I start the day wandering around the county campground looking for Roy & Walter, but it’s almost empty. I call Roy’s cell phone, and he says they’re in sites 7 & 8. Eventually we figure out that they are in the state park campground. We join Roy, Randy, Walter and Kelly at Jan’s for a tasty home-style breakfast. Ann even tries the homemade sausage. Discussing the day’s plans, Randy talks us into heading for the Long Climb, 5.8. With full bellies we head to Humber Park where Barry joins us, and up the trail we go.
Twelve hours later we stumble back into the parkling lot under a full moon, totally exhausted. Later, people will tell us that first trips to Tahquitz often end this way. But no one mentioned it before we started for a 6-pitch route at 10 am. We did make it up (and down) though, with a few minor setbacks along the way…
A party of 3 passes us on the trail, headed for a climb next to ours. At Lunch Rock, where the trail hits the first rock face, our companions go right and we go left, following a scant trail weaving around on the bouldery hillside. After one last steep haul we reach the guys who passed us. One of them, Mike, helps us find our climb and suggests we do a variation on the start called the Wong Climb, also 5.8. We take his advice and, after fussing with gear for a while, scramble up to the base of a nice-looking hand crack.
The first pitch of the Wong Climb goes well. There are beautiful finger hooks inside the crack in addition to great handjams. The protection is straightforward, and there are nice chain anchors above a bench-sized block for a belay. We both enjoy this pitch.
The book describes the next pitch as the ‘Infamous Mummy Crack’. It’s a big crack just a little too narrow to fit my helmet (or body) inside, but has inner cracks that supply good hands and fair pro. It’s grunt work. About halfway up I sling a chockstone, rest a minute on top of it, then turn and climb facing a small book on the right to another decent rest. In my relief to be out of the offwidth I get a little off route, but come back on a fun little roof move. I’m soon out of rope and set a belay. Here our new radios start proving their worth, as we’re pretty well out of earshot.
Ann starts up. When she reaches the mummy crack her progress halts for a long time. Finally she yells in frustration and hangs on the rope. After a rest and some encouragement over the radio she pulls in again, but makes no progress. Another loud, expletive-ridden hang follows, then a longer rest. On her next attempt I tell her, “keep your feet HIGH.” Slowy, I take in some rope. More rope. One more rest, and she finishes it. I feel warm with pride and love for her. She looks up at me with weary eyes and says, “That wrecked me. I can’t climb any more. We have to go back down.”
I’m silent for a few seconds. A retreat is almost out of the question, but I don’t want to break her resolve by saying it. “Ok, can you make it up to the belay?” She drops her head and cries for a few seconds. “I think so.” “Come on up, then. We’ll look in the book and see what our options are.” She climbs slowly and weakly up to the belay. I put a sweater and jacket on her, and give her some trail mix and water while I consult the guidebook. I don’t think we really have 4 more pitches to go, but I don’t want to make any false promises.
“We have to keep going, don’t we?” she asks, sounding a little better. “I think it will be easier than trying to go down.” “I can’t do four more pitches like that.” “Look, the climbing looks much better for a while. And I think maybe there aren’t really that many pitches left.” “You knew I’d feel better after resting, didn’t you?” Maybe. Either that, or I didn’t know what to do if she didn’t recover…
I start up after we’ve put the rack back together, intending to another long pitch. At about half rope I pass a fir tree, which I think the book marked as the end of pitch 4. That gives me hope. It also means the last section of 5.8 is coming up, the part with the word “tricky” written in on the topo. When I get there I look at it for a long time, not wanting to climb it. It’s a thin, tilted corner with no visible handholds. Eventually Ann radios to ask what’s happening. “I’m at the upper crux, trying to protect it,” I reply. It takes a while to wedge a nut in under a flake, then I radio, “here I go.” Two delicately balanced moves both end in a good stance. My only handhold is a downward-facing point at my waist. I wedge in another marginal nut and go for it. On slick feet I reach for a small fingerlock, and slowly pull up on it to the first big handhold. Relief. Finally there’s an awkward mantle out. “I did it!” I say into the radio, “I’ll set a belay right here so I can help you through.”
Ann climbs the pitch, complaining now and then (“this is the easy part!?!”), but doing fine. When she does reach the hard part, all she needs is a rest midway to get through it. I look at the book again, and know we’re almost done. I make a routefinding mistake on the last pitch that makes it less pleasant, but soon enough we’re standing on top chatting with the guys who started near us. They agree to show us the way down (“5 bucks!”), and after having a cigarette Mike leads the way down.
The setting sun turns everything into glowing gold as we pick our way down the rough trail. After a while he announces that “the downclimb is this way,” which is much shorter than the other way. We follow with a little trepidation, but take the moves one at a time. Find the key footholds, wiggle down a chimney, and we’re ready to follow the face back to our packs.
It’s now dark, and we decide to eat when we reach the packs and see if the moon comes out. It’s farther than we think, and our feet are killing us in our climbing shoes, but eventually we find the packs. While Ann puts the tuna salad together I face the unpleasant task of climbing up in the dark to fetch my rope bag. Ann suggests that I should just leave it, but I persist. I practice going up and down the bottom moves, which I remember as the hardest. It’s doable, so I climb up and get the bag. Coming down with the headlamp is eerie, only aware of one or two holds spotted with the headlamp in the black. It feels airy, like I’m hanging on an orbiting asteroid. In the end I don’t even come down in the spot where I practiced. I decide to do my utmost to avoid climbing in the dark again, which I admit to Ann as I sit down to a tortilla and tuna salad.
The rest of the descent is simply tiring. Nothing feels certain – the location of the trail or the stability of our feet upon it. It takes forever. Several times I think we must have passed the parking lot and continued down towards town. The night seems to ooze weariness and magic in equal parts. The moonlight gives everything a cool glow, the still air keeps changing temperature. Part of me feels more alive than ever, but I am dead on my feet. I hardly remember the drive back to the campground.