April 4, 2009

My second trip to the Pinnacles (the first was way back in 2002), and the first time to the west side.  This time I went with Kristian Eide and Larry Wright.  I met them both through Marie Cardenas, Kristian's fiancée, whom I in turn met through Cindy Chiu, my long time climbing partner I went with to Pinnacles the first time.  I met Marie when we climbed together at Joshua Tree back in 2006.  When I moved back to Palo Alto last year, Marie got in touch with me and it turned out we live just a few blocks apart.  I started going to Planet Granite with the three of them on Thursday nights, and lately some Tuesday nights as well.  This has been a lot of fun, and, as they all lead climb in the gym, on March 10 and 13 I took the two-day lead climbing class at PG Belmont and then passed the lead test the first time I took it on March 26, with Kristian as my partner.  It was great to finally get my lead card.

The other three had invited me to go to Pinnacles with them a couple months ago, but I was busy that weekend and regretted that I couldn't make it.  So when they said they were going again the first weekend in April I of course had to join them.  Unfortunately Marie was in Arizona and couldn't join us.  My friend Kaya Yuki was visiting and climbed with us at PG Belmont on Tuesday, but decided to spend time with other friends rather than climbing outdoors, so it was just the three of us.  There was a sign at PG saying there would be a big climber meeting at Pinnacles east side on Saturday, so we decided to try out the west side, which is less popular, this time.  Weather was supposed to be on the cool side, with a high of only 65 degrees, but it felt quite hot in the sun and was comfortable to climb in the shade, so the weather actually ended up perfect.  There was low wind as well.

We met at Kristian's around 9:30, left a bit after, and made it to Pinnacles sometime between 11:30 and noon.  I brought my full rack and rope and other hiking gear; everything but the rope barely fit into my medium backpack, and I carried the rope separately which turned out to be awkward.  I should have taken it out of the rope bag and carried it under the lid of the backpack.  Larry and Kristian both brought very small backpacks and wore their harnesses, putting the gear on those.

We checked in at the ranger station and then headed out to find something to climb.  The Shepherd, Elephant Rock, and The Citadel all looked like good possibilities.  The Shepherd area looked okay but not great for the first climb of the day, and people were already at Elephant Rock, so we headed to the Citadel which Kristian was particularly interested in as it featured a multi-pitch 5.4 climb called Costanoan which looked like it would be a fun "warm-up".  The hike to the base of the climb was rather strenuous, but it was impressively well-marked with signs and I figured it was great exercise for my upcoming trip to Colorado.  I'll be taking a class with the Colorado Mountain School, one day of lessons and one day of snow climbing, and they asked me if I'd done multi-pitch rock climbing recently.  I said "probably this weekend" so I thought it would be nice if that came true.  My only other multi-pitch climbs were years ago:  Snake Dike in 2004 and Tahquitz in 2006.

The Citadel is an impressive formation, about 400 feet high from the base of the climbs according to our guidebook.   You can get a better overall sense of it from the last picture on this page, but here it is from the base of our climb.  The first pitch goes up the left face.

It took us a while to get everything sorted out, and we didn't start up until 2:30pm or so.  We used two ropes, with the second climber cleaning and trailing the second rope.  We ate food at the base and brought just a little food and all our water, plus other things we thought we might need for the climb, in the two backpacks which the second and third would carry (except Larry still wore his backpack on his lead).  My bigger backpack stayed at the base with the stuff we left behind.  I'd only brought one liter of water since it was supposed to be cool and there should be water at the parking area and I figured I could go back and refill.  Larry and Kristian had both brought about 1.5 liters each.  However the approach to the Citadel had been long and hot, so water became a worry.  Fortunately the climb was all in the shade and very comfortable and cool, so we didn't have water problems.  But I would bring more water next time or not do a long climb so far from the trailhead.

We brought about 10 quickdraws with short slings (and didn't end up even extending any of them), plus a few nuts and cams I think in case we might need them.  One worry was that our guidebook (the old Rubine guide, either the 1991 or 1995 edition, both quite outdated) said there was no anchor at the top of the 4th and final pitch.  We'd find out upon getting home that this was old news--the entire climb had been rebolted in 2000 by ASCA and anchors had been added to the summit.  We didn't know this at the time, however.  Here are a couple sites I found after getting home that have more info about the climb:

Another worry was how we were going to get down.  The guide implied you could downclimb with some scrambling to get to a trail leading back to the base, and it seemed you might be able to get to that from the top of the 3rd pitch as well.  You could also rappel a 5.11 route from the summit, with some rather dangerous downclimbing to the top of that route, and I was particularly worried about that--I don't like rappelling in general, and certainly didn't want to try doing a multi-pitch rappel down an unknown steep face with hanging transitions.  Anyway we figured we'd climb at least the first pitch and see what it looked like from there.

