Friday, July 10, 2015

Independence Pass on Independence Day

It was 10:00 and my wife and I had passed the last campsite along a 4 mile stretch of Lincoln Creek Road. It had been slow going because the road neared the limits of what we could drive in our Subaru Outback- 45 minutes of driving from one site to the next only to see a tent tucked away behind some trees or the twinkle of a campfire signifying that we had to keep driving. Campsite 22. A brown sign said, "No camping from here to Portal Campground." I had heard of this campground, but had no idea how far it was down the road. Would we drive another 45 minutes only to find a full campground? Having no better option, we continued on, picking up speed for maximum puddle splashing. We were desperate at this point. Our hopes had been destroyed at each occupied campground and we needed somewhere to sleep. We turned down a side road, but only found a lame camping spot where our friends, who would be meeting us later that night, would never find us. It would be our last resort if we found absolutely nothing else. We got back on the main road and continued up the valley along the roaring creek. It was fully dark now, but the full moon illuminated the valley revealing the grand mountains that surrounded us. We were in a special place, but the stress of not having a place to sleep overshadowed everything else. Eventually we saw the sign pointing us to the campground.

Tiki torches welcomed us to "The Portal," as we started calling it, which featured around 10 sites and 2 vault toilets. Around the one way loop we drove. Taken. Taken. Nope. Taken. Wait! Oh my goodness, the last site! Pull in... The absence of a car gives you the hope of a spring in a desert, but the upside down camp chairs and and the 3-man dome tent rips that hope right out of your chest and lets it fester in front of your blood shot eyes as you cry out in anguish!

Melodrama aside, we saw that the road continued up the valley. It went from a one and a half car width road to definitely just a one car width road, with the much more likely possibility of bottoming out. The full moon revealed a beautiful meadow above Grizzly Reservoir with daunting black peaks guarding the end of the valley miles ahead. We drove on, passing a couple groups camping at undesignated spots here and there, past stretches of meadow and patches of trees. The road curved to the left and crested a slight hill where we saw a large flat area on the right. Unoccupied. This would be our home.

We set up our tent and started a fire using pallet boards that we scavenged off of Craigslist over the winter. The air was cool. I had forgotten what 45 degrees felt like. The sky was clear and if it wasn't for the full moon, the stars would have been spectacular.

One beer down, my wife and I looked down the valley to the campground. The tiki torches had been blown out and only a few fires still burned. It was late and we had long lost hope that our friends would be joining us that night. It took us over an hour to drive down the dirt road to find this unlikely spot. Surely our friends would give up hope and meet up with us the next day. But as we looked down to the Portal, car lights appeared moving along the windy road. Could it be them? I started the car and drove toward the lights. Through the meadows and patches of trees, I noticed that the lights stopped moving. I came within 100 feet of the car. The lights shone in my face, so I couldn't make out the car but my lights revealed a single mountain bike on the back. Both of our friends are mountain bikers, but one of them has a broken wrist, so they would have only brought one bike. As I got closer I finally made out that the car was a white Subaru Outback. I rolled down the window and with a huge grin on my face said hello to my friends.

Back at the campsite we added more wood to the fire and drank one more beer. Sitting down, reflecting on our nights, I couldn't help but feel that that night was special. After our hopes of finding a decent campsite dwindled to nothing and the chances of our friends finding us were slim to none, we were reunited with our friends in the most beautiful alpine meadow that we would get to call home for 3 nights. I just felt very richly blessed by God that night.

The next day Shelby and I went to Weller Slab for some trad climbing. I didn't realize it until we showed up, but the area required a half mile scramble up a steep talus field to get to the climbing. We picked our way through the boulders and got really tired, but made it to the slab after 30 minutes. 

Filtering through the info on mountain project we eventually found where our climb would start. The first pitch is a route called Two Ears, a moderate climb up a broken crack system up a face. The route was not always perfectly obvious, so I had fun figuring out the best way to the top. It was easy enough to find cracks that I could follow and place gear in. The tricky part was knowing exactly where the pitch should end . So I just kept climbing up. There were a few fun thin moves and a couple little roofs to pull through. The pitch was supposed to be 160 feet and looking down at Shelby, I could tell that I should be getting close to the end soon. Following what looked like the most natural line through a steep section, I climbed up through some rock that initially didn't look very solid, but actually ended up being pretty high quality when I banged the rock with my fist. Pulling up onto a ledge I looked to the right and saw that I passed the chain anchor. So I downclimbed an easy few moves to a small ledge and setup the anchor to belay Shelby up. 

