Mud Wrestling in Utah
The First Free Ascent of West Side Story on Cottontail in the Fisher Towers, Utah
A story by Rob Pizem
Late in the afternoon on March 22, 2009, Jason Hass and I hiked over to the base Cottontail tower and cockily dropped our gear, looked up and thought to ourselves, "I hope were not wasting our spring break trying to free this route and I really hope neither of us gets hurt while trying". Little did we know what the week would bring us as we turned our faces red with dust and mud while we clawed our way up the crumbling and exfoliating tower to the top of what would be another free route in the Fishers.
It was windy, as the desert goes that is. I have been in a few dust storms while in the Moab area, I have seen tents ripped and torn to shreds while at the same time been cooled to the bone as a north wind blew straight through me. But this Sunday was different. It wasn't so cold as much as how strong it was blowing.
Jason has just on sighted the first hairy pitch of the route and I had seconded it coolly some how forgetting the large number of rocks that flew over my head during the hour long belay session. I felt that if the bottom of the route was this solid, that the rest of the route had to just get better. My limited experience in the Fishers began and ended with three routes: the striking yet solid Ancient Arts, the Cobra and Lizard Rock. I had never felt worried about the rock quality and therefore only had visions of my friends' ascents of the larger features. Knowing that the Titan had been freed years ago also made me wonder what else was there to be freed and was it really that scary. The first pitch certainly didn't bother me much. Good gear but loose rock, no worries.
As I began up pitch two on the now feeling extremely loose and dirty sand, I quickly found myself terrified at the lack of solid gear placements, the high number of nutless and boltless quarter inch studs sticking from the rock and the roof and slab features that I faced every few feet. My hopes of rivaling Jason's prowess on pitch one were instantly dashed as I retreated and stood in a sling on the first fixed pin that I found.
The rest of the pitch was more of the same. A free move or two and then hiding on a placement that I was sure would blow out with the sketchy rock. The crux came when I had to mantle one of the roofs through a pile of rock and debris that had been falling on me during the wind storm that was brewing over at Castleton Tower. Like a turtle I clung to whatever I could and prayed to all that was holy that I didn't loose balance and actually have to shock my gear with a fall. Jason, meanwhile was hiding safely under the bulge at the belay out of the range of the rocks that I knocked down and the ones coming from higher on the route. We were basically in a gully that was bound to kill us.
Every few minutes I would look back and see this black cloud not made of water vapor and frozen ice, but of rock and dust and debris. Eventually it was swirling around us consuming us. It was at that point that knew we should retreat. I had yet to even gain the second anchor before I was bailing. Terror grew as I equalized a nut and a micro cam in the rubble and called take through the Malay. I fixed the static rope to the anchor and hoped with every ounce in my bones that the rock was solid enough to hold me long enough to reach Jason at the first belay. The rock rained down on us and we each took direct shots to the head by the falling debris but we safely made it to the ground. Thank goodness for my CAMP helmet.
And so it ended. Day one on the route and we only made it up a pitch and a half. We were both lacking some of the cockiness that we displayed earlier in the day and while back home in Denver. It was at that point that I knew we were in for a real battle to open this old trade aid route as a free one in just a week. The weather had changed from the clear and stable to the windy and cold. The rock had proved to be as loose and as bad as everyone had said. And of course the head games had begun.
With the storm out of the picture, we returned on Monday morning with renewed vigor. As I jugged the fixed line to our high point, my confidence waned a bit and after Jason had me on belay I had resorted to turtle like movements and slow and quiet breathing. My hope was that through the slow movements that I wouldn't blow gear and the slow breathing; wait what does slow breathing do when you are aiding? Anyway, pitch two was finished and we were on our way. Jason managed to free that pitch while on second and said that it climbed about 5.10. I felt like a little boy again and passed him the rack.
Again Jason on sighted his lead up the mud gully. And again I followed it easily; unfortunately, knowing that I would not have been so bold. I found out later that he was so scared of weighting any of his pro, that he just kept going into the unknown and loose. I was coming to learn that he had nerves of steel and it scared me a bit. I secretly hoped that he would start aiding pitches even it if slowed us down too much. Where he just climbed it, I would freak out, start shaking, and aid it. Even if it was by far more terrifying hanging on a tricam in a blow out that I wasn't even sure would hold. Or if it meant hanging on a star drive that had its sleeve completely opened up and the bolt easily slipping in and out upon my calculated movements. I would aid.
