Steck Salathe 5.9
Trip ReportTR - Steck Salathe 7/26/08
TR - Steck Salathe 7/26/08, with Scuffy B.
(note: images throughout are lifted from the web, we took no camera)
Late 90’s, Camp 4
It’s my first time in the Valley after learning to climb on steep southeastern sandstone. We think we’re solid 5.10- climbers, but are getting bouted by “easy” routes and belay changeovers since we’ve never done anything over 3 pitches, nor anything on granite, nor any cracks that you can't cheat around on face holds. Royal Arches is a dawn to dusk affair thanks to our superb efficiency, but after a few weeks things start to click and we’re firing off the easy classics. After ticking a bunch of 3-star routes, we’re sitting around the fire, swilling cheap malt liquor and wondering what to do as our last route before we have to leave.
“Hey, you guys should go do the Steak and Salad,” Matt (a semi-local) offers.
“The what? How hard is it?”
“Steak n Salad, the Full Meal Deal, Steck Salathe on the Sentinel. It’s only 5.9,” he says, barely suppresing a snicker. The rest of the crew heartily supports his suggestion. “It’s one of the 50 Classics, you gotta do it!”
Thankfully, we were feeling strong and opted for the “harder” Serenity-Sons.
At some point in the next couple of years I realized that almost all long classics involve at least some token wide climbing. After a religious experience leading p3 on the Kor-Ingalls, and a headfirst backwards 20 foot dive out of the crux of Reeds Direct, I resolve to learn how to climb this stuff, to keep the brushes with death down if nothing else.
Ask a group of climbers to describe it, and the word you’ll hear most often is “burly”. The Steck Salathe carries a bigger aura than perhaps any free climb of its rating in the country. “Major sandbag”. “Mandatory on the aspiring hardman circuit” “More demanding than Astroman.” “The hardest thing I’ve ever done” are all tossed out. The number of benighted parties is legion and as the route has changed over the years due to rockfall or things breaking off, the rating became a bigger and bigger sandbag.
Are you ready?
At some point, as I climbed more wide stuff, the SS became a goal. I knew it would take a lot of work to get my skills in order since I was about a 5.8 wide guy on the sharp end. Luckily, I moved to Josh and hooked up with the Fish. Over the next two winters, he drug me up wide stuff all over the monument. I belayed and watched, asked questions, and then moaned my way up them. Living in the valley in the summer, I paid dues on the 5.10 wide circuit, spent a month in Vedauwoo and got to climb with guys who are both exceptionally talented and love the wide...like Jaybro and Grug.
After a February Wide Fest in Josh, I saw Scuffy come within a few inches of choking down the Throbbing Gristle.
I casually asked if he would be interested in doing the route this summer. “Yeah, I’ll do it with ya”. Uh oh. We agreed on sometime in July. Unfortunately I started working again in April , blew a finger pulley right after, and had climbed exactly zero pitches of trad since March. Instead I did crossfit stuff, road biked, and bouldered on plastic. Not the best training to say the least. I kept asking myself: Are You Ready? The list of wide climbs I’d done in the last 18 months gave me some comfort, but I’d find out soon enough.
The Day of Reckoning
I left Redlands Friday morning, and was sitting in El Cap meadow eating pizza by early afternoon. Rendezvous with Scuffy was set for around 10:00 at Hardin Flat. He pops in, we set the alarms for 4:20am and hit the sack. Normally I get a little apprehensive before a big climb, but I feel calm and sleep easily. We both climb enough wide stuff that I figure we’ll move faster than average parties, but we still want an early start to avoid any other parties on the route.
We take a single 60m rope, 1.5 liters of water each (somehow I dropped a half-liter on the approach and only had 1 liter for the route), headlamps, a half-set of wires, double cams from blue tcu to 3 camalot and a 4 and 4.5 camalot. Our bivy gear consisted of a bic lighter and nothing else. We both wore pants and a light weight long sleeved shirt. I wore thin neoprene knee pads under my pants, Scuffy went true hardman style with no kneepads. Neither of us wore helmets.
We stride up the 4 Mile Trail at an easy pace and reach the base in about an hour. Ro-sham for the choice of leads, I win. I choose evens thinking that will give me the Narrows lead. At about 7:00 Scuff starts up the first pitch.
