Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Stranded on Monitor Rock Near Independence Pass

Monitor Rock. Trooper Traverse follows the prominent
 ramp/crack system in the center of the main face

We’re going to be on the news….

It was the only thought my panicked mind could summon. “Three rock climbers had to be rescued last night off Monitor Rock near Twin Lakes just east of Independence Pass. Reportedly, the group was stranded when their rope became stuck as they were rappelling from the 450-foot-tall rock.” Something like that. People on their couches at home would guffaw and grumble “idiots” before clicking around for something better. Now that we’d been in our predicament for over an hour, this scenario seemed not just possible, but likely.

On the positive side, we were on a solid ledge that had not one but two bolted anchors. At ten feet long, two feet wide and 350 feet off the ground, was it comfortable? No. But at least we were in no danger of falling. It was autumn, however, and evening was approaching. Though it had been a warm, bluebird day, once that sun went down, it was going to get cold.

“We can think this through,” said my wife, Ella, sounding much calmer than I felt.

“There is no reason to panic.”

“I also have this,” added my friend and often climbing partner, Trent. He reached into his backpack and retrieved a Spot Satellite GPS messenger. With one touch of the panic button, this little device would transmit an S.O.S along with our coordinates to emergency dispatch, and the finest in backcountry rescue services would be deployed to save us. But how long would it take them to arrive? Monitor Rock was 26 miles from Leadville, where it was likely any such rescue operation would be staged. The amount of time it would take to mobilize and travel here alone could be hours. Then they would have to climb to us, and get us down, and do whatever follow-up was required. I was guessing we’d be lucky to get home by midnight.

“Are we at that point?” I asked, watching his finger edge closer to the button. The three of us were silent. There was only so much pulling one could do on a stuck rope before giving in to the harsh reality.

Ella sighed. “We might be.”
The author leads the pitch 4 traverse pitch

I swore out loud, which didn’t help anything. The climb itself, a historical multi-pitch traditional route known as the Trooper Traverse (5 pitches, 5.8+) had been smooth. We’d swapped leads and made our way up the enjoyable line in decent time, even taking the more-difficult 5.9 crux variation for the final pitch. The setting for Monitor Rock was breathtaking, especially with the golds, oranges and yellows of fall at their peak. The cobalt sky was dotted with friendly, paintbrush clouds and the perfectly warm air was so still we could hear calls of “take” and “lowering” from the climbers cragging on other routes far below us at the base of the wall. I hated the stark juxtaposition of all that beauty against our current predicament.

“All right,” I said to Trent with a deep breath. “I guess we have to do it.”

Trent’s thumb hovered over the panic button.

* * *

It’s a common mountaineering axiom that the way down is the most dangerous part of an expedition. The descent occurs later in the day when we are exhausted and weather is more likely. And while going down, we are leading with our feet instead of our heads. Then there is complacency. Feeling that the summit, and the worst, is behind us, we lower our guard.

Rappelling is a special type of descent that can speed up our progress and allow us to cruise past gnarly sections that would be difficult or impossible to downclimb. Duane Raleigh, publisher of Rock & Ice magazine and first ascensionist of many Western Colorado rock climbs, asserts in his article “Rappelling-Surviving Climbing’s Diciest Business” that “of the myriad ways to kill yourself climbing, rappelling is the quickest.” This grim truism echoes through my head every time I fix myself to a rope to begin a rappel descent.

When done properly, however, rappelling is quite simple, easy and generally safe, but the consequences of any broken link in the chain are disastrous. There are many ways rappelling can go wrong, including anchor failure, knot failure, improper connections with the belay device, loss of brake-hand control, failure to tie backup knots, rappelling off the end of the rope, and more. One of the most common rappelling faux pas, however, is getting a rope stuck when pulling it.

Now, there is an advantage to this mistake over the others: you are at the bottom of the rappel when it happens. If it were just a single rappel then at worst you have to leave your expensive rope behind and hope you can come back for it later.

On a multi-rappel descent, getting your rope stuck up high can leave you stranded with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet still to the ground.
*               *               *
“Let me try it one more time,” said Trent, slipping the GPS tracker back into his bag. Taking both ends of the rope, he began to saw the two lines back and forth.

At first, nothing would budge. Then suddenly, a hundred feet above us, the knot popped free from whatever it had been stuck on and began pulling through the anchor. A minute later it hissed down the smooth granite and landed at our feet.

We stared at it with our mouths hanging open in shock. After more than an hour being stranded, we were free. We cheered. We hugged. We celebrated. No hours-long rescue. No Channel 5 News story. No being benighted on a two-foot-wide ledge at 10,000 feet elevation. We were going home.
Ella Wright just before the rope
became stuck

There were still two rappels to go however, and we couldn’t lose focus. The last thing we wanted was to get out of one bad situation by the skin of our teeth only to end up in a worse one. The best moment, however, of any rappel is when your feet and rope are back on the ground, and an hour later we were there. At the bottom of the rock we laid in the grass and gravel and tried to laugh off what had just happened. It seemed surreal, the sudden transition from danger to safety.

“Let’s get out of here,” Ella said after we packed up our bags. She started the march down the trail in the direction of our car.

“I couldn’t agree more,” added Trent and followed.

I looked back at sweeping heights of Monitor Rock. Evening was already almost at hand and the glistening gray rock was falling into shadow. I could still pick out the ledge where we had spent an hour stranded. I couldn’t help but think how close we’d come to still being up there.

“Maybe we need to go get a beer,” I added. I turned away from the rock to follow the others, and didn’t look back.

NOTE: This article was originally published in Our Backyard (Volume 11, Issue 3, June 2016), an outdoor publication that is inserted in The Nickel and the Moab Times-Independent. 

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