We gained the next two pitches in this manner. Some of the pitch would go free while large sections would go on aid. Each time we completed a portion of the climb, we would determine whether or not it would go free and whether or not we should continue. And each time we were pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, after we reached the half way point, I secretly wanted the first bolt ladder to be impossible because I knew that leading those pitches below were going to test my mental game more than physical. I didn't feel up to the challenge.
After I managed to free the first bolt ladder while on top rope, I knew that there was really one pitch left to free. Then it would be time to come back and lead all the pitches and proudly announce a new free route in the Fishers. Late that second day we decided to head down and begin replacing the old hardware on the route. Folks had previously replaced the anchors with ARI bolts and we were equipped with ARI bolts for only the most unsafe ones on the route. I put in nine, six inch by half inch bolts between the ground and pitch six. Afterwards I felt like some of the leads would feel a little bit better with reliable hardware.
Since the battery on the drill was dead we rested on Tuesday, charged the battery, and returned on Wednesday to hopefully reach the summit of the route. There was the one last aid pitch/bolt ladder and it was Jason's lead. We were both wearing our down jackets, multiple pairs of pants and wind proof Arcteryx gear the handle the freezing temperatures. We woke up to find that our water bottles froze during night and it wasn't really warming up on our shady route up Cottontail. With excitement and fear Jason said something to the effect that he was just going to go for it on this last bolt ladder since all of the pitches below us had gone free with little effort other than overcoming our fears. The rock was bad, the gear was dangerous at times, and we each had holds and giant chunks of rock break from the wall and explode in our hands, but he was going to just go for it.
The pitch began with a fifteen foot chimney to a horizontal traverse that moved right along a "ledge" for another twenty five feet. Then it climbed a series of discontinuous flared cracks until it met up with a semi featured face complimented with roofs and slabs and of course really bad rock that crumbled at the touch.
At least a half hour had gone by and I hadn't noticed the rope move. I had no idea where Jason was or what he was doing and I couldn't hear him through the wind and long traverse when all of a sudden I hear a scream of pain. He had gone for it, lost his balance on one of the many mantel moves over a bulge, blew a bad tricam and a flared number one cam only to be stopped by an old star drive that looked destroyed. When his right foot landed on a small bulge it broke two parts of the foot; the intermediate and lateral cuneiform.
We didn't know this at the time and the only thing that we did know was that Jason was in a lot of pain and that this was probably the end of our attempt to free the West Side Story. After a serious chat, Jason decided that even with his level seven out of ten on the pain scale, that he could bear it and stand me aiding the rest of the pitch. I reluctantly lead up the pitch with feelings of frustration, fear, and anger. The frustration was from the fact that our effort on the route may have been wasted. My fear was because I was climbing a Fisher tower and the anger was from Jason going for it when he didn't have to. So, I finished the pitch, thought it looked like it would be free climbable and we slowly hiked back to camp.
The next day was great, it snowed, it blew and then it snowed some more. There were times that we couldn't even see the muddy towers standing above us from our camp in the parking lot. Jason knew his foot was bad, I knew it was bad but neither of us said anything. We decided that no matter what had happened that Friday, we would jug up and I would attempt to free the last aid pitch. If it went free, we would go to the top and complete the route and if not, we would clean our ropes and go home. I had prior obligations for Saturday and we both had to be back by Sunday to prepare for work on Monday.
On Friday, I was extremely concerned about the snow and all the water that had seeped into the fragile rock. The bolt ladder pitch was made up of the most crumbly and muddy stone on the route, and I was expected to free it. At least I had replaced three of the ancient rotting bolts with new ones the day before. I think that nature was on our side even though we didn't know it at the time. It was still cold, so cold that our water bottles froze while we jugged to our high point. So cold that I climbed with a down jacket on the entire day and so cold that I couldn't feel my fingers or toes the entire day.
I think that it was my dreams on the night before of freeing that pitch and the cold temperatures that kept the rock together, (for the most part). After learning some sequences and making some attempts for about two hours, the pitch had gone free. Jason was in no shape to climb with his broken foot, so he half jugged and half climbed with his good foot to the summit where we ate pizza with Andrew Burr. When I was within sight of the anchors at the last bolt of the route I nearly lost hope because I couldn't decipher that last 5.12 boulder problem. Persistence, patience and little luck got Jason and I too the top of that climb.
West Side Story (9 pitches) 5.12+ R FFA Rob Pizem and Jason Hass March 2009