He’s smooth and although the topo says left side in, he goes right side and floats on up. I follow left side in and get a rude surprise at the difficulty of this “5.8” pitch. Damn, this thing is going to live up to the hype. We had planned to link 1 & 2, but I’m not sure if we really did. Either way, I planned to run the next pitch to the base of the Wilson Overhang. I then got off route, back on route, and hosed myself with rope drag. I ended up stopping on a big ledge with a couple of fixed pins mid way up ST p3. The views were already fantastic. I tell Scuffy I've been listening to the hardest, heaviest, meanest music I own for the last several days so that when I get in one of those tough spots, that will be running through my head. And it's true...a steady stream of Motorhead, Ministry, Metallica, Iggy and the Stooges, Tool, etc were my internal soundtrack on this thing.
Scuffy started up the first real obstacle of the route, the Wilson Overhang. After a false start or two trying to decide which side in, he dispatched it with a little heavy breathing. It looked hard. Flaring and overhanging, but at least with gear in the back.
As I followed this pitch I realized that it can be done a couple of ways...either staying on the outside, with no gear at about 5.8+, or crammed haflway back in the flare at 5.10-. If I had been smart, I would have climbed up, cleaned the gear, down climbed and then went up the outside. Instead I grunted through in the back. I thought the “5.8” squeeze section at the end of the overhang harder than the actual flare/overhang itself.10a? Ok.
Next up was the option of an unprotected 5.8 flake, or a 5.9 squeeze that I’ve heard many claim as the true crux of the route. I was planning for the flake.
As I reached a spot about 6’ under the squeeze I looked out at a horrendously sloping foot ramp that looked improbable as a place to traverse to the flake, which is out of sight. So I continued up. Next thing I know, I’m committed to the squeeze, left side in. Everything is going ok until I can’t fit my chest through the squeeze. I try to exhale and move, no dice. I look right and see the flake and that the sloping foot shelf was indeed the move. “This is becoming a comedy of errors on my part” I think. I take tension, swing out right and latch the flake. “Unproteced"? Bullsh#t. The flake is slightly flaring, but does take gear and is easy for 5.8. Scuffy is forced to follow my jingus action since I had gear in just below the crux of the squeeze and then nearly the same level in the flake. I’d hosed him and he had to climb up part of the squeeze, slide back down, and then do the flake. So far, I’m not holding up my end of the partnership. I’ve had the easy pitches and still f*#ked them up.
Scuffy runs the next pitch through the 5.8+ ow, about 4”, which is not too bad with some good footholds on the face next to the crack. The next couple pitches to the top of the buttress are unmemorable rambling up discountinunous cracks and jumbled blocks. We stayed to the left. The ST topo shows a 5.6 squeeze just prior to the tunnel through. We see what looks like 5.6 squeeze above and Scuffy heads up, soon topping out on the flying buttress itself....As I follow and reach the tunnel through spot, I realize our mistake. I recognize the tunnel from a pic I’d seen somewhere and continue to the top of the buttress. We rap down to the bivy ledge and pull the rope. The bivy ledge is pretty deluxe. Then we look down the last 10 feet to the start of the next pitch, DOH! We f*#ked up again. Make sure you rap to the bolts at the start of the next pitch. Luckily there was a passage/tunnel off the ledge that traversed sloping loose dirt with a slip guaranteeing a quick trip to the base of the Sentinel, that led to the base of the pitch. Here it is just behind the climber, and again from below (both from Zander’s excellent TR)
At this point, we were already feeling incredibly worked. I had been rationing water since after the Wilson and knew it was going to be a big issue for me since I couldn’t eat/fuel without something to wash it down.The way we’d pitched it out was different from what I’d imagined when choosing odds or evens when I won the ro-sham-bo. Instead, I would get this pitch , Scuffy the slab, me the supposed crux, Scuffy the narrows. “Hmm, this is probably actually better for me,” I thought, since slabs are not my strong point. I peeked at the topo...5.9 fist and lieback, stance, 5.8 lieback, casual. I bust through the “5.9” and it seems light duty, but cool climbing with gear about anywhere you want it. Then I reach the “5.8” lieback. Looking back now, this was probably the technical crux of the route for me. I found it an incredibly insecure couple of moves groping and trying to pull into a lieback off a flake/ear feature way above my head and pasting feet onto blank vertical granite, above bad gear. I came fairly close to pitching off. As Scuffy is coming up I sense he is at that spot since he stops to puzzle out the move for a second. Next thing I know “WHoa!” jingle jangle wham. Damn, he pitched. But in 20 seconds he’s already pulled back on and finished the pitch without further ado.
