I hadn’t been on a really long hard route for a while and I wanted to test myself. This year I’ve started training a little more intelligently and it was paying off. I was strong, mind but did I have endurance? Not really sure how hard I was climbing when it comes to 10+ pitch hard stuff, I decided what better way to find out than try to free a bigwall?
While it’s one of the smallest of the walls I would call a “bigwall,” the Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks regularly sees multi-day ascents and requires some efficiency and motivation in order to pull it off in a day. It turned out that two of my good friends, Konstantin and Kostas (I called them “K2”) were going to attempt to free the Original Route, something that I had done back in 2007. K2 planned to take every “easy” variation which still meant over 10 pitches up to 5.12a with a lot of 5.11. I did the same thing my first time freeing the line, but this time, I decided to attempt every hard variation, including the 4 pitch Rainbow Country deviation. This would essentially eliminate any pitch under 5.10 and add 3 5.12 pitches up to 5.12d to an already sustained line. Yikes! While it was a lofty goal, my purpose was to test myself and see how I would hold up on a very long hard free route and it certainly did it’s job….
Roberto partnered up with me for his 4th multipitch! His third, 2 weekends previously was actually the “easy” variations to the Original Route with Luke that K2 planned to do. Way to jump in head first, my friend! I knew he had a good attitude and liked to find his limits. Since he hadn’t fallen once on the 12a Original Route, I figured we could get our asses kicked together!
We met up with K2 at 4am outside the gate, and started hiking around 4:20am. Konstantin had an iPod and speaker on the outside of his pack, and we made the 2hr 40min approach in the dark listening to everything from Metallica to crazy Russian propaganda songs. Of course he was singing along making for some good entertainment along the way.
The sun started to rise after we passed the fixed rope, and soon we were at the base racking up. K2 started up the 5.11+ variation to the left, and I soloed the first 5.6 pitch and tried to link it into the 5.12b pitch. Unfortunately, it was cold, I hadn’t warmed up properly, and I read the route wrong. I clipped the first bolt and ended up dynoing out left to a crimp and essentially swinging under it on one hand and no feet in order to match it. I felt something funny in my hand, and decided to hang. I yelled take, lowered to a ledge below, brought Roberto up and inspected the damage. I’d obviously done something bad to my hand, probably tendon related, but I pulled on some holds and it didn’t seem to hurt too bad so I just said “screw it” and when Roberto got up to me I punched it back into the sequence again.
This time, I pulled it off with some wicked long hard moves and joined Konstantin at the belay. Kostas was coming up, and instead of stopping I linked into the 5.11+ pitch above to save some time and get above for some good pictures. I brought Roberto up, who also fell once, but ended up doing what I think is the “correct” way to climb the pitch which is continue up the corner instead of going out left. I have no idea how hard what I climbed was, but I must say it felt hard… After he joined me, I fired off the next 5.11a pitch stopping so Roberto could snap some pictures of Konstantin coming up. He onsighted both 5.11+ pitches in a row which was awesome!
Roberto linked the next two pitches, 5.11a and 5.10, and I ran us up to a ledge at the base of Rainbow Country where the routes diverge. Here we stopped for a food and drink break.
Roberto had talked quite a bit about how much he liked the look of these pitches two weekends ago, so he ended up leading both of the 5.11b pitches below the crux. He onsighted both, which was awesome since he’s been leading trad for less than a year. K2 was traversing easy ledges below us, had finished the first half of the difficulties, and were going strong!
Next up: the 5.12d crux pitch! I racked up with draws only, since this was reported as a “sport” pitch and headed out. I made some delicate edgy moves til I was about 30′ up, and then hit the show stopper. Above was a small leaning arete, which could be potentially liebacked, but there were NO feet to oppose off of. Just blank, lichen covered, slick sandstone. I worked my way into delicate, balancy, position, and started cranking like mad. A few moves into the insanely powerful yet strangely delicate liebacking moves, I pitched off. This became a theme. I tried everything. I pinched the arete trying to switch directions of lieback. I tried to just go straight up the small arete, ignoring the bolt and holds out right which were obviously the way to go, and nothing worked. After quite some time of trying and failing, I finally pulled on the bolt to reach a hold way out right, and clipped the next bolt. I was fried enough and the climbing above was hard enough that I ended up finishing the pitch in a bolt-to-bolt affair, and even had to lower back to the belay to grab a cam since there was a 25+’ runout that included pulling a 5.11ish roof above the last bolt. I pretty much had my ass handed to me on that pitch.
