If we are friends in real life, then you know of my great love/hate for choss, or choss-width, a term often used by Pat Kingsbury. (Choss-width: a crack too wide for effective hand or foot jams but is not quite a chimney and often filled with loose or rotten rock, and on occasion, marmot bones.) Pat had been urging me to come for a visit to climb with him in Sedona, AZ I knew nothing of Arizona climbing but had heard good things. Desperate to get away from the Front Range cold and snow, I took off the week before Christmas in search of south-facing rocks.
What can I say about Sedona? It’s incredibly beautiful and filled with fairly soft rock. While sandstone has a reputation for being malleable by nature, Sedona climbing is somehow different and special, as it has world class on the down low. As my car chugged along 191, Pat messaged: “Pass that perfect Wingate sandstone and continue towards the choss!”
I woke up in a big dirt lot and we smashed egg and avocado sandwiches with a few cups of coffee. Neil Kauffman and Adam Barad joined us and we hiked up to the Desert Mule, a two-pitch tower that is every bit of 5.11+. The route is visible from the approach and I noted the intriguing zigging and zagging of the crack. Neil and Adam started up the tower as Pat and I began racking up for Pink Wiggler, a three-pitch route with a 5.12 offwidth crux.
Pat took the first pitch of steep fingers to hands, which led to an awkward belay stance right below the wide pitch. He gave me the second and I moved through several feet of 6s before it became too wide for gear. Left side in, I carefully took note of the sandy feet as the crack shrunk enough to place another 6. Trusting a good wing, I still worried about a foot accidentally slipping but several moves later, I was comfortably standing on gritty little ledges beneath the roof.
The crux was not the wide section, like we both thought. Gold camalots! Pat will be psyched, I thought as I placed my 2 and started moving out of the roof. I, however, was less psyched as I grunted upward and scrunched my body together, trying desperately to find a place for my foot. I flopped into a pod and just sat there and found my breath. Pat asked if I had put any gear in yet, considering the long run out below me. I locked my knee comfortably and just sat for several moments before plugging in a 5 above my head.
Pat flew up pitch three, joking that he was probably on the actual crux pitch. It was a splitter offwidth pitch, 5.10ish, that should have felt moderately easy but I was a little wrecked from the roof. Back in town, we celebrated over burgers and too many beers.
It was good to have inflated my ego a little bit because it wouldn’t go as well the next day. After a roadside breakfast sandwich, we hiked up to a few of Pat’s choss-width projects. Pat let me take the first attempt, but I was thwarted by the steepness of the climb less than ten feet up. Unable to thrutch my way to the first pod and shove a 6 way back into the crack, I came down. Pat proudly sent the short but brutally steep line while I belayed him. My knees more bruised than my ego, I gave it one more try.
I used to think that I could just wing it when it came to offwidths and crack climbing in general. I’ve heard people say that crack climbing comes naturally to me when they watch me climb and I laugh heartily knowing that this is not true at all. On my first real crack climbing trip, I was given the infamous splitter fourth pitch on the Grand Wall. For what seemed like an eternity, I bumped a gold camalot along with me. I’m pretty sure I whimpered and whined the entire way up, until I had absolutely freaked myself out, took on my piece to lower, and let my partner finish.
Filled with an intense desire to figure out this newfangled style of climbing, I accepted that it was going to be a slow process. I would climb three-quarters of the way up the LIC crack only to whip below the chains every time. It started at .75 and widened to 2s through the roof. After pulling a roof, the crack size changes to overhung 3s to 4s. However, I would not let myself become discouraged because I was GOING to figure it out.
I flailed and thrutched until I had gained a little endurance and somewhat figured out what to do with my limbs. I even made it to the top of the gym crack. I started traveling around to some of the most iconic crack climbing destinations, sharpening my skills and trying test piece after test piece. I was met with both failure and success.
I often remind myself that this is how climbing goes sometimes. Some days you send and others you fall short. The important part is that we are open to the lesson both types of days offer. Success is often sandwiched with failure, but the more you focus on the process and building a technique—the more the climbing will open up to you, too.
Cover photograph courtesy of Blake McCord.