Floating in the Moment
As I talked about in my previous blog post, I had two weeks off between jobs at the end of May. I wanted to do something different, something I would not do if I was counting vacation days, trying to maximize every hour. With an onslaught of bad weather, skiing was not in the cards, and in a way, I was kind of relieved. Instead, Daniel and I made plans to go to Smith Rock in Oregon, one of his favorite places. It had drier weather, great climbing, running, and was close enough that our friends could come visit over Memorial Day Weekend.
Daniel and I drove down to Smith and setup camp in Skull Hollow, where we would stay for the next week. Once we started driving past the fields of wildflowers in Ellensburg and Satus Pass, past the Stonehenge where my sister and I would play as kids, and across the Columbia, I knew this was the right choice. Now it was just Denny and Kyle, hanging out and joking around, just as we have done together for most of our lives.
Wednesday, May 25
- Birds in a Rut (5.7, 5p)
- Thin Air (5.9)
Going into the trip, people asked me if I had any objectives for Smith. Honestly, I had none. I did not even know the famous climbs. Daniel had done many more trips there than me and so I figured he would suggest ideas and we would figure it out. I did not want to have any expectations of grades or routes anyways. Low expectations, right?
As our warmup, we decided to get all hot and sweaty hiking up to the Wombat, the highest feature in the park, where we started out with the classic easy multi pitch trad route “Birds in a Rut”. The climbing was fun, and we did the whole thing in 3 pitches. Just as advertised, I led the dihedral pitch solely on nuts.
During our climb, it occurred to us that we had not roped up together for any climb since Dragontail in November 2019, for a rock climb since Prusik in September 2018, and just a simple crag day since he taught me to lead climb at Vantage in June 2016! We have been pulled in different directions over the last few years, but Daniel has recently been coming back to climbing after a trip to El Chalten.
We finished up with a few laps on the first pitch of Thin Air on Koala Rock. The starting finger crack sequence definitely felt stiff for a 5.9, but I led it pretty comfortably. I chalked up the challenge to the fact I was OTC (off the couch) and had only climbed a few times in the last few months.
Back at the parking lot, we met my college friend Max for an evening run. Max actually works for Rupa Health, my next employer, so I was about to be his co-worker also. Max lives in Bend and is a strong skimo runner, so he torched us on a 17 mile circuit of Gray Butte and the Smith Rock environs. Except for one section, the trails were nice and smooth, with beautiful views of a dozen Oregon volcanoes.
It was a warm and humid day and I felt like I was overheating when we finally reached the Crooked River and jumped in for a much needed swim. Then we jogged back to the car in the golden light, watching the walls glow around us. Smith is special in the evening, when it empties out and the shadows grow long.
Thursday, May 26
- Moonshine Dihedral (5.9)
- Hawk’s Nest (5.9)
- Master of Puppets (5.10c)
- King Nothing (5.7)
After a late night, we got a casual start and headed over to the Dihedrals area. “Moonshine Dihedral” immediately caught my eye and so I gave it a go. The trad climbing at smith is the opposite of Index: not splitter, lots of feet, and sometimes powerful. I found great finger locks but my calves screamed with all the stemming. But I got the route pretty easily and was stoked that I felt comfortable on lead.
Over in the Smith Rock Group, we checked out some newish sport climbs. There are a bunch of attractive multi pitch 5.10 routes here, although we stuck to single pitch. The rock has not seen as much action so it is less polished than other areas, which is nice. I got on “Master of Puppets”, a long 10c over 30m long, and sent it with ease! It had spectacular knobby climbing, the signature of Smith. The angle was just under vertical, and I continued up on beautiful little nubbins, rocks sticking out of the larger rock. There were always holds when you needed them. I was learning the style of Smith: if you can just keep your head about yourself, holds keep presenting themselves where they are needed most.
An afternoon rainstorm swept through as Daniel was furiously texting our friends, trying to convince them to come down to visit for the long weekend, despite the rainy forecast. “It never rains at Smith” he kept repeating. My senses suggested otherwise. It became a running joke:
D: “It never rains at Smith.”
K: “But it is raining right now.”
D: “Well, it is raining here at Skull Hollow. But it could be dry at Smith itself.”
K: “Now it’s raining in the parking lot at Smith.”
