Squawstruck Beta, Topo, and First Ascent History

February 3, 2012 · 0 comments

Here’s some info about my route that’s the second longest bolted climb in America. 

Info and beta

  • Squawstruck on Squaw Peak, Rock Canyon (near Provo), Utah
  • IV 5.11-, 22 pitches, ~1,900’
  • FA: Tristan Higbee, Thomas Gappmayer 9/17/10 (T. Higbee w/Christian Burrell earlier on lower pitches)

Click for a PDF topo

Click the image above for a printable PDF beta topo of the route. It’s two pages, so it will fit on the front and back of a single piece of paper. For more pics of the route, visit the route’s Mountain Project page.

Here’s a copy of the brief writeup on the climb in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Climbing magazine.

Squaw Peak from Provo. Orange dot marks the start of the route. Red flag marks the end of the route.

Squaw Peak from Provo. Yellow dot marks the start of the route. Red flag marks the end of the route.

First ascent history

[Note: This was originally written in 2010, a few days after we climbed the route.]

On the south face of Squaw Peak, which forms the north side of Rock Canyon about an hour south of Salt Lake City, there is an obscene amount of rock. I’d be willing to bet that every climber who’s climbed in or even driven past Rock Canyon in the last half century has looked up at Squaw Peak and wondered about the climbing possibilities up there. That’s definitely what I thought when I first started climbing in the canyon back in the early 2000s. Of course I didn’t know then that putting a route up all that rock would consume about two and a half years of my life.

2008

Squaw Peak from near the mouth of Rock Canyon. Click for larger version.

Squaw Peak from near the mouth of Rock Canyon. Click for larger version.

Darren Knezek, the owner of the climbing store in Provo, had shown me an old, obscure trip report online of some young climbers putting a trad line halfway up the face in the mid 90s, and someone (I think it was Jim Knight?) told me that a climber from the Canadian Rockies climbed somewhere on the face back in the day. My plan was to put a well-protected sport route up the thing. So one day in the spring of 2008, I hauled a drill, rope, bolts, and some trad gear up to the base of the lowest point of the cliff, intending to rope solo the route and drill it ground up. After placing a whopping three bolts, I decided that this was not the way to do it. I could tell that some of the rock above me (namely a small roof 40 feet up) was rotten and some of it would need to be trundled. Rope soloing up through it would be dangerous, so I bailed.

The summer of 2008 was spent developing some new single pitch sport crags (The Galaxy and The Wild), and I didn’t think much about Squaw Peak. But drilling, bolting, and cleaning those few dozen sport routes (all of which were bolted on rappel) got me thinking about rap bolting Squaw Peak.

The face of Squaw Peak isn’t one sheer rock face. It’s several cliffs of varying sizes on top of each other like a giant staircase. I went on several exploratory hikes to see if I could access the top of some of the lower “steps.” From there I could rappel in and drill the lower pitches without having to hike all the way to the top of the mountain.

On August 28, 2008, I followed an arcing gully from the bottom of Rock Canyon up to near the top of the bottom half of the face (to the ledge between what would later be pitches six and seven). I looked down and saw several hundred feet of limestone below me and I realized I didn’t have any more excuses. I started humping loads the next week.

It took a good couple hours to hike up there each time with all of the ropes, drills, water, and bolts. The rock was surprisingly good. For years I’d heard rumors of how crappy the rock up there was, but it was actually very solid with only a couple short, chossy sections. I think that people just assumed the rock was terrible because 1) it didn’t look that great from the canyon floor, and 2) if the rock was good there would already be routes up there, right?

I spent a lot of very hot days up there in the late summer and fall of 2008. I’d always come back home filthy and with bloodshot eyes. One day in particular stands out as being especially unpleasant. I had just made it up to my stash of gear and was getting my harness out of my pack when I knocked over the gallon water jug I’d brought up. I watched as it rolled down the scree ledge and then flung itself off the top of the cliff under me. Pissed after having carried all of that weight up the mountain for nothing, I checked to see how much water I still had and saw that I had an inch left in the bottom of my one liter Nalgene bottle. I weighed my options: either descend and waste the couple hours I’d spent hiking up, or suck it up and endure a long, hot, dry day with only 150 ml of water. I chose the latter, and it was one of the worst days of my life.

