Black Elk Speaks

“Well it looks like it is your lead” Matt says with a motion up toward the crack.

“Uhh, you won the rochambeau fair and square.  We can just restack the rope”  I respond quickly between breaths.  “Besides I just climbed.”

“Well your on top of the pile and have all the gear.”  I look down at the half ropes stacked neatly at his feet on the small ledge.  “That last pitch was pretty awesome, you should just go for it” he insists.

I clove hitch into the anchor and look up at the soaring fist crack and roof.  I feel the knot in my stomach tighten.

Matt on pitch five

For me there has always been an aura around Black Elk.  ”    First ascentionist Jeff Lowe described their June 1979 ascent of the route in the 1980 American Alpine Journal:  ” It has a little of everything; face-climbing, laybacks, cracks of all sizes and stemming added up to the finest free-climb either of us has ever done”   Many climbers whom I  admire and look up to have made ascents of the route that guidebook author Joe Kelsey calls “obligatory for hardmen.”  Some have multiple ascents to their credit.  Dave Anderson, Pete Absolon,  Josh Beckner, Daren Opeka, Nate Furman.  First ascentionist  Jeff Lowe and Charlie Fowler, two of the most prolific climbers of their generation are on that list as well, who during their trip into the Winds in 1979 also nabbed the first ascent of the Feather Buttress, which sports what guidebook author Steve Bechtel calls “one of the wildest 5.9 pitches in America.”  No doubt a very successful trip into the Winds for these two climbers.

So Black Elk held all the requisites of a rite of passage for me.  Challenging climbing, mountain weather, allure, reputations and a notorious wide crack crux, which was a perfect test piece for crack climbers like Matt and myself.

I looked at Matt.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes Don Jared.  Go for it.”

“Well alright if you are sure”  I state as I start re-racking.  I wonder silently if we have enough gear and think about the sandbaggery in action here.  Number fives and number sixes, only number fours, only number four Friends, number ten hexes.  All of the sandbagged beta swirls in my head.  I shake to clear the clutter.  Two number four Camalots, one number four Friend and one number five Camalot.  That’s what we got.  I look up again, the white crystalline granite bright in the the early morning sun.  I gauge the crack, comparing it mentally with other I’ve done.  4×4, Sinestra, the Creek, … I focus on the upward sweeping crack and begin to like what I see.  I look at Matt.  “All set?”

“On belay Don Jared” he replies.  I untie my clove hitches and flip my ropes around.  I

Matt following the wide crack of pitch four

launch off upward, easily dispensing with the first thirty feet.  Nothing but a hand crack I think to myself.  As I slide in a yellow Camalot Matt’s deadpan words of encouragement float up “give it some corn Don Jared.”

A small overlap below the roof gives me a hint of the roof above, but this is surmounted easily.  From somewhere below I hear Matt’s commentary: “is that Earl Wiggins up there?  Oh wait, no it is just Alf’s long lost nephew.”  Below the roof I jettison my number five Camalot, not wanting to carry it higher and not thinking I will need it.   I move up to the roof and work my way through, my fist fitting securely into the crack.   Good friction and footholds appear outside the crack and I quickly find myself above the roof, looking at a wired Hex.  I tap it gingerly then quickly clip it with a draw.  “I’ll take it” I say to myself.  I make a few more moves upward and then realize that the fun is just beginning.

As a rite of passage I view Black Elk as a stepping stone, a rung in the ladder, just part of journey.  Its stature in my mind and the style in which my friends did it dictated that Matt and I not just do it without falling but we needed to do it in good style.  Send with time to spare.  No taking, go to failure.  Whip or send, no in between.    For me a rite of passage should open doors, give me confidence and allow me into a space both physically and mentally were I can try new things.  For me getting the gumption to try it was in itself challenging, though I knew that it was time.  Matt did as well.

“Welcome back Matt”  I said to him, a few weeks earlier, seeing him back in town after a stint in the woods.

Matt finishing the last pitch

“Hi Don Jared”  he repaid, as he proceeded to introduce me to his students.

“Black Elk next week?” I queried, straight to the point.

“Yep, it is time.”

We hiked in during a lightening storm, most of the six miles to Big Sandy Lake passing in wet silence.  It cleared as we reached the lake and stopped for our first break.  After a bite we trekked the next mile to our camp, again in silence.  A dirtbag feast of focaccia bread, beans, cornbread, and cheese ensued.  Then the fateful rochambeau.  I lost, Matt would get the crux pitch.  But somehow, ten hours later I had led the first two pitches …which set me up for the lead of the crux pitch.

The fist crack slowly gives way to rattly fists and loose feet.  My last number four Camalot goes in easily, too easily and I am soon far above it.  Thrutching ensues, then swimming, wobbling in the wider than fists crack.  I reach deep, both into the crack and into my pocket of kinesthetic resources.  “At least if I blow it here I blow it big”, I think to myself, looking down at my last cam far below.   I go deep for the forearm jam, slapping at the inside of the crack.  I gaston with my other hand and wiggle my feet up, inch by inch.   Opposing fists, one coming up and one coming down propel me a little higher as I find the crack narrowing ever slightly.  An orange TCU placement happily greets me as I make my way into a pod.    Some more moves and I pull out the route description and decide that where I am is as good as any to belay.  Four pieces.  I sling them all with my cordalette and clove hitch in.  “Belay off” I yell down.

“Nice work.”

On the descent from the Black Elk
On the way down

We swap leads and eventually I bring us up under a huge chockstone and move to the left.  This belay stance leaves Matt with the hard poorly protected pitches.  Somehow I luck out and get the top rope.  Then I run the rope out above and bring us up to the shoulder of Warbonnet.   Matt makes his way up and we congratulate each other with high fives.  “Not too shabby”  he says.  “That was pretty awesome.”

“And it is only 1330” I say looking at my watch.

We coil ropes, disassemble the anchor and store gear, the unspoken rituals of climbers who have shared countless pitches.  We stop and swap climbing shoes for approach, then head down the gully under gathering cumulus clouds.  We discuss some intricacies, but mostly descend in silence.  As we reach the valley floor we look up to the sound of a tapping hammer and to see two climbers slowly drilling bolts and making their way up a new route on the left side of Warbonnet, a gentle reminder that for me this is only a rung on the ladder and that there is so much more to do.

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.