Saturday, May 9, 2015

Turkey Rocks Crack Climbing

The South Platte area is growing to be one of my favorite places to climb. Away from the business of the climbing areas of Golden and Boulder you can drive through small towns like Deckers and Pine Junction, spotting beautiful granite domes in the distance among lush ponderosa pines as well as burn scars from the 2002 Hayman fire that burnt 216 square miles in the area. The area is just peppered with high quality granite with some of the best slab and crack climbing in the state. Aside from the giant granite domes, there are thousands of small rock outcroppings all over, just begging to be explored.

Shelby's excited to climb some cracks

Last weekend we went down to Turkey Rocks, which is one of the most popular SPlatte areas known for the highest density of crack climbing in Colorado. Cracks in the rock are an essential part of trad climbing. A crack in the rock is often the most natural line up an otherwise featureless rock because it gives you something to hold onto with your hands and feet and more importantly provides a way to place protection in case you fall. Before drilling bolts into the rock became common, a crack was the only way that you could place protection in the rock, aside from the odd rock horn or tree that you could wrap a sling around. So naturally, whenever you want to set off on a climb using traditional protection methods, you are restricted to following crack systems in the rock. You can sometimes find holds on the face and just use a crack for protection but sometimes there are no face holds and your only option is to jam your hands and feet into the crack to move upward. This is called crack climbing.

Pikes Peak in the distance

After a chilly and breezy night, we made some breakfast tacos, drank some coffee, and headed to the crag. First up would be a route called Left Handed Jew, a wonderful 5.8 hand crack. We top-roped this climb last year, so we knew it was probably easy enough for us to lead this year. I started up using the face holds at the bottom of the route as much as I could, but it wasn't long before I had to commit to using only the crack. I placed most of my hand-sized cams on my right side, which turned out to be a bad idea. The route goes up a left-facing corner, so my body was always pushed up against the right side of the corner, making it very difficult to get my gear. The jamming felt solid all the way up the main crack with only one section that bulges out a bit, making it a little difficult. I had been practicing on a 5.9 crack at the gym so this crack felt easy compared to the one at the gym. About 2/3 of the way up you have to traverse over on nice big feet to another crack so you can top out. Once I traversed to the left I stopped and evaluated what my next moves would be. I was able to get a mediocre cam into the crack that I would be entering, so I had some reassurance that I'd be caught if I fell. The crack starts around face-height, so in order to get into the crack you have to jam your hands in the nice hand crack and smear your feet on the mostly featureless face, working your hands up as much as you can until you can get a really high left foot, which you can stand on to get fully into the crack.With a good amount of effort I was able to get up into the crack to an okay stance and placed another piece of gear before I got to a no-hands rest. The last 20 feet of the climb were easy, using a hidden lie-back crack and a very low angle hand crack to get to the top where I set up an anchor on a giant boulder. It felt great to get my first crack climb cleanly and I was excited to clean all the gear and watch Shelby lead it again after me.

Dave leading Left Handed Jew last year

For some reason, we decided to try to climb off-widths for the rest of the day. Off-widths are cracks that are an awkward size that is too big for your hands or fists, but too small to wedge your whole body in it. They are notorious for being painful and difficult. The next climb was a 5.7 and is called Wet Turkey. It starts up some easy hand cracks till you get to a big ledge. From the ledge you can either stem your legs across a huge gap or climb a slightly overhanging hand crack for 10 feet. Since I haven't been able to do the splits since never, I opted for the handcrack. This was pretty strenuous but short. I climbed up a bit higher to a small ledge, which was where the off-width crack started. I foolishly already used my #4 cam, which is used to protect relatively large cracks from 3-4in wide. So the only gear I had that would really be useful was a single #5 cam for 20 feet of the hardest climbing on the route. If I were an off-width master, this wouldn't be a big deal, but for a noob like me, I just hoped I could bump the cam up little by little as I climbed and find some hidden small cracks somewhere. I started climbing up by sticking my whole arm into the crack, bending it at the elbow to bridge the large gap. I shuffled up by bridging my foot from heel to toe across the crack. This was exhausting. I would sometimes find a small face hold that I could use for my hands or feet and I was able to jam half my body into the crack and have a very uncomfortable rest. But the movement was very strenuous. As I moved above my cam I jammed half my body into the crack and attempted to bring the cam up. But of course I had jammed the rope between my body and the rock, so this was very difficult since the rope was connected to the cam. Eventually I got the cam up and above my head, which was exactly when I told Shelby to take and I sat back on the rope, resting on the cam. Exhausted and a bit concerned about the protection situation, I looked around for opportunities to place some of my smaller gear. I found a half inch constricting crack that was perfect for placing a nut (a small trapezoidal piece of aluminum with an attached wire that can be placed in constricting cracks and used for protection). I felt a bit better about bumping the cam up with some extra protection, so I attempted to move up a bit. No go. I couldn't make any progress anymore because the rock was starting to bulge out, making it slightly overhanging and way beyond my skill level. So I decided to try aid climbing for my first time. Aid climbing is where you place gear into a crack and pull on the gear or step onto the gear to move up. This is in contrast to free-climbing, which is when you never pull on or step on gear to move up - you only use your hands and feet on the rock to move up. So I was able to step on a sling attached to the cam and get up into a position where I could climb again. I shuffled up towards the top, crawled through a tunnel into a topless cave where I set up an anchor and belayed Shelby up. We were totally beat after this climb, so we walked down together and took a nice long lunch break before contemplating climbing anything else. 

