After sending Breakin’ the Law, I faced the kind of dilemma I always dream of: what to do with my remaining two climbing days. I thought something in the 5.14a-range would be a good goal; something I had a good chance to send in the time remaining, but not a sure thing. I spent the night scouring the guidebook, and the next day I left early to recon various approaches, cliffs and climbs. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to climb as much as I do with two kids in tow, but there are constraints. Not every cliff is safe for kids, and that must be considered when selecting a project. After scouting the VRG and Gorilla Cliffs, the choice was clear. The Present was absolutely stunning, had a perfectly flat crag base with no loose rock, and the climbing was short and powerful (perfect for my current state of fitness).
The Present was originally prepared by longtime Salt Lake climber and climbing-film-producing legend Mike Call. When the project turned out to be much harder than anticipated, he graciously gifted the line to Boone Speed (hence the name). Boone is a climber I’ve long admired, at least since I first saw Call’s film “Three Weeks and a day”, about a trip to my then-home-crag, New Mexico’s Enchanted Tower, to attempt Child of Light (incidentally, the film’s heroes climb at Kelly’s Rock on their way to New Mexico). Speed was one of the key figures in consolidating the 5.14 grade in North America. He’s put up tons of classic hard routes, including the first .14b established by an American, Super Tweak. The Present was a route that had a history, and I love to climb such routes. I also looked forward to the opportunity to climb a Boone Speed 5.14.
The Present overhangs about 15 degrees, and is covered in 2 or 3 finger pockets and tiny edges. Despite its brevity, its not really a pure power route; the challenge is linking twelve-or-so continuous moves with barely an opportunity to clip, let alone shake or chalk. None of the moves are terribly heinous by themselves, but from the ground to the slab every move is hard. Although I was in optimal shape for The Present, this type of climb has never been my strong suit, so it would be a good challenge to try to do it in just two days.
Before I could unwrap The Present (bazinga!), I had another objective. I had my heart set on visiting the mysterious Arrow Canyon, so that afternoon we headed south towards Las Vegas. With 2WD, the hike was 90-minutes each way and agonizing, with lots of loose sand and large river rocks. But it was worth it–the canyon was magnificent. It’s hard to describe, but imagine a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows carved out of limestone. The canyon walls are easily 500 feet high, and the rock has been beautifuly sculpted by the river. The walls are covered in many places by intricate pictographs.
Most of the rock climbs I noticed were not particularly remarkable, and my sense is that this will never be a popular crag. The hike is long and unpleasant, and the crag is relatively isolated from both St. George and Vegas, which both have plenty of good rock that is much more convenient. However, I saw a few lines that were simply stunning. Jonathan Siegrist’s twin lines La Reve and La Lune appeared to me from the ground to be the most beautiful limestone 5.14s in America. These will become must-do routes for the scant few capable of climbing them. The Swamp Cave, at the far end of the canyon, also has a handful of intriguing lines (and room for many more).
We expected cooler weather for the next climbing day, so we took the opportunity to check out The Turtle Wall, which is composed of the same ultra-featured sandstone as Chuckwalla, but with eastern exposure and more route variety. The moderates are largely thin and technical, whereas the .11s and .12s are super steep, and on par with the best jug hauls I’ve ever climbed (though relatively short). All the routes we tried were outstanding, and I will certainly go back.
Gorilla Cliffs gets no sun in January, which wouldn’t be a problem by itself, but unfortunately the cliff forms a shallow canyon with The Snake Pit to the north, and the wind whips down off Utah Hill and whistles through this gorge. Earlier in the week I was almost too warm in shorts and a T-shirt, but the cold was debilitating during my first go on The Present, and I was lucky to reach the chains before retreating after 15 shivering minutes. There were three moves I couldn’t do; things weren’t going well.
We hiked around to the west end of the cliff and got the kids situated on a calm and sunny knoll. I headed down to the car to warm up and correct my wardrobe. The next go the wind abated a bit, I was able to climb effectively, and I managed to do all the moves. It took a while to figure out the fourth move, a precision stab off a small, sloping pocket. My skin was pretty worked by the end of the second burn, so I didn’t have a lot of hope for my next go. After another 40 minutes in the sun, I was surprised to one-hang it on the third go of the day. I was making a lot of progress between burns and I liked my chances of sending on our next and final climbing day.
The climbing on The Present is stellar, and its everything I dream of in a route. The rock is absolutely flawless, the movement is big and aggressive, and the holds are fingery. I’ve always had a knack for standing on my feet and finessing my way up ticky-tacky routes, but a power climb requires a basic amount of brute force which can’t be learned. I’ve never been particularly talented at pocket climbing, big moves, or power routes. When I first started sport climbing, I perpetually struggled with these styles of climbing. I’ve since devoted tremendous time and energy to improving these weaknesses, and while I’m still better suited to technical enduro climbing, I find myself drawn to routes like The Present. I guess I’m still trying to prove something to myself.
For our final rest day I took the opportunity to scope out The Cathedral in anticipation of many return trips to St. George. I climbed at The Cathedral for a day in 2005, but many new, hard, and spectacular lines have been added since then and I was eager to get a second look. The Cathedral is a European-style limestone cave; steep and covered in pockets of all sizes. The routes looked amazing, perhaps even better than the world-class lines at the VRG. Unfortunately the crag base was a complete no-go for kids. There are literally two gaping holes in the floor of the cave, each dropping about 15 feet down to a lower level (not to mention all the belay areas are perched above exposed cliffs). It may be some time before I’ll be able to manage the logistics for a Cathedral trip; it’s too bad because the climbing looks magnificent.
With a 9+-hour drive looming, we didn’t have any time to waste on our last day. We warmed up at the Snakepit to save time, which hosts a few nice 5.12s, then headed over to Gorilla Cliffs. The first go was disappointing; I fell on the fourth move, a tenuous left hand stab, with the right hand in a poor, slopey two-finger pocket. I took the opportunity to try out some different beta, then ran to the chains to make sure I could recall all the moves. It was noon, and we needed to hit the road, so I figured I would only have one more shot.
After another sunny rest break, I tied in and headed up. The third move begins with a huge high step, then a rockover onto the high right foot before reaching for the slopey two finger. As I rocked-over, my foot poppoed off and the go was over. I was stunned. Was this how it would end? I lowered to the ground, pulled on my puffy and tried to calm down. ‘Just think of it as a warmup. This is basically a boulder problem anyway.’
After a few minutes, I started again. This time I was sure to place my foot precisely for the rock over. I latched the slopey 2-finger pocket and bounced it in. I stabbed for the fourth-move left-hand pocket. My hips swung out, but my feet stayed on and I was able to reel it in. Next a long reach to a high sidepull, where I fell on the previous day’s 1-hang. It didn’t feel great, but I lunged for the next chert knob anyway, and somehow I latched it. The next couple moves were casual, but then followed by a difficult long crank to pinch a jumble of pockets. Accuracy is important here, and I managed to hit the hold correctly. I stepped my left foot high, then worked the left hand into a deep pocket, stood up, and slapped for the jug. Finally I was able to clip, and then I floated a few delicate moves to pull up to the slab, and the chains.
Now it was time to pay our pennance. We stuffed ourselves into my dirt-caked Civic at 1pm, and headed for home. Two nursing stops, a 15-minute layover for fuel and take-out from the gas-station Arby’s, and we were home by 10pm. It’s rare that everything comes together the way you hope, but it was a perfect trip, and we will definitely be going back!