Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Strawberry Roan

The last two weeks have been a blur to say the least, to quote a dear friend of mine, I'm feeling "a good tired." I left for my old stomping grounds of Lander Wyoming on the 3rd to see old friends, enjoy some cool mountain weather, and attempt to tick off one of the longest standing projects in Wyoming.  Arriving in Lander I immediately met up with my long time friend BJ Tilden and fellow travelers Jonathan Siegrist and Kris "Odub" Hampton.  We took that afternoon and made the trek back to the new mega cliff known as Wolf Point.
Jonathan and BJ on the approach to Wolf Point (the small speck in the middle of the cave is Zach Rudy bolting).
Despite temperatures threatening to spike upwards of 90˚ we braved the 35 minute approach and sampled some of the finest limestone in the Lander region.  The stifling heat made it difficult for anyone to apply themselves fully but we still climbed on a host of routes, all of which were fantastic.  I'll definitely be making more trips here in the future.

The prized goal of the trip however didn't reside at Wolf Point but further up the canyon at an escarpment known simply as The Strawberry Roan.  The "Roan" is a striking arete situated at the top of the Little Popo Agie Canyon high on the western flank of the river.  Visible from Todd Skinners mountain cabin, he bolted the creamy rust colored arete in 1990 in conjunction with a calendar photo shoot taking place in the Lander area.  Photos of Todd on the stunning arete were used for the calendar and after that day it would take another twenty years before anyone else ventured up the steep grassy slope to try their hand at the Strawberry Roan.

My friend Ty Mack was the first to try his luck with the Roan, he arrived at the base to find the quickdraws that Todd had left hanging mostly laying on the ground; two decades of exposure to the elements had either deteriorated the webbing so badly that the carabiners fell off or were so harshly wind blown that the harder steel bolt hangers had actually cut grooves cleanly through the softer aluminum biners.  Ty's attempt was short lived and one day just wasn't enough to get the job done.  Lander locals BJ Tilden and Tom Rangitsch made another attempt a couple of years ago only to meet the same fate and walked away empty handed.  

The Strawberry Roan climbs the prominent reddish arete. 
I contacted Kris Hampton months ago and pitched him the idea of climbing together and capturing some footage for Evolv. We brainstormed on what would make an interesting film piece when he suggested "...why don't we try the Roan?"  Immediately I was intrigued and knew it would be the perfect project for us.  Kris and his girlfriend Annalissa Purdum took on the monumental task of hauling climbing ropes, food, gallons of water, and a weather/rodent secure bin to the base of the Roan buttress, a trip that took three hours to complete.  The stash made subsequent day trips much more manageable, the hike to the Roan is daunting to say the least.  It begins by crossing the "Little Po" river on foot and then slogging uphill through thigh high Mules Ears, fields of cheat grass, and ghostly stands of burnt pines. A solid 45 minutes of arduous hiking lands one at the base and an additional 15 minutes can be expected removing cheat grass seeds from ones shoes and socks.  The canyon is filled with all manor of hazards and on this trip alone there were confirmed sightings of rattlesnakes, moose, grizzly bear, and rednecks.  We soon dubbed our outings "adventure sport climbing."

The route itself is a 100'+ tall arete that overhangs about 25 feet in its length.  Immediately leaving the ground you're assaulted with a burly .12d crux sequence.  I was able to avoid a rowdy pull on a shallow mono pocket but Kris was forced to deal with the threatening hold and our internal engines were often redlining before we even got to the second bolt. The following 50 feet of climbing positions you right on the arete pulling between sinker two finger pockets and comfy finger buckets.  Arriving at the steepest part of the route, a welcomed rest signals the end of the "casual" climbing and the difficulty grows exponentially until you clip the chains.  A huge throw casts you onto the headwall and the following three bolts move you out onto the 90˚ arete via big pulls between edges and two finger pockets. 

At this point you're hugging the arete with both feet and copping a mediocre shake before the final crux sequence.  The wall eases to near vertical here but the holds literally disappear and your right hand doesn't leave the arete until you clip the chains.  Extremely delicate yet powerful climbing takes you through smeary feet, terrible hand holds, heady clips, and "engaging" run-outs. Despite being rather well bolted, the exposure held our fear in our throats and we often found ourselves pushing through sequences only to desperately grab at the quickdraws for something - anything to hang on to.  The final push to the chains would make any Smith Rock climber proud, an engrossing run out through relatively "easy" terrain gains the anchor clip but a fall here would easily deposit you at the break some 30 feet below.
Looking uphill at the Roan, the face to the left contains three open projects.
The Strawberry Roan by Marty Robbins tells the tale of an unbroken horse, lonesome and wild and the cowboy who tries to tame the old bronc.  It couldn't be a more fitting song for the route and even more so for Kris and I's adventure projecting this route.  Upon first inspection we realized the route would go and thought that linking might not be such a project, we soon understood otherwise.  The more days we put in the more apparent it became that this route would challenge us to the bitter end, only becoming harder and harder the higher you climbed, truly gestalt.  Days of work found us slogging to the crag battling heat, driving rain, and that small voice of uncertainty in the back of your head when trying to climb a project under time constraints.  In the song we never find out if the cowboy tames the wild bronc, as the trip drew to a close we felt like despite our efforts, this Roan would also go unridden. 

