Climbing epics tend to start out in a similar manner: you pick a climb that is over your head, anabolics over-estimate your abilities, under-estimate the time to climb it and since you will summit in no time, you take away essentials like water, food, and headlamps. Much like a flawed mathematical proof or scientific experiment, what you set out to do turns into a series of mistakes because of a false initial assumption. When you succeed, you call it light and fast. When you don't, it turns into an epic. Then there's the gray area in between where you are climbing in the dark, blaming yourself for not bringing more water and a headlamp, your mind gets filled with self-doubts, and you are certain that you're going to die. Here is my story: The route: Astrodog in the Black Canyon. 5.11c, 15 pitches, grade V. Also known as the Astroman of the Blacks, ascending the South Chasm View Wall of the canyon.
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Prologue: Michael is headed Greenland for some epic first free ascents in the summer and needed to get some mileage on gear. Having both climbed Astroman at Yosemite and at the Black Canyon, Astrodog is the obvious choice. It also offers the casual approach of a 100-foot hike. And since you rappel in, there are plenty of opportunities to stash water and food on the way down. With mostly 5.10 climbing and two 11+ crux pitches, we would surely be motoring, and as we would be climbing on the north face, there would be no need to bring a lot of water. 1 liter each should do. Days are long in the summer, so we are not going to be caught climbing in the dark, but I shove the tiny Petzl e+Lite into my pocket anyway, along with two Clif bars. The great thing about climbing at the Black Cayon is that you park the car at the rim, descend and climb back out. Once you summit, it is over. The beers and food await at the car. What if you don't make it to the top, you ask? Well, it's not something competent climbers likes us need to concern ourselves with. Here's the logic: Go light and fast, drink beer and eat food after.
Waking up 5, we start the approach at around 6. 30 seconds later, we are on rappel. 3 hours and 10 long double-rope raps later, we are finally rappelling down the first pitch of the climb. Astute readers will notice that we have about 2000 feet of climbing ahead of us, not a lot of water or food, and one tiny headlamp. To make it more challenging, the north face is actually in the sun for the entire day in the summer, of course we don't know that.
The first pitch starts out in a chimney and turns into an off-width. I run the rope out as far as the drag would let me, convincing myself that I'm linking pitches. To my disappointment, every pitch turns out to be 165 feet long and the #4 Camalot is placed more times than either of our likings while the sun broils down on us. I'm worked only after leading the first 3 pitches at 5.10, 5.10 and 5.11a. Michael takes over the lead on pitch 4 for the next set of 5.10 pitches while I curl into the fetal position to minimize sun exposure. Yes, it is possible to belay in the fetal position, just imagine the umbilical cord as a rope.
The higher we go, the slower we are climbing. Light we are, especially when the sun is sucking every bit of water out of us, but fast we are not. The 5.10+ slot on pitch 8 feels downright desperate, but I mange to onsight it. At this point, we are both exhausted and thirsty. The sunlight is dwindling, yet we are just half way through the climb with an 11+ crux on pitch 10 guarding the easier pitches up higher. More 5.10 climbing sends me to the blank overhanging dihedral crux, protected by a copperhead hammered into a thin seam over a ledge. Even if it holds a fall, the rope stretch would send me onto the ledge. A broken ankle or worse is not something I'm looking for at this point, so I set an anchor and belay Michael to the ledge. With easier pitches after the crux ahead of us, we consume what is left of the water and food. Determined to free the pitch, I stem up and down the dihedral with every ounce of energy that is left in me until a shitty Alien can be placed. Unfortunately for me, the climb does not let up. Finally, the seam opens up a bit and I am able to place a bomber yellow TCU -- the first piece that can actually keep me off the deck. Confidence restored, I move through the crux a few inches at a time, pressing against the dihedral with my feet as hard as I can until my calves finally give up and into the air I go. It is just my luck that the good hold to the left is hidden from my tunnel visioned view, I find out as I jug back up on the rope.
I wish I could say that is the end of the story, but a number of "easy" pitches still await, and route-finding turns out to be the crux of the climb. Even though we know where exactly we need to end up (i.e. at the rim), the topo does not show a clear way to get there and there doesn't look be an obvious way up. In addition, we have no food or water and the visibility is diminishing as twilight we have been working with dims. As tired and lost as we are, I decided that bivying is definitely not an option since we have no water. The race against dehydration is on, and the longer we take to top out, the worse it is going to be. I attach the e+Lite to my helmet and aimlessly climb on. The tiny light illuminates a spot a few feet wide in front of me in the vast darkness. My senses are underwhelmed: nothing can be heard and there is little to be seen. I run the rope out, placing very little gear until I reach a slab leading to yet another off-width crack up a headwall and set up a belay. I shut off the headlamp to conserve battery, in anticipation of the battle that is left in front of us.
While belaying Michael up, self-doubts, uncertainties and thoughts of collapsing 100 feet below the car run through my head. So this is how I'm going to die. Apparently hanging off the rock, alone, in total darkness and total silence is really depressing and demotivating.
"I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we're 100 feet from the car. The bad news is I have no idea how to get there," I whispered out of my dry mouth as Michael approaches the belay.
He, on other hand, is ecstatic, "That's the way out!"
"Are you sure? I have no recollection of it, but I don't care, I will aid up it if I have to."
"I'm glad you made the choice to keep on climbing, because I was about to give up."
The off-width crack turns out to be manageable with chock stones here and there. Finally, I reach the ledge where we started and let out a yelp, 16 hours later.
Epilogue: So what if you really cannot make it to the top? As I recently found out, you rap down to the bottom, trample through the poison ivy, tyrolean across the river, climb 2000 feet up Cruise Gully on the north rim and hitchhike 30 miles back to the south rim, or wait for rescue. Climbing at the Black Canyon suddenly is not as casual as I thought.