Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 8.30.08: Hoback Shield rock climbing nearly kills me

Caption: My friend Tristan pauses to sort out a particularly difficult maneuver on Hook It, which Shane remodeled by incidentally pulling a 200-pound boulder down and sending it hurtling toward my head.

Excursion: Hoback Shield climbing wall
Length: Three hours to all day
Difficulty: Intermediate to expert
Directions: From Hoback Junction, drive 11 miles east on US highway 189/191. Park in small dirt pullout and follow trail on north side of road uphill to wall.

“Rock!” I heard from 50 feet above me.

As a belayer who has for a brief moment turned his attention to equipment, this is not a word you want to hear yelled in distress. I looked up in time to see what must have been a 200-pound boulder dislodge from the top of a “roof” and clobber my friend Shane Hogan. Since he was lead climbing, he dropped a good six feet before I felt his weight pluck me off the ground.

By this time, I had locked the rope in the belaying device, already in a full crab-style side sprint as far as the rope would allow to avoid my imminent demise. After the initial fall the boulder splintered with a thunderclap, spraying my shins with shrapnel. The boulder’s core smashed into the backpack containing the rest of our gear and continued on its merry way, tumbling down the hillside toward the highway.

Caption: My friend Shane tries to negotiate the wicked-hard Thousand Cranes. The few tiny handholds it does have have been polished to a fine sheen by thousands of climbers.

After the danger had passed, my immediate concern was for Shane’s wellbeing.

“You all right?” I asked the shaken, dangling climber.

To my surprise, he shrugged off his battle wounds with nothing but concern for me.

“I thought you were a goner,” he said while still hanging on his rope. “You ok?”

After I assured him I was fine, he checked the inevitable souvenirs the loose old rock had left him – scrapes, abrasions and tender spots. After perusing the damage, he resumed his climb to the top bolt – albeit a little slower than before.

He later told me the first thing to go through his head beside a swear word was: “My belayer’s head is going to be smashed. I just lost my belayer.”

I guess I’m just lucky the first thing to go through my head wasn’t a large slab of granite.
Oddly enough, this happened on the easiest climb on the entire wall. The climb, dubbed Hook It, is rated 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System, which currently tops out at about 5.15, where 5.10 was once considered impossible.

The class of a climb is indicated by the first number. Anything in class five is a true-blue climb requiring ropes, belayers and other safety equipment or a head made of granite. Since the latter isn’t really an option, go prepared. Every one of the dozen or so routes at the Hoback Shield is rated at 5.7 or above. The second number indicates the difficulty of the climb within the class. The higher the number, the sicker the maneuvers a climber will have to pull off to make it to the top.

We chose Hook It after being abjectly humiliated by Thousand Cranes, a 5.10a route on the far end of the wall. The holds, which are few and far between, are all polished limestone – difficult to grip even if you can find them. Even I at 6 foot 5 could not find the next suitable handhold to lug myself up. Out of the six preplaced bolts on that climb, I think we managed to make it to the second before handing the victory to the wall.
We were eyeing Hook It to begin with, but when we arrived it was occupied by a sobbing 13-year-old girl who couldn’t come to grips with cresting the route’s namesake, a protruding overhang, or roof, which requires a creative mind and some wacky positions to scale.

We watched as the terrified girl and several other climbers took stabs at the roof. Each used handholds and footholds on the exact boulder that later collapsed on Shane. In fact, the holds on the boulder were so large and the route so well climbed that no danger would ever be inferred by looking at the situation. What happened was a sheer fluke of happenstance.

I’m just glad it happened to us and not the crying teenager.

Though rated at 5.7, Hook It may be more difficult now due to our little remodel of the outcropping.

“I know some of the big holds that were there on top are gone now,” Shane said. “So good luck.”

Caption: Debris from the rock that almost took my head off rests on my rented climbing shoes. I was only wearing my Chacos for comfort while I was belaying.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, sweet article! Scary experience too.