An Epic (descent) of The Thumb, (Grade III, 5.7, 11 pitches); Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, September 23, 2012

Pitch 3 of the Indecent Exposure Variation of the Standard Thumb route on the Thumb, Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT

“I don’t want to lead it.”

“Neither do I.”

“That last pitch did me in.”

“But you’re a better climber and this is the crux pitch.”

We went back and forth before I convinced Kai to lead it. He really was the stronger climber with more experience than me. And frankly I was a bit intimidated and scared about leading this off-width pitch, even though it was only about eighty feet long.

We were at the top of the fifth pitch of the Standard Route (III 5.7, 11 pitches) on The Thumb in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. Kai had just led the infamous “trough” pitch which turned out to be steep and scary. I had done this climb 25 years ago with my brother, and I certainly did not remember it being this difficult. Of course, 25 years ago I was 40 pounds lighter, fitter, and was climbing a lot more. Pitch 5, the “trough” pitch consisted of climbing a hand crack up to a bulge, then traversing left to gain the trough. The trough was a steep groove about 18 inches wide with a shallow, sometimes protectable crack in the back. It was much steeper than I remembered, kind of hard to protect, and pretty sustained. I could tell Kai was really struggling up there as I belayed him from below. At one point he didn’t seem to be moving for several minutes. He later told me he was fighting back the nausea and the urge to vomit. It was a combination of the unusually hot day, the exertion, and nerves. As I followed the pitch I could certainly see why he struggled. It was hard and scary. Of course following is a totally different experience than leading.

We had begun our day hiking up to the base of the The Thumb at around 9:30 that morning. We brought a standard rack of gear and a 70m rope. We both had small day packs with 2 liters of water and several energy bars and gels, a lightweight windshirt, and headlamps, just in case. For this time of year, it was really warm.

Kai at the beginning of the 2nd pitch.

The first pitch is only 5.4 and went pretty quickly. Some people solo this, but we were more comfortable roping up at this point. The second and third pitches were pretty straightforward and consisted of hand cracks, friction slabs, underclings, and some chimney work. We did the Indecent Exposure Variation which skips the dirty, run-out chimney of the original route. Kai led the first three pitches, then I took the fourth pitch that brought us to Lunch Ledge. Up to this point we were both feeling quite good and were making pretty good time. We each ate an energy bar at the top of this pitch and drank some more water. I though I was being careful with my water consumption, but it is hard to tell when it is in a bladder in your pack.

Only 3-4 pitches up, and already big exposure.
Top of Pitch 3 (or 4 depending on how you count)
Me, low in the “trough” pitch. It’s much steeper than it looks.
Me, high in the “trough” pitch.

At the top of the fifth, “trough” pitch, we both discovered that we were out of water; it was really hot and we were sweating a great deal. At least we had a pretty comfortable belay at two bolts and a large flat rock, actually a chockstone, to stand on.

Gearing up for the crux pitch.

Kai reluctantly took the lead up the off-width six pitch, the crux of the climb. An off-width is a crack too wide to jam with your hands and too narrow to get your body into like a chimney. Sometimes you can squeeze part of your body into them, but they are usually awkward grunts that lack any kind of finesse or grace. Kai placed a small cam in a crack just before the crack steepened to near vertical. He struggled his way up into the off-width and was able to place a large cam. Then his strength started giving out. He tried with his body facing one direction, then the other. He tried smearing on the wall outside the crack with one foot, but the crack was too wide to wedge his other foot inside. It was pretty ugly. Finally, he had had enough, tension traversed right to another shallower crack about 15 feet away. I was not very hopeful of this approach as if this were a better option, it would be a viable alternate route described in the guidebook. He managed to get a small cam in the flaring seam and climb a few feet up, but it was blank, no chance to place any more protection. In frustration, I lowered him back down to the belay ledge.

Looking up at the deceptively steep and difficult off-width crux pitch.

We really only had one option at this point. I would need to lead this pitch. We could not really rappel off the climb because it would require two ropes to get from the bolts at one belay station to the next down below and we only had a single line. Some of the pitches we had climbed below were pretty long, up to 165’. We were both a bit worried, but I knew that I had to lead the pitch. I told myself that I had done it before (twice actually) and that I could do it again. Mentally I began psyching myself up telling myself that I could do. I announced to Kai that I could lead this. He seemed very relieved.

I knew I would have to push through the difficulties without thinking much. And I would not have the strength to linger. I headed up feeling pretty confident. I got to the big cam and was able to slide it up higher into the crack. I did this twice more before climbing above it. I was able to get another cam in a bit higher up. Finally after quite a bit of awkward grunting up the crack I was able to grab a large jug on the wall on the left of the crack. At that point I knew I had it. I mantled a large chockstone, then scrambled up the final 20-30 feet to a comfortable belay ledge at the base of the formation called The Ear. It felt really good to make it up this pitch and it gave me a lot of much needed confidence.

