I was lost, adrift in a sea of blank white granite. I spotted the next bolt, unfortunately 20 feet directly to my right. In my haste I had gotten myself irreversibly off route. I couldn’t up-climb, down-climb, left-climb, or right-climb. My last bolt was at least 20 feet behind me. As the reality of the situation set in I cursed my past-self for ever thinking that 5.9+ R slab climbing would be a great idea on an unusually warm and sunny spring afternoon.
Climbing slab is all about friction. Moving across the smooth, featureless, lower angle rock has never been my forte. I would describe it more as my nemesis. It took a long time to train my eyes to pick out the tiny edges and small scalloped dishes necessary to make upward progress. It took even longer to train my mind to trust my feet on these small insignificant rock features. The insecure nature of slab climbing generates a constant flow of questions. Will this work? Why is this working? What happens if it doesn’t?
I’ve never taken a bad fall while slab climbing. I’m not sure what it would actually be like. I picture a small crystal breaking or the magical temperature dependent friction just giving out. After a long ride down the coarse granite, I’d eventually skid to a stop, bare skin shredded. I used to joke about wearing motorcycle leathers and being able to just glide carelessly down the flawless rock surface like a backyard slip-n-slide. Unfortunately I was shirtless and off-route so this wasn’t an option.
Perhaps I had not given the 5.9+ rating enough respect. 5.9 doesn’t get the credit it once did, now a grade that many climbers consider a warm-up at best. However, at one time 5.9 was the top of the scale, so anything above this was simply denoted with a “+”. The Wasatch contains a fair number of these historic ascents, including one of my personal favorites, The Undone Book, put up in Lone Peak Cirque by George Lowe in 1967. A ground breaking ascent at the time, today it is considered by some climbers to be as hard as 5.11a. In the same year, George Lowe also established S-Direct on the Thumb in Little Cottonwood Canyon, my intended route for the day from which I had strayed.
My calves started to burn from standing on tiny edges for too long. Time was now a factor. I decided I only had one option left, to just keep swimming. First I had to mentally prepare myself for the fall that I thought was inevitable and the fact that I might not be ok. Sometimes you just need to hear the truth. I yelled down to my belayer “Heads up! I might be taking a big one!”, but my words fell unanswered into the void. I had linked the last 2 pitches together leaving almost a full 60 meters between us. I felt alone.
Exhaling deeply I cast off into the unknown. The first move was the hardest and seemed highly improbable. I high-stepped onto a polished micro-crystal, requiring every bit of the yoga skills that I had never practiced. As I applied pressure I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, assuming that this was the end of my climbing season. When I opened my eyes I was standing tall, stuck to the slab by unknown forces. At this point I could reach a small hold, which mostly crumbled under my fingers. These were uncharted waters and the rock quality was subpar at best. Normally this would have instigated a feeling of panic, but this was a kamikaze mission, and I had already taken the fall in my mind. Just keep swimming I told myself.
I could see another route to my left. I headed up towards its lone bolt. It was my blinking lighthouse on the horizon. The climbing got easier the closer I got, but the further I traveled the bigger the consequences of failure became. I didn’t look back. By the time I reached my savior bolt I had been 40 to 50 feet runout. Another 15 feet of moderate climbing and I reached the anchors of this other unknown route. I clipped the chains and exhaled with disbelief.
In my Ruckman guidebook where there used to be a blank white section there is now a dotted line arching up and left labeled “Keep Swimming 5.9++ R/X zero stars. FA?: G. Troutman.”