Me at the top of pitch 8 in December 2008 with Provo Peak behind me. Click for larger version.

Me at the top of pitch 8 in December 2008. Rock Canyon is behind me and Provo Peak is the snowy peak in the background. Click for larger version.

My climbing partner in crime, Christian, helped bolt pitch 7 and clean a few others, but I hauled all the gear and cleaned and bolted everything else. He was psyched about putting a route up Squaw Peak, but he had a job with set hours and a family. I had neither of those things. After a couple months of skipping classes to bolt, I’d finished the bottom eight pitches (about 600 feet of climbing). Not wanting to leave the gear up there for the duration of the winter, I hauled out all hundred pounds of it (several ropes, drill batteries, etc.) in a small haulbag. That was another one of the worst experiences of my life.

Christian and I climbed those first 8 pitches in early December 2008. We thought they were pretty stellar, and we were excited for people to get on them and climb them while we worked on the upper pitches. But before anyone else could climb them (though maybe a party or two snuck in?) the winter storms hit and we turned to ice climbing and desert towers.

2009

When spring rolled around, we were excited about getting back up there. Or, more specifically, Christian was excited about me going up there. With the bottom half of the wall done, it was time to approach from the top down. There were a couple options for this: Hike in from the dirt Squaw Peak Road (gnarly bushwhacking and horrific scree fighting, but it only took an hour; and contrary to popular belief, the road does not go to the top of Squaw Peak) or hike up on the trail from the mouth of Rock Canyon (a good trail, but three miles long and took two or three hours with a heavy pack). I decided that I’d rather bushwhack for an hour than hike for three. This tack had its own series of problems.

Christian and some gear.

Christian and a bunch of gear.

The Squaw Peak Road was closed until late June that year because of avalanche debris on the road, so it was pretty hot by the time I was able to drive up there. Wanting to make the bushwhack a bit easier, Christian and I spent a couple days with some pruning shears, trying to clear back some of the voracious foliage from the path we had to take. After that was done, many more days of load carrying and bolting ensued.

The upper pitches also proved to have surprisingly good rock. My goal from the outset had been to try to make the route under 5.11, and I was able to find a route down the face that stuck to 5.10. On a pitch or two that meant that the route had to traverse around a bit more than what would have been optimal, but I figured it was worth it.

Sometime in the summer of 2009 I decided that I needed a second drill. The two batteries on my old $150 DeWalt were losing their punch and I was getting fewer and fewer holes per charge. I also didn’t like that my drill was stashed up on the side of a mountain and I couldn’t bolt other single pitch stuff closer to home that I wanted to do. So I bought an old Bosch (with no batts or charger) off eBay, got a couple lead acid batteries and a charger, and rewired the Bosch so that it could be powered by an external battery pack.

I got almost 40 holes out of the first charge. That’s not to say that I drilled 40 holes each time I went up. Cleaning off loose rock and figuring out where I wanted the line to go took up a bunch of time. Some days I didn’t get any drilling done at all and spent several hours shrouded in a dirty haze. I have a couple brushes that I used so much I wore down all of the bristles. But then there were other days when I did drill a lot, and I’ve probably got the black lung from inhaling so much powdered limestone. After getting a few more pitches done, I ran into another problem: I was out of money for bolts. So I had to wait a month or two before I could save up enough money.

I have to thank my mom here. She and my dad were in Utah at the time and she would give me a $20 bill or two every once in a while “for food,” both of us knowing full well that the money would be spent on bolts and chain. Already skinny and normally weighing in at around 145 pounds, I was in the mid 130s by the end of summer. I was able to get a few more pitches done before Christian helped me carry the gear back down before the start of winter.

I had managed to get 6 more pitches done that year.

2010

Looking back across the "Leap of Faith" to Christian belaying from pitch 1 tower. Click for larger version.

Looking back across the "Leap of Faith" to Christian belaying from the pitch 1 tower. Click for larger version.

