Editors Note: This is a joint post, an alternating narrative, between Patrick and Chris. Patrick is standard font, Chris is in italics. We hope you enjoy the story told simultaneously from two perspectives.
The sandstone towers of the southwest US captured my imagination from the moment I first saw them in second-hand climbing magazines. Splitter cracks, demanding specific technique and gear to match, intimidated and intrigued me. The desert, serene yet severe, seemed like an alien world, so unlike the cornfields, prairies and urban sprawls of the Midwest: a wilderness playground from another planet. I now live out West, and I have found Albuquerque to be an excellent location for home base. A multitude of world class climbing destinations beckon from within a half-day’s drive. One of the few privileges of graduate school is the flexibility to determine my own schedule, so I have no problem planning to disappear from the lab when Chris calls to let me know he is going to be in the neighborhood.
As of late I have been faced with a double whammy of obstacles to climbing. First, as always, I am based in the Midwest, a condition that I no longer lament but embrace as part of my persona as a climber. Second, I am a father, a responsibility and privilege I cherish for its rewards. But for all of the positivity these bring to my life, they stand headlong in the way of my passion. So in a situation where climbing trips are infrequent, you capitalize on opportunities to mix in climbing days among “normal” vacations. This leads us to a trip to Gateway, CO with a goal to climb the Palisade by a relatively new and seldom-repeated route, Immoral Disproval. It will be a difficult climb for me, the hardest lead on gear I’ve attempted and begs the question: “Is this another foolishly optimistic goal or a recipe for success and reward?”
The Palisade looms over the tiny Colorado town of Gateway. The formation is a thin ridge of Wingate sandstone that dominates the valley below. It recalls the Rectory in Castle Valley, only without the luxury of an established approach trail. Mandatory bushwhacking and minimal development coalesce into a desert outing spiced with flavors of exploration and adventure. Mountain Project reports only three routes, the easiest of which clocks in at 5.11+. We have our eyes set on Immoral Disapproval, a three pitch 5.12- on the south end of the east face. I have a limited number of experiences with sandstone splitters, most of them tinged with humility or humiliation. A recent trip to Arizona has boosted my confidence, though, and I know I can trust the crux pitch to Chris. Though I live closer to real rock and climb outdoors more frequently, he has the advantage of focused training and incredible natural talent.
I anxiously await Patrick’s arrival in constant sight of Gateway’s prehistoric guardian. It’s the kind of formation that begs to be climbed and I have no intention of ignoring its siren song, but I must be patient. Instead I spend the days redirecting my energy to researching beta for this new and relatively undocumented climb.
It turns out the resort has an adventure shop with a guide who is not only a climber, but spoke with the first ascentionists both before and after their inaugural journey. While his story is one that promises rewarding climbing, it reveals that the reward will not come without challenges. Because it is not a well-established route, the approach up the scree guarding the Wingate is “choose your own adventure” territory marred with loose gravel, unstable boulders, and steep terrain. But a lengthy conversation with Nick, the guide, results in a culmination of local knowledge and personal experience that blossom into a chosen approach.
Following Nick’s advice, we begin our approach out past the strip mall that houses Gateway’s community center (complete with public shooting range), public library (complete with ear protection?), and the hollow shell of Gateway’s general store (“Coming Soon!”). A 0730h start means a quiet gun range, though the shattered carcasses of clay pigeons inspire a little extra spring in our step. The sun is just cresting the mesa to the east, and no cloud has the courage to interfere with what looks to be a perfect September day.
An hour of uphill scree-scrambling later, we reach the Wingate. Soaring roughly 150 m into the cerulean expanse of the southwest sky, it is a testament to endurance, that which remains after 200 million years resisting the triumvirate of erosive forces that make climbing possible: wind, water, and time. The sandstone glows with an almost proprietary warmth in the early morning sun. In imitation of (or as a tribute to) Indian Creek, someone has placed a route marker at the base of the first pitch. A plate of sandstone etched with Immoral Disapproval 5.12-. Not that it would be difficult to guess where we have to start. The main wall is guarded by a 10 m step, mostly immaculate but for a smattering of ridiculously small seams, a choss-stuffed chimney to the north, and one perfect hand crack. Before we don tape gloves, I place an experimental jam in the crack. The edges are sharp, the interior gritty, and when I retract my hand my knuckles are lightly powdered with pale orange sand. This is no IC trade route, worn smooth by the efforts of generations of climbers. This climb is fresher than produce I’ve purchased from my local farmers’ market.
