Trip: Sedona - Mars Attacks!
Trip Date: 11/20/2017
Having an adventure that pushes you beyond your comfort zone is great....unless it's your daughter, a friend's child, and your wife on the other end of the rope when things go sideways.
When my wife and I started dating we made a deal: I’d learn snowboarding, which she loves, and she’d learn climbing, my passion.
We shared some good times on the rock many years ago, but in recent years we haven’t climbed together except in the gym. My daughter, now 12, started climbing early, but she’s only been outdoors a few times, on top rope or following single rope pitch bolted climbs. Dan, a close family friend, has really enjoyed the few times he’s climbed and was eager to do more. A quick trip to Arizona, a few hours from his family, provided an opportunity.
I figured we’d just climb on some short, easy routes in the sunshine. I’d walk to the top, set up an anchor, toss down the rope, and belay. But then on our hike to Devil’s Bridge we saw climbers on a sun-drenched buttress across the valley. Gaping from flatland, I realized I was now the tourist gazing up at climbers instead of the climber looking down on tourists. I’m not ready to make that transition. So I did some research and looked up the route….
The climb we did is the prominent buttress in the upper center of this shot.
It was Mars Attacks. Four pitches of 5.8. Each one holds a different mental and physical challenge. 400 feet of climbing with a traverse and two double-rope rappels to get off the top.
I might be pushing too many envelopes at once by bringing three inexperienced climbers up the route, but I was confident I could get us safely up and down (green dots mark the belay stances at the top of a pitch.) …
The approach started on the familiar trail to Devil's Bridge before heading North to a wash and a faint climber's trail around a cliff to the base of the wall. Somewhere in there we got off route and had to dodge some ankle-biting cacti, but we found our way...
The trail contoured above a small cliff with great views back across the canyon...
At the base of the wall, we got our gear together: two ropes, harnesses, and a variety of climbing gear. My daughter sticks to the wall even without her climbing shoes.
The crux of the opening pitch is a holdless low-angled slab where you must trust your feet and the rubber in your shoes, balance on the balls of your feet with no handholds at all, and BELIEVE in order to climb.
I lead the first pitch, scampering up moderate climbing to a high first bolt. 20 feet later I hit the crux slab. I puzzled for a bit, but hundreds of ascents in recent years have worn off the tiny features on the rock, which is now smooth and blank. I tried one sequence and started sliding, so I grabbed the protection to stop. We didn’t have all day, so I pulled on the quickdraw and stood on a bolt to get past the crux. I climbed the rest of the pitch clean and made it to the belay, an airy stance below a giant hueco.
The others came up behind me, with a bit of tension on the rope to help them through the crux. They all did great on the rest of the pitch.
At the belay there was a giant hueco worn into the rock by thousands of years of desert winds. It was a comfy spot for some to take off their shoes and take in the view.
The second pitch is a horizontal traverse along a limestone dike in the middle of the red sandstone cliff. There are good holds most of the way, but the exposure is incredible. The limestone band protrudes from the cliff because the softer sandstone below it eroded away, leaving you staring down between your toes to the ground about a 100 feet below.
If you fall, you will dangle in open space and might be unable to re-gain the limestone.
I had a hard time sleeping the night before the climb, going over in my mind how we could all safely climb this pitch without risking a pendulum fall into space.
First, I lead across.
A came next, clipped to both ropes via slings but not tied into either one. Via ferrata style. She had to unclip one sling at a time to get around each bolt. If she fell she'd still be attached to both ropes and could easily get back on the wall.
Here she is moving past one of the seven protection bolts that were placed by the first ascent party in 2000.
Resting in a thin section. The Devil's Bridge trail is visible behind her.
It was impossible to communicate on the second and third pitches, but we had just enough cell signal for texting. Here's a snapshot of our communication.
We had a clear plan, and I knew Beth had enough climbing experience to belay me and make sure A and Dan could set off safely.
Arriving at the end of the limestone band.
Dan coming across second. He was tied into the end of the yellow rope and had one leash clipped to the blue rope, which would keep him from dangling in space if he fell. He didn't.
