“Come on!” I heard Sarah grunt, followed by manic scraping, the sound of the cam being bludgeoned by her nut tool (a hooked piece of metal used to remove gear stuck in the rock) and labored breathing.
And then silence.
“Ceri, it’s stuck. I don’t think it’s coming out.”
I’d never had to leave behind a piece of gear because it was stuck and had trouble believing this was the case. Plus, chances were it was my fault if it was stuck, and I did not like what this said about my ability to place trad gear.
Was it stuck or did it have yet to move? I wondered. If you had the right attitude, maybe nothing ever seemed stuck. And all glasses of milk were half full.
Positive thinking, however, would not change the fact that it was now 2:30 pm. Sarah had been struggling with this cam for over an hour. I was cold from lack of movement, and we were running out of daylight.
“That’s fine,” I called down to Sarah, “I can try to get it when we rappel.”
We climbed one pitch higher and assessed our situation. I wanted to continue up the next pitch of the climb which was described as “exciting.” Sarah thought we should head down given our limited daylight and the fact that our first rappel ran the length of a rope-eating crack, perfect for getting our rope stuck when we pulled it to begin the next rappel. With all the grace of someone whose ego-fueled desire to reach the top is telling her to continue, I acquiesced to Sarah’s plan.
We set up our double rope rappel and made it down to the top of the pitch with the stuck cam. We began pulling the rope now anchored over 120 feet above. We heard a whoosh as the rope descended toward us, then a slap as it contacted the rock 20 feet above. I gave the rope a tug, expecting it to continue its downward trajectory. It didn’t budge from the crack. I gave it a flick and another tug but still nothing. Sarah made a similar attempt with similar results. I gave it a series of exasperated tugs, each one lodging the rope deeper in the crack. We then conceded that our rope was stuck (or at least had yet to move and seemed unlikely to given our current efforts). Which meant that we were also stuck.
“Let’s just cut it,” Sarah said. I shook my head. While that was the quickest way out of our predicament and the lowest risk, it would reduce Sarah’s rope to a half rope only fit for the gym.
Our other option was to lead climb back up to where it was stuck and throw it down. This would involve re-climbing the most difficult section of the route, but I was fairly confident I could do it safely and not willing to classify the rope as irretrievably stuck. My pride wouldn’t stand for it.
“Are you sure? It’s my rope. I’m fine with it.” Sarah is incredibly safety conscience, a quality I value in a climbing partner, but also a quality that constantly leaves me feeling like I’m being reckless and pushing the boundaries of what is sane.
I had Sarah put me on belay on the other end of the rope and proceeded to climb back up the crack, plugging gear to protect myself from a fall and using the gear slings as hand holds to make climbing easier. I got back up to where the rope was stuck. It had doubled over itself and caught in the crack. Beneath it lay a graveyard of abandoned rope segments, a testament to the many before us whose ropes had been eaten alive by the crack.
I threw the rope down to Sarah and was then faced with the choice of building an anchor and lowering, or climbing back down the 20 feet I’d just gone up, pulling the gear meant to protect me as I went. The first was a safer option but one that would require leaving behind a couple pieces of gear. It should not be difficult to guess which option I chose.
Lowering myself over the bulge was the scariest part. I unclipped my top cam, which would be out of reach once I lowered. My next cam was at my feet. I reminded myself that this was no different than a potential fall while lead climbing. I would fall twice the distance to the next cam. I might be bruised, but I would 100% still be alive at the end of it.
Learning to trad climb with a modicum of confidence has been a series of finding myself in situations like this where my brain says, “oh, shit, we’re gonna die!” and I start to panic. In these moments, I have to slow my breathing and remind my brain that falling does not equate to death because, unlike Alex Honnold, I’m attached to a rope.
I jammed my fist into the crack and lowered myself on that arm until I could grab the sling of the cam below. With tentative, cautious movements, I made my way back down to the belay ledge. Sarah thanked me for the intact retrieval of her rope, noting that it was good we had turned around when we did so we could carry out Mission Impossible: Rope Retrieval in the light.
Our next discussion was how best to retrieve the stuck #3 cam. The rappel had taken us to lookers right of the cam. Getting there would require a lateral traverse of at least 25 feet. I’d then need to anchor myself with another cam to keep from penduluming across the rock face. I played out the physics in my mind, watching myself careen uncontrollably when I made a misstep on the traverse. While I very much subscribe to a no cam left behind philosophy (a product of my incredible cheapness) and while I felt personally responsible for having gotten the cam stuck, the sun was setting. The prospect of careening through darkness was unnerving and as Sarah sagely put it, “probably not worth it.”
The cam was stuck, or at least, it had yet to move until another party with superior cam unsticking skills climbed the route and claimed it as booty.
The rest of the rappel went smoothly. The sky was a deep blue green when we reached the ground, and we hiked out in the dark.
This was only the beginning of our misadventures with getting things stuck in Red Rocks. The following day, we got our rope stuck pulling it from the top of Mushroom People. The rope wrapped around a horn protruding from the rock face and would not come down no matter how hard we tugged. Later that day, we learned that we were stuck in Vegas on our cross-country road trip until Sarah could determine if they’d refill her prescription or if she needed to return to LA for blood tests. The following day, we got the rope stuck rappelling the crux pitch of The Night Crawler and had to wait for the party behind us to climb the pitch and toss the rope down. Dan and Monica of Los Angeles were very kind and did not make us feel inept for what was clearly becoming a chronic problem.
At this point, it began to feel like everything in my life was stagnating, flat-lining, stuck. Not only were we stuck in Vegas with what seemed to be a proclivity for getting everything we owned stuck in the rock, but I was also stuck in life, unable to pick a path forward. I realized I’d felt a little stuck ever since I’d graduated from college. Up until that point in my life, I’d been on a path, making steady forward progress. Post college, I’d lost that path. I remembered a discussion with a friend who was ecstatic to have graduated and said he’d never felt more free; he could do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted. For me, that was the problem. But perhaps, like the cam we’d left behind, I was not stuck; I just had yet to move. My sense of stagnation was a mental state and only real as long as I believed it.
I excitedly related my breakthrough to Sarah who pointed out that walking a path, while it might not equate to stagnation, was certainly not freedom. In a sense, I was never really free.
Prescription in hand, we hit the road again, heading north to the Utah high desert.