We have elected to swing leads, so Chris gets the first pitch. He makes quick work of the 10 m, exalting in the perfect jams and gear placements. I follow, a little tentative at first, as the sandy interior makes my jams feel less secure. I quickly adapt by retreating to my favorite crack avoidance technique, the lie-back, and I cruise my top-rope to the strangely awkward mantle that awaits the top. I have to resort to jamming towards the end, but the narrow #2 sizing finally feels solid. Once I come to appreciate the gritty nature of the stone, the only disappointment is the relatively short nature of the step. If it continued in the same fashion for just another 30 m, it would be worth five stars anywhere.
What a pitch! Though disappointed by the length, I’m left with delightful anticipation at the prospects for the remaining climbing. When I see Pat’s head peak over the lip and pull the mantle, I can’t help but shake the feeling that it’s “game on.” It’s impossible to see the next pitch though, and after he’s had a chance to wander over to the start of it, Patrick’s face suggests apprehension. My fear was of this next pitch more than any. I was afraid to arrive at the belay to see wide cracks stretching long out of sight, mocking our single #4 camalot. But a quick assessment determines that Patrick will press on and I am left with the relief and guilt that come from knowingly handing off a frightening, difficult pitch.
Widow-maker sandstone blocks litter the step, a hint as to the nature of the rock above. The second pitch starts about 6 m south, near the southeastern corner of the Palisade. A giant spike, like a splitting wedge so close to its objective, is loosely seated in the wide crack and obscures its base. I try to figure out how to get up this pitch. No good options to the right of the monster block, plus I would have to trust its stability. Left it is! Some face holds beckon, and will allow me to procrastinate any off-width climbing for at least 3 m. Then comes the bulk of the pitch, #4 off-width up a left facing dihedral for about 30 m to a scoop, and past that is anyone’s guess. I rack up, trying not to think about the gear recommendations posted on MP: a couple of #4s and a #5, plus triple #3s and a couple of smaller pieces, if you decide to go for the established anchor. We are good to the #3s, but I only have one #4, and none of my ABQ climbing friends have bothered to invest in wide crack protection. I am going to have to walk that lone #4 like a reticent dog on a cold day.
With the gear racked and the rope stacked, I need to quit prevaricating. Preferring to avoid off-width, I take advantage of all opportunities to lie-back until key foot placements appear, constrictions in the crack that permit a reorientation towards the vertical. I kidnap the #4 from one bomber placement to the next, like a perfectionist who keeps finding a better option, until I discover the first sneaky #3. Now maybe 7 or 8 m up, I have two pieces of gear, and the fall potential I do not allow myself to consider (mostly by maintaining a stream of conscious babble that I hope entertains, rather than infuriates, my belayer) becomes a little less scary. Someone once told me to climb from rest to rest, rather than crux to crux, and when I expand my awareness beyond the mesmerizing void of the off-width, I notice a smattering of rest stances. I break the route down into manageable sections- get up there, get some gear, get some rest. Eventually the #3s disappear from my rack, and the risk of decking recedes to the minimum. The #4, however, remains a constant companion.
I’m such a bad partner for not having jumped on the grenade. Patrick is usually talkative, but it’s clear that this verbal diarrhea is a coping mechanism. Not that I blame him, I’d be shitting myself too if I were staring at 30m of off-width armed with only a single #4 camalot. But I have to hand it to him, he’s stepping up big here. While not the technically hardest pitch, this will be the lead of the day. And this is the mental tennis match that I ponder while belaying. He’s doing great, but oh man I think there’s a really runout part next, but man he’s doing so good. “Keep it up Pat, you’re almost there!”
I make it to the intermediate belay stance not much worse for the wear. Oh, I have come to understand why high-top climbing shoes are a thing, and also why off-width aficionados might opt for sleeve technology. My elbows and ankles can now debate with my knees the semantics of skid burns from sandstone versus elementary school gym floors. But I have made it this far, and the anchors cannot be much further. Hopped up on endorphins and enthusiasm, I go for the scoop, an arching semi-chimney with a crack that flairs from #2 to #4 before topping out to what I hope is a rest ledge. I leave my trusty #4 behind in the high point of the arc and commit to pulling over the edge.