D: “Well, it could be dry at the base of the climbs… beneath an overhang.”
Andreea arrived that evening, and yes, it was raining.
Friday, May 27th
- New Testament (5.10a)
- Irreverence (5.10a)
- Double Trouble (5.10b)
- Phoenix (5.10a)
- Kuzna Korner (5.10c)
Daniel and I began our day with three climbs in the Christian Brothers area. “Double Trouble” is a super cool arete route that reminded me a lot of Vantage with the reachy clips on one side. This one was challenging for me and I was pumped at the end.
We walked back to the parking lot to find Andreea and her friend Yev. It would be a double approach day for us. For a crag, Smith has pretty long approaches, with a mandatory 250 ft climb to get back to the parking lot. But it was probably good weight training for me. I just like to complain about long approaches to crags when I am “Roadside Kyle”.
It was spitting rain on and off and windy, so we went over the Smith Rock Group and did some sport and then moved on to “Kuzna Korner”. After climbing “Moonshine Dihedral”, some friends recommended Kuzna to me as a logical progression. This one definitely pushed me, with a lot of stemming and small nut placements. The final sequence has a pumpy crux and I actually took a whip on the smallest nut, which held like a champ. It was my first trad fall in many years, but a great sign that I was in the right head space finally. Kuzna was my hardest trad lead ever, and it came as my fifth 5.10 lead of the day! I was absolutely thrilled with my progress. Not too shabby for an OTC climber…
Andreea, with her “flexibility privilege”, floated up the route on top rope without using the crack at all, just stemming the entire way.
The best part of the trip was all the friends that came to join us. We had fires at the campsite, beers in the parking lot, and mini dance parties at night. Daniel and I brought our matching yellow fleece pants, which Kelly absolutely despises, and so we had to do a photo shoot. With the direction of Art Director Denny (he actually did get an art degree at University of Washington), we managed these gems.
Saturday, May 28th
- Wedding Day (5.10b)
- Moonshine Dihedral (5.9)
- Ancylostoma (5.9)
- The Flat Earth (Attempt, 5.12a)
Kelly, Lindsay, and Anush joined us for Memorial Day Weekend. The morning was dry, so we went back to the Dihedrals area. We had a big group with a variety of interests. Kelly and Anush wanted to try easier sport climbs. Lindsay wanted a moderate trad route. Andreea wanted hard sport. So Lindsay got to lead Moonshine Dihedral while Andreea got shut down on the classic Smith test piece “Heinous Cling” (5.12a). It was a nice morning, warm in the sun, and we admired “Chain Reaction” (5.12c), the climb featured on Clif Bars.
As we were about to leave, we watched a 15 year old girl walk up with an entourage and calmly send “Heinous Cling”. The moms were so excited and the boys on her climbing team mostly seemed amused by trying to stick nuts in roof huecos. It was very impressive. There is always a 15 year old far better than you will ever be. It started to pour as we walked back to the car.
We spent the afternoon being tourists in Bend. Daniel jokingly begged us to go see “Top Gun 2” with him in theaters and he was surprised when we all agreed. I have not seen the first movie, but the second was actually a well produced hilarious movie. There is extensive flying over the Cascades, and I was able to recognize specific peaks around Snoqualmie Pass and Glacier Peak. It turns out that most of the filming was done on the VR-1355, a low altitude military training route through the Cascades.
Sunday, May 29th
- Honeypot (5.9+)
- Teddybear’s Picnic (5.10b)
- Cosmos (5.10a)
- Moons of Pluto (5.10d)
Eons ago, Daniel and Logan created SmURPL (Smith Rock Ultimate Ridge and Peak Linkup). It is a fun scramble / run that hits most of the high points in the park with no climbing above about 5.4. Daniel even got it added to FKT.com. Daniel, Andreea, and Lindsay each decided to make an honest FKT (fastest known time) effort. Daniel obviously got the men’s FKT, with no competition. Andreea got lost too many times and Lindsay pulled out the first women’s FKT. Kelly and I went on an easy hike in the morning.
In the afternoon, we found two of the closest climbs open: “Honeypot” and “Teddybear’s Picnic”. These are two excellent routes, with incredible huecos giving way to sustained knobby Smith climbing. I was really getting used to the style and loving the improbable little holds that just kept going and going. Kelly made it all the way up the 10b also. I could see her figuring out the style as she went, making moves she did not think were possible.
