Climbing Encounters of the Third Kind

What follows after the break is a story that I wrote for my climbing partners to read via e-mail after I had an encounter with a new climbing partner I met online here in Colorado. The events took place in November 2006, and I sat down that night and wrote this story. After I e-mailed this off to my buddies, it got forwarded around to THEIR friends and eventually posted on a couple of climbing message boards. I was out in Eldorado Canyon climbing last weekend and shared a belay with another climbing party who had read this story online – I couldn’t believe it had gotten around so fast. Anyway, here is the story…

Climbing Encounters of the Third Kind

In my attempts to go climbing as much as possible, I sometimes will go climbing with people who maybe I shouldn’t. When I moved here to Colorado, the first time I got out on some sport routes it was with a guy who obviously didn’t understand that when I said “take” it meant to take in the slack and that a fall was imminent. Take. TAKE. TAKE!!! TAKEINTHESLACKNOW!!!

Granted, climbing with guys like that wasn’t ALL that bad. Generally I had a good time, did some routes, got outside. I was out climbing on rock, wasn’t I? All that changed this weekend. Let me tell you about a guy I climbed with this weekend I will call Epic Mike.

Epic Mike posted a message on an online message board looking for a partner for the Flatirons on Saturday. It just so happened that my normal partner (a good climber and safe, not weird) wasn’t available to climb on Saturday and I was, so I responded to Epic Mike’s post saying that I’d be willing to go climbing with him. It seems he was visiting the Boulder area from California and he wanted to climb a long route at the Flatirons. I asked about his experience and he responded that he’d done lots of multi pitch rock and alpine climbs, and even climbed some peaks in Nepal. He and I decided to climb the Third Flatiron, a easy but long classic route that neither of us had done before.

The guy seemed normal enough when I picked him up, we chatted for a bit on the way to the parking lot and nothing struck me as out of the ordinary. We racked up with a very light rack and started to head up to the base of the climb. We’d decided to do a variation of the Standard East Face route that started at the very bottom of the Third Flatiron. This would give us 200-300 more feet of climbing than the Standard route proper, and an interesting 5.7 roof on the 2nd pitch.

As we were hiking up the fire road to the base, it became clear to me that either I was an Olympic athlete or Epic Mike was a bit out of shape – and the only medals I have are leftover chocolate ones from Halloween. I had to wait every 100 feet or so for him to catch up, and I was carrying the rack, the rope AND all the water. Along the way Epic Mike keeps asking me if I think this would be a good spot to take a picture, all the while clicking away like a tourist. He asked me what altitude we were at, and I told him it was probably 14000 feet less than Nepal. Remember, the place where you climbed some peaks? We bushwhacked our way to the start of the climb and reviewed the topo and route description.

Epic Mike was all gung ho to tackle the first pitch because he “loved overhangs”. I looked up at the climb, looked at the topo and the description and let him know that the overhangs that we could see from the base were almost certainly over 200 feet up the route, therefore they would land on the 2nd pitch. His routefinding skills seemed a bit out of whack, so I started up the route. It was easy climbing, and after a rope length I found a halfway decent place to build an anchor and bring Epic Mike up. The anchor was okay, so I opted to stay clipped into the anchor, take a stance and belay him from my harness. Two minutes after starting the climb, I could tell that he had fallen. About twenty minutes later, he arrives at the belay.

Me: “What happened, did you take a fall?”

Epic Mike: “Yeah, I thought that I would try to climb some of the overhangs to the left of the route.”

Me: “You mean the ones at the same height as my first piece of gear?”

Epic Mike: “Was that where your gear was? No wonder I took a big pendulum.”

Me: “…”

The seeds of doubt are starting to grow in my head. I hand the rack over to him and let him take the next pitch. The next pitch has a roof about 50 feet above, with three distinct cracks splitting the roof about 15 feet apart each. I told Epic Mike that he should probably take the left hand crack because it looked like it was the 5.7 variation – the others looked thin and NOT 5.7. He heads up for the RIGHT HAND CRACK. At this point I’m thinking that maybe he’s seeing something that I’m not, and the right hand crack is indeed on route. About 45 feet after leaving the belay, something happens to Epic Mike that I will never forget.

His Black Diamond Alpine Bod harness falls down around his ankles.

I’m standing at the belay, the rope running through my belay device, up the wall, tied to a harness that gravity and several pounds of climbing gear has liberated from it’s owner’s hips. I freeze. There is nothing else I can do. I’m safe, but Epic Mike is far from secure. He struggles to get his feet in good positions, gets a marginal piece of gear into a crack, clips it to a sling around his shoulders and begins the process of hiking up his harness back around his waist. I feel like I’m a voyeur in a dressing room watching someone try on a thong. Finally the harness is back up and tightened, and Epic Mike continues up to the crack in the roof.

But it’s the wrong crack. As I watch him struggle to find the moves over it, I yell at him to go left, it might be easier. Surprised that there was an alternate way, Epic Mike retreats and moves left, sticking in a piece of gear to protect the roof move. He struggles, gets a foot on, then two, tries to pull over the edge, gropes for a hold…

And takes a 20 foot leader fall onto the slab below.

