The first time we visited the Giant Dihedral in the Radiohead crag at Devil’s Head, I knew I wanted to eventually lead it. My friend Mark lead it the first time, and I followed.
By following, I got a sense of the type of placements, gear needed and how far the pro needed to be run out, as well as the quality of the placement stances.
I knew I could lead it, it was well within my abilities, but knew also I was still suffering from a tad of PTSD from my trad mis-adventure on the Solar Slab at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.
The path to Radiohead, like most of the approaches at Devil’s Head, is nice wooded trail.
This is probably my 4th trip to Radiohead, and this time we were pretty solid about getting to the crag, just a couple double-takes where we went ‘Isn’t it this way?’
Luckily, we could say to our crag dog Sophie, “Where’s the trail girl? Find the trail!” This sometimes worked, but really this time we didn’t need a dog assist.
Trad is another level of climbing. Placing your own protection takes knowledge that is earned through experience, and hopefully a good tutor. Mark had been tradding it up at Eldo for years, so it was nice going up with him. He could check my pro placements and give me pointers as I climbed.
Starting up the 4th class ramp to the start of the route, and finally placing my first pro, I remarked, “Man, this feels like my first lead!”
It had been at least a year since I last did any trad, mostly just doing sport climbing. It easy to just find yourself doing sport climbing. It’s just so convenient. Bolts are already placed and reasonable secure. Sure, clipping in has it’s skills, but sinking your draw into a bolt is a couple levels lower than trad: eyeing a likely crack in the rock, selecting an appropriate sized piece, and securing it before your forearms gas out is another level (or two!) of difficulty.
I felt nerves going onto the 2nd and 3rd pro placements, but by the 4th I was feeling my way into it, running it out a bit when necessary, but trying to be aware enough to place pro at least once every 15 feet at least.
Mark followed and critiqued my pro placement: “They were mostly good, but there was that first one at the base of the pillar where the cam was between the pillar and a thin flake. You would probably have blown the cam because of the flake wouldn’t hold it.” He looked off at the clouds gathering overhead, covering the once blue skies. “So, what do you do? Place a sketchy cam, which may be better than nothing, it may hold, or maybe at least slow your fall a little, or keep climbing and try to find a better placement?” I nodded.
“Yeah, I thought of that when I placed that one. But I thought I was as far as I wanted to be above my last piece, so I placed it even though it might have been a little marginal,” I said.
That’s the thing: in trad, every cam you place is one less cam you can’t place when you rise above it. So, conservation of cams and nuts comes into play – but running it out can have it’s (increasingly) heinous consequences: you double the fall distance for the length you go above your last placement. Run it out 20′ – set yourself up for a 40′ fall.
But in this, much like sport climbing, there’s a point where my mind shut off and I just climbed. My situational awareness was heightened, and I knew when I should place pro, and when I could keep going higher.
The Giant Dihedral, though, is a sort of mixed sport/trad route. It has about 2-3 sport bolts leading up to the pillar, a couple as you rise up that can be used as well. The second pitch is a good crack for easy cam placements too, with a couple bolts at the start that can be used if absolutely necessary.
The stances for pro placement are at regular intervals, so I rarely was at a spot where I had bad feet, weight only held by my arms. The stances were mostly solid, and many times could even use both hands if the sinking it in wasn’t cooperating. Some spicy sections where I had to cross a short crux to get to the next good stance – but never felt overly stressed out.
We stopped after the first pitch so I could get the cams I used back. While the 2 pitches can be stitched together into one pitch I wasn’t sure I had enough cams and slings to make it the full distance without some severe runouts.
We did the gear exchange, and Mark clipped the cams he had gathered while following to the rope to my clove-hitched safety line.
“Hey, they just taught us that in the multipitch course at EarthTreks!” I said. “Never hand someone gear on a multipitch – too easy to drop, if you can just clip it on the rope.”
Mark gave me a look like ‘Yeah, of course you do it this way.’ I retrieved the cams and reattached them to my harness and placed the slings around my neck and shoulder.
“I’m going to cross the slings across my chest. You know, so I look like an alien warrior,” I joked.
The second pitch is the most dramatic: you can see a clear “v” rise into the sky for another 100′, and by this time the afternoon clouds gathered, giving it a more ominous perspective:
Some of the climbing was a tad awkward, as I found myself doing a few sidepulls, and also had the urge to place some chickenwing arm placements to hold me in place. But most of the 2nd pitch was relatively chill. I made it to the top and savored the view.
That’s the one thing you can always count on at Devil’s Head: stellar views all the way to the horizon, with Pike’s Peak in the distance. This time we could see the drama of rain falling through the clouds, illuminated by the afternoon light:
Since rapelled to the base, setting up a toprope for the first pitch, and played on the nearby 5.11d and 5.12a next to the first pitch of the Giant Dihedral for the remainder of the afternoon, before making our way back.
It was a good day.