The piercing sound of gunfire rang out through the desert air, hygiene sending Charles, Asa and myself scampering for cover against the desert chaparral. Our panicked, semi-crouched positions belied our combat inexperience. Storms, avalanches, crevasses, rockfall -- between the three of us we've faced our share of objective hazards. But the very real possibility of being shot was a new one. Charles bellycrawled to the top of the hill to identify the source of our leaden welcoming party, only to be greeted by a concentrated burst of rapid-fire explosions, most likely originating from machine guns and/or possibly bazookas. I cocked my head to steal a glance at our objective, the Palisade -- an unclimbed 500 foot sandstone mesa towering over the small wild-west town of Gateway, Colorado. I wondered if perhaps we were in a little over our heads.
The plan had been hatched, as usual, over a couple of beers at Charles' place. Although most of us assume that Charles was born and raised in a grizzly bear den, in reality his birthplace is Gateway, an old uranium mining town about an hour south of Grand Junction. During the Cold War the uranium mines around Gateway had experienced a boom, as this uranium was used to build America's atomic weapons arsenal. Over a few dozen beers Charles recounted to us childhood recollections of his father Vern, a colorful uranium miner and skilled raconteur. Charles recalled Vern's morning routine of eating breakfast, drinking coffee, then walking into the backyard where a helicopter would pick him up and fly him to his uranium mining job at the top of the Palisade, an impressive 500 foot sandstone mesa overlooking the town. Charles wondered if the Palisade was really as big as he remembered, and extensive internet searches turned up no evidence of any technical ascents. The flame had been lit.
We rolled into Gateway and chased down Vern, who had driven up from Dolores to show us around his old stomping grounds. The first important tidbit of local information Vern imparted upon us was that there were no police within a 50-mile radius of Gateway. Back in the old days if (when) there was a fight in town, it would typically take the cops over an hour to arrive, by which time the two combatants had usually made up, bought each other drinks and were best friends again. Vern pointed out some of the local sights of interest, including the (now closed) bar upon which Vern claimed to have "fought on every square inch". We spent the majority of the morning driving around on dirt roads and exploring prospective first ascent potential, all while being entertained by Vern's myriad wild-west tales from Gateway's uranium mining glory days.
After lunch we queried Vern on what to do. He suggested exploring a cave outside of town that no one had ever been able to access. He reckoned with our ropes, grappling hooks and oxygen tanks we might be able to get up to it to check it out. After a quick recon from the road we were off. The first task was to cross the river. I chose my crossing point poorly, got sucked into the river and ended up practicing my breast stroke to reach the other side, with a full pack on. Vern watched from the shore, almost surely aghast. Upon arriving at the base of the cliff, I drew the first pitch which launched up a steep chossy corner. As I excavated a number of microwave sized blocks from the crack, Charles had the good sense to retreat back across the river to hang with his Dad. Asa and I continued, with Asa delicately clawing his way up the second pitch, a chossy 5.10 chimney. I led the next pitch which traversed right for 150 feet on a ledge system, and attempted to drill a belay. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, Asa had mismarked his drill bits. The result was that I ended up drilling the bolt holes too shallow for the bolts. I spent a good 15 minutes trying to get the bolts to sink into the holes, to no avail. Asa was getting impatient and the hour was getting late, so I simply tied the whole mess off and belayed him across. As he arrived at the belay I warned him that the bolts were not good. My point was made incredibly clear when Asa grabbed onto one of the bolts and it pulled straight out into his hands! After some cursing and jerryrigging we fixed the belay up and continued, a little shaken, to the top. Although interesting, the cave yielded no signs of prior human inhabitance. We managed to descend back to the river by means of a 200 foot free hanging rappel, where Vern and Charles calmed our shot nerves via healthy injections of high quality American ales.
We retreated back to town, and spent the rest of the afternoon scoping our objective for the next day, the Palisade. Following this, a decision was made to retreat to the (only) bar in town for a drink. Since this bar is part of the newly established and quite ritzy Gateway Canyons Resort, it was decided beforehand that only a quick drink was in order before grabbing dinner at a cheaper location. As luck would have it we ran into Jess, one of Vern’s old mining buddies, and the night unfolded/degenerated into hazy memories of drunken story-telling, whiskey-bottle passing in the parking lot, arm-wrestling and getting asked to leave after Jess’ oversized Dobermans wandered into the bar.
The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast with Vern before beginning the hour long hike up to the Palisade. It was at this point that we came under attack as unbeknownst to us our approach path crossed nearly in the line of fire with the local firing range. After some careful modifications to our approach route we found ourselves at the base of the Palisade. On closer inspection our original line of intended ascent, a large corner system up the south face, appeared somewhat frightening. Indeed, the night before Jess had relayed to us that about 15 years ago the entire top ¼ of our intended route had fallen off! Although the Death Corner looked interesting, we decided to poke our heads around the corner to fully evaluate our options. Craning our necks up to catch a glimpse of the west face, a wave of shit-eating grins swept over us. A perfect crack system connected up the face, the culmination of which was an incredible splitter through an overhanging, otherwise blank shield of rock. We couldn’t believe our luck!
Climbing as a team of three we made consistent progress up the route. Charles drew the first pitch, a short but perfect 5.10 hand crack that led to a spacious ledge system. I drew the second pitch, a continuous 5.10+ OW that ended on a small pillar. Asa took the third pitch, a 60 foot layback which deposited us at the base of the incredible splitter. Asa had also called dibs on the fourth pitch, so Charles and I watched in awe as he unlocked the moves on this incredible 150 foot crack. Although he didn’t send, he made an incredible effort and we intend to go back to redpoint this pitch, arguably the finest any of us has ever put up and which we estimate to check in at about 5.12b. The end of this pitch put us about 150 feet from the top of the formation, where the rock quality made a sharp transition from perfect Indian Creek-style Wingate to shit-your-pants-style choss. As the hour was late, a decision was made to descend. Upon returning to Gateway, Vern informed us that we had been the town spectacle with over 150 people watching us through binoculars and telescopes throughout the day. This was confirmed as a number of townsfolk seemed to alternately congratulate us for our bravery or chastise us for our stupidity. Such is the nature of climbing. After a victory burger and a couple more stories from Vern about old Gateway, we made the long drive back to Boulder.
We named the route Immoral Disapproval (III 5.11 A0, Ince-Firestone-Nelson, 2010). The name derives from one of Vern’s stories. He had been drafted into Vietnam and showed up for the pre-boot camp physical. A verbal altercation between Vern and one of the drill sergeants escalated into a full on brawl. A few weeks later Vern got a letter in the mail from the U.S. Army, stating that his services would no longer be required due to “Immoral Disapproval”. Vern still recons they just wanted to keep him working in the uranium mines.