Roberto made a valiant effort, but was also shutdown on the crux. It was insane. Maybe I’m a sissy, but it felt significantly harder than 5.12d. It could simply be one of those bizarre “aha!” moves where once you figure it out THEN it’s 12d and it’s utterly impossible until then, but who knows.
Even after Roberto quickly worked through the other bizarre moves on the pitch linking wild features I lowered down again for another try. Roberto had figured out a way to stem and grab the arete from the opposite side and I wanted to try. I got into position, grabbed the one good pinch on the arete, and was instantly shut down. At 6′ tall with a positive ape index, I was completely “starfished” on the wall, and couldn’t lift my entire weight using just my left hand on a small pinchy sidepull and no feet. I tried a few times, but instead I pulled on the bolt again and linked the rest of the pitch without falling. K2 was catching up so I quickly headed straight into the traverse that linked back into the Original Route.
The traverse was rated anywhere from 11d to 12b, depending on the source, and it was thin. Delicate crimps, sidepulls and feet for about 3 moves lead to easier climbing. It really wasn’t that bad, and in a minute or two I ran up the to the belay under the final hard dihedral pitches on the route.
The next 3 pitches were 11d stemming, 12a liebacking, and then a final hard variation which included entertaining 12b underclinging at chest level. K2 had caught up to us on the easier territory out right, and were nipping at our heels. Roberto, being fatigued, told me to lead so we could go a little faster. I lead out and pulled the hard stemming move above, and ran up the rest of the pitch. I brought up Roberto who was starting to “bonk” after so much hard climbing, and we stopped to grab some photos of Konstantin as he lead his THIRD 11+ onsight for the day! He hadn’t fallen yet and was on a ROLL!
As I started up the next 12a pitch, I realized how tired I was. The moves are straight forward, but sustained. I was failing to make reaches and having to make multiple attempts at moves, the whole time locked off in a powerful lieback. I realized that I was “bonking” too. AWESOME! That was what I had come out for. To push my limits and get a good ass kicking. I decided to PULL HARDER and finished the pitch without falling.
Once Roberto joined me at the belay, it was getting grim. We were both exhausted, Roberto had trouble with the last pitch and there was a 12b variation I’d never tried before looming above. I fished some Trader Joes Cinnamon Almonds out of the pack and ate a few handfulls to replenish the energy stores and drank some water.
While Roberto and I rested, we snapped some more pictures of Konstantin leading the 12a pitch. The 12a pitch pretty much got everyone to bonk and team K2 finally had trouble with a pitch. Konstantin was a champion onsighting every pitch up til then, but that pitch took the crazy Russian down. Swapping leads, Kostas had also been onsighting pitches up into the 11s, but this pitch gave him trouble as well. However, both our teams were trying routes that were at the farthest reaches of our limits, and loving it!
Eventually, as Konstantin neared, I had to set off to clear out little hanging belay at least a little. I worked my way up and under the bizarre underclinging crux, and quickly discounted the slopers above as “sucker holds.” I set off into the short 6-8′ traverse of strangely enjoyable underclinging, and worked my way left toward an obvious jug. As I neared, I realized I was in a position difficult to get out of and decided to pop for the hold. As my arm shot out, my feet cut, but I managed to catch myself last second on the hold. I let out a “Whooooo!” I had onsighted the final 5.12b pitch, freeing the whole route except the crux pitch (I knew I had the last pitch in the bag).
Roberto fell once here suckered into the slopers above, but quickly dispatched this funky section 2nd try. Soon he joined me at the belay, grabbed some gear and headed off. Roberto quickly lead the final 5.10 pitch with a funky roof and I followed him to the summit! We were done!
We ate, drank, and rested for a while. We looked for the summit register, but it appeared to be missing, and then we set up our ropes and started rappeling. Using 2 60m ropes, we quickly rapped the route, and Roberto and I were on the ground before dark! We waited for K2 for a while, but we had to meet someone in Vegas and they were rapping with a single 60m rope so eventually headed down without Konstantin and his entertaining music…
Sometimes it’s enjoyable to have an easy day moving fast on quality terrain. Others it’s fun to onsight near your limit. Our day on the Rainbow Wall was about pushing limits and having a blast. All four of us fell, and hung, at various points on our ascents, but we pushed ourselves and it was awesome! We laughed our way up the wall, and kept a good attitude on the way up encouraging each other. None of us “sent” but sometimes that just doesn’t matter. Find a partner willing to get in over their head with a smile (safely, hopefully) and I guarantee you’ll have a great day on the rock! One man’s failure is another man’s success!
(Note: For gear and logistical beta click here)