The first pitch is 5.4, and it looked like there was a runout section in the middle.  Kristian agreed to do the first lead, and he found the runout to be quite severe--it turns out he missed one bolt which for some unknown reason was way to the left of the route.  So he climbed enough above the second bolt (I think it was) that he would have hit the ground if he fell.  Not a situation I would be happy to be in.  He made it fine and clipped in and we were all able to exhale.  Here he is beyond that point.

After that it was no problem making it to the next belay station which was on a nice ledge, and there were three bolts with rap rings, so about as nice of an anchor as you could hope for, and it meant we could easily rap down from there, although as we all noted one 60m rope was not enough--fortunately we had two.  Larry climbed second and I went last.  Typical of the Pinnacles the rock is old rotten volcanic rock, and although it was reasonable secure it was also a little scary.  I was very glad not to have led that pitch.

It had been so long since I've done multi-pitch climbing that I didn't even remember how to anchor myself in properly, but fortunately Larry and Kristian were there to help.  There were already excellent views from this ledge.

We now set our sights on the next pitch, which Larry wanted to lead.  Here they are checking it out.

I was happy not to have to lead this one as well, as it started out quite precariously--you had to move to the right at the start before getting to the first bolt, and this was very exposed--you could fall a long way.  I was the belayer and it was certainly imperative that Larry not fall.  Again we all breathed a sigh of relief when he clipped the first bolt, and it was fine from there.  The second pitch was quite short and ended in a hanging belay.  We encouraged Larry to just continue to the third belay station, and I especially was worried about time.  It had taken us about 1.5 hours to do the first pitch, and although the second was going much faster I wanted to make sure we would get back to the base with plenty of time to get back to our car.  I thought we should set a firm deadline of ending the climb at 5:30, giving us 1 hour for the descent to the base and then we'd have another hour to get everything packed up and get back to the car by 7:30.  The gates were due to close at 8pm, and we forgot to ask if we could still get out if they were closed--certainly we didn't want to get trapped in the park.  We thought we'd be done plenty early--in fact I told Kaya and Kyoko I'd be back by around 7pm, figuring we'd finish climbing around 5pm.  But our late start and long approach had changed that.  We thought we'd be able to get out even after 8pm (and it turns out apparently the gate does have  a sensor to open for cars leaving), but we didn't want to risk it.  Also as I'd been so sure we'd be done long before dark I hadn't brought my headlamp, and neither had Kristian.  Fortunately Larry had his as he knew from experience that you always need to be prepared.  I'll certainly bring one every time in the future.

Anyway Larry ended up setting up an anchor at the hanging belay since he wanted to give me a chance to lead the third pitch.  I went second and cleaned, and here I am climbing on toprope and pulling up the second tope.

Larry's foot was in pain at the hanging belay, and I didn't enjoy it much either but seemed to be having a better time.  Larry belayed Kristian up and then I took the third lead as soon as I could--no reason to waste time at a hanging belay.  The second and third pitches were both rated 5.3, and so this was the perfect progression for me as my first lead was 5.1 in Yosemite and second lead 5.2 at Joshua Tree.  It was a wonderful lead as well, very easy and secure.  It did have its own bit of drama as there were only three bolt and then it ran out for quite a bit (maybe 50 feet or so?) to a ledge.  But the runout was surely only 5.0 and I never felt scared.  That's something all three of my leads have had in common--lots of runout.  This was the first "sport" lead, though.  It was great I'd just taken the lead class at PG and done more lead climbing in the gym, as it was very easy and natural to place the draws and clip in.

I couldn't find the anchor at the ledge, but did find a small tree (or the remains of one) that seemed like it would be better than nothing to belay off of.  When I said the diameter was only two inches Larry said absolutely do not use it, but it seemed fairly secure.  However I was more than happy to look around on the ledge, even though I was far above my last bolt.  I finally did find the bolt anchors further to right near where the edge narrowed--a bit of a strange location, but great to have them.  Then it was easy to get everyone up.

Views from this ledge were terrific.  Here are some other people who topped out on a distant formation.

More of the scenery.

Kristian and Larry on the ledge.

And me.

Still more scenery.

It was nearly 5:30 at this point and clear we needed to descend.  We could rappel the route or try the walkoff, and although rappelling would be fine I was in favor of the walkoff if possible.  While Kristian and I explored the walkoff option, Larry took some pictures with my camera.  One great thing about this climb was watching the beautiful birds flying around.  Many of the formations are closed this time of year for raptor nesting, and we were lucky the Citadel was both one that remained open and was close enough to the others to have the birds flying nearby.  They were truly magnificent.  I'm not sure what birds they were--maybe California condors.  Anyway Larry got some excellent pictures of them.

Kristian and I found the ledge at the third belay led naturally to what seemed to be the walkoff trail.  It looked like the downclimb from the summit to this point would have been very precarious and we were glad we didn't go to the summit (of course we didn't know there were anchors there now).  In fact there was still a rather scary downclimb even from our ledge, but someone had left some webbing and a rap ring on a tree on the ledge, so we decided to use that and try the walkoff.  I was happy that our climb had gone so well with no problems and great weather, and was looking forward to the easy hike back to the base.  Little did I know what was in store for us....  Here is Larry pausing to pose on his way rappelling down to the climber's trail.

