Smith Rock – After Dark

Brittany Armstrong, Elliot Cudmore, Fisal Elstone, Andrew Primavera and Jeff Taylor

Humming south on the Interstate 5, our comfy car is so stuffed that there’s no looking back now. Literally, the rear-view mirror is useless on account of all the gear covering the rear window. The heartbeat of our car is in unison – our anticipation for climbing is palpable.

Bidding farewell to Seth Rogan, Subway Sandwich artist extraordinaire, the night-time drive passes by in a haze. Next thing we knew, we’re hastily constructing our tents at 5am in the freezing cold. Central Oregon, east of the Cascades, is the start of desert territory which slowly transforms across the state border into Nevada – as to be expected, it is cold at night and fairly warm during the day. The shadow of Smith Rock rises ominously above us. Three hours later, bright morning sun confirms the spectacle; this oasis of climbing is legendary for a reason.

Day 1 passes uneventfully. We get into our climbing groove. The day closes in a swirl of apocalyptic winds; supper is consumed in the horizontal rain.

Day 2: a delightful crunch of frozen rain is heard underfoot and the smell of bacon (thank you to Fisal and Brittany). Our quintet manages to claim a slice of a sun-drenched wall called ‘Morning Glory.’ We monopolize a 5.9 called ‘Phone Call from Satan’ but considering how much fun the climb was, I really wouldn’t mind a friendly ring from Lucifer. This was my first 5.9. When we exhausted our flirtations with sin, we trucked over to a higher-altitude gulley for a three-part multi-pitch (‘Cowdog’ – 5.9, 5.2, and 5.9). This is my first multi-pitch.

All goes as expected until Fisal and Andrew realize that their single rope isn’t long enough to safely rappel down from the summit. Jeff and I are safetied into the top of the first face and we can see the duo above us. Central Oregon unfolds at our feet; the sun is gripping the horizon (4:30pm). Jeff and I resolve to traverse the easy 5.2 to the foot of the third pitch; I don’t recall our motivation (friendship, moral imperative, can’t leave without them, etc.).

Happily, tying our ropes together for a safe rappel is uneventful and soon the four of us are all (awkwardly) safetied into the two bolts. We take one tug of the dual rope and feel some give. But the movement is quickly reversed when we let go. All movement is suctioned back into the dynamics of the rope. Try 1, Try 2 and Try 3 yield the same result. Uh-oh. Our ropes are stuck. Both of them.

It quickly comes out that Fisal and Andrew put the rope through bare bolts – not chains, nor caribeaners. Their perception of the risks were simply un-needed wear on the rope, not the possibility of the rope sticking. Blame put aside, Jeff is a champion. An avid follower of the Freedom of the Hills, Jeff has mastered the art of the prussic and has brought two with him. Discussion is had and we realize the only way to get out of this situation is (i) call for help via Brittany, who is patiently waiting at the foot of the multi-pitch or (ii) Jeff will prussic up and re-tie the ropes through sacrificed caribeaners. Option (ii) is chosen, and Jeff pumps himself up for the nerve-racking ascent.

Slowly but surely, Jeff makes his way up the face a foot at a time. There is only one head-lamp between the four of us. We cross our fingers it doesn’t fall off Jeff’s helmet. On second consideration, we obligingly cross our fingers a second time to hope Jeff doesn’t fall off either. Fisal, Andrew and I banter in good spirits while Jeff diligently climbs through the velvet darkness above. Every now and again, we show our solidarity by yelling encouragement at him, and then get back to conversation about other shit.

Finally, Jeff makes it to the top and re-ties the rope. His knowledge of knots is once again invaluable. Without him, we surely would have no other option than search-and-rescue. We’re glad to have him back at our anchor station again. The moment of truth is a joyous one as our rope elegantly slides through the caribeaners (which were sacrificed for the greater good — 7:30pm).

By this point, we have only yelled at Brittany once or twice. Mostly: “We’re OK!!!” But she has been barraged by owls and bats during this uneasy climb, but has been relatively un-barraged with updates from us. Left without information, she has fallen into a state of combined sleepiness and frustration, or what I call an “angry nap.”

Setting the ropes at this second anchor station, Andrew throws the coiled ropes down to Brittany. Worryingly, they are caught on a ledge one-third of the way down. For the sake of time and for risk of the rope being stuck on rocks, we are skipping the first anchor station altogether. Like the hypotenuse of a triangle, we’re taking the short-cut over an unknown rock face. Andrew rappels down, brakes himself, re-coils, and throws again, this time within the grips of an eager Brittany (8:30pm).

Fisal gives me a pump-up talk. He explains how to rappel, pointedly excluding the statistic that most rock climbing deaths happen via rappel. That was a good choice, my later-self decides. The night is dark, and I set off on my first-ever rappel. Andrew has the only headlamp (necessarily). The rappel was exciting! I thank Mr. Moon for lighting some of the way. Did I mention I was naked this entire time, too? I go slowly, but once in view of Andrew (the fireman) I accelerate to get some exhilaration. Carelessly, I accidentally knock a large rock off a ledge. Rocketing downwards, it explodes into pieces; sparks erupt into the darkness. Andrew and Brittany both run for cover and thankfully are unharmed. Fisal follows expediently. Jeff expertly disassembles the anchor and follows suit. We’re all on solid ground.

Now is the moment of truth. Will our rope stick a second time? We tug for a while and make some headway. About a third of the way, we think this is when the knot will be passing some tricky extruding rocks. Two pulls more and the dynamic of the rope fools us. It’s certainly stuck. There’s no doubt. We tug some more. It’s hopeless.

Andrew and I take a step back. Jeff whips the rope – a pulse radiates up the rope into the darkness above. Somewhere up there, something gives. We can’t believe it, but the knot has been dislodged! Relief washes over us.

Our hearts beat a little easier as we descend the gulley, leaving the now-deserted Smith Rock park.

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One Response to Smith Rock – After Dark

  1. Clemens Adolphs says:

    Quite an epic report. Sounds like a good dose of Type 2 (possibly 3) fun.

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