Rock Climbing in Valdez, Part 2

Why would anyone come halfway around the world to climb rock in the rain?  The question made itself evident in Alon’s slumped shoulders, his pursed lips, downturned at the corners, and his noncommittal shrug when anyone asked him, “What do you want to do?”  He lifted a sharp glance at the pervasive expanse of stratus clouds and sighed.   From Israel to Alaska, from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest, from there further south to Central America, and then on to Peru, perhaps even back to Patagonia.  Granted, weather days were to be expected, but this was the very outset of his Year of Climbing: 365 of vagabonding around two continents in a van full of gear, starting in Alaska and ending up in South America.  Yesterday at Worthington Glacier proved to be a glorious beginning on smooth, sun-infused granite with difficult problems and challenging routes, but today he awoke to a rain-soaked, slumbering sky.  With reluctance, he joined the others who decided to stay at the festival in Valdez that Sunday and climb, despite the rain.  Maybe it would clear up by the afternoon.  In Israel, the weather was always so good for climbing with dry, pale sandstone in the sunlight, warm under your hands.  Bare and exposed to wind and brilliant blue sky.   But not today in Valdez.

The climbers gathered gear, loaded vehicles and started a caravan towards the campground near the airport.   Nick was riding with me in the Jeep.  We drove back towards town, then made a  turn down a winding road, past the sign for the campground, and pulled over near a thick clump of trees.  We followed a path through the green undergrowth to a high wall of rock, covered with alders and mosses, except for a wide grey expanse which had been cleaned and prepared for the festival.  Four or five routes had been bolted to the face.  As the others filtered in through the trees, they approached the wall and felt it with their hands, running their fingertips into the edges of holds, testing the slippery, moist rock for grip.

“This isn’t so bad,” Altaira remarked.  “Come on, Alon!”  She grinned at him and pulled at his jacket, blue eyes sparkling.

“I don’t like to climb in the rain,” said Alon, holding himself back, his bright yellow rain jacket pulled up over his head, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his mustard yellow pants blaring color against the grey rock.

“It’s not so bad.  And it’ll probably clear up in a little while.”  She took off her pack and began rummaging around inside it.

“How about a catch?”  Nick said softly in my direction as he started to climb up the side of the face, clipping in draws as he led the rope up the rock.   I quickly picked up the loose rope trailing behind him, threaded it through my belay device and kept my brake hand down.  He ascended quickly up until he was level with the anchor chains, where he stood for a moment, fiddling with something I couldn’t’ see.

“I’ll rap down,” he called down to me.  I unclipped the carabiner and removed the rope.  Using a piece of gear I didn’t recognize, Nick brought himself down the rope, rappelling swiftly until he was on the ground again.  He untied the figure-eight and let the rope drop.  Other climbers had arrived and set down their ropes, extra shoes, and backpacks under a semi-dry section where the rock overhung.

“That route’s ready for someone to top-rope it,” he said to them.  “Does anyone have another rope we could use to set up a route over on that far side?”

“You can use mine,” Alon took off his new turquoise backpack, reached inside, and brought out his rope bag.  He opened it and handed it to Nick.  “Just please keep the rope out of the mud.”  He watched the bag carefully for a moment, and then headed back to stand under the tarp which Lee had set up to keep watchers out of the rain.

And so the morning began with climbing, despite a gentle sprinkling which layered exposed, rounded knobs with a wet glaze, but left inner crevices and spots under overhanging rock dry to the touch.  On my third try, I was able to get to the top of the route I chose.  Julie hung out on her route for almost half an hour working on a particularly difficult section, but Dan and Dane and Dave clambered up and down even the most elusive holds, both lead-climbing and top-roping.

. . .

