AJ messaged me around 1030 hrs yesterday and asked me if I wanted to go climbing. Of course I want to go climbing! He asked where I wanted to go and we decided, due to the threat of ominous weather predictions in the Billings area, to go to the Natural Bridge, which is up in the Big Timber/McLeod area here in Montana. Yes! A new area with a road trip involved! I grabbed a few extra pieces of clothing to ward off bad weather (if you have a rain suit it won’t rain, or at least I hope not, because I never take it with me beyond the truck) and my new Katakis (hadn’t even been worn) and headed out the door. I picked AJ up and we were off on another adventure! AJ brought his iPad, so we had awesome tunes to listen to, and the scenery on the way up was beautiful. So vast and wide open! The Crazy Mountains were particularly handsome with the snow capping their jagged ridgeline, the sun lighting them up through the patchy clouds. It was overcast most of the way until we actually got to Natural Bridge State Park’s parking lot. It was partly cloudy, with a slight chill to the air…perfect for climbing! We got some good photos of the water rushing down under the bridge and through the hole channeled through the limestone on the way to the area we were going to climb. It was moving quite fast and the outlet below was impressive to see with the water forcefully gushing out (which we also got photos of). The run-off hasn’t even started yet!
To get to our climbing area, called The Foyer, we crossed over a huge chockstone at the top of the crags and then rappelled down a route called Snap Dragon to the bottom. There, we created our staging area and geared up. The weather was perfect. AJ lead climbed to the top of the route we were going to work on first, placing the quickdraws in the bolts as he came to them while I had him on belay with my GriGri. The route was a 5.6 called Chocolate Muffin Warm-up. He set up a toprope on the route with two quickdraws from the anchors, which were bolts with rappel rings in this case.
Okay. It was game time. This limestone was much sharper and rougher than the dolomite and sandstone that I had climbed thus far in my travels. I liked it. Everything was a hold of some sort. I tied my brand new Katakis on and broke them in on this 5.6. I reached for holds I could see and felt for holds where I couldn’t see any. I managed to get the third bolt unclipped (I was on toprope, but unclipping the quickdraws is good practice for lead climbing later) before I stopped. AJ and I had discussed a planned fall just so that I knew what it felt like and to get it out of my system early on, so I took this opportunity to grab the figure-eight knot with one hand and just lean back away from the rock. It wasn’t frightening or scary at all. I didn’t have any anxiety about it, either. Once I got back on the wall, I found a good right side pull, but I couldn’t find a good right foothold and I searched in the meantime for a left handhold. Two more moves and I would be at the anchors!!! My right arm started to get pumped…then my calves…then my left arm. I had to move. I shook my left arm out. Then I took turns shaking out my calves. I even found a way to lean into the wall and try to shake out my right arm! I kept searching for holds, shaking out one limb at a time. I couldn’t find that right foothold that I so desperately needed!!! Finally, I called out to AJ to “dirt me”. Every part of my body was so pumped that I just had AJ lower me all the way to the ground, meaning so that I could just lie there for a bit. I could hardly even move my fingers. From the ground, I could see it – the elusive right foothold. AJ pointed it out. There was no way a person could see it while they were on the rock, though. Note to self. I could be quite pleased with my progress endurance-wise, though, because I got all the way up to the third bolt and unclipped the quickdraw before I stopped! That is a huge improvement!!! AJ was very impressed. Fist bump!
Next, after I had recovered a bit, AJ did three lead climbing laps each on two routes, one on one side of the Foyer (Bird of Paradise, 5.9) and the other on the opposite wall (Labors of Lust, 5.10a). After he was finished doing these endurance laps, I attempted the 5.10a called Labors of Lust and got three moves into it. I’m making it my project because I know I can do it. Next time I’m going to try it while I’m fresh and I’m going to send it. That’s my plan, anyway. I was exhausted, so AJ cleaned the route as follows: once at the top, he clipped into the rappel ring with his personal anchor system while still on belay. I had taken in all the slack I could as he did that. After he was safely clipped in with his personal anchor system, he asked for a lot of slack. I gave him about four to six feet of slack in the rope and kept him on belay. With the slack, AJ took a bight of rope and attached it to the side of his harness, then untied his main figure-eight knot. He passed the end of the rope directly through the rap rings and then re-attached the rope to his harness by retying his main figure-eight knot. I took in all the slack again so that he could unclip his personal anchor system and he was “on me” again for belay. He unclipped each quickdraw as I lowered him and clipped them to his harness’s gear loops.
Now came AJ’s challenge: a 5.12b called Stranger Than Fiction. Now that I had some experience with the Gri-Gri and knew how to handle it, I felt confident lead-belaying him on a route he could possibly take a big fall from. I was calm and ready, letting out slack ever so sparingly except when he was clipping in. I had learned throughout the afternoon that if I hold my index finger around the front of the Gri-Gri, my middle finger underneath it, and my thumb on top to press down and give slack while my ring and pinky fingers have a good hold on the rope in my palm away from the carabiner slightly underneath (rope passing over the side), it works really well for me to pull out slack. Taking in slack is just a matter of grabbing the rope with my entire brake hand and pulling it through as I pull down on the rope with my other hand to feed the slack through and tighten up the rope between my Gri-Gri and AJ, with a little hop as I feed the last bit of slack through for a taut rope. Once AJ got to the top, he asked, “Was that too nerve-wracking?” I replied that no, it wasn’t nerve-wracking at all, because it wasn’t for me. I was very glad for that. I was confident and I knew that I was doing everything right so that all I had to do if he fell was lean back in my harness and keep both hands on the brake line. The Gri-Gri would do the rest. Once AJ was safely back on the ground, we shared a solid fist bump. His efforts on that route had been awesome to watch!
We packed up to head out and decided that the best way out was through this sketchy passage of rock/dirt that led back up to the trail in a very steep fashion. Slide or fall down on it, and you would tumble all the way to the bottom and into the water, most likely. AJ went up first to set up a safety rope to tie to my harness in case I slipped. While he was doing that, I decided that I would get at least halfway up the passage with my pack. I had misunderstood where I was supposed to tie in at, which was at the bottom, where it was safe. I crawled, bouldered, and scrambled my way up the first half with my pack on and when AJ saw me, he tossed the end of the rope down. I tied in with a figure-eight knot as if I were climbing and AJ acted as a dead-man anchor (not his original plan and more dangerous than what he had planned, which we discussed after I had reached the trail). It worked, although I had misunderstood which part of the passage was more “sketchy”. I had climbed the more sketchy half of the passage on my own, it turned out… “Welcome to canyoneering,” AJ said. We hiked back up to the parking lot, loaded up the truck, and headed back to Big Timber to eat at about a 1715 hrs. The Thirsty Turtle served up an awesome mushroom and Swiss burger with homemade chips and ice tea for me. AJ had a good-looking burger and some sweet potato fries. The Cajun ranch was superb! I looked at his guidebook to the area and told him I was kicking myself for not just going for that final move or two to send that 5.6 route. “I think that’s an experience everybody needs to have. That way next time, you’ll just go for it and send it. Keep moving. Don’t stop.” We left Big Timber around 1845 hrs and got back to Billings just before 2100 hrs. I dropped AJ off and double-checked to make sure what time I was picking him up today to go to the climbing gym. Once home, I showered, took some Tylenol Arthritis, and went to bed happy. 😁 What an incredible day!!! I’m so blessed to have such an awesome climbing partner and mentor! And I’m going to send that 5.10a!!! I’m going to send that 5.6, too!!!