Climbing Foolproof Plan (5.9, II) in Sequoia/Kings Canyon
I have not been climbing.. My climbing gym membership fee has been a donation for a better part of a year, but I still keep it, aspirationally, and to some extent to support small businesses.
Instead of climbing, I’ve been setting poor boundaries at work and gaining at least 15 pounds in the process. My masters degree also took a heavy toll on my health these last 6 months since I prioritized that instead of my well being. It’s has been a punishing year as I let my priorities battle themselves out as I abscond to more sleeping and eating as the only way to maintain my humanity.
I have tunnel vision, and this 4th of July weekend came around almost as a surprise. I did not plan this as much as I have other weekends, so in a long reach I texted my friend Liz and asked her what she was doing, because whatever it was, I was going to tag along. This is a far cry from my epic Venusian blinds ascent that I painfully trained and planned for months for the previous independence day.
Luckily, Liz was going to do something awesome. She planned on driving to Sequoia/Kings canyon national park and getting a walk up campsite. Robin and I took this opportunity quickly, packed everything we had including climbing equipment, mountain bikes, camping equipment, snow gear, and hiking gear. We brought everything. We started the 7 hour drive around 9pm on Wednesday night, and rolled into camp on independence day at 10:30am the next morning.
Robin started making some noise about climbing a 3 pitch route called “Foolproof Plan” (5.9). I was dubious. I have never climbed before in Sequoia. I didn’t know how sandbagged it was. Is this a Joshua Tree 5.9 or a Holcomb Valley 5.9? One of them would be a walk in the park and the other one is a low energy state airlift. Robin was optimistic. We climbed White Maidens Walkaway (5.4) basically for old times sake 2 weeks ago in Tahquitz, and I surprisingly felt strong then. I suppose weightlifting and feeding myself without restraint built up a climbing base the old fashioned way. Out of the 15 pounds I gained, maybe 5 of it was muscle I didn’t have before. Still, despite my stoke on how easy White Maidens felt, I didn’t think I was ready to swing leads on a 5.9.
We spent independence Day sitting with our friends by the river, fishing, and chatting. There were campfires and beers and burgers. Liz wanted to show us an awesome boulder field where she put up a few moderate first ascents. Her boyfriend Gordan ecstatically showed me a highball chimney problem that promptly called my name. It had a scary top out where the wall got a little positive. I smeared against the wall behind me but the only way I could pull myself out of the crack was by two thin hand jams right at the top. At that point I was 20 feet off the deck over a harrowing fall. I told myself it would be okay, and pulled the hard move. I topped out in a beached whale sort of way, victoriously. I blew myself away. I’d never done a more powerful move on the rocks that way. I essentially did a pull up to get myself up and over. It was a strong move.
Let me give that idea a little bit more breathing room. As (likely) a fellow rock climber it must be weird to hear that I was surprised that I had to employ upper body strength. But its true. I never would call myself a power climber, and I have gone 8 years to this day relying on nothing but footwork, squats, and technique. That pull over a lip felt like levitation.
We woke up the day after Independence day hungover from the warmth of friendship and alcohol. My shoulders were sore from my V1 chimney problem and my aggressive victorious fist pump afterwards. Our friends set out for a 12 mile hike. Robin and I looked at each other and decided that walking 30 minutes to the base of a climb and checking it out sounded like way less work. And who knows, we might even climb something. We packed a decadent double rack and two ropes and headed out for a short walk near Roaring Rivers Falls.
After a 15 minute hike off the main trail we spotted the route and forged our own unmarked path towards the base of the wall. It became very clear to us that this route does not get much action. There was no trail. The whole wall was covered over with mossy lichen, and was slick because of it. The rock was mostly hard, but some flakes came off in our hands. Every slightly positive surface was covered over in pine needles. We spotted the first bolt and decided that we should lead the first pitch to the bolted anchors and just see what happens, see if we were feeling it.
