Friday, September 28, 2012

Keeler Needle- Blood of the Monkey VI 5.12, 16 pitches

Write Up by Amy Ness:

June 1, 2012

It was day 5 on the wall. We had just both been shut down by a very thin, very pumpy crack we now know to be the 5.12 crux. I was getting worried when the clouds started rolling in, but the snow flakes were only gently dancing down. The second we got into the ledge, all hell broke loose. Storms on this route were nothing new to us, our first attempt in March had us stranded inside for 5 of 6 days, finally forcing retreat. But this storm was different. I watched the top of the rainfly, wondering if it would blow out. Wondering if this was it.

"Are you scared?" Myles asked me. We were sitting across from one another in the portaledge, indian style, as to avoid touching the aluminum frame. Ice marbles were pounding down onto our thin-walled rainfly with what seemed like the force of a fire hose. We could hear booms of thunder and feel the lighting in the air. "Yeah", I replied after surveying my surroundings. I didn't want to hear that he was, too.

March 22-27, 2012

The idea to put up another free climb on Keeler Needle came to us this winter when we had planned to second Jeff Lowe and John Weiland's route (V,5.9 A2). During the 6 days on the wall, we discovered we could pick and choose the best looking line between Ammon McNeely's Australopithecus (a.k.a. Southern Monkey VI, 5.9 A3) and the Lowe Route. On that attempt we began up a right-facing open book, past a tooth-roof which we had thought to be the start of the Lowe Route (it was not), we then traversed up and left to Ammon McNeely's "Great White Shield". The name says it all, a killer, yet strenuous, C2 crack which passes through two short roofs. With shouts of joy, Myles passed the roofs only to see that the crack was about to get harder, getting thiner and thiner. Another explosion of excitement from above told me he had just freed it. The Great White Shield is now 5.11 and absolutely amazing!

Hanging off Southern Monkey's anchors, we looked at our next obstacle, free climbing the A2 hooks. Myles lowered down on the anchor quite a bit to avoid the drop zone. I stepped left to the remaining seam of The Great White Shield, then back right, riding dishes up and over Myles. Wham!!! I was in his lap. Another go. I was further out this time and came screaming off… upside down! After finally working out the sequence of the traverse, I encountered a snow covered ledge. Some digging by hand finally revealed some stone, but the two parallel seams lying ahead were going to require pitons. We called it a day. By morning the snow had melted out and Myles started up the parallel seams, swinging and wheeling the hammer while free climbing. Knife Blade one, Knife Blade two… Off Belay! We had free climbed what we have come to call The Upside-down Screamer Traverse (A2 hooks or 5.10c).

We finally arrived at the crack I had been waiting for: pitch five, 200 feet of Lowe's Splitter! Everything I love in a crack- blue to yellow tcu's, .5 camalots and perfect jams. I encountered an old hex right before it started getting wyde, a quick sling of the relic, and I kept pushing. Then all of sudden, I let my guard down. I was flying through midair, wondering when I was going stop. Past the hex I flew, then past a cam, and another, before I stopped! Unhurt and dangling below several pieces of gear, the cold in my hands and feet suddenly hit me like a train. I still don't know what caused my thirty footer…freezing feet, icy ledge, or icy crack, but whatever caused it, we were forced to make the inevitable decision. We packed it in and decided that pushing through the storms via hook, crook and ladder just would not do. The haul bag flew, the chute deployed, and the bag exploded!

Another storm rolled in.

Every time I looked up to the mountains, it haunted me- the bailing, the failing, all that work for nothing, but then, finally, the time had come. May 28, 2012 we were back on the wall with the sun blazing. To our surprise the first pitch had grown an extra 20 feet with the melting of the snow. A bivouac under the Great White Shield set us up for 2-3 pitches a day. The following morning Myles made easy work of the Shield and I took the rope in the crotch on the Upside-down Screamer Traverse, before sending it on the next attempt. The haulbag took a pendulum underneath Lowe's Splitter followed by an easy haul. Now it was time for redemption. The ice was gone and the sun was hot. The 200 feet of perfect crack went off without a hitch. I even found a piton which had been buried in the snow where I had fallen last time. Another bivy under Lowe's splitter set us up for the virgin ground of the unknown.

Hauling 72 lbs. of water, 12 days of food, bolts, pitons, hammers, portaledge, sleeping gear, etc. was slowly killing us. To make matters worse, during our second haul, my lens popped out of my sunglasses. The next day, blinded by the sun, Myles was forced to saw my remaining lens in half and use climbing tape to ma-giver a makeshift pair of shades, draining our tape supply. Bloodied hands and knuckles were forced to scrounge tape from whatever held the prized, sticky substance. We learned that extra sunglasses and climbing tape would never be forgotten again.

Towards the end of the day a choice had to be made- linking into The Lowe Route where the giant Red Dihedral opens and takes off, or left, turning a hairy arete to the unknown. Myles took us to the left in an attempt to finish pitch seven. He had to place two 1/4 inch button-heads by hand, a long tedious process eating up the rest of the day. The next morning I followed up the 5.11 exposed arete that feels like sport climbing at 13,000 feet. It was quite an experience, and I felt a small twinge of guilt for whining about belaying in the freezing cold so that those bolts could be placed. I came across Myles' fixed piton on the leftward traverse and understood the excitement and fear he had vocalized while placing it. Two more button-heads for the anchor and we were hauling. As we hung there looking up, we knew we had hit the crux. The beginning looked tricky, but it appeared to be sinker jams that slabbed out towards the top. The gear was sparse at the beginning, and I flew down towards Myles. I preceded to lead up it three more times, pulling the rope every time. Blood was seeping from my gobies and the pump in my forearms only got worse with each attempt. Myles lowered me and gave it a shot, he fell at the same spot and decided aiding to the top while cleaning would be best so we could work it. Day five, pitch eight, and we just got slammed!

