25 August 2018: the weather turns
We should have been happy to see rain in the forecast. Thick smoke smothered most of southern BC and we could feel it in our lungs. A little rain would nicely clear up some fires. However, we only had a week to squeeze in as much alpine climbing as possible--only rain could stop us...
My (Nick) meteorological expertise indicated Yak Peak would be the only dry rock between Golden and Vancouver: "9°C and cloudy, 0% chance of rain." After deliberating over soup, sandwiches, and innumerable free coffee refills in Golden, Erik, Seamus, and I agreed Yak Peak was our best bet for a final adventure of summer 2018. We set our sights on 'Beckey–Speedway,' soaked up our last bytes of free wifi, and began a 4.5 h drive...
Somewhere southwest of Revelstoke, Erik (driving) reported a sign for "Highway 1 closure west of Sicamous," but his words were lost in our excited babble. Somehow his message reached me subliminally because I felt a spontaneous urge to check our progress on Google Maps. Sure enough, the app reported a major collision and highway closure at Sicamous, and advised a U-turn toward an alternative route. The difficulty of turning around on the busy highway prevented us from critically evaluating the new route. Erik asked the name of the road he would turn onto. With reluctance, I read "Wap Lake Forest Service Rd."
"God damn it," was Erik's reply.
Too late, we had to trust the app. We discovered that Google Maps plots the best course for each individual driver without accounting for increased traffic resulting from routing thousands of vehicles onto the same narrow road:
Despite unforeseen construction, the detour didn't take much longer than estimated. We reached our destination by nightfall and nestled into a small dirt parking lot turned cozy (but illegal) campsite.
Before bed, Erik checked the forecast again: 60% chance of showers the next morning and afternoon.
An exercise in optimism
Erik departed the next day (26 August); damned if rain would stop us from climbing. The descent for Speedway is to rappel the route, so we could bail from any pitch. Perfect, we reasoned, not too committing.
We misinterpreted the beta—a "30-min" approach involved negotiating steep, muddy slopes through brambles and trees loaded with water droplets that exploded with the slightest disturbance. Ninety minutes later, we arrived, already soaked, at a tattered sling marking the base of the route. Surprisingly, the rock was dry!
With no time to waste, Erik immediately tied in. The initial angle of the slab is so low that pitches 1 & 2 are considered "fourth class." Accordingly, the first ascentionists didn't drill any bolts other than the anchors. Erik expected to run up these pitches towing Seamus and I simul-climbing behind.
Instead, he realized that finding grey anchor bolts amid a sea of granite is damn near impossible. Erik was lured by bolts on an adjacent 5.10, but quickly realized his error and had to down-climb some difficult friction moves, unclipping several bolts along the way. Some time later, we identified the true anchor to the left and continued.
Surrounding clouds darkened as I swung onto lead for the second pitch. After encouraging the lads to enjoy the "ping-pong-ball view (14:36 in linked video)," I confidently launched into ~5.2 terrain. Funny, 30m off the belay I still couldn't see the next anchor, light rain was falling, and, frankly, I was terrified. But this was a voluntary epic and I couldn't lose my nerve; instead, I recalled lessons from The Rock Warrior's Way and began a cycle of deep breathing, forcing myself to take one precise step with each exhalation. A levitative force carried me to the next anchor.
With rain falling steadily, the sensible decision was to bail. But how sensible was our decision-making thus far? Erik instead opted to bring us up the next pitch—slightly harder at 5.8, but generously protected by a single bolt 30-m up. Seamus and I watched Erik disappear into the mist. While he climbed, memories bubbled up from an article I read on slab climbing in Norway: partners belayed un-tethered, and, upon a leader fall, the belayer would leap from the stance and run down the slab to take in excess slack. So, I unclipped myself from the anchor and prepared to drop into the foggy abyss.
Luckily Erik spared me from field-testing this method by admirably navigating the slippery pitch. Neither of us anticipated that the real epic was about to begin.
With over eight years of outdoor climbing experience, I thought I had rappelling dialed. Our chosen system for Speedway was to lead on a 10-mm rope and rappel it on a carabiner block with a 7-mm tag-line to pull the fixed end. We set up accordingly on two rappel rings attached apart to the anchor bolts (as pictured below).
As rain became torrential, sheets of frigid water cascaded down the face, soaking our climbing shoes and bare feet within. One-by-one, we zipped down the first rappel, then attempted to pull the rope... Stuck.
I ascended the entire 45-m pitch back to the anchor and discovered that the ropes had twisted together 6 or 7 times with enough resulting friction to make the pull impossible. I lowered back down taking care to keep the strands apart. This time, the rope pulled clean, with considerable effort.
For the next pitch, we resolved to set up a clean pull, and carefully paid out the two strands far apart... Stuck again!
I was chagrined that my tag-line rappel method, the virtues of which I had recently extolled, seemed to be hampering our retreat. Forty five minutes had passed since we left the anchor of the third pitch and we were drenched and shivering. Cold and deeply frustrated, I offered to jug the pitch again, determined to resolve the issue and happy to generate some heat. At the top, I puzzled over the situation for several minutes; how were the twists forming?
It clicked. With the rappel rings so far apart and unable to twist, each time we pulled ~1 m of rope through the rings, it produced a half-twist in the cord, such that pulling 6 m of rope was enough to tangle the lines completely. The tag-line wasn't the problem, it was the fixed hardware.
Chuffed to have resolved the issue, I re-tied the lines through a single ring and they came easily.
However, our miserable adventure was still not over. On the approach we crossed slabs that seemed trivial when dry, but were now treacherous in the rain. Re-tracing our path was a canyoneering-style epic in itself. Every irregularity in the slab produced a rooster tail plume of water. Mossy corners and thick brush were lubricated to near-zero friction. While our fancy emergency rain shells had shielded us from light rain, not a square inch of fabric was spared soaking once we embarked on our first of many butt slides.
Without a hint of elegance, we returned to the relative security of the muddy trail and solemnly plodded back to the car. In Zopkios Rest Area, we fixed a hearty lunch as an ironic celebration. Though it was a failed climb by all accounts, I felt a tinge of pride rising as I warmed in the van. Voluntary epics have their merit afterall.
Here is a short video summarizing the adventure, for your enjoyment (N.B. The video ends abruptly because I stopped filming once the rain became too heavy and my hands too cold).
I believe, had we opted to return to Vancouver a day early rather than trying to climb, I would have missed some valuable lessons. Here are three:
While I'm glad we had the experience, I'll keep the commitment level similarly low on future voluntary epics.
We are Daniel, David, Nick & Erik.
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