Robin lead the first pitch. The crux of the whole 3 pitch climb was 10 feet off the ground before the first bolt. Robin was able to place a thin piece in a flake before the crux, and tried several times before he got it. It was a one handed pull up with bad feet. It looked so simple from below that I may have taunted him that I could lead it if he couldn’t. I ate my words when I failed at that spot myself several times with the weight of an extra rope on my back on toprope.
I was so dissuaded from that first pitch that I suggested that we rappel and call it a day. I was especially dissuaded looking at the area around the anchor rings and not seeing pro placements for a 15 ft radius around the anchor. I decided to get on lead and just see for myself how easy or hard it is. Worse comes to worse I can just fall back to the belay station and we can rappel.
Looking back, I am proud of myself for that moment. There was a time where I wouldn’t have even have tried if I wasn’t sure. There was a time I wouldn’t have even have left the ground if I heard it was a 5.9 rating. Robin didn’t even have to probe me that hard.
I started left and saw no way to continue. I went back to the belay station and started heading up towards the bolt. I did a powerful, unprotected, trusting move over a positive section (hearing Robin yelp in support from below), onto a ledge. I was able to place a cam in a flake from the standing position on that ledge, but above that was a undercling smearing boulder problem before the next bolt. I tried the boulder problem 3 times, downclimbing back to the ledge after each attempt. On the third attempt I slapped at the bolt with my hand realizing I wasn’t too far off. I grabbed a quick draw from my gear sling and placed it in my mouth for the next attempt. I unabashadely slapped towards the bolt with my free hand, hauling myself up once clipped. I cheated. I am not too ashamed for that move, honestly. I can’t say I led the route clean but I think the victory was had when I decided to get on lead knowing that the route was probably beyond my ability level at the time.
The next difficult section was a 60ft vertical chimney/dihedral up towards a tree. The pictures on mountain project led me to believe that this section would be hand crack heaven, but I suppose it would have only have been a 5.7 if that were true. The cracks were a little too wide to get a secure purchase on, and I ended up having to do mostly unprotected smearing on the slick lichen. I placed a 5 a bumped it once. I climbed above that and searched desperately for another crack, and found one just a little bit beyond my reach. I am lucky that I was able to correctly identify it as a 3 on the first go, because my Elvis Presley shaking legs almost gave out when I placed it. I remembered the tip from my trad climbing mental fitness class and told myself out loud that the 3 was a fantastic placement. '
As I continued I got used to just how vertical the climbing was. I wasn’t taking my feet placements for granted, yet I was trusting them more. I could tell that this pitch was widening my horizons in trad climbing capabilities. I stopped at a belay ledge and yelped my happiness into the canyon valley. I unfortunately also kicked a paperback book sized rock down onto Robin by accident in my celebration, but Robin was able to avoid it. Luckily we were wearing helmets. This is another one of the downsides of climbing such untrodden rock.
Robin followed slowly but surely. He teased me at the top for stopping before the tree anchors, but I told him not to take any wind out of my sails on the fantastic lead. And besides, my ledge was nice and big enough for us to sit comfortably. He agreed that I made the right choice too when he saw that the ragged tat pitch 2 anchors were not so bomber.
The third pitch and Robins lead was also a money pitch. It had a lieback roof reminiscent of Valentines day in Red Rocks, except, you know, on Granite.
And at the end of the day, despite the extra weight, we didn’t even need to bring the second rope. We brought it because mountain project told us the second pitch would be a 40 meter rappel, which is not possible with a 70 meter rope. We hauled our extra 60 up there just in case we had to do a double rope rappel. Our 70 meter rope made it to the second anchors. Just so, but definitely there. This is the third reason why climbing such a lightly trekked route can be a pain.
There were definitely pros, though. We were completely alone the second we left the trail. We were less than a half mile from the road on a sunny fourth of July weekend and we didn’t see a single person for 3 hours. We were alone above the sequoia trees able to have our nature experience in piece. I can’t say that I’m not a tourist, but getting to enjoy the park this way gave me moments of quite that hiking and biking would not have.