Create & Integrate
Posts Tagged ‘San Rafael Swell’
Friday, January 6th, 2012
Climbing magazine recently published an article about the San Rafael Swell (February 2012). They asked me to write a short vignette about my experience, but they didn’t publish it. Here’s the untold story…
Story by Lizzy Scully, Photos by Kennan Harvey
One cold Sunday in late March I received a phone call from my long-time friend, Jeff Achey.
“I’m writing an article on the San Rafael Swell!” he said, enthusiastically. “It’s the best new climbing area I’ve found. It’s incredible! Amazing. It’s just like the Flatirons—1,000 feet tall—but it’s sandstone. You’ll love it.”
Like ants swarming to oily almond butter, I and two other friends soaked up Jeff’s enthusiasm, piled into my Mazda5 and headed down to Southern Utah less than a week later. We expected splitter blue skies, sunshine, and long moderate classics. After a five-month respite from climbing due to an injury, it seemed the perfect place to rekindle my love for climbing. Scott, who nursed a finger injury, felt the same way, while Jen sought adventure.
We met Jeff, Kennan, and Tim at Ray’s Tavern, Green River, Utah, late in the afternoon. I squinted in the dark dusty light of the bar and barely recognized Jeff sitting on a tall stool. His burnt skin matched the sandstone he had explored the past week. But his bright blue eyes gave him away; though crinkled around the edges, they held laughter like the boy who got away with lighting firecrackers in his sister’s bedroom.
“You actually made it!” he said, chuckling as he downed his third or fourth beer.
I totally missed the early warning signs.
My first route in the “Swell,” a low-angle 5.7 cakewalk, turned out to be a vertical sandbox. Holds I stood on melted away as I weighted them, and edges I grabbed held miniature sand piles. I muttered expletives, blew the sand piles off and distributed my weight as evenly as possible.
At least the bolts were OK; or not. One of the anchor bolts stuck half way out. I moved it, began to tug on it more vigorously, and then looked down at Jeff and Jen lying cozily on a flat boulder 80 feet below watching me. Jeff smiled at me as I hollered, “This f***ing bolt is coming out!”
“I dare you to try to pull it out!” he shouted up, challenging me. “But then you won’t have a solid anchor.”
WTF. Solid anchor?!
Back at the campfire that evening, Kennan told me they had brought a bolt kit up every route they had done so far.
“So what are we doing today?” I asked skeptically over eggs and toast.
“You and Scott are doing 1,200 Feet of Fun!” Jeff said, excitedly. “And we’ll climb right next to you guys on 1,000 Feet of Fun.”
“And by the way,” he added, “the routes you did yesterday were some of the most well-protected, cleanest routes in the Swell. But don’t worry, your route is mostly 5.5.”
The best thing about 1,200 Feet of Fun was that neither bolt wiggled when kicked. After 900 or so feet of the dirtiest kind of fun and only one additional .5 Camalot placement, Scott and I traversed to safer, slightly cleaner territory.
However, while rappelling, we discovered why the neighboring route that Jeff, Mark, and Jen had just climbed sported less choss. When a rainstorm hit us in the all-of-a-sudden, desert deluge style, 1,000 Feet of Fun became 1,000 Feet of Flash Flood.
At least we got to the ground before the sand storm hit.
Back at camp, as 50-mph gusts knocked beer cans out of our hands and wedged layers of sand in our ears, Scott shouted to me, “Castle Valley is just an hour away.”
“I can’t believe your still here!” Kennan exclaimed as he watched me pick sand out of my ears and shake the beach out of my hair. I had just emerged from my tent, which had become a sand pit over night. At least the wind hadn’t flattened my tent to a pancake and broken the poles as it had done to Scott’s.
“It’s all about the people,” I said, smiling as I rolled my tongue over my gritty teeth.
It’s also about desert adventure.
Six of us spent that windless, sunny day on a hybrid canyoneering/climbing adventure, and it was awesome. Our approach led through slim slot canyons and over sagebrush filled terrain to a 2,000-foot, deep orange buttress that sported the route, “Death by Chocolate.” Though mostly a solo undertaking, the crux 5.8 pitch does have at least three bolts and was far cleaner than anything we had done so far.
We topped out late afternoon and marveled at the sweeping Utah landscape. It rolled out before us like an Albert Bierstadt painting in motion.
“Marvelous,” I said.
“Stunning,” Scott added.
I admitted to a slightly exaggerated censure of the Swell, which made Jeff smile.
“Not that bad, eh?” he asked. And then that glint reappeared in his eyes. “Now, about the Mud Wall…”
Thanks very much Kennan Harvey for the awesome photos!