Beth came last, tied into the end of the blue rope. She unclipped our gear from the bolts. She was totally solid and didn't fall.
Two pitches down. Two to go. But we were moving slowly. I was having to check everything and do all of the work to keep the ropes and protection organized and untangled. We were always very safe, but we were slow. And it would catch up to us...
The third pitch is a dark red vertical chasm, a slot, like an open book. The steep sandstone on one side of the corner has been worn by wind into crazy pockets called huecos. Some are tiny, others are large enough to climb into, and you’ll find every size in between. Then there is the crack, which varies between the width of a finger and a slot several feet wide.
To ascend you must use a wide range of crack climbing techniques that are not very intuitive to the uninitiated, including hand and foot jamming, palming smooth walls to move your feet up in a stem, using your palm and upper arm in opposition while your arm is bent like a chicken wing in a wide crack, lie backing on a sloping rail, and more.
I placed cams at wide intervals for efficiency and because I didn't have a lot of gear. Fortunately, the climbing wasn't too hard and the tough bits were well protected.
Sometimes an accidental shot can yield an interesting image. This is looking back down from high on the third pitch.
Lead climbing brings the mind into sharp focus. The world's deluge of distractions is swept away in the face of the immediate situation.
The views from high on the wall were stunning, the air was still. At one point, a raven swirled on rising currents and circled our group curiously, wondering what these noisy, vulgar beasts, whose brethren provide such rich garbage down below, were doing up here in the land of wind and stone.
The fourth pitch combines some awkward crack with slab and face moves and ends with a long, unprotected section of low angled rock where a fall by the leader is unlikely but would be bad.
Dan climbed the final section of the final pitch...
just as the sun was just about to head down below the horizon. Night would soon be upon us, and we still had to get down.
Here we are about to make the first rappel, which runs down a clean face on the far side of the buttress. You can see the trail far down below us.
I rigged everyone's rappels and then headed down first to look for the next bolt station just as the sky glowed orange and red in a beautiful sunset. But we didn't have any headlamps, a cardinal sin I acknowledged before we left the car in the morning. I've rappelled in the dark, but never without a headlamp, and I've never had inexperienced climbers rappel in the dark without a light. Good thing they're all strong of mind.
I rappelled down the vertical face in gathering darkness, looking for a three bolt anchor mentioned in the guide. We'd never seen this part of the wall as it's on the other side of the buttress we climbed. And here's where I pushed things a bit farther than I'd intended, because I never found the bolts. I looked left and right between 45 meters to 55 meters down our 60 meter ropes. Nothing.
Swinging back and forth across a blank cliff in near darkness without a light was a bit unnerving even for me. Our ropes wouldn't reach the ground, and although I could have ascended back up to our anchor above, it would have been very slow and difficult.
We could have rappelled back down pitches 4 and 3 and then to the ground from there, but I'd read multiple stories of people getting their ropes stuck in the cracks we'd climbed, so that was surely a last resort.
Instead, I swung over to the crack shown here and built an anchor using a few cams I just happened to still have on my harness. Truth be told. I'd put most of the rack in the pack my wife was carrying. Fortunately, I had the pieces I needed. Luck was with us. I clipped myself into this unplanned, makeshift belay spot and yelled off rappel so the others could come down to me.
I held the rope ends as first A, then Dan, then Beth rappelled down in the dark to join me in this corner crack 150 feet off the ground. I pulled them each over to me from the blank face out right. We were safe, and I kept reminding them of this. The stars came out on a brilliant night.
I was able to tuck my phone into my pants by my belly and shine light on our belay as we rigged to descend. This time I would just lower them one at a time to the ground. Thankfully, the rope reached. I lowered Beth into the darkness first, explaining that she'd need to climb up to the large ledge below us if the ropes didn't reach the ground. But she made it.
We were safe, but well beyond our intended plans. Then again, that's where adventure begins.
We made it down and used the light of my phone to hike out on the trail. The evening was calm and still and the Milky Way guided us back to the car.
I ended up leaving two cams behind. Over the years I've gathered gear from the misadventures of other climbers. This time they can benefit from ours. No worries.
An adventure to remember!
Headlamp would've been nice
Follow the trail