He’s ok, he’s shaken but not stirred. He builds a belay at the crack and brings me up. The only injury he’s sustained is to the LCD screen of his camera, which is now broken. I look at the moves over the very short overhang and determine that this IS the 5.7 route over. I get the gear, rack up, and position myself for the moves over the roof. The belay is tight, we are stepping over each other as I exit the belay. I start to pull up and ease over the edge of the overhang when I hear: “OWOWOWOWOW” from below. I painfully reverse the hand jam I have and back down to the belay.

It seems that through two shirts, my nut tool had hooked Epic Mike’s right nipple ring. As he inspects the damage, it became clear to me that either I was Brad Pitt, or Epic Mike was a bit out of shape – and neither of Cambodian kids that I have are named Maddox. We both regroup and I tackle the roof. A few very short moves later and I’m over it and heading for the next belay. Over the next few pitches, Epic Mike demonstrates that he has the route finding skills of lumpy oatmeal – even after I point out several prominent features that I recognize from the topo. Regardless, we get back onto the Standard East Face route, which has eye bolts at each belay. Seven (relatively) smooth pitches later and we are at the top.

Note: I have to add here that during the whole climb, Epic Mike demonstrated that he was incapable of reeling in more than one foot of slack per second while belaying me. At several points during the climb, both on lead and on toprope he asked me to “climb slower”. I told him maybe he should think about “belaying faster”. Several times I thought about untying, soloing up to the anchor and asking him to take faster, then climbing back down to the end of the rope and tying back in. I showed him how to trick triple my slings FOUR TIMES and he couldn’t repeat it.

At the summit, Epic Mike poses for the camera. I am requested to take over 25 photos of Epic Mike in various stages of triumphant success, along with some posed “action shots” of him belaying nobody – I had untied already since we were going to rappel. From the summit it is three rappels to the ground. After the photo shoot had ended, we threaded the rope, I flaked and tossed the ends down and rapped off. I arrive on a spacious ledge below and call off rappel. One minute later, I hear: “ROCK ROCK… did you see where they landed?”

Epic Mike had dropped a whole ‘biner of my nuts on top of me.

Luckily I’d tucked into the wall at the first call, and the gear missed me barely. How the nuts came unclipped from his harness was as mysterious to me as how his ENTIRE HARNESS FELL OFF OF HIM during the second pitch. I’m thinking at this point that he might have a little thundercloud following him around just waiting for the opportunity to lightening him to death. Epic Mike raps off and says once we are at the second rap: “Wow, that was weird.”

I’m wondering if this is normal for him. I’ve had enough excitement during this climb to last me another ten years, but this guy is acting like his Mr. Magoo style is nothing out of the ordinary, why, doesn’t everyone’s harness fall off at one point or another? What’s a little nipple ring snag here and there, and dropped gear – that happens on every rappel! I just want to get down. I want off of this crazy train NOW.

We get to the last rappel and Epic Mike is near the anchors. We thread the rope and he flakes and throws the ends down. Now he wants me to go first so I can take pictures of him rappelling. Whatever, I’ll go first. If it gets me down I’ll agree to do anything. I head down the rope, but halfway down a tangle appears. I shake it out, and discover…

A KNOT IS TIED INTO THE ROPE.

I have no idea how he flaked this rope to get it to tie an overhand knot, but he did. I have to – while I’m on rappel – tie a prussik above me to hold my weight and another on the brake side just to be safe. He calls down to make sure I’m ok, and I mumble something about a knot tied in the rope. I set about untangling the cluster he created for me the ONLY TIME he had to throw the rope. There was no wind. There were no obstacles to avoid. It was a straight throw down. This guy had better not play any Russian Roulette, because he’d lose with NO BULLETS in the gun.

I finally get down. It is 5pm. I am tired from being on the route all day and worried that something else will happen on the descent. At this point I’m expecting a small plane to crash into the mountainside at the exact moment we are descending the trail. Either that or get mauled by a mountain lion, struck by lightning and molested by John Mark Karr all at the same time. Epic Mike yells down to me to make sure and take his picture. I’ll take his picture alright. I intentionally frame every shot badly as he comes off the rock. I retrieve my rope and start down the trail.

I could have gone back to the car, back to the trail, back to the car, and re-climbed the route solo in the time it took us to descend the walk-off. I guess Epic Mike has bad knees, even though he “ran a few marathons a few years ago”. I’m wondering what he ever did in Nepal, because if his timing there was like this climb he’d be in serious trouble. Eight pitches of 5.2, one of 5.7 and it took us 10 hours to complete. By now it is getting really dark.

We finally get back to the car, I drive him back and we part ways with a handshake and “good climb”. I can’t wait to get back to my house and wash the unluckyness out of my hair. I’ve never met anyone before that has had such a string of bad luck – I’ve learned my lesson. Make sure you know someone a bit better than their internet profile before embarking on a 9 pitch climb with them.