On our last climbing day we both warmed up and gave a solid effort, each of us falling high on the route.  We both lowered, reticently accepting defeat and we began the mental process that follows such heartbreak.  However; Lindsay was insistent that we both try again so I tied in and set off on what I felt was going to be a wasted journey up the route.  The bottom crux felt desperately hard, my feet cut, and all I could focus on was the fatigue engulfing me.  I groveled upward and realized just how exhausted I felt, with my left arm cramping it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the pump.  

And then I let go.

Not of the rock, but of my fears and doubts, of the pain in my arm, of all the failed attempts, all of it... I just let go and went climbing.  

I worked through the sequences not aiming for the chains but instead simply being in the moment and enjoying the amazing climbing up this brilliant piece of rock.  I wish I could say that I began to feel better and was charged with excitement but that wasn't the case.  I just was.  I reached my high point and just kept climbing, executing each precise movement exactly as I needed to.  The pump was there I think but in truth I can't really remember, maybe it was the screams of encouragement from below, helping to keep me in the moment.  As I clipped the anchors overwhelming elation and disbelief flooded over me, I had succeeded at one of the most meaningful and difficult climbing goals I had ever tried. I immediately thought of Todd and his vision for the route, I felt deeply grateful that I was able to share in a little piece of that dream.

As I lowered down another wave of gratitude washed over me, this however was directed at my partner Kris.  I would never have done the route if it hadn't been for his help.  We approached the project as a team and together we unlocked sequences, encouraged each other when we were gripped, and over the course of the trip, became the best of friends.  I think I'll always remember a little bit of that feeling at the top, but the greatest tick I'm taking away from this experience is the partnership I had with Odub.  I felt very honored to climb on the Roan with him and walking away with the send was both exhilarating and grounding.  Kris' last attempt on the route left him just a few moves shy of sending, a valiant effort on his part from start to finish.  He'll be making a trip back this fall to finish off the Roan and I can't wait to join him and hold the rope as he clips the chains.

When we got back to town that night, all of our friends were gathered at the Lander Bar and a stealthy text message from Odub on the drive down had let them know of the days events.  I was greeted with a standing ovation from the Lander community, cheers and beers all around.  The Strawberry Roan experience came to a head at that moment and I felt very humbled by the support of the community and so proud to have been able to play a small role on a much larger stage.  The Roan challenged me as a climber in every way possible and I can say without a doubt it's the finest route I've ever climbed. I can't close without the most sincerest of thanks to everyone who helped make this send possible.

Kris Hampton, Lindsay Gasch, Annalissa Purdum, Adam Amick, BJ Tilden, Micah Rush, Colby Frontiero, Kyle Elmquist, Jonathan Siegrist, Evolv Climbing, Amy Skinner Underwood, Ty Mack, Tom Rangitsch, and last but not least Todd Skinner.

Keep an eye out for the finished video of Kris and I's adventure and a huge Thank You to Evolv for their support on this trip.

Enjoy the photos, and remember - Stay On Mission

Baby rattler on the way down from Wolf Point

Rainstorm rolling through Red Canyon

Fire fighter Micah Rush on the 4th of July

J-Star, BJ, and Em lit by Lander fireworks

Skinner kids artwork at the mountain house

Adam Amick setting up the interviews at the mountain house

The river crossing with the Roan cliff line in the background

Hiking down in the storm, smiling all the way

Adventure climbing entails getting wet every other day

Brilliant Lander sunset

Micah, BJ, and Tom showing their support for the Lander Bar
Adam filming the headwall crux section

1 comment:

Virginia Purdum said...

Annalissa Purdum's Great-Grandfather Boot, an old South Dakota rancher, sung the song "The Strawberry Roan" every year on the Fourth of July. It is most fitting that her Odub tackled the Wyoming Strawberry Roan this July. Next year I expect he'll ride that Roan to a standstill.