I brought Kai up. Following a pitch like this does not make it much easier, physically. He was really beat by the time he joined me at the belay ledge. In fact, he slumped down onto the ledge, clearly burned out. I racked up and led the next pitch was was an easy 5.5 of liebacking, jamming, and 4th class scrambling. I then brought Kai up. At this point, we realized how thirsty we were. Kai was having some dizzy spells as well. I was feeling pretty weak and climbing much slower than when we started the day. We were now past the difficult climbing, and were probably 600-700’ up the climb. With no water to drink we did decided not to eat anymore as that would just make matters worse. Kai led the next pitch, then I led the last of the technical climbing. We then short-roped up (put about 40’ of rope between us) and simul-climbed the remaining 200-300’ of easy fourth class scrambling to the summit notch. It was now about 6:45 pm and beginning to cool off. It had taken us about 8 hours to summit. For a couple middle-aged, overweight guys, we felt pretty good about ourselves. (The guidebooks suggest 6-8 hours for the ascent). Because it was getting late, and we were very tired, we skipped the last technical pitch to the true summit, the top of the thumb formation, and decided to head down. We changed out of rock shoes into our sticky rubber approach shoes, which felt really good after 8 hours on the rock.

Despite the fact that we were a bit dehydrated, and that we had struggled on two of the pitches, we were feeling pretty good. We had done the climb with no falls, and without any route finding difficulty.

The Descent—The Real Adventure Begins

All the guidebook descriptions and other descriptions online about the descent were all pretty vague. Unfortunately, it had been so long since I did this descent that couldn’t remember hardly anything about it, except that there was lots of down climbing. We were using the Gear Loop Topo and it said to scramble down to the huge pine tree and rap off it, then some more scrambling to some slabs for one more rappel. Then lots of down climbing, staying to the right side of the gully. It suggested 45-60 minutes for the descent.

That is not how things worked out. Not even close.

We found the big pine tree and the rappel slings and rings without any trouble and rapped off. It was a long steep rappel into scrub oak bushes. It was still pretty steep so we decided to rappel again down to a flat section. It was really dirty and we had all kinds of dirt and debris pouring down on us while we rappelled. We coiled the rope and began scrambling down. It was beginning to get dark and the lower we climbed the harder it got to see. We put on our headlamps and continued on. At times we would get to steep cliffs and have to scramble around looking for an easier way down. Finally we got to a point where we could no long down climb safely and decided to rappel. It was a wide steepish slab. We figured maybe this was the slab mentioned in the guidebook. We looped the rope around a stout scrub oak bush and rapped off. It was a long rappel, almost to the ends of our rope. When I tried to pull the rope, nothing. It didn’t even budge. We both tried pulling; we tried the other line. Nothing. Not even a hint of movement. This was pretty serious. It was too sketchy to climb back up to the rappel anchor, so Kai grabbed the rope for balance and carefully climbed up the edge of the slabs along a gully. He got pretty high up and still nothing. He climbed as high as he could, maybe 2/3 the way back up and cut both lines with his knife. We didn’t see any other way, and besides, this was supposed to be the last rappel. This left us with probably two sections of 75’ of rope, so tied together we had about 150’ of rope left.

We continued to scramble down. We were glad to have comfortable sticky rubber approach shoes. It was pretty dark now, but it remained surprisingly warm. There was bushwhacking through the scub oak, down climbing gulleys, and lots of traversing back and forth looking for a safe way down. Then another steep slab of granite. We begin down climbing but it was probably 5.5 or 5.6 climbing and we decided we better rappel down. There were no natural anchors around so we set a cam into a crack, backed it up with another cam and rapped off into the night. Once Kai was down, I took out the back up cam, and rapped down.

One of the many rappels.

More scrambling, down climbing, and bushwhacking. We are both really tired, and moving slow. We knew that the majority of climbing accidents happen on the descent when you are tired and your judgment is impaired. We take it slow and easy. At each rappel we check each other’s rappel set up and double check our anchors. We think we might be pretty close to the bottom. It seems we have been down climbing forever. Then we reach another section of slabs too steep to down climb. We get to the side of the slabs in the scrub oak and set up another rappel, then another, and another, and another. Sometimes we leave a sling and carabiner. We are wearing down and it is past midnight now. We have a cell phone and have called our wives telling them we will be late. We call occasionally to give them an update on our progress.

More down climbing and scrambling until we reach a very big, steep blank wall of granite. Kai is excited to find a rock horn with some old rappel slings looped around it. I take one look at the exposure and slump down onto the ledge in resignation. It does not look like our doubled rope will reach the bottom. But Kai is optimistic because there are belay slings here and he says someone has rappelled off this before. Then I remind him that we have a short rope. He is quite for a moment. I’m close to giving up. It’s a warm night; we could easily sit out the night until morning when we can see better. But the problem is that we are so thirsty. We are barely able to wet out throats and we are both pretty weak. I don’t want to go on, but Kai convinces me to just do two more rappels then we’ll reevaluate. But the problem is that is does not look like our doubled rope will reach the bottom of this wall. Of course in the dark we cannot really see that far down, but there is an awful lot of white granite and no dark patches that would indicate trees. I think we may be stuck here.

