Splitting the Owls
Seeking shade at Lumpy Ridge
The day after our big BBQ party six of us headed to Lumpy Ridge in search of cool (i.e. not hot) climbing. We arranged ourselves into three teams of two: English Bob and his compatriot, Paul; Ken and Cynthia (a.k.a. Steph), and Johnny "He's a Homie" Bobo and myself. I suggested doing Organ Pipes (3 pitches, 5.6) on the Twin Owls formation. This route ends on the Roosting Ramp where we could follow the Central Chimney (3 pitches, 5.7+) route to the summit. I picked these routes because they were recommended in the guidebook, but also because they were out of the sun. No one else seemed too excited about these choices, but relented since they didn't know the area and did want to stay out of blazing heat.
We pulled into the small parking lot around 8 a.m. and soon headed up the trail. And immediately took a wrong turn. Who's leading this group anyway?! We corrected course and soon arrived at the base of the route. A route that English Bob thought he could ski if it was snow covered. I thought it was steeper than that, but certainly not as steep as the route looked from the parking lot. Organ Pipes follows deep runnels on a southwest facing wall, but a huge dihedral on the right blocked the sun and we were able to climb in the cool shade.
I took off up the easiest line and English Bob started leading a 5.9 variation further left. I thought the climbing was fairly challenging and a bit runout, but fun. Mostly crack climbing with some good holds, flares, some smears, laybacks, whatever it took to make upward progress. I finished the pitch at a fixed rappel anchor and brought Bobo up. Ken started leading up after him.
The character of the climbing changes dramatically halfway through the second pitch. The rock turns from gray, grainy rock to hard, smooth, brown granite reminiscent of Yosemite. A beautiful hand crack splits the upper wall and we estimated the difficulty at 5.8+/5.9-. This crack could easily be avoided, but we sought it out. It provided the best climbing of the day.
This was Johnny Bobo's first experience at Lumpy Ridge and he is a relatively new climber so I handled all the leading chores. Johnny nearly got the final crack clean, but needs a touch more work on his jamming technique. We arrived at the top of the Roosting Ramp well ahead of the other two teams so we decided to climb the first pitch of West Owl Direct (5.12a s/vs) which fortunately has a nice 5.9 first pitch. I found this pitch to be more challenging than the ledge-y flake appeared from the comfort of the ledge. Good rest stances eased the tension, but the moves were challenging. The crack forms the left side of this triangle shaped flake in a huge dihedral. I lowered off from the rappel slings and top-roped the right side, which is rated 5.11d. I fell off the lower crux and swung to the left. I then climbed up the left side until I was high enough to get around that section and then swung back. I climbed from here to the top, but it definitely was a team effort as Johnny provided a lot of the upward momentum. I had to rest on the rope a number of times. This pitch is very technical and very continuous and it would be an extremely serious lead. The guidebook lists it only as a top-rope. English Bob would later give it a try and nearly flash it on TR, only coming off 15 feet below the top.
Once Ken cleaned my gear out of the West Owl Direct crack, we headed down to the Central Chimney, a hundred feet down the ramp. The air blowing out of this chimney felt air-conditioned. We all crowded into the base of the route and luxuriated in the coolness. English Bob headed up the first pitch (5.2 in the guidebook, but more like 5.6 and unprotected) and then started up the crux "5.7+ ooze" section. English is a very accomplished chimney climber and when we started hearing the grunts and heavy breathing and cussing, we knew to be afraid. Cynthia decided against climbing this route. She said she doesn't like chimneys anyway. Ken joined Johnny and I to make a team of three.
When Bob finished the squeeze section he set up a belay. This is actually in the middle of the second pitch as described by the guidebook. Paul followed and had even more trouble. I led up to the top of the first pitch and had a great view of the struggles. "Keep the rope tight, Bob," Paul starts then continues, "Tension. Pull!" Profanities ensue. "Keep the rope tight," he repeats. "I've got about 200 pounds of tension in the line," responds Bob. Eventually Paul reaches the belay exhausted and complimentary about Bob's lead. "I never could have led that," he says. "I couldn't even top-rope it!" Yet he isn't too exhausted since he grabs the rack and races up the next steep pitch.