2009 ended and I was ready to finish the stupid route once spring came around in 2010. I spent several days in August bolting the final blank walls up on the mountain. Pitches 12 through 16 were the question mark. A big roof cut across most of the wall and I was unsure if I could find a 5.10 route up through it. As I rappelled down the line that looked best, I was amazed to find beautiful, steep corners with enough holds to keep the grade somewhat moderate (i.e., not crazy 5.13 roof climbing).

With those pitches done, just the terraced pitches 9, 10, and 11 were left. It took me most of a day just to figure out exactly where I wanted the route to go here. The rock on these pitches is the worst on the route and the pitches the least spectacular. They turned out to have the worst climbing on the route, too. But at least they add a bit more vertical feet to the count, right?

This final bit of bolting and cleaning gave me problems. I spent several hours dangling on rappel, just trying to figure out where those pitches should go. Also, I’d just bought a brand new 70 m Blue Water static rope to use for drilling and cleaning routes. While cleaning pitch 9, I dislodged a big rock that landed square on my rope about 50 feet below me. It chopped the rope clean in half.

I finished bolting and cleaning the final pitch the last week of August 2010 and actually cried as I stuffed the drill back int0 my backpack for the last time. If I had known how much time, money, and effort this route would take, I probably never would have started it two and a half years earlier. I spent many, many, many full days (probably 30 or 40?) on the mountain and was just sick of it. I was again back down into the 130s. But finally, the burden of having to finish this one stupid route was gone, replaced with the 85-pound pack of gear that I had to carry down and off the mountain.

The battle wasn’t over yet, though. There were a couple places where I wanted to install a fixed hand line, and I also wanted to clean the pitches a bit more and chalk up some of the holds on the harder pitches. So I hiked back up to the top of the mountain, intending to rappel down the whole thing. When I got to the top, however (after about 2.5 hours of hiking with the modestly heavy pack), it was freezing and windy. It was still early in the day, and I hoped that maybe the wind would die down (pulling the rope on the rappels with so much wind would have guaranteed a stuck rope), so I sat down behind a boulder at the summit and curled up in the fetal position. I had stupidly forgotten not to bring any jacket, so I was stuck there in my pants and t-shirt. I waited for about an hour and a half until I couldn’t take the cold any more and then, resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rap the route that day. I stashed most of the gear and some food and walked back down the trail.

The plan was to return a couple days later. The weather stayed bad throughout the week, though, and I was facing a problem. The weekend was coming up, and Christian and I decided it was time to climb the thing, even without the fixed lines and chalked holds. The problem was that I had stupidly left my 70 m rope and harness stashed on the summit of Squaw Peak. So I had to hike back up there to get them back.

Attempt #1

Our attempt was on Saturday, September 11. We met at 7 and were climbing by 8. We were both pretty familiar with the first 8 pitches, having both climbed them twice before. This is probably the easiest chunk of pitches on the route, and they are fun and on good rock. We topped out on top of pitch 8 at 10:30 and then walked east a couple hundred feet to the base of the next pitch.

Me on the 5.11 crux pitch, pitch 14. Click for larger version.

Me on the 5.11 crux pitch, pitch 14. Click for larger version.

Pitches 9 and 11 aren’t very good at all, but I thought pitch 10 was sort of fun. On top of 11 and halfway done with the route, we took a quick lunch break. Then we hiked up the slope to the base of pitch 12. I could tell that Christian wasn’t feeling that great by this point. It took him a while to hike up the slope. But I figured we’d just keep going till we had to stop. Pitch 12 was surprisingly sustained. Pitch 13 was harder than I thought would be, and pitch 14 (the crux of the whole route) took me several tries before I figured out the sequence, pulled the rope, and led the pitch again without falling. I was a little disappointed that it was in the 5.11 range and not 5.10, but oh well.

As I was belaying Christian up pitch 14, I realized that our day was coming to an end. He was having a tough time on the 5.8 slab part of the pitch, making all sorts of grunts and screams that he usually reserves for much harder pitches. He was breathing heavily and then said that he was seeing stars. Uh oh. He made it to the belay after several rests and pulling on draws and the rope, and said he was done. I’d anticipated as much.

