Tuesday, June 30, 2009

finding light on dark shadows

note: This trip report also appears on summitpost.

Thursday rolled around and I knew that the only thing that could free my mind from thoughts of work was climbing. A day of sport climbing or a 5-pitch trad route was not going to cut it; I needed to go bigger, so I
set my sights on the full 10-pitch version of the classic route Dark Shadows. The vast majority of people climb the 4-pitch version of Dark Shadows and most of guidebooks were spotty on details for the remaining 6 pitches. Jerry Handren’s Red Rocks guide had the most info on the route but provided only vague information about the descent from the Mescalito summit. He made mention of two walk-off options (neither recommended). I knew that we could descend Cat in Hat, that is if we could find our way from the summit to the top of the route. Given our workloads there was no way we were going to beat the late afternoon traffic to Vegas so we didn’t end up getting out of town until 8:30 pm.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t make it to the Pine Creek parking lot until around 10 am. We made the
mistake of leaving the main trail too early and had to bushwhack to get back on route. Had we stayed on the trail we would have ended up directly at the base of the climb. No time was lost though because we had to wait for a party of two from Denver/Boulder to finish rapping. They had spent the last hour getting on of their ropes down after it became lodged in a crack (par for the course on many Red Rock raps). We were surprised by the lushness of the canyon vegetation so late in the year. The rope soaking pools of water were still present at the base of the route.

At 11:15 I started up the first pitch, a bolted slab. One of the CO crew kindly yelled up that I could link the first two pitches. The second pitch was a 5.6 polished dihedral. I wasn’t quit ready to commit to smearing on the slick rock so I used the crack and edges for my feet. At the traverse to the belay I was halted by a party of two from Tacoma, WA, who were just finishing a rap to the second belay. They originally said they were from Seattle until I disclosed that I grew up in a redneck town close to where they lived. After ~20 minutes the belay ledge was free and Jascha headed up.

The next pitch had a short 5.8 crux early on, forcing me to place gear on a somewhat tenuous hand jam. Fortunately, the climbing eased up higher in the crack and face holds saved me from smearing on the polished walls. Pitch 4 followed a left leaning, narrowing crack. I was unable to get any pro in the main crack but found a reasonable placement in a smaller crack. I was thankful because the next set of moves felt off-balance. I set up a belay on the standard pitch 4 anchors. As I waited for Jascha to come up I looked at what I thought was the path ahead. Above and to the left of me was a seam with two pieces of fixed pro that led to a crappy white sandstone roof which looked devoid of any jugs from below. All of this was accompanied by pretty much non-existent footholds. Once Jascha arrived I consulted my route description. I was pleased to learn that I was at the wrong anchors for the extended route, so I had Jascha traverse around the corner to the correct belay.

Pitch 5 started off with a bolt leading to a juggy roof, then up a crack to an anchor on a pillar. Handren’s description wasn’t specific about which of the 2 pillars to choose, but I ended up correctly
selecting the one on the left. By now I was fully exposed to the elements. The wind made communication difficult, but it also made the temperature more pleasant under the blazing June Vegas sun. The quality of the rock wasn’t as good as the lower sections; I was now climbing on the softer white sandstone, although some of the coveted brown varnish remained. Unlike the lower pitches the anchors weren’t set up for a rap, although someone had created an ad hoc one with webbing through the bolt hangers. I suspected we’d have to find another way down.

The description for the next pitch mentioned a step across to a chimney protected by a bolt and a piton. From my vantage point I couldn’t see any fixed protection. I had 2 options, a wide chimney on the left that offered no good gear placements and a narrower
off-width to the right. I chose to climb the face between, using the right-hand crack for pro. Higher up I found a bolt to the right of the crack. I found the alcove as described and made the traverse up and left to a now single bolt anchor.

Pitch 7
started off with a finger crack and ended with a small ledge below a roof. Not finding many opportunities for gear placement at the ledge I continued up the next pitch to the right of the roof and on to a series of shrubby ledges. I set up a belay just below the first ledge, but as I feared Jascha could barely hear me with the terrain between us and the gusty winds. Eventually he figured out that he was on belay and headed up. Once he arrived we took down the anchor and scrambled up to the official belay at the base of twin cracks up and to our left. The next pitch followed the twin cracks and ended with a single bolt anchor on a large ledge. Handren described this as 110’ but it was closer to 80’.

We were making good time, but I tried not to be overly optimistic given what I’d read about the difficulties of the descent. The description for the final pitch mentioned a facing-
corner to huecoed roof. To my left was a white-sandstone dihedral ending at a blank-looking slab traverse to a roof. To my right was a varnished, shallower, but also right-facing corner, which led more directly to the roof. I chose left. As I approached the roof I could see good edges on the slab traverse (maybe next time). I found a horizontal crack to place a cam below my final stance before starting the roof, but then nothing to protect the roof moves. Fortunately, the roof revealed sizeable handholds and a spot for an excellent nut placement once I stood up at the lip. I scampered up the remaining terrain and before long I topped out on the large ledge about 150’ below the summit. Jascha soon followed, and we finished the last pitch in just under 5 hours.

After a rest we packed up the rope and looked for a way up to the summit. We found a series of ramps
interconnected with short 5.7-8 sections. Once we topped out we looked at the task ahead. I knew the approximate location of Cat in the Hat, but not what the buttress looked like from above or how to navigate the ramp systems to get down to the appropriate level. We found a bolted anchor with UV damaged webbing, but decided to look for something better. After getting cliffed out a few times trying to find the top of Cat in the Hat we headed along on the summit plateau up the canyon. Eventually we encountered a series of cairns. I had read about several walk-offs so I figured there was a good chance that they marked the path down. From time to time the path disappeared into the bushes. The cairns wound around the plateau and eventually led down a series of ramps on the north side of the formation. We thought we were on the descent trail until the cairns ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff.

Fortunately, we were not the first to cliff out there
and there was a fairly new tri-cam/nut/tree anchor. To be on the safe side we set up a double rope rappel and headed down. The ledges were covered ferns and large trees. Once we were done with the first rap I waited to make sure the ropes pulled cleanly then headed down to scout our next rap. Though difficult to see from above I found the second rap station and we headed down to the canyon floor. We were ~10 minutes upstream from the start of the route. It took both of us pulling to get our ropes down, but thankfully they pulled cleanly. We walked over gnarled tree roots, past frog-filled pools, and back to the car.

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