Ben Chessman tops out Crazy Alice (5.8) in the Wichita Mountains.
I was very hesitant to head to the Wichita Mountains for a day of climbing this past Sunday due to the forecast of 100+ degree heat, but my climbing partner for my upcoming trip to Colorado insisted on going. I decided it would be a good idea since we needed more practice on multi pitch routes together. I also have wanted to lead Crazy Alice, a 5.8 zigzagging crack – classic trad lead. I had top roped it for only the second time last trip out their and was confident I could lead it. The idea of bagging this lead also had me psyched for the trip.
Our alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. I was in such a daze I didn’t hear one word from the radio announcers voice. We had only put in five hours of sleep, but quickly got moving and were out the door before 6 a.m. About half way to the Wildlife Refuge I realized we could have slept in another 30 minutes and still arrive just as the gate opened. So at that point I slowed down a bit so we could get better gas mileage and we took our time at the only rest stop we made.
About an hour and a half after our stop we arrived at the gates to our climbing area – The Narrows. In the past the gates had always been open early, but today they were not. We arrived about 10 minutes till 9 and ended up waiting until 20 after, during this time about 10 different cars drove up to the gates in hopes of getting in, but we were the only ones that stayed to wait. During our wait we decided to tape up for our climb and organize our packs so we would be ready to roll once the gate opened.
After the Ranger opened the gates we quickly made it to the parking area and hit the trail almost immediately. As we approached our climb I our fist climb would still have some shade on it, but as we got closer I saw that it was in full sun. At this point the temperatures were already close to 100 degrees and I was feeling exhausted from the two mile hike in.
Once we arrived at the base of the climb I was feeling a little weary so I drank more water, ate a bit of food and took my time gearing up for the climb. After being fully geared up I sat in the only shaded spot we had at the base of the climb (everything else as in direct sunlight). After I felt only slightly better I decided to start the climb and just get it over with so we could move on to a climb in the shade.
As I started the climb I had a bit of trouble with the start, but soon figured out the moves and was on my way up, climbing with great confidence. Although the rock felt like I was touching a hot frying pan I was fairly ok if I jammed my hands deep into the crack. Once I got about 20 feet up I started feeling fatigued, my confidence began to wane and I rested on a marginally placed piece of gear. I became frustrated; my hopes of climbing the route clean on my first lead attempt were shattered. I overcame the frustration though and continued climbing. After placing a couple more pieces of gear I placed a bomber number two Camelot and yelled to my belayer, TAKE. At this point I was starting to feel heat exhaustion kick in so decided to lower down and rest a bit before finishing the route (seeing as how I had already rested on gear and was not going to have a clean ascent).
Josh Smith seconds Crazy Alice (5.8) on Zoo Wall in The Narrows.
After resting a bit and drinking more water I began to climb again. This time I was tired by the time I got back to my last piece of gear, likely because I climbed so fast and got my heart racing. I again had to rest before proceeding with the climb. After gaining my composure, or so I thought, I began to climb again. Shakily I paced another cam blindly into the crack, which turned out to be bomber, and reached for a draw to put on the cam; while doing this my hand trembled as I pulled off a cam and draw at the same time, dropping a number three Camelot 40 feet. I watched it hit solid rock and then bounce into the dirt. My yells of frustration echoed throughout the canyon walls.
But after the frustration subsided I began to climb again and as I neared the top I placed my last piece of gear and still had about 12-15 feet of climbing to go, so I gathered myself mentally and confidently climbed the last section of the route. Once I reached the top I pulled off my extra locking biners and clipped in to the chains and alerted my belayer I was clipped in.
My plan at this point was to belay him to the top and photograph him coming up the route, but by my this point I felt heat exhaustion had completely kicked in and there was no way I was going to be able to safely belay him to the top without potentially passing out. So, I lowered back down to the ground. At this point I sat there for about 15 minutes sipping on water and pouring it over my head until I felt a bit of energy come back. After that I belayed my partner to the top so he could clean the route. By the time he had come back down to the ground I felt my energy restored and decided we should try to find a climb in the shade.
Ben Chessmen places gear on Crazy Alice.