Our belay is just below this overlap, so as Scuffy leads out on the slab I can’t see anything.
Soon he’s finished the pitch and I start following.
I look up at the next pitch, the supposed crux, and decide it doesn’t really look too bad. Getting a little bit of a second wind, I start up. A tcu goes in a seam, the 4.5 just above, and I commit to the flaring squeeze. It’s hard and slow work, but not too technical or awkward. After about 20 feet you get a nice respite when you can cram your ass in and rest. Just above is the first of the hangerless “bolts”. I don’t know what the f*#k this particular piece of hardware is, but it ain't a bolt. Looks almost like a slightly larger star-dryvin type nail in a sleeve. This one is very confidence inspiring since the “nail” part of the thing sticks out about an inch from the end of the sleeve , the sleeve is split, and the whole thing slopes downward about 20 degrees.
If anything could use an upgrade, it’s this museum piece timebomb. Sliding a nut over it, I started to sense the seriousness of my situation. “Just concentrate on moving upward” I chanted inside my head. One move at a time, keep your breathing in check, and always Rule #1 (don’t thrash). The pitch looks like this:
Another 15 feet or so higher is the second hangerless rivet thingy. It also sticks out out of the sleeve a bit, but looks much much better. I’m psyched to clip it. The pitch soon eases off in difficulty, if not in effort required. By now, my throat is completely raw and my uvula is swelling, touching my tongue and making me feel like there is something caught in my throat and that I have to swallow continuously. It sucks, but as I keep saying to Scuffy “I’m getting what I came for...a first class ass kicking”. Scuffy follows smoothly and steadily. Next up, the fearsome Narrows.
Everyone has seen the pics of people getting into this hole/squeeze, so here’s one looking up into it:
Scuff places the 4.5 at the lip, moves up as high as possible in the back-foot , places the 4 a little higher, and commits. The next few feet are rough. After struggling for a good 5 minutes and making and subsequently losing about 6” of progress several times, he questions if he can actually climb it. I try to encourage him but I know his abilities and if he is having problems, it doesn’t bode well for me either, and I know he can sense that in my voice. I tell him to just yard on the 4, but it is too far to the side to really do any good. After much struggling and a little cursing, he’s in the beast and motors to the top. In my state of fatigue I figure I only have one shot to get this done without resorting to aid. I get my torso in and recall Yo’s advice “be solid on arm bars, it’s like arm bar campusing without feet for a few moves”. And that’s just about what I did, a few alternating arm bars and then you get a decent edge that’s hard to use. I manage to go from pulling down on the edge to rotating into a chickewing with a palm on it and further turning it over until I’m almost mantling it from a chickenwing. A heel toe goes in and I’m in there for good. The only problem is after moving up a few feet I can’t turn my head and can’t fit through. It all looks the same width to me so I yell up...”which way at the tighest spot, left or right?”. So I move over a foot or so and squeeze through.
Now, whoever rated the bit after you exit the squeeze until the end of the pitch is a sadistic bastard. Topo says 5.7. Ummm, yeah. BULLSH#T. Felt like insecure 5.9 to me and I was on TR. At this point I’m destroyed. Just f*#king wrecked. I’ve only felt this way once in my life and that was trying to get October Light in Vedauwoo clean on TR after Grug onsighted it like it was 5.8. My face was numb and tingling, I was sort of giggling, dizzy, and felt like I’d taken about a half-tab of acid and some narotics.
It was a welcome feeling knowing the worst was behind us, but looking out at the valley it seemed like it we were losing light quicker than I expected. In reality, the valley has filled with smoke during the day having been clear that morning. The sun was just a barely visible red orb amidst the smoke. The next pitch is another long assed, runout but very easy 5.7 chimney where you squeeze behind a couple of chockstones and belay on the top one. When I called off belay at the top of this one, I just wanted it to be over, wanted my mommy, a blanky, and a nap.
