Photos & Text by Caroline George
Transitioning from an Alpine Exam to a Rock Exam isn't so hard. No more snow, no more ice, which means no more snow/ice gear to carry around, no more alpine hazards (crevasses, seracs, white out navigation, etc.), no more camping on snow, no more multiple hour long approaches, no more carrying your living quarters and several days worth of food on your back like a turtle. Of course, you're totally out of climbing shape, with big legs and small arms (hmmm, that actually is never my case). But a month between exams felt just like the right amount of time to rest up, remotivate, and train enough to be at or above the minimum standard: 5.10c trad.
The date was set for my friend Jonathon Spitzer and I to leave our respective homes in Salt Lake City and head south on Sept 8th to start our training. The exam was due to start on October 1st and with 22 days at hand, we headed down to Vegas to start the process. One route in 100F shade instantly made us get back in the car and drive on to the coolness of one of California's very hidden treasures: The Needles.
The Needles is a little paradise of splitter, flashy, yellow lichen-covered granite cracks lost in the heart and shade of giant Sequoia trees, miles and miles away from anything. It's an enchanted kingdom given away by the names of the Needles: The Sorcerer, the Witch, the Charlatan, etc. and the routes: Spellbook, Spooky, Spooked Book, to name a few. We spent three days hiking 3 miles in and 3 miles out from the free campground at the trailhead to the base of the climbs, climbing our hearts out. This was the perfect place to get back into rock climbing: all the cracks protect well, the climbing is amazing and we were both motivated to get as much mileage as possible. We totaled 22 pitches in 3 days of climbing.
We used our rest day to drive back to Vegas and get there early enough to get the best spots in the house the 12 exam candidates had rented. Pulling into the driveway reminded me of Wisteria Lane or worse, the Truman Show. I wondered if people really lived in these cookie cutter off-white houses or, like everything else in Vegas, was it all for show? Yet, that's what I love about Vegas the most: the extreme contrast between the fake and flashy, and that intense wilderness found within Red Rocks Canyon, just a few miles to the north of Vegas. After days spent bushwhacking in the scrub oaks, boulder hopping in the washes, running down vast multicolored slab systems, climbing on multipitch red, white or varnished sandstone routes while enduring the blazing sun and the relentless heat - even in the shade, it felt soothing to go back to the bright lights, the tamed cleanliness of our neighboorhood, give into the drastic cold of the A/C and wash off the sweat, the stinging leaves and the invading sand off our bodies, share the days adventure with the other housemates and later rest our heads on a clean pillow all while surfing the web and watching Grey's Anatomy. OK, I may sound spoiled.
Yet, if you've ever spent weeks at a time in Afghanistan - aka, the campground outside Red Rocks - you'll appreciate all the more what I am talking about.
Living with 12 people training for an exam can be overwhelming - beta overload, nonstop talk of climbing - but as well, very stimulating.
For someone like me who suffers from acute case of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - it can be a little hard to manage. So, out of 18 days of training, I only took two days off. When I started crying at the sight of gear, and had to hold on to the railing to walk down the stairs because every bone in my body was screaming out for me to take it easy, I decided to head out to Lake Mead to soak in the water. In past years, it was easy to train. The same routes were used over and over again: Community Pillar, Epinephrine, Triassic Sands, Dark Shadows to the top, Black Orpheus, Solar Slabs, Frigid Air Buttress, Ginger Cracks, etc. Obviously, all candidates would go out and do these routes ahead of time, figuring out how to break down the route down - the goal being that you always try to see your client and the guidebook's recommended belay stances don't always fit that goal - , where to extend anchors, when to transition from one rope to two ropes (with two clients), whether to lower clients or do a prerigged rappel, where to short rope, etc. Having these sections dialed alleviates a lot of the stress on an exam. Yet, it takes away from the examiner's ability to test your onsight skills. So, with word on the street that only "new" routes would be used, we ransacked the place climbing just about every other possible option of routes in the 5.8 to 5.10c range.
