Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Desolation Exploration - Knapsack Crack

Trip Report - Desolation Area
Part II - Knapsack Crack (5.5, 3 pitches)
July 26 - 27, 2008

Wind, rock, rubber, rope. All travel in the mountains has a way of making obvious the interplay of natural elements, but nothing focuses the elements inside yourself like technical climbing. The second day of our Desolation Wilderness weekend would test our focus and resolve, while we worked through many personal firsts and put our skills to the test.

Knapsack Crack from the base of the climb

After parting from camp, we headed down to the highway and up to Lover's Leap (not part of the wilderness, but in the general area). Between the Leap and the highway there is a smaller dome feature known as 'The Hogsback'. We would be trying our hands (and feet) at the easiest route up the technical face, the 300' Knapsack Crack (5.5). We'd be climbing with the help of our friend Sean, who would be leading the climb, placing gear and building anchors.

Gearing up for the climb

As for Amber and I, Knapsack was our first trad follow, our first multi-pitch, our first climb on granite, and our first long pitches. I got the pleasure of cleaning Sean's gear on the way up, which gave me new respect for the work the leaders go through. The biggest difference to other climbing we've done is how committing it is. After you leave the first belay, there is no easy lowering back to the start of the climb. Up is the only reasonable direction of travel, so it's important to be mentally and physically confident of your ability to finish the climb.

Sean leading the first pitch while I belay

Climbing in a party of three can be complicated, but it was a good complement to our staggered skill levels. After a short, but heavily laden approach hike, we were at the base of the climb. We flaked out both ropes and geared up, then I belayed Sean up to a sturdy tree that would serve as the first belay anchor. I followed Sean, pulling out all of the gear he had placed on lead, while dragging up a second rope for Amber. At the anchor I clipped in, and then belayed Amber up the easy first pitch.

Amber enjoying a rest at the first belay

The second pitch is much longer (at least 120') and contains the crux of the climb. Sean took his time on the sharp end and placed plenty of solid gear. At some point we noticed a small piece of gear spinning earthward from Sean's position. Turn's out it was his belay device! I think it was bad Karma for making fun of our keeper slings ( although it was scarier for me than for him). It was no big deal though, this is exactly what the Munter Hitch is for! I don't remember a whole lot about climbing the second pitch, besides feeling a little stuck below the crux, and spending a lot of time perched on a tenuous foothold trying to yank out a blue tri-cam.

Typical view from Knapsack Crack

The climb itself is far less than vertical, and most of the climb is spent in a sort of body-sized crack with a myriad of both face holds and crack holds. The crux of the climb are the tight spots where the crack constricts, and you basically have to crawl out of the crack onto slopey footholds on the face. Amber was stoked about the climb at the bottom, and was relatively comfortable with the exposure on the face, but she did get a little flustered coming over the crux.

Amber working her way out of one of the crux sections

It's an understandible reaction, anytime you climb something for the first time, there is the significant challenge of decoding the route. Even if something is well within your ability, you need to stay sharp enough to figure out a sequence. Sometimes it's as simple as just taking a few seconds to relax and breathe. Sometimes you get adrenalized instead, giving your body that shock-boost to get moving again. Although you'd rather be calm and in control than adrenalized and making dicey moves, it got Amber and I over that pitch and there was little risk of either of us taking a bad fall being belayed from above.

Sean taking in the exposure at the second belay

Most beginners would find the second belay station a bit unnerving, just a handful of cam placements above a narrow foot ledge, but we had never seen a more welcoming place. The last pitch we so easy and slopey that you could practically run up it. I felt a bit cheated after having to talk myself up the second pitch. Amber had a huge smile as she came over the top and we all buzzed from the energy of the climb. We talked a bit about the climb and celebrated being on top, but I could tell it would take a while for the intensity of the experience to really set in. Since the climb we have noticed a big improvement in mental and physical composure in our gym climbing. Outdoor climbing and gym climbing really can go hand-in-hand.

Amber topping out the climb

On top we hung out for a while, had some snacks, tried to eat lunch, and practiced placing gear in some of the boulders up top. Still starving, and a little pumped, we packed the gear up, scrambled down the back of Hogsback, and walked back to the car.
Walking on level ground never felt so weird, I felt a bit like I had sea legs when we showed up at the Strawberry Lodge. Even though we had just half-snacked on our lunches, we were all so hungry that we headed straight to Strawberry Lodge's restaurant. We tried like hell to wash all the granite and chalk off our hands then promptly inhaled some much needed hot food and cold beer!

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Knapsack Crack 5.5

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