This brings us back to the storm… June 1, 2012

Just as Myles was lowering from the top, the snow started falling. We hurried to set up camp while the wind tossed the portaledge in spirals. Then the hail. We jumped in our capsule just as it really hit. The stove was lit for heat as we sat there starring at one another, wondering what had just happened. We hadn't drank or eaten much all day but my appetite was suddenly gone. We tried to be positive by thinking that at least we could collect water if we had to wait out the storm, but things were looking grim at the moment, and we were scared.

The hail raged on...

Keeler was angry!

We woke to clear skies, but our energies were low…sleep had been sparse with the howling winds throughout the night. We had to keep pushing our bivy higher up on the wall, yet we vowed to rappel back down to the 5.12 crux and attempt to free climb it again. As often it happens with new routes, we had to decide, right or left once more. To our right, The Castle Death Flake guarded a beautiful crack at the top of pitch eight. A massive flake so fragile and delicate, it could only be described as natural art. To the left, was a great looking undercling which disappeared around the corner. We chose the cling to avoid taking off the awesome flakes. As I climbed upward, much to my delight, the pitch was great. A few crux moves made the pitch 5.10, but soon after I found myself on 5.8 terrain and ended my pitch below the enormous, overhanging headwall. A beautiful jam crack shot straight through the steep wall, disappearing into a ledge system. We decided to save this for the following day.

The next morning we dropped the 300 foot static rope back down to the 5.12 pitch. I knew I only had about two tries before I would be too pumped to try it again. The first time, I fell three times! By the second try, I felt confident that I knew all the moves and that it took good gear, but I fell again. I had freed every move on that pitch, but just couldn't link them together. It was now day six and the climb had to continue.

We jugged back up and Myles climbed that perfect jam crack above our camp, then jogged up the ledge system to the right. When he got to "The Red Explosion Dike" he put in a 3-bolt anchor for a hanging belay. We camped another night at the base of the headwall and discussed how we were utterly amazed by what had just happened. We managed to squeak by the steepest part of the wall with one bolt and a ledge system we could ride half way up the overhanging wall at only 5.11. Unfortunately, our next day did not go as planned. We went the wrong way! After spending most the day putting in two bolts and fixing a piton in the wrong direction, I took over and aided up a garbage seam directly above the belay. The winds blew vigorously forcing Myles to bury himself with all the extra ropes and equipment at the belay. He jugged franticly once the rope were fixed, unclipping and leaving the gear still in the wall, not wasting anytime. He came up to me freezing and shaking from the windchill. We wrestled our flying ledge into the rainfly that turned into a kite. Myles feet were icicles as I rubbed them with hand warmers and placed them in my armpits for warmth. The wind shook our hanging palace throughout the night.

June 4, 2012- Day 8

The wind and cold continued the next day. The plan was to go down on fixed ropes, Myles working the pitch on his grigri trying to find the way, me removing one of the unneeded bolts and piton. He was excited, progress looked good and "the climbing was great!" he shouted. Once the path had been decided, the bolts were placed and we were ready to free it. An incredible technical traverse through The Red Explosion Dike using underclings and side-pulls led to more splitter cracks. Hand warmer in my chaulkbag, I was ready for the onsight. The jams, and finger locks were so good that even though my feet slipped out, I was able to hang on. We were ecstatic! This was the gatekeeper of the climb and we knew we could free the rest of the Giant.

Day nine- I headed up pitch twelve until the rope drag became a nuisance forcing me onto a perfect perch to bring up Myles after 180 feet. We swapped leads and Myles took us 60 feet up a blocky dike to the Harding Ledge. The Final Headwall laid before us. Most parties finishing the Harding Route at this point escape to the North side for a loose garbage summit push. The crack straight up from the Harding Ledge is awesome and set us up for the last two pitches. The hauling, however, was horrendous! A massive 350 ft haul almost killed us. The norm for this trip and many other Sierra routes we've done involved hauling until the bag became stuck. Forcing me to zip down and free it, while Myles would haul the Pig. Jugging back up this time through the overhanging wall so close to the summit, I just wanted to be done.

Myles turned the last technical move to the South side of the Needle, taking us to the ropes end. I followed with the ropes trailing behind me. We decided I would take us to the summit and then shuttle our belongings on fixed lines. I passed the Kenny Cook plaque with a quick read and final scrabble to the summit. There was no celebration. We weren't done until everything was off the Masiff. It took us two shuttle trips and a tyrollean of the portaledge bag to get just below the summit as it got dark. We were out of water, out of juice and out of light. We set up the portaledge one last time 30 feet below the summit, picking the marmot hair out of the last remaining snow patch outside our door.

June 6, 2012

We top out one last time with short hauls once the sun rose. With our enormous bags packed we started up the main Mt. Whitney Trail to the summit, to descend the Mountaineer's Route. We told anyone who would listen to let our bosses at the Portal Store know that we would be down the next day and that we were fine. Getting down with all the equipment needed for this kind of expedition is always a slow, monotonous ordeal. By the time we got to base camp and looked up at Keeler, we were too exhausted to feel much of anything. It wouldn't be until a few days later driving up Whitney Portal Road, that the excitement crept back into my gut and I realized… We had freed the Needle!

Blood of the Monkey VI,
5.12, 16 pitches
Single Push Free Ascent, Capsule Style
May 28, 2012- June 6, 2012

Special thanks to our gracious Bosses at the Whitney Portal Store, Desert Blair, Barrel Chest, Elevation, Mammoth Mountaineering Gear Exchange, and my very driven partner.

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