With 100+F temperatures, it was only possible to climb routes in the shade. Joe Stock, Jonathon Spitzer - for both of whom this was the last exam to get their IFMGA certification, aka, The Pin - and I regrettably ventured one day on a sunny varnished climb. At the end of the day, Joe was showing blisters on all his finger tips from the sizzling black rock. , Not having been able to preview sunny routes, we all started praying that the temperatures would remain high so that we would only climb the shaded route we had previously sussed out during the exam.
Yet, Murphy's law ruled again: as we neared the exam, temperatures dropped from 105F to 75F in a day! Now, we were all granted to do routes in the sun, routes we had not done before: there was no way around onsighting. And indeed, out of 6 days of exam, I only got to do one route I had done before: Epinephrine, a 2000ft long sustained 5.9 route in Black Velvet Canyon, which is renown for what the European that I partially am doesn't do: blank varnished chimneys, well...chimneys alltogether. Ok, they are protectable and thankfully, Jonathon and I had stopped to do this route on our way to the Needles. So I was somewhat ready for them. The crux on these exams is that you climb with two single rated ropes in tow and that adds to the weight and to the rope drag. That, plus managing your back pack that is dangling between your legs and leading runout (I didn't bring enough gear) sections on what might as well be 12a in my book, and still pretend that my examiner and the other candidate are my clients and should be treated as such (haul their packs!) was the crux of my exam. A good crux though, one that makes me want to get better at wider climbing.
Day one of the exam, all the candidates went sport climbing to get tested on our climbing abilities. My group of four - Josh Beckner, Mark Smiley, Chris Werner and myself - headed out with our examiners - Marc Chauvin and Dale Remsberg (the same examiners I had on my alpine exam) to The Gallery at the Second Pullout off the Loop road. The goal was to climb 7 pitches with at least one route at the standard. If we could onsight the classic slightly overrated 5.11d Yaak Crack, we would only have to climb 5 routes. Since we all onsighted the route, our day ended early enough for us to get ready for the following four days. The third day was cancelled due to a huge wind storm that ripped through Vegas with 77mph winds. In exchange for our rest day, we were assigned a bigger day the following day. Mark Chauvin assigned Mark Smiley and Myster Z to Nightcrawler to the Hourglass Diversion, down the Gunsight notch, which awarded us with 13 pitches of climbing, some bushwhacking, lots of walking, some interesting claustrophobic tunnelling and a hike out with my e+LITE headlamp showing the way. The last day, Mark and I were assigned Cat in the Hat with Dale. Dale is a 5.12/13 climber, who, on that day, was playing the role of a 5.5 climber getting on his first ever multipitch. Upon reaching the base of this very popular climb, we heard voices of several teams gearing up to get on the climb. What to do? We didn't have the whole guidebook with us, we had a "weak" client along, options were really limited. I pulled the "it's our last day on our rock exam, we are all guides" card and thankfully, it worked. Did I mention how grateful we were to these two parties for letting us pass? The alternative would have been a really bad/stressful way to end the last day on this rock exam.
After a quick debrief back at the campground with our examiners, we all got ready to do what Vegas is really known for: partying into the wee hours of the morning. Adam - my husband and I - had rented a cheap - 19$ room right on Fremont - aka Freakmont - street to make sure we could indulge guiltlessly in the Vegas experience. We celebrated the end of our exam, which meant for Joe Stock and Jonathon Spitzer getting their IFMGA certification. But we also celebrated Adam's Pin, which he had just received two weeks earlier after completing his alpine exam in the Cascades.
We drove back to snow in Salt Lake City. Winter is now right around the corner. And it'll soon be time for me to start focusing on my last exam: the ski. With two exams down in a little over a month, I am now secretly hoping that maybe, sometime sooner than later, will come the time for me to celebrate my own IFMGA pin. Sweet dreams are made of these...