I think he was really dehydrated. It was a warm day and he wasn’t drinking enough. After drinking water and eating some dried fruit and nuts, he said he was feeling well enough to rap down without throwing up. We rappelled pitches 14, 13, and 12, then hiked down a very loose scree gully west of pitches 9 through 11, and then cut east under those pitches to the top of Buckley’s Mine Wall. We made one rappel and then hiked east on the trail back down to the Blue Wall and eventually to the base of Rock Canyon.

I wasn’t really disappointed that we had to turn back. I think this climb has taught me patience more than anything. I mean, I’d already waited more than two years for this route… What was one more week?

Attempt #2

Nice white limestone in pitch 6. Click for larger version.

Nice white limestone in pitch 6. Click for larger version.

So that was on Saturday, and I didn’t get a chance to rappel the route till Wednesday. That was when I chalked up some holds, installed the fixed hand lines, and cleaned off the last of the loose rock that I could get. I rappelled the whole route (apart from pitches 9 through 11, which I skirted to the west), and it sucked pretty bad. 19 rappels does not a fun day make. Oh, and a squirrel had eaten my cache of food, so I went the whole day without anything to eat. Oh well. Just another day on the job, I guess.

I called my buddy Thomas to see if he wanted to do the route with me the next weekend. I’d been doing a few long climbs with him throughout the summer, and I knew he’d be in pretty good shape for the route. He could go on Friday, which meant I’d only have one rest day after the marathon rappelling day, but figured it’d have to be enough. On Friday morning, we met at the parking lot at 6, while it was still dark. Thomas realized he’d left his climbing shoes at home, so he had to run back to get them. We were hiking up the trail by 6:20 and climbing by 7.

Thomas on pitch 2

Thomas on pitch 2. Click for larger version.

Again, the first 8 pitches went pretty smoothly (seeing as how this was now my fourth time on them) and we topped out on top of 8 shortly after 10. The next few pitches went by without incident and we hiked up the slope to the base of 12. It was hot, hotter than it had been the weekend before, so we crawled into the mine/cave just left of the start of pitch 12 to rest in the shade.

We started climbing again at 11:30 and cruised on up through the next few pitches. I was feeling more tired at this point than I had the previous week, but figured I could probably keep going. I barely squeaked my way through the crux pitch (14) without falling, and that was a huge sigh of relief for me. I knew that this block of 5 pitches (12 through 16) would be the toughest on the route. Each one is solid 5.10 or harder.

I needed to rest after pitch 14, so I offered Thomas the lead on 15. He made it up a few bolts but he was getting tired, too, so he came down. I rested a bit longer and headed up this crazy exposed pitch, eventually making it up. I was climbing slower now, but still felt like I had enough strength left to keep going. Thomas wasn’t feeling so great, and he asked how hard it would have been to bail from there. I mumbled something about how much it would suck and kept climbing.

Pitch 16—a less-than-vertical pitch with shall quarter-sized dishes for your hands and feet—was harder than I thought it would be. It took me 4 tries before I finally led the pitch clean. Thomas felt like it might be 5.11, but I thought hard 5.10. Either way, it’s a tough, slabby, thin pitch with a couple burly moves. Topping out on 16 gave us access to another one of the big ledges on the route. We rested in the shade of a tree for 45 minutes, then kept going.

I was feeling pretty good about the next pitches, having made it through the hardest pitches on the route, but knew that there were still several stiff pitches left. Pitch 17 (5.9) wasn’t bad. Pitch 18 (5.10c/d) turned out to have three distinct cruxes and I nearly peeled off a couple times. That one was rough. Pitch 19 (5.10c) was fun but hard. Pitch 20 was a nice 5.8 respite before more tricky climbing on 21.

