First Light

Posted on: April 25, 2008

Mike Scharnell

First light is on the outside of our tent. I haven’t opened my eyes yet, but I can feel the heat radiate on my face. After last night I didn’t think we would see the sun for days. First the hail came just after we pulled the fly tight. By the time that we got into our bags the wind was testing the breaking strength of our guy lines and the tents inner will to keep its shape. The inside was dry and our stove barely flickered, but the collapsing walls and ceiling seemed more like the inner workings of an Iron Lung. After we ate and turned out the headlamps, I laid there listening to the freight train gusts come over the ridge behind us and barrel through our camp. The temperature dropped to around 31 degrees according to the last check of my watch and then I woke up 5 hours later.

Against my will I open my eyes and the green-blue light quickly closes them again. The zipper on my sleeping bag snags at first and then gives way so that I can flip open the top and lay with the diffused sunlight on my skin for a while. No hurry, the rock will be warmer the longer that we wait. Over 150 routes are just outside, from 15’ boulder problems to 300’ multi-pitch trad routes. There is not another person for 20 miles that even knows what a quick-draw is. Cade is the exception. My son, still sleeping as usual. He would sleep until noon if I would let him. Not for lack of enthusiasm but because he can. I can’t anymore. I love to sleep; I just can’t sleep for more than 7 hours at a time. 6 hours is plenty and 5 are enough for most nights.

The sound of the zipper on the tent door will be his alarm clock. I could relight the stove and make coffee in the tent and Cade would not even turn over. As the screen flips over onto the side of the tent and the cool breeze flows in, I realize the sun on the tent is warm, but the outside temperature is still only about 50 degrees. It’s 7:15 in the morning; with any luck at all we will see 70 degrees by 2:00pm. By then we should be high on the face of the Iron Door. Standing up I feel the cold, damp earth under my feet and I shiver. The sun is on my back and heating up my black jacket nicely. Barefoot will have to do for now, gravity is setting off alarms in my bladder and my Teva’s are still in the tent.

The tent shakes and Cade crawls out onto the sandy floor of our camp. He doesn’t stand right away, but stretches his back and yawns. In one fluid movement he is standing and walking past me mumbling something about snoring. The stove lights on the first try and I fill the pot with water and open my pack to find the coffee grounds and the French press. Another climbing partner got me hooked on coffee before climbs and my lexan press has made every trip since. One luxury item each. Cade’s is an old pillow with only half of the original amount of feathers left in it.

With coffee done, the haul-bag comes out and gear is sorted. Water bottles are filled and ropes are butterflied and backpacked. The rack is shouldered and we walk the 35 yards to the base of the route. The first good placement is 12’ off of the ground and the only bolts are at the 2nd belay. In between we slot cams, place stoppers and wrap a couple of chock stones the size of my head. Cade clips the first draw and looks up at the 256’ of reddish, black and brown stone that slowly leans away from him. A good hand up and a thin right foot, the #4 camalot goes in and then 20 feet later a #2. The bad part is over, no more run-outs any longer than 12’. I can breathe again. Minutes pass and I hear the signal to get on the other end of the rope and clean. I’ve led this route countless times, this is Cade’s first lead in the 10+ range and he’s killing it. I inspect every placement as I clean. Only one hex-nut comes out without a tool. Not one take or a single lob, just straight to the anchors. I tie in short and hand over the rack. No swinging leads this time, it’s all his.

The small roof above us is pure fun. A solid lie-back around the right side and then roll over the edge, back onto the face. A splitter finger crack cuts across the face at a 45 degree angle and then switches back all the way to the 2nd belay ledge. I barely get my shoes off and he’s going. I look down at our tent and across the valley. No other signs of people. I look up as Cade picks out a big hex and sets it. In my mind I can see the placement, I’ve placed that very same hex in that same spot and now my son is doing it. He disappears over the roof. I can see each move in my mind as the rope pays out and then stops briefly as a decision is made. Set a tiny HB and keep moving or make a little, dicey move up and place a friend for added safety. I find out that he went for it on the HB when I cruise up over the roof and go to clean.

At the ledge we talk and eat and drink water. His eyes are like fireworks and his voice is electric. The crux is just before the belay and he says that he never even noticed it. The water goes away and he’s ready to go again. The rack is passed and he hikes pitch 3. 4 cams and 2 stoppers. Three pitches of 5.10+ climbing in the sun, in short sleeves, in January. It’s 1:45 pm and about 72 degrees out, no clouds in the sky no people on the ground waiting for us to finish. No wonder they call this place the Land of the Lost.

The descent is mostly a walk off with a couple of short rappels. We take our time and study a 5.11a that runs up the side of the face next to the descent called “ East of Edam” because of the texture of the rock looking like old cheese. Maybe tomorrow… We spend the rest of the day on a couple of short routes just across the valley called “Fun stuff”; 5.10c and “Pink but Deadly”, 5.9+.

At night we cook dinner and sit out under the stars planning the next trip. Cade, unknowingly has carried 6 Newcastle Ales in his pack. We drink a couple and burn the last of the wood for tonight. We leave the fly off the tent and go to sleep looking at the same constellations high above us. I sleep a full 7 hours and dream of the routes and that he will climb and the way climbing will shape his life.