OTTO'S ROUTE, INDEPENDENCE MONUMENT (August 2001)

Larry Hamilton, September 2001

Sarah and I reached Fruita by mid-afternoon, in hot stormy weather. After checking into a motel, we drove out to find the Monument Canyon trailhead. It felt too hot to hike, though, high 90s for sure, so we returned to our motel and jumped in the swimming pool instead. Two hours later we tried the trailhead again. By that time the sky was black with thunderclouds, and lightning flashed frequently over the highlands a few miles away. Undaunted, we loaded two heavy ropes, climbing gear and a great deal of Gatorade into our packs. We walked past a subdivision of new muscle homes elaborately fenced off with barbed wire, then up into the finer world of red rock canyons.

Thoughts of the long drive and the subdivision faded as we crossed over this threshold. Monument Creek raged with boiling brown water some twenty yards wide. Up-country storms during the past hour had produced a flash flood, filling the normally dry streambed with a roar that echoed off the canyon walls. Our trail contoured above the flood, gaining height steadily. The hike was hard work.

Sarah claimed to be out of shape, but she hiked strongly. After years during which she had little enthusiasm for climbing, we were trying something brand new -- our first father-daughter road trip. She had proposed the idea, and expressed a preference for doing multi-pitch climbs that got to the top of something. Delighted by her new interest, I suggested Otto's Route. More than 25 years earlier, my wife and I had walked towards Independence Monument on a nice spring day. But along the way, we decided that climbing it would have ruined a good hike. I'd thought about the tower occasionally since then, like so many other "some day" climbs. The singular perfection of now choosing Otto's Route as a goal for Sarah and me seemed so clear that I suppressed nagging doubts about August being the wrong month, or my physical condition unready.

With a department to run, a book due and a research project that was drifting off schedule, I'd slumped into desk-potato mode since climbing Epinephrine nine months earlier. Minor injuries had made climbing painful, discouraging my feeble attempts to train. As we neared Otto's Route, I described to Sarah my plan to copy tactics that Eric Dearing and I had successfully employed on Epinephrine: learn the approach and pitch one the first evening; leave gear at the base; then come back by headlamp before dawn the next day. I did not mention my hope that applying Grade V tactics to a Grade III climb might compensate for having a leader so far out of shape.

The north side of the tower was soggy from that afternoon's rains, and the sun would soon set. The start looked easy, however. After resting briefly at the base, I began to lead with an overloaded rack that included every size of cam -- evidence of my apprehensions. Carrying too much gear and dragging an 11mm second rope made the pitch harder instead of easier, of course. At the top I took an attractive direct line that left me standing wearily on a huge ledge, wondering where on earth were the anchors. After solving that mystery I brought Sarah up, and we absorbed the spectacular evening views. We stashed drinks for tomorrow, set up a rappel, and slid happily back to our shoes. As we left our gear beneath an overhang at the base, Sarah learned about my phobia concerning varmints. This stems from an incident on Notchtop in '74, when a marmot chewed up my whole pack (for nesting materials, perhaps), leaving only the leather straps. No similar affront has befallen me since, but I always imagine that it could.

We hiked out while dusk turned to darkness. After a drab dinner at Wendy's, we retired to the motel and set an alarm for 4 a.m. It went off almost immediately, or so it seemed, rudely signaling time for us to start the big day.

Sarah has never been a morning person. On camping trips she often slept determinedly long after the sun hit our tent, while other family members -- me in particular -- impatiently paced about making coffee and planning the day. Things were different this time, however. When the alarm went off she rose cheerfully, and was ready to go before I was. By 5 a.m. we were hiking up the familiar trail. I felt buoyed by Sarah's enthusiasm and our newfound sense of partnership. The light pack helped too.

The route had dried little overnight, but its start went easier without so much gear. Cool fog swirled around us, creating dramatic sunrise effects. After outlining for Sarah two potentially useful tricks -- how to arm-bar an offwidth, and how to tow a pack up a chimney -- I climbed up to the offwidth chimney that formed the route's first crux. Holes that John Otto had drilled to place pipes for his 1911 first ascent nowadays offer a face-climbing alternative, well protected by large cams. It proved more difficult for Sarah because I had persuaded her to wear a helmet, which interfered with retrieving those cams.

Above this chimney comes the Time Tunnel, an easy slot through which one walks like an Egyptian to arrive at Lunch Box Ledge. Sarah observed that Lunch Box Ledge looked like a fine place to leave a helmet. I had the same thought regarding large cams. Fog isolated us from tourists on the nearby rim. Climbing off-season and starting before sunrise now seemed clever moves that had bought us this magical place for ourselves. It was still early morning. We were psyched.

Damp sandy holds inspired caution above Lunch Box Ledge, but these holds were in fact pretty large. One unique passage involved stemming up holes drilled in opposite walls of a corner. Even the last mantle felt secure.

The view opened in all directions when we reached sunlight at the top of this pitch, on a shoulder of the tower's west ridge. The fog was burning off, but yesterday's storm lingered placidly in pools on every flat bit of rock. Above, the route goes offworld: carved steps lead up a colorful arete to meet overhanging caprock, with cosmic space all around. I couldn't recall seeing anything like it.

Initially this pitch was a stairway, albeit sandy and absurdly exposed. When it steepened, I paused to place protection in a pipe hole, though the moves were not yet fifth class. As I did so I realized that the peculiar scooped indentations we had been passing on the route, too smooth to be useful as holds, must have originated as shattered-out pipe holes. Thus reminded about the fragility of desert rock, I clipped the fixed pitons leading into the summit overhang.

Here the route takes on a new character. I contemplated the crux briefly and then chose the wrong sequence, one with good handholds but nothing for feet. My mistake was immediately apparent, as I pulled up on fading arms and stared at the unreachable next holds. An impulse to jump off for a short fall onto the top pin was cancelled by the jolting thought that after the long stairway start, there could be enough slack in the rope to land hard on that low-angle arete. Instead, I threw wildly to catch a hold, pulled up and threw again, eking out a borderline finale. Sarah could not see my expression, for which I was glad. As I stood up on the ledge, clipped the anchors and put Sarah on belay, grip transformed to elation. I had come to a remarkable place, a balcony above the desert planet.

Sarah had done little climbing over the past year, and certainly nothing this steep. (Our warmup was The Owl in Boulder Canyon.) I worried that she might slip off the crux, and that struggling here would detract from her happiness with an otherwise brilliant ascent. She chose a smarter sequence than I had, however -- one with footholds. After warning me that she would probably fall, she flashed it. We stood beaming together, eight feet short of the summit.

There was still entertainment, in those final eight feet. It is possible to boulder straight up, but that looked awkward, and I had heard of people standing on a vertical pipe (the only one remaining from Otto's ascent) to bypass those moves. Sarah and I stepped out to the left, where a small foothold provided an airier and more dignified finish.

The summit forms a miniature plateau with great drops on all sides. Puddles and ponds filled every depression; our rope sought these out. We peered off edges, ate lunch, took pictures. I felt joyful to be up there, to have pulled off this climb, with Sarah. The world seemed perfect. Over hills to our south, young cumulonimbus clouds built quietly, as if whispering "Nothing to see here. Don't look at us yet." It was just 10 a.m.

Half an hour later we started down. Taking our time, we reached the car by 2, and went searching for postcards and espresso. We then set off on the long drive to Aspen, in preparation for a quite different adventure at 14,000 feet. On only its second day, our road trip was an outstanding success.


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