By this time we were both pretty spent. Thomas was severely dehydrated, and I was really thirsty myself. Neither of us had eaten a whole lot during the day, and I didn’t want to eat anything else because of lack of water (I had about 2.5 liters for the whole day, Thomas had a little more than 3). We knew by this point that we’d make it to the top with plenty of daylight left (we’d topped out on 16 at 1:45 and started up 17 at 2:30), so it was just a grueling slog to the top. We fantasized about meeting people on the summit who could give us water.

Thomas coming up the last pitch. Click for larger version.

Thomas coming up the last pitch. Click for larger version.

I was climbing even more slowly by this point, and Thomas was nearly delirious. My fingers were raw, my arms were dead, and I’d hit my knee hard on one of the previous pitches. My middle fingers on both hands were curling down toward my palms without my wanting them to. I crawled my way up the last pitch. Instead of going over the last crux roof, which required more arm strength than I had left, I skipped a bolt and climbed around it to the left on thin holds.

I made it to the last belay, belayed Thomas up, and we stood on top of Squaw Peak, having made the first full ascent of the cliffs on its south face. We topped out at 5:45, after almost 11 hours of climbing. It had turned out to be the hardest day of climbing I’d ever had, and the single most physically demanding thing I’d ever done (much more difficult than running a marathon without training).

The route added up to

  • five 5.8 pitches
  • four 5.9 pitches
  • twelve 5.10 pitches
  • one 5.11 pitch

Because I’d wanted all the harder leads, Thomas had led four of the 5.8 pitches and I led everything else.

I don’t know what I’d expected to feel after climbing the route. I don’t know if I expected to feel some huge surge of emotion and feeling of victory. But I just felt thoroughly tired and thirsty. There was no emotion. I was mildly pleased that I didn’t have to deal with the stupid mountain any more, but more than that I was thirsty. We had a tiny bit of water left in our water bottles when we started hiking down at 6 (after a couple victory phone calls to friends and family). We drank that water about half an hour later on the hike down, and then got down on our knees half an hour after that and drank from a nasty, dirty spring/stream we saw next to the trail. The water was dirty, but it was cold and refreshing. We both preferred the prospect of giardia over dying of thirst.

Eventually the trail took us back down to the main trail in Rock Canyon, and a bit later we made it to the stream (which was still running in the upper reaches of the canyon). We filled our Nalgenes in the cold water and drank till we couldn’t drink any more, and arrived at the car thoroughly worked at 7:40, 13.5 hours after we’d started hiking in the morning day.

Click here and here for two very cool pictures of Thomas and me on pitch 16. They were taken my friend Perin from the bottom of the canyon.

Severely dehydrated, sunburned, filthy, but alive and on top.

Severely dehydrated, sunburned, and filthy, but alive and on top.

Aftermath

It’s now been a few days, and my emotions are still pretty much the same. It’s a pretty cool climb, but I’m happy to have finally climbed the stupid thing. I can now turn to other projects. I want to put up more long sport routes in the area, turning it into a sort of poor man’s Potrero Chico. There’s lots of big limestone around. But that will have to wait for a while.

Until then, Squawstruck (IV 5.11-, 22 pitches, ~1,900’) is sitting there. I see it every day from my street and from driving around town. Whereas before it loomed over me as a sort of reminder of how much physical suffering I still had in my future, it is now a fond reminder of having accomplished something I’d been dreaming about for a long time. As I was climbing it, I swore I’d never climb it again. But I bet I’ll be back. [2012 EDIT: No I won't.] It’s the days of suffering and triumph like that that make climbing for me less a recreational activity and more a life-changing, character-shaping, all around awe-inspiring experience. I think the route is the second longest sport climb in the country, after Infinite Bliss in Washington. I’m pretty sure it’s also the longest sport climb in Utah. I think now about everything the route took out of me. I placed upwards of 250 bolts (most of which are stainless). I went through more than a dozen drill bits and a few pairs of approach shoes. Three of my ropes got destroyed while bolting the route. Who knows how many pounds I lost. And I think I spent around 30 or 40 days working on making the route. If I had known how much work it would have taken to establish the route and how much it would take out of me, I probably never would have started in the first place. But it’s done, it’s over, and I guess I’m a better man for it.

Now go climb and enjoy the stupid thing.

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