Next up, we moved the belay over to a larger ledge at the base of Zanzibar Dihedral, a pitch that gets 3.7 out of 4 stars. I had high expectations, but was a bit nervous as it was at about the peak of my trad climbing difficulty. The dihedral has good hand-sized cracks on the left wall, but the right wall was a pretty featureless slab. As the climb goes up, the left wall arcs overhead, threatening to take away all the nice footholds.

The dihedral from below (photo stolen from mountain project)

So I headed up, plugging away my gear. There were lots of good places to put nuts, so I think I set a personal record of 4 nuts in a pitch! I placed lots of medium sized cams at first, but realized that I should look around for other size cracks so I didn't run out of good gear before the crux. I used a combination of liebacking and stemming to move up the climb. Liebacking is when you hold onto a crack, lean back as far as you can and work your feet up a more or less featureless wall. Stemming is when you stem your legs (or arms) from one wall to another. The liebacking was exhausting and the stemming rests weren't very good either because of the lack of feet on the right side. I would try to rest in a stemming position, but my right calf would start to burn. After one particularly strenuous move I had no good place to rest so I placed a cam and I rested on the rope while I tried to catch my breathe. After the rest I moved through the rest of the crux and then found that where the left wall starts to arc over, you suddenly start to get more face holds and the climbing starts to get easy. Once you pass the point farthest to the right, the rest of the climb is just a jug haul to the top. I made it to the top and belayed Shelby while she climbed up, enjoying the views of Independence Pass.

The next day Alan and I went to the Grotto Wall while the ladies went on a hike up the valley where we had camped to some lakes at the base of the daunting black peaks. We only climbed a couple single pitch routes, but the highlight was a trad 10a route that is mostly a lieback on really juggy holds called Cryogenics. We were waiting to get on a fun 5.8 that I was interested in leading, but the group ahead of us was climbing very slowly, so I may have pressured Alan into leading Cryogenics, since he's a much better climber than me. He did a great job leading it even though he couldn't remember the last time he had lead a trad climb and ran it out at the crux at the top. I tried it out on top rope and I would rank it up there with some of the best climbs I've ever done. The liebacking was a lot of fun, you could find decent rests stemming across the dihedral, but it was pretty sustained up until you get to an amazing rest where you can basically wedge your body behind some rock, giving you a no-hands rest. After catching my breath at the rest I headed up into the crux where the crack narrows and you have to do some more powerful moves to make progress. Struggling to find a good foot placement, my right foot slipped out and I almost fell, but caught myself and was able to push through the crux to an easy top out to the anchor.

The Route (Photo stolen from Rock and Ice)

Afterwards we headed back to Aspen for gasoline and firewood and went back to our spectacular campsite for a bit of fly fishing. We didn't so much as see a fish, but it was nice to get the rods out and throw a few casts until it started raining. 

The next day, Shelby and I made an early start and drove back towards Twin Lakes to get some climbing in at Monitor Rock. The climbing didn't go exactly as planned. We wanted to climb a long 5.6 route called The Nose, but it was crowded and the weather looked like it could turn bad before too long, so we just climbed a couple single pitch routes. The warmup was a 5.8 route on a seriously glacially polished face. There were some pretty sketchy moves using very slippery footholds to traverse, but once we passed that, the rest of the climbing was pretty fun. Next up Shelby lead a sweet 5.9+ called Going Greek, which started off up a pretty polished low angle face and then went up a vertical section that stretched a few bolts. She confidently went up the beginning part of the climb to the crux and after a couple attempts, made it through the 2 bolt crux, which required a few very thoughtful moves on slippery holds and then a few more fun moves to the anchor. Thankfully when I climbed it afterward, the rain decided to start immediately after I made it through the crux! I had the joy of cleaning the anchor and rappelling while it was raining, which actually turned out to be somewhat refreshing, but I was glad not to have to do much climbing in it. We were glad that we bailed on our initial plan to climb the 5 pitch route.

The drive home was inevitably a pain due to the 4th of July traffic, but overall, we had a great time camping at one of the coolest spots we've ever camped out, spending time with good friends, and getting some really good climbing in. We're looking forward to the next trip out there!

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