As Scuffy joined me, I thought we had a 50/50 chance of finishing this thing in the dayliight. Since everyone says don’t try the descent for the first time at night, and since we were both completely out of water and suffering from it, I really wanted off this bitch NOW. I knew the next two pitches would link and told Scuffy “go all the way to the tree”. He blasted through the 5.7 mantle pitch, only slowed down slightly at the 5.9 flakes seen here:
And was soon at the base of the last 20ft or so of 5.7 double cracks leading to the tree ledge. And then time stood still. What I didn’t realize was there were two different sets of double cracks about 5’ apart and Scuffy had basically no gear for either set and didn’t know which was correct. After a while it was basically dark and I started yelling at him to get moving, aid it if you have to, etc...little did I know what he was actually facing up there...no gear, dark, horrendous rope drag, etc. I follow and keep right on going up the last pitch.
Right as Scuffy joins me on top and we untie, I start dry-heaving from the dehydration. It’s a horrible feeling, wretching and writhing and knowing there isn’t a damn thing in my stomach to throw up. “We gotta get down to the creek, I can’t stay up here like this” I tell him. “You ok with that?”. He’s game and we soon start down the descent...in the dark...first time for both of us. I have to stop every 10min and sit for a couple minutes to keep from dry heaving more and to get some juice back in my legs. The descent is actually very easy since I’d read several different descriptions of it and knew more or less where we were supposed to be going. We reached the creek after about an hour. Now with water, we rested a bit, I choked down a gel and continued. A couple of well placed cairns made the slabby section no problem and in another hour and change we were back at the 4 Mile. I spent the next two hours sitting in the Lodge lobby sipping down 3.5 liters of diluted powerade until I finally had saliva in my mouth and urinated for the first time in about 12 hours. It was physcially the hardest day of my life by a wide, wide margin. Go get some.
Big Thanks To: Scuffy for being a great partner on this route, Fish for dragging my ass up a stack of wide stuff, Big Wall Kate for whipping me back into shape after 3 years on the couch in Alaska and styling me out with kneepads, and all the Bay Area Wide Crew for inspiration and comraderie.
Here are most of the wide pitches I did in preparation over the last 18 mo, if the ratings look funky it should reflect the wide section of the climb...i.e. Jumping Jack Crack is 11a, but the wide is onky about 5.8:
Swan Slab Squeeze (osfs) 6
Doggie Deviations (osfs) 7
Trial By Fire 8
Braille Book 8
Bishops Terrace 8 x10?
Central Pilllar Frenzy 9
Sacherer Cracker 9
Moby Dick Center 9
Reeds Direct 10a x2
Doggie Do 10a x2
Ahab 10b (horrendous sandbag)
Generator Crack 10c x4
Bad Ass Mamma (failed x 2) 11d
Other Side 8
Manual Labor v0+ FA
Recreational Struggling v3 FA
Cedar Eater v5
Cedar Crack v5
Linda’s Crack 3 (osfs) huge sandbag
Filch 5 (osfs)
Middle Peyote 6 (osfs)
High Strung 7
Beginners Two (osfs) 7 (another giant sandbag at “5.2”)
The Flake 8 4x?
Comic Book 8
Jumping Jack Crack 8
Boot n Rally 8+
Tumbling Rainbow 9
Wise Crack 9
The Answer 9
Jumar of Flesh 9
Championship Wrestling 9
This Ain’t No Party 9
La Bella Kachina 9
Theraputic Tyranny 9
Couldn’t Wait 10a
Modern Warfare 10a
Two Blind Mice 10a
Stains of the Stars 10a
Between a Rock and a Hard Place (x2) 10b
Six Pack Crack 10b
Flared Bare 10b
Left Baskerville Crack 10b
Point of No Return 10c
One Armed Giant 10d
Rubberfat Syndrome 11a
Comfortably Numb (failed) 11-
Throbbing Gristle (failed x 2 trips) 12a
Hobbit Hole V0
Edwards Crack 7
TM Chimney 7+
Satterfields Crack 8
Middle Parallel Space 9
Upper Slot Right 10-
October Light 11-
Spin to Win V3
Desiderata V5 x3
Life Without Parole V5 (failed)
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