Climb and Punishment

Featured image at top 📸 Zoltan Papp, @zoltan_nrdp on Instagram

Almost nothing about this past season went as originally planned. It all began when we departed Hueco Tanks in early March. I was feeling stronger than ever after a full winter of “oldering” (our version of bouldering). Maggie, on the other hand, was recovering from a mid-season finger injury, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan. Luckily, she’s a more intelligent and resourceful rock climber who knows how to maintain a decent fitness base while rehabbing.

The next unplanned event hit when we arrived in southern Utah in mid-March. Day one, we discovered the Covid virus was ravaging our bodies. Since we had been vaccinated and boosted, we experienced only mild symptoms. The remedy was isolation in the remote desert near the Hurricave for a week. Eventually, negative test results were succeeded by brain fogginess, residual congestion, body aches and other common post Covid recovery symptoms for a couple of weeks.

Once we were semi-healthy, we laboriously made the trek up to the Hurricave and began the process of slowly acquiring fitness for long steep sport routes. I worked on repeating Killer Bees hoping to eventually do the 14a extension called The Rainbow. With the unforeseen time out with Covid, only a month remained before the warm season would hit the southern Utah region, time wasn’t on my side for likely success. It ended up being good training through climbing punishment. For Maggie it was an opportunity to test her finger on familiar rock and get some route fitness.

We arrived in Maple by early May, welcomed by typical nascent spring conditions complete with wet snow, which accumulated up to six inches one night. Fortunately, these conditions didn’t last long. Unfortunately, the Maple campground was lacking a camp host. This is the rough equivalent of arriving at a super busy intersection with a non-functioning traffic signal. Maple is a massively popular place and requires nearly full time work-life effort to maintain it, and we had decided not to host this season so we could focus 100% on climbing, without worrying about making sure toilets were cleaned and reservations updated. After contacting our distressed friends at the forest service we learned that the climber who had committed to the volunteer position had bailed without warning or even a real effort at communication. Not a good look for our climbing community. And so, contrary to our plans, we reluctantly accepted our terminal camp host destiny and volunteered to cover as concierge for the first half of the season, until the hosts for the latter half arrived.

The brief spring moisture was helpful for our dry skin. When humidity is low, chalking doesn’t seem to aid us with friction at all, and sometimes it even makes holds feel more slick. With the early season conditions, the cobbles felt stickier and chalking actual did what it’s supposed to do. That lasted into the beginning of June, then a massive heat dome swept in and record high temps parched the 22-year long drought-ridden state of Utah. Humidity was quickly reduced to a heinously dry 10-20%. Not good for our perpetually non-sweating hands. We suffered accordingly, forced to constantly over-grip, and dry firing off random cobbles when the plan was to hang on.

Throughout the seemingly endless and moisture-less summer, random short monsoon rains would periodically drench the canyon. These rare events occurred on average maybe once every other week, and rarely on our scheduled climbing days. While they brought some mild relief from the record-breaking heat, they were not a sustainable source of water for the slowly dying vegetation or our parched epidural layers. The humidity would increase during a storm, sometimes continue through the day after, then quickly return to the less favorable low humidity conditions for a couple more weeks. We combated the dryness by putting damp sponges in our chalk bags and spraying Rhino Spit (a skin hydration spray for climbing) on our hands prior to laying siege to our respective projects. This helped a little, but was still not ideal.

A couple of our plans did magically manage to come to fruition. On one of those rare post-monsoon days, Maggie took advantage and linked The Whole Shot (13d), making it look easy in the process. On another random high humidity day, I connected for a first ascent of a side project, Remember the Alamo (13c). This route links Wake & Bake and Don’t Mess With Texas. Silly, I know, but what would Utah, particularly the Pipedream, be like without all the link-ups…??? On the same day, I gave my main project and long time nemesis, Wyoming Sheep Shagger (13d), a solid high point burn. Essentially, I fell one move from sending. Amazing what 67% humidity can do for excessively dry geriatric hands!

Nearing the end of the crux boulder on Wyoming Sheep Shagger. 📸: Zoltan Papp, @zoltan_nrdp on Instagram

Suffice it to say, we never had a repeat of those ideal moist conditions and suffered through the remaining Maple season without much success. My plans to capitalize on the power I arrived with were thwarted by Mother Nature. After my 40-50 one-hang goes on Shagger and Maggie’s three or four on Toxic Turkey (13c), we departed Maple somewhat demoralized. It was late October, and the fall season’s first winter storm was bearing down on the region. Talk about flipping a switch weather-wise; it went from summer to winter literally overnight. The new reality of global climate change, no doubt.

Completely powered down and with tails between our legs, we fled back south to Hueco Tanks. We’re here now to survive the winter, retool, rebuild and regain our mojo. Bouldering is a pure and masochistic form of climbing punishment for us. As a retired old couple (me more than Maggie of course!) we shall endeavor to persevere by working our weakness and power up. At least that’s the plan.

Fortunately, while we’re not prolific boulderers, we still love winters here in the El Paso -Don’t Mess with Texas- region. The temps are moderate, friendships genuine and granite pebbles to play on are plentiful.

Chuck

From the Maple forest, to the Hueco desert.

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