Yesterday was my first adventure to Pinnacles National Monument and it won’t be my last.  Earlier in the week a friend of mine from the climbing gym, Ben, and I started making plans to do some climbing over the weekend.  Ben had been to Pinnacles a couple times before and suggested that we make it our destination.  After hearing that it was full of climbs that fit my style (slightly slabby, thin and requiring balance) I was very excited to check it out.

Photo: Flickr/seangloster

Photo: Flickr/seangloster

Pinnacles is located about 120 miles south of San Francisco and is the location of the northern half of a 23 million year old volcano.  The San Andreas fault once ran directly underneath the volcano and is responsible for tearing the volcano into two.  The southern half has stayed put near Lancaster California while the northern half has slowly traveled 195 miles north.  The rock at Pinnacles is mostly rhyolite in a breccia formation.

Rhyolite is a type of igneous rock that has some similarities to granite but tends to be rather explosive during an eruption.  Breccia is most easily thought of as a natural forming cement, essentially it’s ash and other rocks bonded together with lava.  The lava and ash seem to erode faster than the rock chunks which leaves them sticking out of the side of the sheer faces.  On top of that, when rhyolite cools quickly it can form rock with a glassy texture.  To a climber this makes for an extremely interesting climbing experience.

At first I found the climbing at Pinnacles a little unnerving.  Falling rock is not a possibility, it’s a guarantee.  Frequently there are plentiful amounts of hand and foot holds but it takes a bit of time to trust them because they simply look like pieces of gravel sitting on top of the rock.  But in reality they are (frequently but not always) cemented into the rock and extremely solid.  However, many times the holds can be quite glassy and thus very slippery.  The hand holds are also frequently at odd angles with sharp edges that make them a little painful sometimes and completely unlike anything you’ll find in a gym.  All of this is what makes it fun.

With over 900 climbs in the park there is not much risk of getting bored.  Ben and I decided to spend our time on the Discovery Wall which boasts 50 climbs all by itself.  We got to the wall, opened up our guide book and decided that we’d warm up on a climb called Protent (5.6) which is regarded as one of the best climbs in the area.  The beta for this climb said that you could do it in three short pitches or one long pitch but we decided that we’d do it in two pitches.  Ben was on lead and I was going to second him and clean on the way up.  He placed one cam and then used three fixed bolts but oddly couldn’t see any more bolts up ahead.  Much to our surprise, he ended up topping out the route with the last 40 feet of it being all runout.  So we decided that I’d lower him down, I’d do the climb, clean the route and then rappel back to the ground.

Only one problem.  As I lowered Ben back to the ground we almost ran out of rope.  I had to climb up a few feet so there was enough slack for him to get off belay.  Given how easy the climb was, this wasn’t a big deal at all but we were thankful that we had a knot at the end of the rope so it wouldn’t slip through the belay device.  So I then cleaned the climb, set the rope up to rappel down and started my rappel.  About 20′ from the bottom I noticed that I didn’t have the middle of the rope at the top of the climb which meant that I couldn’t make it all the way to the ground.  Oops.  Thankfully I had tied a backup prussic loop onto the rope before I started the rappel which allowed me to self belay myself back up the climb and then walk off the back of the cliff.

So our first climb of the day didn’t go very smoothly but that happens once you leave the gym.  For our second climb we decided to give The Wet Kiss (5.9) a try.  This climb was suppose to be an 80′ climb but after 50′ or so Ben reached the chains at the top, we both thought that was a little odd but at least this climb went smoothly.

Continuing our warm-up we decided to knock of another classic climb called Stupendous Man (5.10a).  Ben lead the climb and made it look beautiful so I decided that we’d pull the rope and I’d lead it as well.  It’s really a one move wonder that involves a fantastic mantle over a small ledge, blissful once completed.  Feeling pretty good we decided to bump it up a little bit.

Thirty feet to our left was a climb called Pistol Whipped (5.10d R).  This climb consisted of three bolts, the first one about 20′ off the ground and required two cams up top.  Sequence and concentration was the key to this climb.  Ben didn’t have too much trouble getting through the moves and placing the cams.  So we pulled the rope and it was my turn to try it on lead.  Getting to the first clip is solid but a head trip and something that shouldn’t be tried if the climb is at your limit.  The crux is above the third bolt and we solved it by moving slightly to the left and grabbing the small ledge above with a slight dyno move.  But for me the drama happened right at the end of the climb.