My turn. I'm no expert climber, not by a long shot, but I have done my share of chimneys and this one reminded me of Yosemite squeeze chimneys. Some very good chimney climbers including English Bob himself have schooled me and I was able to move steadily up this chimney. Paul says that this is a pitch only I could enjoy. It is true that I like the groveling, grunting nature of such climbs. It seems to play to my strength of thrashing around without any clear indication of any technique. Plus my ample belly comes in handy as I can jam it in the crack to rest. I also had the enormous benefit of the hard-earned beta obtained by Bob and Paul. The beta is to start this chimney left side in and climb most of the way up it until you reach a fixed pin. The key is to turn right side in when this pin is at chest height. This isn't easy to do, but it is essential to getting out of the squeeze at the top. I was soon at the belay, breathing heavy and a bit scraped up, but none the worse for wear. This is a very tight chimney and makes heavy use of the needs via "frogging" and knee bars.
Johnny was next and moved easily up to the base of the squeeze. Now the huffing and puffing started in earnest. I've been there before. It seems like I'm always breathing like a freight train whenever I finish a pitch led by Dr. Offwidth or Eric Winkleman. At times I was in such oxygen debt that it was fully five minutes before I could talk. Hence, I took great joy in heckling Johnny.
Though relatively inexperienced, Johnny has already made significant advances in climbing technique. He's already recognized as the undisputed master of the ass-lock. He's taken the standard butt-bar and elevated to an art form similar to what Randy Leavitt did to offwidth technique when he refined hand stacks into Leavittation. John's must impressive maneuver is the admittedly poser shot of getting a bomber ass-lock on the underside of a horizontal roof and then dangling all four limbs. Of course, it is particularly embarrassing if he suddenly loses his sphincter seal.
Back in our squeeze chimney, Johnny is ass-locking and butt-barring his way up the slot. He actually did quite well for his first squeeze chimney experience. Johnny came off a couple of times, but didn't weight the rope for long and consequently didn't get much rest and subsequently couldn't talk when he arrived at the belay. I told him not to try and clipped him in. Ken was halfway up the pitch before Johnny could say anything. His first words: "That wasn't so bad."
Ken is a very experienced climber and formerly a 5.11 leader. He has climbed numerous routes in Yosemite and I expected him to make short work of this chimney. His mistake was ignoring the advice to switch sides. Actually he tried to switch and didn't think he could do it so he persevered with the left side in. After many minutes of extremely strenuous but ultimately futile effort, he collapsed on the rope and switched sides. Once that was done he was soon at the belay.
Since Ken was still recovering from the chimney I took advantage of the opportunity and led the next pitch. This is a very steep, aesthetic pitch, albeit a bit grainy. I rained particles down on my companions as I chimneyed (back-feet), stemmed, and jammed up to and under a chockstone to a belay. Here there are two ancient bolts protruding from the wall. I placed a couple of cams instead. Johnny and Ken quickly followed. Ken then led the variation 5.8 finish up a crack on the left wall. At the top of the wall he looked down and said, "There isn't a 5.8 move on that pitch." It did seem to be much easier than the "5.7+" chimney below.
We summitted and descended the "Bowels of the Owls" which is an intimidating chimney in itself. This downclimb is rated 4th class, but seems like lower 5th class. I scrambled down first since I had done it a couple of times before. Waiting at the bottom, I hear Ken call out, "If you fell from here, you could hurt yourself." Then, later, "Bill, this sucks." He carefully completed the descent. Where was Johnny? "Oh, he's trying to get the perfect coil on his rope," said Ken. After three attempts at coiling, Johnny is satisfied and joins us. We complete the descent and traverse back to the Roosting Ramp. English Bob and Paul have left on their long drive back to Utah, but Cynthia is waiting for us in the last bit of remaining shade and we hike back to the car together.
I'd recommend the Central Chimney route, but I like chimneys. The climb is steep, challenging, and shaded. Plus you'll find out how hard 5.7 can be.