Blog and Photo Journal by Lisa Rands
I'll admit it, I was nervous before our trip to the Incredible Hulk. Although Peter Croft and I had been climbing quite a bit together over the past few years, we had not done a lot of traditional climbing together…almost none! The truth is, most of the climbing I had done with Peter was on-sight sport climbing. So you might be wondering how someone who has been called the “Bouldering Diva” managed to team up with a climbing legend known for being one of the boldest traditional climbers of all time. And how we decided to climb a multi-pitch granite rock spire located five miles into the mountains?
It all started with a pretty picture. The way I choose climbs is a bit like window-shopping. If I see a pretty picture in a magazine I'm drawn in, otherwise I just glance at the display and walk on by. Ever since I saw Greg Epperson's stunning photos of Peter climbing the first ascent of Airstream on the Incredible Hulk, I wanted to go and climb there. For years Peter had been raving about how amazing all the routes on the Hulk are. Somehow I was always too busy training for a bouldering competition or traveling to a bouldering area during the Hulk season. This spring I finally decided this was my time to do battle with the Hulk. Besides, I love traditional climbing and would’ve been an idiot to pass up a chance to learn from a master like Peter Croft.
Shortly before leaving, after a grueling "training day" of many pitches on bolts, a minor disaster struck: my right toe decided to swell up like a balloon. It looked as though the joint of my big toe had been replaced with a plum. Half of the big toe, plus the toe to the right went completely numb. I was crushed. The trip was set to begin the next day and I was hobbling around on crutches trying to pack. What’s more, Sender Films was planning to make a short film about how Peter had been helping me refine my climbing skills and they had their best videographers involved: Peter Mortimer, Josh Lowell and Rob Frost. The talented Haden Kennedy was recruited as the rigger.
Much more was riding on the trip than just Peter and I going cragging for the day. I was determined to make the trip, not out of guilt—let's face it, I'm too selfish for that!—I WANTED to climb on The Hulk, even if it meant struggling with a swollen foot. My husband looked skeptical and kept asking me the obvious question, "How are you supposed to hike five miles to the base, then climb a 12-pitch 5.12+ route at high elevation with a foot that you can't even stand on without pain?!" Men! Why do they always have to be so practical when we don't need them to be!
The first day of the trip I had to do something I hate to do…I pulled the "princess card" and asked my husband to drive me to the trailhead parking area. I said it was to spend more time together before I went into the mountains for five days, but we both knew it was really to spare my right foot from pushing the clutch in on my 6-speed manual transmission mini clubman.
Jay Peery, the sales director for Evolve, met us at the Mono Village campground. Jay was so excited about the whole trip he had made himself camp manager and trip chef and even hired porters to help him hike loads up to base camp. He had been hiking loads on the previous days and insisted that he would now carry my pack so my foot would have a chance to "deflate".
Leaving the campground via a trail through a pine forest, we began our five-mile journey up towards our treasured goal of the Incredible Hulk. I felt so guilty hiking with my little daypack next to everyone else with their large loads. Further up the trail, the pine forests gave way to beautiful meadows full of wild flowers and the terrain got steeper as we started up into the alpine environment in Little Slide Canyon. The hike took a bit longer than it normally would have because Josh and Pete stopped the caravan periodically to take video shots for the movie. Cresting the top of one of the snowfields, I caught my first glimpse of the Hulk…it was beautiful! The clouds had moved overhead, casting a shadow on everything around us except the Hulk, which was still magically sunlit and looked luminous in the background. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that it was beckoning for me to come and climb it!
The hike was slowed down even more by my insistence on photographing the Hulk every time we got a clear view of it. Since we backpacked into the Hulk and were in camp for a couple of weeks, I needed to pack light and smart.
Around the next bend, we came into an alpine valley that was sandy and flat. Snow runoff supplied a small stream with water for us to filter and drink. Rock outcrops and boulders lined the sides of the valley with the occasional small evergreen tree here and there. With the Hulk looming overhead, it was a perfect spot for a base camp. Arriving there was like walking into a small village! Jay had a full cooking/hang-out tent in place complete with multiple cooking stoves as well as amazing food and drinks. I couldn’t believe my eyes! We were greeted by Rob Frost, the third videographer, and Peter Croft who had already climbed Positive Vibrations with a friend that day and was lounging around camp as Jay set to work on "appetizer and cocktail hour". I knew this was going to be a fun trip!
On day two I woke up early to see the beautiful sunrise over the valley. Of course Peter had already been up for a few hours, hiked up over Ice Pass and was back enjoying his second round of coffee with some peanut butter toast. About an hour later the other tents started unzipping and the rest of the crew rolled out of bed. The videographers had a big day planned, which involved doing interviews and shooting Peter and I bouldering on some nearby boulders that Peter had been telling me about for years. Peter and I had our own plans to eat, hydrate, and check out the boulders, but we didn’t actually want to climb on them.
Although I was excited to see the boulders, I was most interested in saving my sore foot and myself for the Hulk. I know how stupid I can be when someone shows me a bunch of good boulders that I've never climbed on before, so I decided abstinence was the best approach…and it almost worked. I managed to only get slightly sidetracked with bouldering and slide down just one icy snow bank on my bum. Pete Mortimer took the prize for bum slides. As he careened by everyone, he was hooting and hollering…he was enjoying every second of it. I felt so awkward and out of control on the snow, I feared for my life! That night Jay rewarded us with fresh pizzas he whipped up while we were gone…he even made the dough from scratch, on-site!
