Got the opportunity to explore for some first ascents (FA's) with a couple climbers, so jumped right in! This is possibly the scariest thing I have done thus far.
First ascents have a sort of art to them -- an art which I don't exactly understand quite yet, and not sure I ever really will. I figured it would be a fun, relatively safe experience, since I was with a couple guys who have been doing it for years. Turns out that improvisation is about 99% of the game. Which makes sense, in retrospect, since it's finding routes that no one has ever done before. Sigh.
We explored around the top of the canyon, searching for a place to either walk in, or rappel in. Ended up picking out a route which was pretty thin in several areas, covered in scree, and on soft, round sandstone. It's tough to know whether a potentially life-saving hold is going to just crumble in your hands, or stay solid while you pull on it. Exposure was constant, and was anywhere from 100-200ft. The approach ended about 40 feet above the canyon floor, and so we set up rappel using hexes, nuts, and a couple solid boulders.
Day one was just exploring and saying, "Oh yes, that would make an excellent climb. Let's try that tomorrow!" and wading through the creek. The warmer temps made this perfect. We found a couple nice routes that looked pro-worthy (we'd brought a bolt gun, but really just wanted to do traditional climbing), and chose one to rappel from in the morning. When done exploring, we stashed our gear in a dry spot and then ascended the line we'd dropped in with, and left via the scary approach we'd done earlier.
Day two was a different game. Hiked around for a while, trying to figure out where our stuff was, and where the potential climb was in relation to it. It's tough seeing everything down in a canyon when the walls are so tall! We found a seemingly good spot, and rapped down in two segments to the canyon floor. Then climbed a really nice two pitch route with great pro options and some nice face holds as well. Beginning the second pitch, a boulder shifted beneath my feet, and the head games started. Being that this was mostly unexplored territory, there were a lot of rocks and other things which would suddenly give and end up falling. I worked up the second pitch and hung around at the top for a few. The sun was getting hot, so we bolted some anchors in and then went back down and into the water.
Lunch was mostly drinking more water and having a few snacks. We soaked our feet and cooled off a bit, then started walking down stream. Another potential climb caught our eyes and we set that one up as well. I liked this one much better, as the crack was thin hands and fingers below, then widened to hands with face holds, and then ended in a perfect off-width (perfect for me!) before working through a jagged overhung roof and through a prickly pear. We removed the cactus from the top before setting up rappel... which was head game #2. We ended up rappelling off a chock stone, which one of the climbers actually picked up and set on top of the webbing. Not much confidence in that design. He mentioned it would be solid so long as we didn't rappel *outward*, only downward. The problem with this was that the rope was now hanging below the jagged roof squeeze, so you had to be especially careful that you set up your rappel device correctly before "testing" it out on the actual descent. I ended up getting stuck here and ripped my pants.
But! at least the chock stone held, and everyone got down safely. This was my favorite climb of the three.
My least favorite climb was the last one. It was a bit harder, and Manny didn't seem too confident in it once he got to the top of the first pitch. I followed, and while nearing the top, most of the handholds I grabbed disintegrated in my hands. Everything up above was just crumbly, horrible sandstone. The integrity of the pro above me crossed my mind, and I refused to fall, allowing outright terror to propel me up the route. At the top, the belay station was very thin and made me extremely nervous, especially knowing that we still had to fit one other climber and two giant bags of gear up there. I insisted on rappelling down to where the horrible fourth class approach was (which was luckily right next to us). Single-rope rappelled off a twin rope, and solo'ed up some stuff I'd needed help with the previous day. There was just no way I was going to follow them on that awful route, especially with the sun beginning to set. Manny later told me that one of the cams I was using for an anchor was "umbrella'ing" as the soft sandstone started to give way. Eventually he took the useless cam out, and the rock it had been stuck against fell down into the canyon. Glad I missed all of that.
The hike out was a bit heady, especially being alone. There were more than a few steps that, had I so much as hiccuped, I would have been on the canyon floor. Made my way out and attempted to locate the rappel rope down canyon, but to no avail. I waited in the dark for them, hearing loud booming echoes of boulders falling, and then listening for their voices to waft up from below. Eventually, two little headlamps in the distance made themselves known. They'd had so many problems trying to find a way out on the second pitch, that they ended up bailing and walking out the same way I'd gone. Sigh of relief that everyone was okay, and sigh of relief that I really had done the right thing for me by bailing.
Early the next morning, they went back out to retrieve the rope, and top-roped the climb below it. I packed up the car and took a break, and examined the many scratches, scrapes and bruises I'd incurred over the whole adventure. It was great to have had that experience, but for now I'm glad it's all over. Maybe sometime in the future I'll be okay with trying it out again, but for now I think I'll just take a break with my feet on the ground.. or propped up, relaxing in a comfy chair with a nice cold beverage in my hand.