Matt and I completed our project on the Sail a few days ago. We decided to name it “Call Me Maybe” because all joking aside I love that song. I can’t help it, it’s just so freaking catchy! Also, the slab crux was really, really challenging for us. A combination of greasy foot smears, cryptic body positions, delicate shifts of balance, and just straight crimping like your life depends on it; this section of the route was a real question mark in our heads, call it a “maybe” if you will. But we got lucky one morning and sent all four pitches cleanly; claiming the first ascent and settling on a grade of 5.13a for the entire climb.
Coming off the high of completing a new super cool line, we set out to fin another. This time, however, we were hoping to find something a bit more physical – maybe a little steeper with a more powerful sequence? We could only hope. We drove up the old road that lines the most impressive cliffs above Foros (the town we’re residing in), keeping our eyes peeled for something spectacular. We spotted a steep-looking wall in a section of the cliff that is nearly 700 feet off the ground above a seemingly endless blue slab. The pitch looked like a section of Spain, a gem of blue-streaked overhanging preciousness implanted above the less than vertical abyss that characterizes a majority of the cliff band here.
“Let’s approach from the top and rap in to see if there are holds” Matt suggested.
“Ok. But how to we find it?”
This is a really good question. The top of the cliff is blanketed with a thick rolling forest and chossy scree. The landscape winds up and down each pinnacle of cliff, interrupted by thorn-choked gullies and crumbling limestone boulders that are unstable and dangerous to navigate. Even when a route appears easily accessible, the path there can be convoluted and disorienting.
We decided to go for it and came up with a loose plan to spend the afternoon and evening finding a way to get to the top of the route to at least scope it up close an see if it’s worth putting in the effort to bolt the line. We started out casually enough, up a hiking trail through a gully that was well established and mellow, a good starting point. I started calling it the Fern Gully, after the Disney movie, meaning it was innocent and friendly in a PG-rated movie kind of way. We were hoping that 3 hours roundtrip would be enough to find our way there and back. “A marvelous hiking adventure!!!” I kept telling Matt as we set out. I was trying really hard to be psyched about the epic I just knew we were getting ourselves into.
I wrote the the rest of our adventure like a fairytale, sprinkled with pop culture allusions, just for fun and because that’s where my imagination was throughou the journey. After the Fern Gully, we split off the trail and ventured into the Forest of Flying Ticks. There were crazy numbers of these flying bugs that looked JUST like ticks flying all around and landing on us. I don’t think they were ticks, but they were freaky and we had to walk fast or we’d be covered in seconds. Not so fun. But as Matt reminded me “sometimes adventuring isn’t fun”. Wise words….
We stumbled upon an old dirt road in the middle of the forest and decided to turn right and follow it since it seemed to lead in the direction of our cliff. But the forest just got thicker and deeper, and it was creepy and weird and reminded me of th Blair Witch Project. At one point we scared ourselves and dove off the road and hid behind some trees when a car came rumbling by. It wasn’t the kind of road you’d expect to see cars on – or maybe only in horror films that end badly for the protagonists. So we cut off the road and back into the woods in an effort to get away from the road and also to find the cliff edge and maybe gain some perspective.
We walked for a ways but somehow ended back on Blair Witch road even though we didn’t mean to. This time we stayed on the road and it eventually turned into more of a trail. At this point we’d been walking for over an hour and felt really out there, until we happened upon a group of campers randomly settled in the forest cooking an early dinner over a campfire. We couldn’t speak to them because we don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian and they didn’t speak English but they smiled and were nice enough so I nicknamed this portion of the journey as the Camp of the Wandering Friendly Gypsy People, trying to stick to the fairytale theme.
We came to a clearing where we could finally see the edge of the cliff, into a meadow where a big wooden structure resembling a gallows rested in the middle of a field. It reminded me of that play The Crucible, about Salem and the witches; although I think they burned witches back then not hung them, but whatever, this is my story. So I called it the Crucible structure. From there we juked right making a beeline for the cliff edge and down some scary loose Death Slabs, like the ones below Half Dome in Yosemite. We had to be extra careful to not slip and trundle off the cliff, which nears 700ft tall at this point.
After nearly two hours of walking, we thought that we had finally found the right wall and got ready to rappel off the edge to scope our new potentially awesome Spanish-style mega route. We set up a rappel off of a half-dead gnarled tree that reminded me of the alive talking trees in the Lord of the Rings. I thought it looked a bit sketchy so I told Matt that the tree was at least half dead and therefore maybe dangerous to rappel off of. So he put in another anchor to equalize it with the tree, but that proved difficult since most of the rock is crumbly and the cracks don’t hold super solid gear. In the end however it was really pretty safe but it didn’t matter anyway because we were in the wrong place. Oops.
So we scrambled back up the Death Slabs and out onto a pinnacle from which we could see the old road we drove on from below the cliff. And there it was just across from us, maybe 30-40 ft away; our clean steep wall. It was beautiful and exposed and looked potentially hard. All good news!! But we didn’t have time to rappel down it from the right side because darkness was looming and I was already dreading being caught on the Blair Witch road in the dark. So we stashed a rope, and dropped bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel (i.e. made some cairns) so we could return the same way the next time.
On the walk back, we were in good spirits. We’d successfully found our wall and it looked cool! How exciting. We saw an amazing sunset through the thickness of the trees. The sun was blood red and the woods were “lovely dark and deep, but we had promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep” to quote the great Robert Frost. In an effort to be literary and compare our modern situation to the poem, we had a promise to keep to the rest of our team to not let them worry about us being out in the dark and lost; so we hurried and only took 5 iphone photos each instead of a 100 in order to get the perfect instagram shot.
BUT as is the nature of most marvelous adventures, there is always a snag at the end. we took a wrong turn on the Blair Witch Road and instead of going back down the Fern Gully to the safety of the old road we went down a different gully – a Gully of Despair. I thought it would be alright because “it’s a riverbed and rivers always flow down the mountain.” I actually said this in an effort to reassure Matt, who was wavering on the decision to keep going down. “Em, there are such things as waterfalls!” Oh yeah. In the waning daylight and our tired state, the thought of scrambling back up the Gully of Despair was daunting. So I pushed to keep moving down. Until we found ourselves lured right into a trap – a waterfall! A lesson to take from the late great pop group TLC: Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls Really. Dont do it. “But, I was going to have it my way or nothing at all, even though Matt told me I was moving too fast.” In case you didn’t know, I just unsuccessfully tried to quote the lyrics to the 1995 hit song. I was only 9 when it came out so I didn’t get to appreciate it fully but since this experience I’ve listened to the song multiple times in a row just so I could memorize all the words.
Having no choice, we scrambled back up the Gully of Despair in the dark and eventually found the Fern Gully where we were so happy that we sang Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls the rest of the way down (I’d gotten it stuck in our heads), even though I hadn’t learned the words yet I just repeated the title and it was satisfying. We made it home, recounted our story to the others, and went out for pizza at our favorite restaurant. It’s our favorite because there’s a television that plays awesome Russian music videos.
Tomorrow, Matt and I are waking up at 5am to repeat our journey. Only this time we’ll be carrying a drill, bolts, and more ropes. Another Epic Adventure awaits.