Some say trad climbing is the only honorable way to go.  Other people say bolt the planet.  Translation?  Traditional climbing means that the only gear you use is the stuff you take with you, such as cams, nuts or pitons that you put in the wall and take out on your way out.  It leaves the rock clean, but perhaps more importantly, it’s the ultimate expression of self-sufficiency and independence.  Well, except for free-climbing.  But to go into why people choose to climb rock with no gear or ropes is a whole other subject, and one with which I am unfamiliar, to say the least.   Bolts are used in sport climbing, and can be set by anyone with greater or lesser degrees of skill.  The quality of material used for bolts and the routes which they are used to set depends on the skill and experience of the climber setting the bolts.  A bolt is set into the wall with a flat piece of metal called a hanger.  Into this one inserts a carabiner attached to another carabiner by a cord, and this is called a draw or a quick draw.  The lead climber clips the draw into the hanger and the rope into the draw as he or she ascends, so that every six or eight or ten feet there is an element of protection built into the climb.  If the climber falls, and the belayer is on belay (paying attention with the brake hand down), then the climber will only fall as far as the last bolt.   But, as every OCD route-checking climber knows, the protection is only as sure as the bolt, and many conscientious climbers spend the time to check bolts as they climb, cutting out loose or poor-quality gear from the rock, removing it from the route and replacing it if possible.  In this sense, the climbing community looks out for each other, even when they’re not climbing together.  And for this reason, many hard-core trad climbers rely only on the equipment they set during their climb, usually following crack systems in the rock into which they can insert gear, to which they can clip their rope and which functions as their protection.

. . .

After I finished my third climb and had belayed for a few friends, I walked back to the path, where Lee had strung up a tarp, underneath which someone else had tied a hammock.  Nick and Altaira were lying in it, watching the climbers on the wall.  “So, I was just thinking,” I said to Nick.  “When I look over on that side of the wall, it’s all full of shrubs and alders and mosses, so this part that we’re climbing must have been cleared in order for use to be able to climb on it.”

Nick nodded, smiling gently.

“How long have you been working on it?  Last year was the first rock climbing festival in Valdez, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah.”  He glanced towards the rock.  “It’s taken about 4,000 hours, I guess, to get the rock to this point.  It used to all look like that.”  He motioned towards the wild greenery growing out of the granite, overhanging limbs and moss and alders.

“What kinds of tools did you have to use?”

“Oh, chain saws, pick-axes, shovels, wire brushes.”   He spoke quietly and a secretive smile played around the corners of his mouth.  “Just seeing everybody climbing here today is like a dream come true.”  He watched me for a moment, and then said, “You should see what’s at the end of the path.”

“What’s at the end of the path?”

“You don’t know yet?  Let’s go find out then.”   He stood up and led the way down the narrow path, winding between trees until we reached another expanse of granite wall, which had been carefully cleared, brushed, and set with bolts.  Around the corner at the end of this wall was a small piece of turf, and the another wide stretch of rock wall emerged and was bordered at the end by the return of alders, trees, grasses, and a hillock of overgrown earth.   One lone columbine, pink with white interior, sprang out of the earth at the base of the rock, which was dotted with bolts and hangers, with probably at least five or six routes of varying complexity.  I surveyed the scene for a moment, imagining the work it must have taken to bring the rock to that state.

“The earth used to come up to this level,” Nick said, running his hand over a portion of the rock about four feet up the side.  “That’s why some of the routes look like they start in crazy places.”

A few people had accompanied us, and I headed back down the path to bring a few others back with me.  This part of the wall was markedly drier than the first place we had been climbing, and there was a lot more space, so more people could climb.  Several new climbers had shown up, and the first wall was getting crowded already.   As soon as I returned, the sun peeked out from behind a cloud, and everything seemed brighter. There was more of a view of the surrounding landscape from this wall as well.

“Well, this is a lot more interesting with so many people here,”  Nick laughed.  “It’s better than ‘Hello Mr. Wire Brush.  How are you today?  Oh, no, I’m not doing anything later.  What about you?'”  He laughed again.    Oh, and look, there’s an eagle.” He watched the great brown bird soar with open wings as it swooped upwards towards the trees nearby.

Alon, Altaira, Dan, Dave, Chris and Dane appeared around the corner, and exclaimed their surprise when they saw the routes on the rock.  Alon had finally decided to climb at the other site, despite the rain, and was relieved to see a drier wall with fewer people around and less gear on the ground to avoid.  Within a few minutes all available ropes were in use, and the wall was alive with climbers, belayers, watchers and crag dogs;  perhaps it was better that we few had decided to stay and climb in spite of the rain.  The rock, the companionship, the sky clearing up and the warm sunshine- the entire day was an unexpected gift.

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