On day three I somehow woke up five minutes before my alarm. I must have been really excited for the climb, because 3:25 a.m. used to be my bedtime not my wake up time! After a hardy breakfast of double strength green tea and groats, I was ready to go. I must have asked Peter what we needed for the climb about five times and I still watched him pack his bag to make sure that I was not forgetting anything important. As much as Peter loves to share his chalk bag with me, it would obviously not be an option on a multi-pitch route.
The 15-minute hike to the base of the route felt desperate. Obviously the lack of elevation training was catching up to me. As usual Peter was very patient and occasionally stopped to wait. Perhaps with my track record of wiping out on the snow, he was making sure I hadn’t disappeared down the slope. Most of my climbing experiences with Peter seem to involve me gasping for air and running to try and keep up…which I never can! Our plan was to warm up by having Peter lead a 70-meter rope pitch on an easier climb called Positive Vibrations. He rocket-shipped up the thing with me in tow. I rappelled down the fixed line first so I could get racked and ready while keeping warm for the first lead on Venturi Effect. Our chosen direct version of the route starts with quite a punch as pitch one is a bouldery, fingery 5.12 pitch.
All was going well as we swapped leads up the route. I was really loving it and surprised myself by not making too many glaringly obvious mistakes with my gear placements or belays. My learning curve was pretty steep before this trip and I definitely had some hic-ups along the way…actually they were more like giant beer belches. I'm still amazed Peter kept climbing with me after some of the doozys I had pulled. If I had a penny for every time I said, "Sorry Peter," I think I could pay off most of my car! Although I had never been to the Hulk, I can't actually say I was on-sighting the route, since I asked Peter a million questions about each pitch before setting off on the lead. Even in the middle of a leads, I was yelling down to ask if I should place gear or just run it out. "Does this piece look good?" I would ask. "I can't really tell from here, Lisa."
The climbing was so much fun, it's really all a blur in hindsight. One of the outstanding pitches was the 12+ stemming corner lead on small brass nuts…that was Peter's lead. I think he realized that my skill with brass nut placements still needed some work and I don't think he wanted to see me kill myself on the thing. Following it was amazingly fun! My final big lead was the upper 12+ endurance pitch. Unfortunately, after following Peter up a flared 5.12 pitch, which I had used some of the craziest and most inefficient techniques on, I was feeling pretty cooked. It didn't help matters that we had been out of water for quite a while and my remaining peanut butter and banana sandwich on cardboard bread seemed too inedible without any liquid to help gag it down. I was dehydrated and completely out of energy when I stepped off the belay and within the first five feet of climbing, I mumbled something about already feeling done.
But I made my way up the over-hanging roof and pulled into a steep lie-backing section before I realized I was cramping up and could hardly close my hands. I desperately needed to get some gear in. I slammed in a piece and mumbled something through my huffing and puffing that it was crappy. I climbed on until I knew I was about to go for a ride. I quickly sacrificed the safety of the one flared pod that might have offered a hand jam to slam in a big offset cam that looked like it would pop right out at any moment. I still managed to climb on a couple more feet. Then the world seemed to stand still as I started to melt off of a huge hold. Bracing for a big one…I bounced four feet onto the cam and it held! Sometimes my mind can be such a drama queen.
I pulled back onto the rock and made it through the section to within 10 feet of the belay where a blank-looking sideways traverse was baking in the sun. I was really regretting all the layers of clothes, the hat and the disposable hand warmers in my pockets now. Unsure of where to go as there was absolutely no chalk, I grabbed some little nothings, stood on some even more little nothings and had just about made the stretch for a good hold when my foot popped and I went thirty feet through the air. My fall was stopped by a shiny bolt I had clipped on the way up. Unexpected clean falls into space are actually really fun! I pulled back on and did the moves clean. Even Peter slowed down and mumbled something about not remembering where he should go. When he remembered the sequence, he crushed it. He took a slightly higher line that looked better than what I had chosen.
Though my first fall had been a heart breaker since we were so close to the summit, I knew I fell due to exhaustion from an overall lack of fitness, dehydration and fatigue from poor technique I had used on the prior pitch. The second fall was completely unexpected and probably would have happened anyway, so it actually made me feel less disappointed by what had happened before.
The final 5.12 pitch was supposed to be my lead, but as I started up the flared hand/finger crack, I realized I couldn’t close my hands. Without my secret weapon of pulling really hard to compensate for bad technique, I was hosed…it would have been dangerous to keep going. I grabbed a piece and clipped in, "Sorry Peter!”
I had finally been forced to play the "Peter Croft Card"…as usual he saved the day! I watched him complete the lead while bathed in golden evening sun. Following, I tried to emulate his flawless technique. I'm sure I looked nearly as good, but my style was slightly different—I utilized the chicken-wing technique with my elbows at my ears! We finally topped out and enjoyed the evening glow for a good minute before reality hit that we had no headlamps and we still needed to rappel the entire route!
Things always take longer with a film crew, as you have to wait for people to get in place or for the right light. We had been thirteen hours on the climb with the cold and the constant wind blowing. We had not eaten and had been out of liquid for quite a while, so we were both psyched to get down. Hayden was our hero because he rigged the camera crew's fixed lines into an elevator of repels. I'm amazed by how fast we made it to the ground. We charged into camp where Jay, our favorite person, had "happy hour" waiting for us with pizza cooking on the stoves…even pesto for me! What an amazing day!
The rest of the trip was a complete blur as nothing could take the place of that day in my mind. Saying goodbye to the Hulk was hard. Arriving back at the trailhead campground where people were vacationing with giant RVs, boats and jet-skis, seemed surreal. Everyone has their own idea of fun and I'm realizing that many of the fun things in life nature has supplied to us at no extra charge. I can't wait to get back to the Hulk for more adventures!
Special thanks to Leica Camera