I was within five feet of the anchor at the top and was delighted to inform Ben of this accomplishment.  I high stepped with my right foot and was a simple mantle move away from finishing the climb when my right foot slipped and sent me falling.  My last clip was on a red cam about five feet below me and with slack and rope stretch I ended up falling about 20′.  This was the first fall I’d taken on lead outside as well as my first fall on trad gear.  Thankfully Ben is good at placing gear and I ended up finishing the climb without any injury and a smile on my face.

While we sat down for a little break and grabbed some food we started thinking about how wrong the first two climbs felt.  So we examined the guide book and discovered that we were in fact on the wrong routes.  Turns out our first climb wasn’t Protent, it was Plague (5.10a R) and our second climb wasn’t The Wet Kiss, it was Ordeal (5.8).  I found the names of the climbs that we actually did to be a bit ironic but it was soothing to figure out what was going on.

We rounded out the day with an easy but interesting chimney called Cleft (5.6), The Verdict (5.11a) and Lithium (5.11b).  Ben successfully lead both the 11 climbs but they were a bit above my comfort level on lead outdoors so I tackled them on a top rope.  I found the start on The Verdict to be especially fun and Lithium has been added to my project list to lead.

So it truly was a fantastic day of climbing and one with a lot of good safety reminders.  Here’s what I took away from the day:

  • Climbing outside is not climbing in a gym, there are inconsistencies, unexpected events and things that go wrong.  Plan for it to happen.
  • Different rock requires different techniques, give yourself time to get accustomed
  • Always tie knots at the end of the rope when belaying and rappelling
  • Always use a backup knot when rappelling
  • Stay focused until the climber is on the ground
  • Carefully study your guide books (but don’t assume they are right)
  • Climb with a person that you trust

Taking Healthy Risks

August 9, 2009

In a population that has an endless thirst for safety mechanisms and cleansers, does the phrase “healthy risk” turn into an oxymoron?  I’m pretty comfortable with taking risks (some aren’t even healthy) and even I don’t consciously decide to take too many healthy ones.  We all unconsciously take them just like we all unconsciously eat healthy food on occasion.  But few of us consciously have a lifestyle of taking healthy risks just like few of us consciously have a lifestyle of eating healthy.

Healthy risks might be health risks When I started thinking about writing this post I decided to do a quick search and see what others out there had to say about taking healthy risks.  So I started out with a simple Google search of “healthy risks” and laughed at the irony when it asked if I meant “health risks”.  For me, a healthy risk has nothing to do directly with putting my health at risk.  In fact, I can’t think of a single healthy risk that didn’t improve my health, even the risks that didn’t pan out.  Perhaps I’ve been lucky or maybe the things that I’ve done aren’t that risky or perhaps I’ve just been good at mitigating that risk, I’m honestly not sure and that uncertainty makes me question what the definition of a healthy risk is.

It’s kind of a hard thing to define, even the internet doesn’t seem to provide a quick definition.  I can think of tons of examples of things that I consider healthy risks, but what I find risky might be mundane to someone else, so examples really don’t provide much of a definition either.  So after a bit of thinking here’s what I’ve come up with:  A healthy risk is doing something outside your comfort zone where the positive outcome is something that you desire and the negative outcome can eventually be recovered from.  A part of me wants to also add that a risk could be healthy if the negative outcome is unlikely, but would that still make it a risk?

Now that I’ve got a definition, I can actually start to seek out healthy risks to take instead of stumbling across them.  The only question left in my mind is, how many should I take?  Like everything else that we consume, there has to be an upper bound where above that a good thing turns bad.  Perhaps the need to step outside of what’s comfortable helps to make it a self regulating system, I’m not sure.  But I think to start with I’m just going to jump at the ones that present themselves to me and see where it takes me.  Maybe I’ll come to find out that I already had the appropriate amount in my diet.

What I do know is that I absolutely love the feeling of taking these kinds of risks and I’m going to chase that feeling a bit more.  If you’d like to chase it along with me, I’m thinking that Twitter is a good vehicle for sharing the healthy risks that we take and getting ideas for new ones to try out (use the hashtag #HealthyRisk).