Taking a break before our last climb of the day

Eventually we worked up the motivation to try one more. After getting beat up by a 5.7, we opted for an easier 5.6 off-width called Sangaphogos (aka Easy Offwidth (I like the name of this one!)). This one was much more pleasant and doable. I may have hung on gear once for a rest, but mostly climbed it cleanly. It was nice to get to practice off-width technique on something that was actually possible for me to climb. I got to the top and brought Shelby up where we decided we were satisfied for the day.

Tired after a hard day of climbing

The next day we visited a different area of Turkey Rocks to climb a 4 pitch 5.7 called Nighttime Madness. Here we would put to test our crack climbing skills that we practiced the day before and get high up on the rock. Shelby was up for taking the lead on the first pitch. So, she started up two parallel cracks, which from the bottom look like a perfect hand crack on the left and a pretty nice finger crack on the left. It bulges out a bit, but the cracks look so nice it couldn't be too hard! Wrong! Shelby got two good pieces in and started up the slightly overhanging part. She stepped up, made a bit of upward progress, then downclimbed and rested on the rope. She tried a few times, but couldn't make it work, so she let me give it a try. I got up to her second piece and started to move up when I realized that the parallel cracks were no good at all! The left one was too big for a fist and the right one was too small and too shallow to jam my fingers in it. The feet were bad and the hands were bad. I told Shelby to take and hung on the rope. It turned out that this was the crux of the entire two pitches that we climbed. Part of what made it tough was that it was so close to the ground. It's ironically nerve wracking to have the hard part so close to the ground because it means that if you fall you could run into the ground due to rope stretch instead of being cleanly caught by the rope. While sitting on the rope I was able to figure out a sequence that would work and grunted up the crux to get to easier climbing. The rest of the pitch wasn't too bad. There was a short traverse to the left, similar to Left Handed Jew and had bad feet with a high crack that you needed to get into. Once I got into the left crack it was pretty easy to get to the top of the pitch. 

The route with the belay locations in yellow

The second pitch was a ton of fun. The first half was an off width crack in a corner. Yesterday's offwidth was miserable, but today there were lots of face holds on the left side, so it made the climbing much more doable. I was able to get my right arm deep in the crack and either bend my elbow to bridge the crack or find hidden holds inside the crack. My right leg was in the crack using a heel-toe cam and the occasional face hold to move up. And my left arm and leg used faceholds almost exclusively. I went up like this for about 25 feet and made it to a good rest. From here it was a somewhat steep hand crack with some faceholds along the way which was tough but a lot of fun. I made it to the top of the second pitch without hanging on gear and I felt great. Shelby got up to the top and we discussed our options for the next pitch. 

As you can see from the above photo, there are tons of cracks on this rock, so it can be difficult to find your way. We had a few options for ways to get up the next pitch so we decided on the easiest option and then looked out at the view. The clouds were starting to get pretty dark, the wind was starting to blow, and the temperature seemed to be dropping. Shelby reminded me that we still had 2 pitches to go and pointed out that if we were going to bail from the climb, now would be the time to do it. We didn't know about any fixed anchors up higher, so once we decided to continue up we would most likely need to climb all the way to the top since we wouldn't have any anchor to rappel off of. This option sounded like it could be miserable if it started raining and getting cold, so we decided to rappel back to the bottom off of a steel cable anchor and then two bolts at the top of a neighboring route to the first pitch. As soon as we set up the rappel it started raining, so we were happy to have made the decision to bail. The two pitches we climbed were a ton of fun and felt like a good accomplishment considering how challenging they were for us.

Rappelling from Nighttime Madness

Despite being defeated by the weather, we were really satisfied with our climb for the day and had a great weekend climbing some beautiful cracks in a wonderful place. The aftermath on our hands and arms wasn't pretty, but the smiles on our faces were wide.

P.S. If you're curious what I'm talking about when I use the words trad climbing, nuts, protection, cams, etc. REI has a decent article explaining it all linked here.

 The aftermath