We changed into our comfortable hiking shoes, and I took more pictures of the great scenery.

Unfortunately after a little while it became less and less clear which way the climber's trail went.  It seemed to mostly follow a gully down, but it was unclear whether to stay high or head low.  We were worried about cliffing out if we stayed high, so mostly we went low, but the problem is that low in gullies tends to be full of thick vegetation, and this one was no exception.  We thought more than once about heading back up and rappelling down our original route, but the problem was that we'd have to climb up the short section we'd rapped down, with no protection.  No one really wanted to do that.  So we kept going, and then were more and more committed to our decision, which looked less and less wise.  At times we'd get a view of the route down, but it seemed endless, alternating clearer sections with heavy brush.  This picture, taken at 6:45pm, shows part of what we descended (down roughly the middle of the picture).  It was no fun, and our progress was incredibly slow.

It was looking grim.  At some point it occurred to me that there was no reason things had to work out.  We might well not make it back to the trail by dark, and bushwhacking in the dark with one headlamp was probably not going to be possible.  But we had to keep going and give it our best shot.  At one point I went through some very heavy vegetation and Larry later said there was a lot of poison oak there.  I recalled looking at it and wondering if it was poison oak, and not being sure but not seeing a way around it anyway.  Larry and Kristian spent a lot of time trying to avoid it but apparently had to go through it as well.  [Addendum:  I actually did end up getting poison oak on my skin, in several places on both my arms and legs, despite wearing long pants and perhaps fleece.  It just took longer to appear (3 or 4 days) than I expected.  Larry and Kristian didn't have any problems.  I also found that I'd strained something on my left side, just under the ribs and toward the back.  Maybe I pulled a muscle or something.  I have no idea what caused it though as I don't recall doing anything special, and didn't feel anything during the time.  It didn't hurt until afterwards.  After a week it was mostly back to normal.]

At one point (maybe where I took the picture above) we reached a relatively clear area, and were better able to evaluate our options.  The gully down seemed endless, and more of the same thick vegetation.  What's more it was leading us away from the base of the climb and the rest of our gear, although I wasn't sure we could actually get to that and certainly if we followed the gully we'd at least make it to a main trail and from there could hike back up to our gear.  But at our rate of progress that could still take many painful hours, not to mention an unplanned bivouac.  My guess looking at the map later is that we had only progressed about 0.1 mile in an hour, and still would have had another 0.4 miles of similar or worse bushwhacking to get to the main trail.

Kristian decided to climb up a bit from where we were and see if we could make our way back to the base of the climb, and he found we were actually not far from the base of the Citadel and there was a well-defined climber's trail that seemed sure to lead back to our gear.  It was an incredible piece of good fortune, and what's more we would have barely enough time to get back to the car and drive out before darkness and the gate closing.  He went ahead to pack up our gear while I told Larry the good news.  When we made it to where Kristian was he had mostly packed up our stuff, so we sent him ahead to get the car, which was in the overflow lot 0.3 miles from the main lot, and he would drive it back and meet us at the main lot.  Larry and I finished packing and this time I put the rope under the pack lid which made travel much easier.  We went as fast as we could.  Here's a picture of Larry just at the last section of the climber's trail, with the Citadel in the back center, taken at 7:47pm.

When we got to the main trail we didn't have far to go, but there also wasn't much time.  I took Larry's gear and we both ran as fast as we could.  I had a big adrenalin rush at the end.  Kristian was waiting in the lot--he'd gotten there about 10 minutes before.  There was no ranger but there were other people packing up to go.  He'd heard from someone else that the gate would open for us, and when we got to the gate at about 8:06 it was still open anyway.

We were so relieved to have gotten out okay and in time.  We started going over what we'd done wrong and could do better, and Larry said he would add the new maxim "a descent route in hand is worth two in the bush" (maybe it was worded slightly differently).  In other words, we certainly should have just rappelled our route since clearly that would have worked and we would have gotten to our gear at say 6pm rather than 7:15pm.  I would add that we should strive to have the latest route and descent information before we climb.  However, given that things worked out, in a way I'm glad we did what we did--you always learn much more from your mistakes.  The problem is that I keep making new ones.

I called Kyoko and Kaya to tell them I'd be late, and Kristian was hungry so we stopped at Safeway in Salinas to get a sandwich, since he doesn't like fast food.  However their deli had closed 6 minutes earlier, so we ended up going to a Subway just around the corner.  I hadn't thought I was hungry and I dislike Subway (very low-quality ingredients) but the sandwich was still fairly satisfying.  Then we drove back, sorted our gear in the dark as best we could (I still ended up with a few of Kristian's cams on my rack) and headed home.  I got back a little after 11pm.

The descent aside it was a fantastic climb and day.  I'm looking forward to going back, with hopefully less adventure next time.