Geneva International Airport, October 2013. Philippe Batoux, along with a few members of the FFME national mountaineering team (France), takes off for Yosemite. The goal of their trip is to perfect technique for placing nuts and cams, as well as to gain aid-climbing experience. This will prepare them for a future expedition up a highly technical route on a 6000m high peak in either China or Alaska in 2015. The very full schedule in California includes trying to free a route on the legendary El Capitan, to climb an aid route, and to link the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and the Nose in a day. Unfortunately their original plan is derailed by the closing of all national parks due to the government shutdown. Philippe Batoux talks about the ascents from their plan b.
The government shutdown
Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress are unable to reach an agreement on the budget. As a result, all non-essential federal employees are furloughed. All national parks are immediately closed. In Yosemite, a park ranger calls through his loudspeaker from the base of El Capitan, "The park is closed, you have 48 hours to descend from the wall." The unthinkable and the unimaginable have happened. I wonder what I would have done if I had been halfway up the wall. In any case, for quite a few routes, the only way off the rock is up. We need to come up with a plan b somewhere outside the national parks. It's too late in the season to head to the High Sierra, where the temperatures are below freezing, snow is already on the ground, and we are not properly equipped.
Magic and sorcery...
We decide to head for the Southern Sierra Nevada, to the Needles of California: a series of spectacular golden-colored granite spires. The Needles adorn the cover of the book, "50 favorite routes of North America;" a noteworthy place to climb, even if little-known on the other side of the Atlantic. Each needle has a mystical name like the Sorcerer, the Witch, the Magician, the Necromancer, and the Warlock. A magical climbing experience awaits...
The climbing in the Needles is both stout and highly technical. Thin finger cracks with tiny features for your feet, tight dihedrals that require unusual body positions to make upward progress, technical faces with committing sections of climbing where missing a cam placement means that you will be in for quite a scare… The lines are pure and the rock of outstanding quality with only a few thin suspect flakes that in the end never moved. The must-climb routes are Thin Ice (5.10), Don Juan Wall (5.11), Romantic Warrior (5.12, take plenty of offset nuts!), and Pyromania (5.13)…
With a snowstorm in the forecast for the Needles, it is time to head to the Utah desert. The 10-hour drive to Moab is nothing out of the ordinary in the USA. Moab is the capital of this red-colored desert, and a Mecca for mountain biking and perfectly symmetrical sandstone cracks. We fill up on gas, eggs, and bacon, drive for an hour to Indian Creek, the holy temple of crack climbing.
Indian Creek is a small river at the southern entrance to Canyonlands; it is bounded by mesas, the red sandstone towers so common in John Wayne westerns. The tens of kilometers of cliffs are striated by cracks of all sizes, one after the other ever 5 meters. The guidebook details more than 2000 cracks and several valleys are not even documented! From seams, to finger cracks, to ring locks, to hand and fist cracks, to offwidths, to squeeze and regular chimneys, whatever your pleasure, you will find it here! Indian Creek is the ideal spot to perfect your crack climbing technique. With no holds or features outside the cracks, you have no choice but to jam. If your hands are the right size then the climbing is relatively easy, the challenge comes when the cracks are too big for fingers but too small for hand jams. Then there are those impossible cracks that are just too small for your fingers. For the same route, depending on hand and finger size, the crux sections are completely different from one climber to another. In general, women cruise red Camalot-size cracks, suffer on rattly hands, and fall on perfect blue #3 wide hands…
Indian Creek is a fragile area located on private land. A local non-profit association, "Friends of Indian Creek," manages the area and maintains the anchors. Here, only the anchors are bolted; all sport climbs are prohibited.
White Rim Road
After three days of suffering cracks that proved more photogenic than easy to climb, we learn that the parks in Utah plan to open, financed by the state government. We drive immediately to White Rim Road, a 100-mile long dirt road in the heart of Canyonlands that follows a very hard layer of white sandstone. For three days we climb the towers just above the road: Monster Tower, Washer Woman, Moses, and Standing Rock. The drive takes us along hundreds of kilometers of magnificent cliffs, past tens of thousands of potential routes…
The desert towers offer a truly wild climbing experience. Sections of good-quality rock alternate with sections of crumbly sandstone that, in spite of the moderate rating, requires focus and technique. Sandstone can provide great friction or be completely smooth. As it disintegrates, the grains of sand act like ball bearings beneath climbing shoes and even fingers. Only solid jams provide for reassuring hand holds.
The most incredible tower is Standing Rock. Located in Monument Basin, a vast area where the plateau collapsed, there are only a few towers - mixes of mud and different colored layers of sandstone. Standing Rock Tower is at least one-hundred meters high, a stack of more or less consistent layers of sand and mud. This tower appears to magically defy the laws of solid mechanics; unique climbing in a unique place.
The last tower along White Rim Road is Moses Tower, located at the far end of Taylor Canyon. We cross paths with Steph Davis who, after climbing Primerose Dihedral, makes an unreasonably quick descent… She has started jumping again just two months after her husband died wingsuiting. She is definitely addicted. A park ranger who saw her jump wants to search our 4x4 for a parachute, mistaking us for BASE jumpers. The French do not have the best reputation here when it comes to respecting the rules.
Renaud and I climb Pale Rider. The climbing is difficult and tenuous on the final section of smooth white sandstone. My hands and feet slip at the same time, but I am halted quickly by a micro stopper that I had not thought so solid.
The shutdown is over
At the tower's base we learn that the shutdown is over and the parks have re-opened. We eat a burger, fries, take a shower, and start the 14-hour drive back to Yosemite. We have one week left.