In the evening, I joined Daniel, Lindsay, and Andreea on the long trek to the back side to Mesa Verde Wall. Here I warmed up on “Cosmos”, which had some absolutely desperate climbing for a 10a, before moving on to the ultra classic route “Moons of Pluto”. Moons of Pluto is a long climb up a striking arete on small knobs and crimps. It faces west, towards the setting sun, high above the farms and valleys of Central Oregon. It is truly a wonderful climb, in a magnificent setting.
I took one fall at the upper crux, but rehearsed the beta in my head and got it on the second try. I was becoming a sport climber! Andreea could not have been more proud of me.
Moons of Pluto was my favorite route from the entire trip – sustained, balancy, techy, and incredibly aesthetic. Each day, I felt a little bolder, a little stronger, despite the fact my skin was raw and forearms were fading. It felt like I was unlocking new abilities, abilities that always existed within me, but that I just had not known how to harness until now. I was on a roll. Suddenly, 11s and 12s did not seem improbable. As my sender friend Jon exclaimed, “Climber Kyle is back!” Hell, maybe I need to rebrand myself as “Sport Climber Kyle”.
Monday, May 30th
- Tuesday’s Gone (5.11a)
- Castles Made of Sand (5.11c, top rope)
Monument Peak is a proud feature at Smith, but is usually closed for raptor nesting. This time, it was open, so we brought the group there. Lindsay and Andreea started off by leading “The Tutorial” (5.10a) and “Imposter Complex” (5.10b). They both looked like really fun routes, but others were busy on them so I decided to give “Tuesday’s Gone” (5.11a) a shot. I knew that if I could not finish it, at least Andreea would be able to finish it and retrieve my gear.
Most of the climb is not that bad, but the crux after the roof is pretty darn delicate and balancy. It felt like I was going to pop off, but I somehow managed to hold it together. And just like that, I had my first 11a lead outdoors! Daniel had jugged up the route next to me and got some excellent photos from above.
Andreea led the 11c next door, which I got to top rope after. Lindsay took a crack at leading the 11a that I did. She got a bit off the bolt line at the crux and took a bad swinging fall beneath the roof. She had a small gash so Daniel hiked out with her to clean up the wound and the rest of us lost our stoke to climb much after that, so we packed it up and headed out. Kelly, Lindsay, and Anush all had a long drive back, so we all said goodbye and thanked them for their weekend company!
Tuesday, May 31st
- Dirty Pinkos (5.9+, 4p)
- Journey to the Center of the Earth (5.11c)
On Monday, Blake raced the Stumptown 50k in Portland (and of course, won easily). Afterwards, he drove down to meet us and hang out for a few days. So we started the morning with a nice 9 mile run from the campground. Blake somehow was not very sore and we cruised at 7:15 pace towards the end, which, I sadly realized, was slower than Blake’s average pace for a 50k!!! The dude is ridiculous, and he keeps getting faster.
One of my favorite pastimes is to take Blake on adventures outside his comfort zone. He is such a good sport about it and always has a positive attitude. Like last summer, when I took him on the Big Snow Iron Cap High Route, I learned that he had never really mountain biked before, as we zoomed down the giant river rocks in the dark. Today, I decided, he was going to experience his first multi pitch rock climb!
“Dirty Pinkos” is one of the three classic 5.9 multi pitch sport climbs at Smith, with the others being “Voyage of the Cowdog” and “Wherever I may Roam”. But our late start meant there was no one else on the route, and so we had a pleasant experience. The bolted traverse pitch was really cool and well protected, although Blake was most definitely fully engaged!
On our first day, while climbing “Birds in a Rut”, Daniel and I had noticed a bunch of new super steep sport lines at the base of the Wombat. They seemed too far out of reach back then, but now with rope-gun Andreea, we wanted to check them out. So we called Daniel and made plans to meet him and Andreea up at the Wombat.
