Gunsmoke -- Long Canyon Day, April 2004

The long day started suddenly with rude beeping in the dark. I croaked "What?" and groped toward the noise, knocking objects off a small table. "That's your alarm," Leslie said, always quicker to understand.

By lunchtime I had flown from rainy New Hampshire to cloudy Colorado, where there was rain in the forecast as well. Eric and Kelly picked me up in Grand Junction, and we drove on toward Moab, happily planning the weekend.

Later that afternoon we reached Long Canyon. Maverick Buttress loomed against a gray sky. We would start out with Gunsmoke, which none of us had been on before. I claimed jet lag, feeling faded from my 4am start, so Eric set off on the lead. Thirty feet up he ran short of enthusiasm and gold cams. He came down and offered me a turn. A few drops of rain fell.

I toproped back to his highpoint, noticing that most of the lower cams had rotated with their stems pointing upwards -- an insecure look. The anchors were still far away, so reluctantly I found myself leading. My strategy had a rhythm: jam until the gear was below my feet, place another cam, breathe, start to move up again. The rhythm became choppy as the long crack wore on.

Eventually, drained of energy, I stared up at the crux. The hand crack narrowed to fingers through a bulge. I stalled, trying to rest. It began raining again. Thunder rumbled. Scared into action, I stemmed up a few moves, then committed. Do or fly. Both feet skidded off; I jammed a knee in the flare to hang on. Fingers clawed soft flakes like playing cards on a table as I floundered into the belay pod. I stood up gasping for air, and clipped the anchor with a cam. Rain became a downpour, sheets of water sweeping the face. Soaked in my t shirt, I moved slowly, thinking out what needed to be done. It would take two ropes to rap and I only had one.

I pulled my lead rope up through the protection, still breathing hard. Sixty meters of wet line seemed endlessly long and heavy. Lightning struck Maverick Buttress, sending a shock that snapped my head as I leaned into the rock. Spooked but unable to speed up, I gathered rope and tossed an end down. Out of sight through the downpour below, Eric and Kelly attached another rope to mine, and I pulled it all up again. Threaded the anchor, tied an EDK and slid down, cleaning gear. Eric watched the ropes, alert for another lightning shock. None came. I reached the ground soggy and safe, somehow one cam shy of a rack. Finally I could smile, about adventure survived.

The downpour gave way to bright rainbows, but our adventure was not quite complete. The dirt switchbacks down Long Canyon had turned to mud. We watched a Jeep leave slalom tracks as it skidded on the narrow grade. When our turn came, Eric drove cautiously, yet still wobbled down the hill, direction barely controlled by the wheel.

Half an hour later we met Kim in Moab, where she had just arrived from Atlanta. We traded our days' stories. Excitement soon refocused on the future. Tomorrow, at Indian Creek, Eric would flash his best lead of the year; Kim would boldly go all-out on 5.12, and take a battering fall; Kelly and I would follow pitches we could not have led. But we knew none of this yet. That evening in Moab, high on the good things in life, the four of us went out looking for pizza and beer.

Larry Hamilton, 2004