I am in luck, as a sizeable ledge awaits me. The anchors remain elusive, but a fine #1 crack continues up 3 m to another ledge system. I sink the hand jams, elated to be through the grueling gauntlet of wide crack. Pulling on to this final ledge, I spy the anchor bolts off to the right and the last obstacle, an easy right-trending finger crack. Success! Three bolts allow for quick anchor construction, and the sheer vertical plane of the rock face makes hauling the piglet a breeze. Chris burns through the pitch, and we take a moment to absorb our surroundings. Below, a murky stream meanders south, carving imperceptibly deeper into the reds and oranges of Glen Canyon group sandstones. To the west, we can see the first snows of the season dusting Utah’s mountain peaks, to the east piñon-juniper woodland covers the mesa tops. Above, twin cracks dance their way up the Wingate, which stretches forever into the incredibly blue sky.
The first two pitches were marked by alternating moments of cruiser, secure jamming and desperate thrashing up virgin, sandy cracks. I arrive at the belay to find a comfy stance for my partner to enjoy the panorama and jagged finger cracks descending on us like lightning bolts permanently scaring the otherwise flawless Wingate. Seeing them for the first time, and even the thought of them now, brings on a cold sweat and a pit in my stomach. Despite my lack of recent outdoor climbing, I feel confident after the first two pitches, but the pitch ahead will be my hardest lead on gear. And if the climbing up to this point has been any indication, the pitch will not be short of adventure.
I embark, without the confidence I normally prefer to feel when on the sharp end. It’s been difficult to carry myself as an established climber in recent years, given my relative lack of time on the wall. Regardless, I know I’ve been climbing well, the weather is perfect, the gear is solid, my belayer is first-class, and the movement is nothing short of classic. I press on, climbing placement to placement, rest to rest. I take a lesson from climbing in the Red: rest early and often.
I watch Chris negotiate the first stage of the crux pitch with a mix of admiration, anticipation, and trepidation. Our success to this point has me stoked, but the small insidious voice of doubt gnaws at the edges of my confidence. Am I going to be able to follow in good style?
Through the finger cracks, I’m greeted by a stance before launching into the pumpy, steep, progressively difficult crux section. After a breather, I make a short traverse to jump from the crack system leading to this point to that leading to the chains. It’s a great little boulder problem, but the climbing ahead demands speed lest you flame out. More cruiser hand cracks taper into #0.75 camalots, my worst size. I try ring locks of all shapes and sizes, to no avail. Grunts and rattley jams leave me swinging from the end of the rope. A disappointing, but not unexpected, fall.
I yo-yo to my last piece and attempt another round of jamming before reconciling myself to a series of lie-backs to get through the crux. The rest of the pitch is mostly perfect hands with only a short section of rotten rock, the only bit on the climb. Another comfy belay ends the route short of the summit due to quickly waning rock quality. It’s a little heartbreaking to think about being so close to the top, when you can easily see it from the last belay, but it’s hard to feel disappointed about the glut of classic climbing that led us here. Not to mention the scenery. It has been a perfect climb on a perfect day with the perfect partner.
I hear Chris’ victory shout echo, and I know he has made it to the top. I secure the piglet, mentally prepare for the climb, and once on belay, I set out. The finger locks feel superb, and I glide through transition traverse to begin the heart of the route. Unfortunately I cannot stave off the pump, and the #0.75 crux spits me off. Chris’ encouragement gets me back on and through it. I fall a second time at the rotten rock, but the end is too close for me to get discouraged. The anchors await in a small alcove, tantalizing close to the summit. I make the final mantle, clip the bolts, and let it all sink in. From our perch high above the valley, we reap the rewards of our efforts: the staggering beauty of the setting, the pride of accomplishment, and the camaraderie that nearly spans a decade now.
A short bout of trundling, our modest attempt to contribute to our community’s route development endeavor, preludes two long rappels to reach the ground. We don uncontrollable grins during our pictures with the route marker, certainly a memorable moment in both our climbing careers. An hour of dirt skiing and a diversion away from the now active gun range puts us back at the car in time for an afternoon dip in the pool.
As we pack the car, two thoughts occur to me. The first is that this has to be the first time we have ever made it back to the car when we said we would. The second is how elated and proud I feel about our success. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as achieving a goal when you weren’t sure of the outcome. It was a vindicating feeling that lasted for days.
The rest of that day was more characteristic of a traditional vacation including casual (established) hikes and beers and chats under the stars. As a fun footnote, it turns out we were quite the spectacle that day. Apparently that route, despite its prominence and quality, rarely sees ascents. And what’s more, the vacationers in the five star resort never get to watch climbers in action. Combine those with a resort guide with an eye for climbing and a telescope and you get a public showing for the curious onlooker. It was both flattering and amusing.