Blake and I arrived first at the Wombat. The easiest route on the face is “Journey to the Center of the Earth” at 5.11c. But the first three bolts are not that bad so I figured I would start up it and let Andreea finish it. As it began to steepen, I found the holds quite reasonable. The moves were powerful and often crimpy, but there were good clipping jugs. I made a few moves, made a clip, then rested on the rope. Rinse and repeat. Soon I realized I was closer to the finish of the route than the ground.
After a week of climbing, I was the opposite of well rested but somehow continued to make progress each day. Daniel joked that I had “skipped a grade” and should have been climbing 11b today, not 11c. There was one spot where it began to get desperate and I saw a chalked hold above me and way out left. I thought in my head “Either it is a jug, or I am taking a ride.” Miraculously, I lunged and it was a jug! In the past, I do not think I had the boldness to make these moves, even on a sport route. In a matter of a week, I went from leading 9s to 11c. I wonder if I had these abilities all along and was just holding myself back mentally, or if I truly unlocked new technique and strength. After so many years of stagnation in this sport, what was the catalyst for this breakthrough? Regardless, I felt so happy when I clipped the chains and got lowered down the overhung route, not touching the wall a single time.
Andreea had a great battle on “Lean and Green” (5.11d), another new route on the wall that was only two weeks old! Daniel took a top rope lap on my route, loving the bouldery sequences and powerful moves. This is not my style, but definitely his style.
Daniel wanted to get some sunset photography in this gorgeous spot, high above Smith, Redmond, and the Cascade Volcanoes. It is the best position in the park. He jugged up the rope of the 11d and got some absolutely incredible photos of Andreea leading the 11c.
It may not be alpine climbing, but this sport climbing thing can still be pretty damn beautiful. So much of that beauty is in the friendships, the memories, and the movements. It hung in the air, clung to the holds, floating in the moment.
Unlike me, Andreea is an incredibly vocal climber. It was hilarious to hear her puzzle out the crux.
“Assholes! Why did they put the bolt there??!?! I can’t reach that hold…. Noooo.. Ugghhh… I’m gonna fall!”
She got it in the end, just in time to hurry back down to the cars by dark.
Wednesday, June 1st
- Monkey Face, Pioneer Route (5.7, A0, 3p)
With a whole week in Smith, we had to at least take a crack at the iconic Monkey Face. It is a detached pillar that resembles a monkey’s face from one side.
Daniel, Blake, and I climbed as a group of three. Daniel led the whole thing. The first pitch was an easy trad pitch, but the second is a bolt ladder, which involves aid climbing. None of us had really ever done much aid climbing. Daniel led it pretty easily, but I had a lot of trouble following. We used actual big wall techniques, with ascenders and fixed ropes, but we really did not have enough gear and as a result I had difficulty unweighting the quick draws in the upper traverse section. It took a lot of swearing and improvising, but we got it done. It was hilarious to watch Blake jug in free space, something he probably thought he would never do. If I were to do it again, I would definitely just top belay the followers and do more of a simpler french-free technique.
The exposure on the final pitch, stepping out of the Monkey’s Mouth, was pretty cool, but overall, the climb was probably the least fun climb we did all week. I would not do it again, unless someone really wanted to do it. But it is cool to be able to say I did the Monkey Face.
The highlight of the climb was definitely making monkey sounds to spectators on the trail and the free hanging double rope rappel.
A Week in the Desert
The next morning, Daniel and I went for another little run around Gray Butte before driving back north. Given the bad weather throughout our region, I cannot think of a better way to spend my time off. I wanted to do something I would not do on a normal vacation from work, and chill cragging is certainly that. I loved not having plans for once, except for when various friends would arrive and depart. It was just a week of singing parodies to 80s songs, tasty food, fancy cocktails, and arguing about what constitutes “rain”. It was the perfect way to reset, replenish, and reflect on the last phase of my life.
My friends like to make fun of me for branding myself “Climber Kyle” when I do not actually climb that much. But this trip reminded me that I do have so much growth potential in different dimensions where I had previously plateaued or stagnated. I had no expectations of climbing a specific grade, so the improvement I experienced was a wonderful surprise. I do not know where I will go with this new sport climbing thing, or if I will even climb much more this summer. As an athlete, my path has always felt decidedly ambiguous. I cannot always tell you what is next or where I will be. And to be honest, I kind of like it that way.
So long, Smith. It’s been real. And onto a new chapter of life.