It’s kind of refreshing|exciting|dangerous|bewildering|blessed|fill-in-the-blank to be exploring a freshly bolted sport crag where you don’t really know what
the hell grade you’re climbing. Neither Mountain Project nor Rakkup has much on the Recovery Wall, a new moderate sport climbing crag in Devil’s Head, and I’ve heard for good reason. My secondhand sources tell me it’s because the DH crew like to make sure that the crag is cleaned up – loose rocks removed, unsecure flakes pulled off, some trailwork and cairns placed. THEN the routes are marked in the Rakkup guidebook for the area, and secondarily in Mountain Project.
In MP, there are 2 routes listed: AF, and Man in the Woods. After climbing there a couple weekends, I can tell you that there are many more climbs than that. In the description of the area in MP, it says:
There are about 30 new climbs on this wall with about half of them being 2 pitches.
The first time I went there with a group of 6. Greg and Jeff were a couple of grey-haired climbers with a ton of experience. Greg in particular was willing to lead any of the routes. He had been to the area numerous times, and was working on his own topo of the area with what he thought the grades of the routes were.
There was also a couple (Brenda and Thomas) climbing with us. And then there was my friend Cheryl and I.
Greg pointed out a couple climbs for the couple and Cheryl and I to give a go. He thought the one we were looking at was “…a 5.7 or 8.”
I checked my draws, anchors, tied up, did the safety check and went up.
On brand new rock, especially when you don’t really know what grade you’re climbing, was oddly freeing. I just had to trust Greg’s assessment, and just trust in my ability to get up it. The climb was that Devil’s Head pebbly granite, where you just kind of had to figure out a way to either palm the pebbly surface, or single out a single larger pebble and grip the heck out of it. The feet were the same. Since the rock is so new (Greg thought he might be the second ascensionist on a couple climbs) , it was super clean, super grippy. Once I topped out and lowered, Cheryl asked me what I thought of the grade? ‘Mmmh, I think maybe 5.8.,’ I said, looking up at the wall. Cheryl then top-roped it. I gave the route a second go, because I wanted to transfer the anchors to a harder looking route to the left.
Swapping anchors can sometimes be a pain, depending on the location of the anchors. The second set I was looking at was a tad lower, and crossed a seam in the rock. After some Cirque du Soleil style maneuvers, I was able to attach the second set.
The second route was a bit harder, I estimated a 5.9 maybe.
Greg then called us over to try what he thought was a 5.10. ‘Might be a 5.11,’ Greg said. I said I’d give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen? I was on top rope.
‘Well,’ said an unnamed “friend” of mine, ‘the worst that could happen is that you could DIE!’ Heh heh…yeah whatever.
This climb was what I liked to call “All the crimps you can eat.” It was razor thin edges for hands and feet, sustained, exposed, awesome. After a few moments where the thought crossed my mind to yell ‘Take!’ but I kept my composure and gutted it out till the end. Lowering, I went, ‘Greg, that was a burly lead, I am officially impressed.’
‘What did you think that was,’ Cheryl asked.
I thought about it, ‘Maybe 5.11? Had some 5.11 moves on it. Hard to say.’ Grades can be so arbitrary. They could be old-school grades with 5.7s that nowadays would be graded 5.9 or higher. Or they could be height dependent, or fit a particular climbing style that suited one type of climber over another. I tend to think of climbs as 5.fun – or not.
The second time around I met up with Sadie and a couple people she met at Movement – two guys originally from Atlanta. We planned to go climb, and then camp and leave early the next morning.
For some reason the crag this time around looked somewhat unfamiliar to me. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush of being in a new place that made me forget the areas we climbed, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what line we picked last time. We approached from off the trail, bushwhacking most of it, so it’s possible we arrived at a slightly different side of where we were at before. In any case, the climbs didn’t make sense to me.
I looked around and thought I recognized a line. ‘Well, looks like a 5.7 to me,’ I joked. Climbing it, it was a tad harder than 5.7, maybe a 5.9 or 5.10. Sadie followed and seemed to like it.
The second one 2 lines to the left was at a similar level, topping out at this interesting short arete. It took some sidepulls to manage to get to the top. I was amazed at the route setting. The routes were varied, thoughtful placements of bolts with varied movement and interesting crux moves. I know that the route setters were taking their time to announce the area, but I appreciated that as well. All day, both times I went, the groups I was a part of saw no one else on the mountain.
The next 2 routes, the joke kept getting repeated: ‘Yup, looks like a 5.7!’ Even though, clearly, the next couple were NOT 5.7s! I just took a look at them, and then up I went. I was spanked on both of the the next 2 we had a go on. That’s the consequence on going to a place where the routes were non-marked. Sometimes you send, and sometimes you got spanked. On the second one, after struggling to get to the 3rd bolt, I asked one of the guys ‘Want to give it a go? The rope is set to the 3rd bolt.’ His response was a single word: ‘No.’
I don’t blame him after seeing me thrutch my way to a couple spinning falls.
‘Man, the next people up here are going to be going, ‘what’s up with all these bail ‘biners?’ Yuk yuk.
‘Yeah, I know, bailing on a bunch of 5.7s,’ said Sadie. Heh heh.
Ahh well, at least I gave it a go. I felt pretty good about just being open-minded enough to try. Beginner’s mind. I mean, did Layton Kor ask what the grade of a climb was before he climbed it? Hell no! I appreciated the work the setters took in putting these climbs in, and even while bolted, not knowing the grade gave every climb a sense of adventure, of not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. And although I got in over my head on a couple, I liked my willingness for that to happen – or not. I did manage to make my way up a couple mystery climbs. I might surprise myself once I find out what the consensus grade for these climbs were.
I’m admittedly torn about telling folks about new areas that only a few people know about. Since Devil’s Head sees 100 or so new routes a year it seems that if you know the right people you can stay ahead of the crowds, and climb fresh routes on virgin rock. And sometimes stellar areas are forgotten or ignored.
I understand the feeling of keeping a “secret” place to yourself, and only telling a select group of people. On the other hand, the more people who climb then the more people get involved with the outdoors, often leading to conservation, and land preservation. I know that one day this area will be announced and discovered – it’s just too good to stay hidden. But until that time, it’s a little mysterious, and to be one of those in-the-know you might have to be willing to get a little over-your-head.