Cold, hungry and tired … if by some miracle I did have cell service, this would have been my Facebook status update. But no, I did not have service – I didn’t even have a cell phone. Even if I did have those two luxuries, I would still have been perched like a homeless gargoyle on that ledge of rock. My climbing partner, Aaron, and I were, for all practical purposes, stuck between well a rock and a hard place.
Just a few hours earlier, we were bouncing across the desert floor, blissfully unaware of our bad fortunes. At this point, we each had been climbing less than a year. We had just enough skill, knowledge and gall to get ourselves into dangerous situations, but not necessarily enough to get ourselves out. Feeling emboldened by our recent progress in the bouldering gym, we sought to climb a “quick” nine-pitch climb in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada before sunset.
Thus began one of our greatest educational moments.
We were nearly 400 feet from the ground, on a completely wrong portion of the cliff, and the sun was setting with our rope stuck far above our heads. Yet, I did not fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation until I discovered I had not brought my headlamp.
“Sh*t,” I thought to myself. Aaron, though irritated with the new development, assured me, “It’s ok, I have one.” He then proudly displays the tinniest, dimmest headlamp I have ever seen. Still, it was better than mine.
Moments early, I had lowered Aaron down to my ledge as we had realized that we were far off route. I am not sure what exactly brought about this enlightenment, but it could have been attributed to the numerous pieces of rock that were breaking off under our weight, or it possibly had something to do with the route looking like a storm wash, or it could have been the fact that the climb looked nothing like the picture in the book.
Let me reiterate, we were complete amateurs.
With the sun setting, we began pulling the rope. We only needed to make two rappels in order to safely reach the ground before dark. The rope easily slid through the anchor high on the cliff from which I had previously lowered Aaron from. As the end of the rope slid down the rock, it snaked into a small crack, perfectly marooning itself twenty feet above our heads. For most experienced climbers, this would not be the end of the world. As I said before, we were far from being experts.
Perched high above the ground, we were stumped. After what seemed like hours, Aaron volunteered to climb the loose rock without being tied in to anything in an attempt to free the rope from its self-inflicted bondage. While the climbing was easy, a fall would have killed him. Watching his dull headlamp meander up the rock, I suddenly hear the rope whistling through the air. Success! Aaron climbs down and we quickly set up to rappel the first pitch of our two-pitch rappel. I go first, then Aaron—the rappel goes as planned.
I pull the rope down to our new perch and it safely lands at our feet – or so I thought. As Aaron prepares an anchor for our final rappel, I begin to gather the rope. Suddenly, the rope is unresponsive. I pull harder. It doesn’t budge. Aaron, aware of my struggle, shines his light onto the situation. The rope has once again wedged itself into a crack below our feet. After numerous attempts to free the rope, I soon realize there is no hope of untangling it. Gathering the free end of the rope, we attach it to the anchor and toss the loose end to the ground. There is no way to see whether or not the short piece of free rope is actually touching the ground. With nowhere left to go but down, I begin rappelling down the rope into the darkness.
As I near the ground, it becomes apparent that, indeed, the rope does not reach the ground. The rope is dangling ten feet from the earth. My mind races, contemplating my options.
To my left, I can barely see the outline of a boulder. I kick off the wall, creating a swing – a swing that I hoped would allow me to stand on the boulder. I miss it. The momentum carries me back to the wall. This time, I kick harder. I feel the hard rock under my toes. Like a ferret, I stretch out my body, desperate to create as much length as possible. With the agility that only a cat could appreciate, I am able to come off the rope.
I hastily instruct Aaron on how to repeat the suspended-acrobatics. When both of us were safely on the ground, the relief is tangible. We were even able to recover the stuck rope the following morning.
While there are numerous lessons to take away from this trip, the biggest is to always bring a headlamp. While it is more of a joke at this point, even if we start climbing in the morning, we still bring headlamps. It was a hard lesson learned, though it could have easily ended much worse.
Collegian blogger Nevin Fowler can be reached online at email@example.com or on twitter at @nevintfowler. Read more of Go Outdoors content on. Leave a Comment!!