About this the only other climbers we saw that day were leaving and told us about an area I had not been to yet that would be in full shade. After seeing my next projected climb was in full sun we opted to seek out this coveted shaded area.
After hiking another two miles back to the car I was once again feeling exhausted, but after eating more food and drinking more water I gain re-gained some energy. Searching for this shaded wall, The Meadows, was slightly more difficult than expected, but after pulling out the compass and realized we were heading in the wrong direction we managed to get back on course and find our destination without much time lost.
Because we were so weary we opted for an “easy” 5.6 bolted route. However as typical in the Wichita Mountains the route was fairly run-out. The first bolt being about 30 feet off the ground (although we realize latter I passed one about 20 feet up) spooked my confidence a bit, likely from the heat exhaustion, but I began the climb anyway and found a supplemental gear placement about 15 feet off the ground, once I pulled onto the ledge above my piece of gear I was able to make one more move up and clip the second bolt. I quickly yelled back down to my belayer, TAKE. My pride was shot, I rested on a 5.6 climb, but in the end it’s always better safe than sorry.
I eventually got to a point on the route that I felt like I couldn’t move any higher, I looked up and it appeared the next bolt was about 20 feet away. The bolt also looked HUGE. I thought it was some sort of weird anchor. In fact, I thought it was the anchor. So I lowered down to get a bail biner to go back up to clean my draws, but my less experienced partner decided he wanted to try finishing the route. I feared he would fall, shattering has ankles on a ledge, making our trip to Colorado a bust. I didn’t want him to go, but he wasn’t going to not let me belay him up.
So, I gave him the gear he needed and told him how he was going to have to clean this strange looking anchor I saw. After that John was quickly off and arrived at the last bolt I had clipped and rested there before proceeding. As he attempted to move up he took a couple of falls. I encouraged him to just leave the bail biner and lower off, but he insisted on proceeding. I prepared myself to run back as far as possible to prevent him from hitting a ledge, but to my dismay he made the moves and reached out clipping the anchor without having to girth hitch it. WHAT THE CRAP, I thought. How did he clip that anchor, it was HUGE. I realized then the heat exhaustion must have made me hallucinate, seeing a regular sized bolt as an oversized horizontally placed bolt.
After some struggle to make the final moves John realized he couldn’t finish and lowered back down. I then jumped back on the rope and climbed back up to the last spot he fell. It took me a while to spot the anchors because the blazing hot sun was just peering over the top of the cliff, but after several attempts I finally managed to reach the anchors, clipped in and then cleaned the anchor and lowered off, removing gear along the way down.
That climb would conclude our climbing for the day. We were both obviously exhausted, getting our butts kicked on a 5.6 climb when both of us can climb much harder. After a few minutes of resting we headed back to the car and loaded up the gear. The plan after that was to head to a deli we saw in town for sandwiches, but at this point I was SO hungry and wanted more food than just a sandwich, so with the help of my iPhone we managed to find a Chilis that was off the main drag that cut through the town of Lawton, Oklahoma. John enjoyed a juicy burger, medium-well, I inhaled a black bean burger and entire plate of fries, including some of John’s. I regretted eating that much food about 30 minutes down the road, but it was very satisfying at the time of consumption.
The lesson learned this day was simple. Never climb in 100+ degree heat. My car was registering 106 degrees when we left, when I checked the weather on my iPhone in town it gave a temperature of 103 degrees, so no matter how you look at it, it was crazy hot out there and no amount of water helped us to stay hydrated. Between the two of us, we polished off 8+ litters of water.
I can say this though; this trip will make us REALLY appreciate Colorado this summer! I can hardly wait to climb in temperatures below 90 degrees. Hopefully we are lucky and will experience a few 75-degree days. That would be so sublime!
The photos you see here are of Crazy Alice (5.8) that were taken from my first trip out here in April of 2007. It was a magical experience that included crossing a “creek” that was really a river at the time due to recent rains and ended with snow flurries as I toped out Crazy Alice for the first time on top rope. So, it has actually been over two years since I returned to the climb. Despite the heat exhaustion it was well worth it and I am confident I will climb the route clean next time.
And for those of you that might be wondering what the new Subaru Outback looks like, here she is…
My new 2009 Subaru Outback