacGyver scheme had actually worked. My luck continued when the rope pulled clean. I threaded the anchors and rapped to the ground, relieved to leave with nothing but a story.
I packed my bag, hiked down to my truck, and drove straight back to Salt Lake City in search of a climbing partner with a better opinion than my own.