But Kai comes up with an idea. We tie the ropes together, giving us double the distance. This will probably get us to the bottom of this cliff. Probably. It’s a gamble. And we would have to pass the knot through our rappel devices, which means we would have to have a ledge or something where we could un-weight the rope to do so. It’s risky and I don’t like it, but Kai is insistent this is our only option. Before I can object too much he sets up the rappel and off he goes, his headlamp light getting smaller and smaller until he raps off a bulge and I am alone in the dark. I close my eyes and doze. I’m so tired. His far off yelling nudges me awake. I can’t understand what he is saying. We yell back and forth, but cannot communicate. I finally make out that he is off rappel. I set up my device and begin rappelling down the single line. I’m worried about passing the knot. Because it is a single line and it is a very steep wall, vertical and overhanging in places, the rappel is faster than I prefer, especially being so tired. As I go over the bulge and am hanging free, I yell down,

“Where’s the knot? Did you pass the knot?”

I don’t want to be hanging off an overhang and hit the knot.

“Don’t worry, just keep coming. You’re fine.”

“Where’s the knot?”

He assures me to keep coming. I finally hit a large level ledge just as the knot presses up against my belay device. Kai is about 30 feet below. He tells me it is any easy down climb to the bottom where he is. It turns out that we probably did not need to tie the ropes together as one line just barely reached this ledge. Of course there was no way of knowing that from above. I untie the ropes and down climb to the bottom. We now have one single line about 75’ long. And we are really hoping this is the end of the rappelling. We have to be close to the bottom now. We’re feeling very fortunate to be off that steep wall.

We continue our downward slow march. More of the same—bushwhacking, scrambling, down climbing. It goes on and on, until another steep section too dangerous to down climb. We explore left, then right, down, then back up. We have to rappel again. Ugh. We both hate rappelling, and we are certainly sick of it.

We loop several runners around a large rock and rappel down the face, then over to the right into more scrub oak. We pull our short rope and look for the way down. Kai goes up to explore to the right but the terrain cliffs out. More blank slabs to the left. I’m just about ready to throw in the towel. But Kai convinces me that we are not getting anything to drink until we reach the bottom. There is no sense in stopping now. I just want to be safe. We rappel again and things start looking a bit better. Kai has the better, brighter headlamp so he goes first. We down climb a gulley and it goes like this. “Uh-oh, it doesn’t look good here.” Then, “I think it will go.” This happens countless times as we descend into the dark. It looks too steep, but then there is a way right when we are on top of it.

Finally it is just too steep to continue down climbing safely. We have scrambled around and can find no safe way down. We sense that we are close to the bottom. It seems really dark down there, no bright white granite shining in the pale moonlight.

We think we might be able to make it all the way to the ground with one last single-rope-tied-off-rappel. We set up an anchor and Kai raps off. Far below I see his faint light stop and he yells up excitedly that he can see the bottom. He can see the approach trail below him. But he is still about 25’ from the ground and he is out of rope. So close. He anchors himself to a scrub oak.

Here is the plan. I pull the single line back up, double the rope, rappel down until I can find another anchor further down, then rappel off that. Hopefully that will give us enough rope to reach the bottom. I rap off gear as there are no trees large enough for an anchor. I find another possible place to put a rappel anchor, a shallow crack, but it is only about 30’ below the last point. It will have to do. I set up the new anchor, again using gear and the crack. It is not great, so I place another piece above it. I then tie the end of the rope into the anchor and rappel off the single line. It’s a gamble. There is no going back, and we are fully committed. I am able to reach some scrub oak about 25’ above Kai on the single line. I only have maybe 10’ of rope to spare. I tie the end of the line into the tree, then tie a knot about 12’ above that and tie into that knot. This will be my self-belay, not ideal, but adequate. I then begin climbing back up a crack. I need to get up as high as I can and cut the rope one last time. I climb almost to the end of my tether, grab the rope from above with one hand, put it in my teeth to give it some tension and begin sawing away at the rope between with my tiny Leatherman Squirt blade. If finally cuts through and I carefully climb back down to the tree.

I loop my last sling around the tree and tie the rope to this. That will give us a couple more feet. This is the moment. We are hoping and praying the line will reach the bottom. Kai has been anxiously waiting in the brush below me. I toss the rope off and it tangles in the bushes below. I pull it back up and untangle it. I toss it off again and it hangs up in some branches. I pull it up again, loosely coil it, and give it a good throw. Kai erupts, “It reaches! It reaches the ground!”

He rappels off the line to the bottom. I then follow and we are both standing on level ground. There is only two feet of rope laying on the ground, and that is all the rope we have left.

We are at the limits of our endurance but overjoyed to be off this beast. It is 2:45 am. It has taken us almost 7 hours to descend.  We stagger down the talus fields to the parking lot and my waiting car.

Final note: This is a long trad climb with an alpine feel to it. It is has two awkward and potentially strenuous  pitches depending our your fitness level. For us the crux was the descent. It is long and complicated, especially in the dark. Take lots of water and headlamps. We both feel that if we had more water, things would have been much better.

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