Escape Route

Posted on: March 1, 2008


Brad Jackson on the seminal wide testpiece Trench Warefare (5.12d), Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, during the third ascent, in 1996. Jonny Woodward made the first ascent of the crack, which is perpetually shaded and thus ideal for summer attempts, in 1992; Craig Luebben, inventor of the Big Bro, made the second, in 1996. The author, Kim Csizmazia, made the first female ascent and the second "complete" ascent (after Jackson) in 1997. [Photo] Kennan Harvey

THE BLACKTOP BOILED on Little Cottonwood Canyon Road as Mary Gauge, Kennan Harvey and I scattered down the embankment. The summer heat was forcing us to take radical escape measures, and while we'd heard that Trench Warfare could be desperate, at least it was supposed to be shady. We ducked quickly through a grotto of scrub oak and headed up a steep, dry creek bed. As if performing kung-fu meditation, we stepped, hopped and danced on polished boulders. The white granite flashed and glared. Salty marks formed on my waistband before we slid across the north-facing shadow line. There I slowed for a high step, palming off chilled rock and breathing a mossy incense.

Soon we entered a canopy of tall pine trees. Mary and Kennan's voices chimed and drummed behind me, their body odors mingling with the piney scent as their blood rushed to their skin—the essence of my friends. I couldn't stop grinning.

Before us an apparition of gray-streaked rock flickered behind a solemn fir stand, blending like a living thing into the forest. Big as a small house, the huge boulder reached the height of the treetops. We scuttled through a welcoming notch under its right side. And there, protected by its underbelly, was a pack-rat-poop-and-granite nirvana complete with a climbable gash splitting the ceiling—Trench Warfare.

BODHI CLIMBING MASTER JONNY WOODWARD did the first ascent—or, more accurately, the first cross-cent, as generally no net upward progress happens en route—of this horizontal offwidth in 1992. The route starts from the top of a boulder at one end of the ceiling and ends on sloping ground, at the same height, on the other side. After climbing it, Jonny supposedly looked as though he'd crashed a motorcycle while wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

I started imagining his gobbied skin while I wrapped my wrists and attached tape gloves to the cuffs of my long-sleeve cotton shirt. The procedure took so long that my mental pictures had time to progress beyond Jonny's seeping wounds to the yellow crust forming on his shredded ankles. I shuddered, tucked my pant legs into knee-high socks and bound stiff-soled shoes to my feet by wrapping tape around the arch and ankle. Finally, I racked up with a set of evenly sized cams as big as my head. Thus dressed and adorned, I felt ready to slay dragons.

Instead I got the shit knocked out of me.

To my surprise, the more beat up I got, the more I craved any measure of success. It was a curious addiction: a ridiculous move, like throwing my feet over my head from a hand-fist stack, would send me into a hysterical paroxysm. Then I'd figure it out: suddenly my feet would be stuffed above my head as they needed to be, and I'd exalt—until I realized I couldn't move. "Help! Help!" I'd yelp as my eyeballs bulged. "Take! Take !" I'd scream, convinced I was about to eject headfirst and brain myself on the rocks. Tearful and butt-puckered I'd slide, clawing at the rope as it caught the weight of my upper body and swung my torso jerkily upside down.

Once, before I learned to tape my shoes on and after repeating a few variations of the above scenario, I came sputtering out of the crack only to forget my feet. Full of fear, they had flexed and cammed themselves there. For a confused moment I hung upside down, half held by the rope, half by my feet. Then, without thinking, I did a massive sit-up and stacked back into the crack, thereby managing a crucial move. Again: Exaltation! Until both my shoes slid neatly off my feet.

Sometimes we'd take a break and lie around on the top of the boulder eating bagels. Directly across the valley, the great doors of the Latter Day Saints' vaults bore into a wall of granite and we wondered lazily what they kept in there. That world seemed opaque compared to our vivid one under the boulder, yet I felt entwined with the Mormons in a like-minded- madness. They used this beautiful canyon to sequester secret documents and to mine granite blocks for their temples, while we used it to practice esoteric acrobatics. Like them, I felt Spirit in the process.

We practiced such moves on Trench Warfare for a couple of afternoons before Kennan sent it and Mary decided she had better climbs to wrestle. Luckily for me, my boyfriend at the time, Chris Harmston, offered to help—he said he knew I was having some sort of fun on it, and he figured it would be fun to watch. So together we laughed while I herniated and thrashed. Eventually, I'd figured out all the moves. I was sure I would do it soon.

Then my head got stuck in the ratty maze of everyday life, and a month went by. When I finally looked up, the leaves were golden and the snow line was halfway down the mountains. Sadly, I hung up my big Camalots and shouldered my skis.

As soon as the temperatures spiked the next summer, Chris and I were scampering up the familiar creek bed. I spent a day reacquainting myself with the moves and the next day grunted all the way into the pod that marks halfway. The pod is big enough to sit in with hips wedged on either side; Chris made me sit for forty-five minutes. He took me off belay, threw me up a water bottle and distracted me from the upcoming full-body jam by cracking jokes. When he finally yelled, "Want it!" I was supercharged. I floated through a somersault move and glided, outstretched and fully upside down toward the finishing jug. After I swung my feet down to the ground and let go, I felt as if I'd climbed around the world.

A month later a group of us went back so a friend could shoot video. I taped up, full of trepidation that my cross-cent had been a one-off. Instead the moves felt simple. In fact they seemed so easy that when I got to the finishing jug I decided to keep my feet on, pull the lip and continue to the top. Offwidth aficionado Brad Jackson was the only one who'd completed the route this way before; I'd never tried it. A couple proper fist jams, a solid hand jam, and I was standing upright in 5.6 terrain. Here the rope drag became rope stop, so I untied and continued to the top without it. This time I'd felt so strong that it was only like climbing halfway around the world, but it was sweeter with a summit. Across the canyon, a white truck wound quietly up toward the vaults. I stood alone, happy in the moment, still wondering what they keep behind those walls of granite.

ROUTE BETA: Trench Warfare (5.12d), Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.

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