The Monitor and the Merrimac
THERE ARE JUST two seasons for climbing in the canyon country of the desert, too hot and too cold. Often they are separated by a matter of minutes and one does not necessarily find them when one expects. While there are, of course, exceptions to this rule, when climbing in the desert the name of the game is fluctuation and intensity.
With this lesson well learned, I arrived in Moab in early May mentally and physically prepared for anything.
Well … almost anything.
I had placed my camp on the slickrock gap between the Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, two easily visible landmarks twenty kilometers north of town. As far as was known the very summits of both were untrodden although the Merrimac, the more substantial of the two, sported the Hyper Crack, a two-pitch route established the previous year by John Bouchard, Jim Dunn, Eric Bjørnstad and Lin Ottinger.
It was, however, the Monitor that held my interest as it offered an aesthetic dihedral on its south side that I had eyed from the state highway two kilometers distant. With the weather still wintry the sunny climbing would be welcome.
The next few days were rewarding and serene as I was treated to beautiful views of wilderness and wildlife. Birds cried overhead as the wind traced new wave patterns in the desert sand. At one point a coyote bitch perhaps in heat spent several hours within a hundred meters of camp attempting to entice my hound, Bat Hook, into a romp in the sand with yips and howls, but at two years he was still a bit young fully to pursue the invitation although he ventured more than halfway out to her both scared and excited. It was a display I have never seen equalled in an area where coyotes are unfortunately so intensively hunted.
After nearly three days I had transported piles of hardware to the base but had only managed to solo twenty-five meters of thin crack in the blustery cold weather before heading back into town to rendezvous with my friend and climbing partner, Dave Mondeau. Together, we returned, Dave driving his two-wheel-drive up the four-wheel-drive trail.
Soon after the instalation of two drilled angles at a hanging belay just over halfway up our perfect dihedral crack, the first pitch was fixed. The ascent the following day went quickly and smoothly. It began with the discovery and avoidance of a rattlesnake near the base of the route. (As it was not near camp, I elected not to shoot it.) Later Dave was forced to drill where the dihedral crack went offwidth. Unable to watch well from my bolts I grew impatient and called up to find out whether Dave had placed his bolt yet and was informed with a defiant laugh that he had already placed two! The Entrada sandstone is much softer than the Wingate, Navaho and Aztec that I usually climb on, which is good or bad depending upon how one looks at it.
Shortly, we belayed each other onto the summit knob, left a register, explored the top of the butte, rappelled back to the base and, wanting to return to town, quickly packed our gear into two enormous loads. Opting for an alternate route down the talus to avoid the rattlesnake, I staggered a few steps only to discover that the snake had moved!
It all happened very fast but it seemed like slow motion. I heard the snake under the rock right behind my foot. Dave cried out a warning. I jumped two meters onto a boulder downhill, and as I sprang, I remember feeling relieved that the snake had not effected a strike.
The boulder began to roll down the talus and I flew sprawling headlong in front of it. Although I flung my hands in front of me, I was so overloaded that I couldn’t keep from going face first into another boulder. There was no time for recovery! Dave yelled a useless warning. The boulder I had jumped onto headed for me. I rolled partially clear and ineffectually held out my hand again to block the half-ton rock that stopped next to me.
Then pain surged. My face throbbed with a warm numbness, my arm burned, my knee seared. Most painful of all, badly torn ligaments made my left ankle useless. With Dave’s help I moved clear of the loose rock (and the snake) and unloaded the gear. With difficulty I explained to Dave that I was going into shock and needed my sleeping bag to maintain core temperature but ice from the cooler to reduce the swelling of my injuries. As Dave hurried back to the trucks, I lay in agony, staring at the wisps of clouds and feeling the wind blow down the cold sweat that had formed on my back.
Somehow I made it back to town (shifting gears was a problem) where I was scheduled to give a slide show at the Rim Cyclery. I imagine I didn’t quite live up to my image after limping in wincing.
Two days later Dave began working on a new line just left of the Hyper Crack on the Merrimac with Dan McGee as I watched from below. The following morning, while the others were finishing breakfast, I limped up to the base with the help of a crutch (discovering another rattler which I failed to hit with a large rock). I managed the one-legged jümar to the high point where I racked up and waited for a belayer. It took a half hour to nail eight meters before I relinquished the lead to Dave. A good thing too, as it turned out to be the crux! Soon we were on the rim looking down on the upper rappel bolts of the Hyper Crack.
The “too hot” season had arrived and I limped over to the summit knobs to find a cool spot for the champagne. Soon the others joined me with some gear and we climbed to the true summit (low fifth-class made more interesting by the inclusion of my crutch). We popped the cork amidst the usual formalities, and during a calm moment I scanned the horizon. There, shimmering on the horizon, were more rocks waiting to be climbed.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Desert near Moab, Utah.
Ascents: Monitor Butte, via Class Monitor, First Ascent, 11, 5.9, A2, May, 1986 (Dave Mondeau, Ron Olevsky).
Merrimac Butte, via Merrymakers’ Route, First Ascent to the Highest Point, II, A3, May, 1986 (Dan McGee, Dave Mondeau, Ron Olevsky).