Sun, Mar 11, 2012
The plan was to do Old Original on Machete Ridge, then head up to the High Peaks area and climb Scout Peak. The latter is on the CC-list and on my first visit I was surprised to find it a class 5 affair, one I was unprepared for at the time. Machete Ridge is reported to have only a bit of class 5 but lots of fun scrambling and rappeling that makes for a fun outing. Combining the two seemed no great difficulty. As we started off from the TH and headed off on the Balconies/Cave Trail, we could see Machete Ridge looming high in front of us less than half a mile from the parking lot. The approach seemed obvious - how could we miss it? The weather was more iffy. There was a 20% chance of rain today and already it was completely overcast and the higher peaks were obscured in the lower clouds. It did not bode well for views.
The weather turned out to be the least of our problems. We hiked down to and over a bridge, then past the western edge of Machete Ridge. Guessing we'd gone too far, we backtracked a short distance and turned onto a climber trail marked with a tag for Elephant Rock and Citadel. In hindsight it appears we didn't proceed far enough east along the main trail where a rather obvious sign says, "Machete Ridge Access". As our route began to veer too far to the west we turned off the climber trail onto a much less distinct use trail towards the east. This led us over a small rise and into the gully west of Machete Ridge. As soon as we'd left the climber's trail we began to collect ticks on our pant legs and elsewhere, two, three, and five at a time. Much time was spent flicking them off and looking them on the backsides of each other. Pesky little critters. Some bushwhacking and wandering about had us turned around at one point. The overcast sky did not help with navigation. Adam's compass got us heading back in the right direction. A more distinct use trail was found. The approach went on for half an hour, far longer than I expected it to. Somehow I mistook the starting point of the route and we ended up way too high above the rock feature. When we reached a saddle that I thought would be the starting point, we looked around but could no longer even determine where Machete Ridge was. We could see The Balconies across the main canyon to the north, but the distinctive, rocky ridgeline of Machete seemed to have vanished from the earth.
I was frustrated and felt like an idiot. Adam took it in stride and made fun of me, appropriately. "The Scourge of the Sierra is lost half a mile from the trail," he smiled. I thought he might be more pissed off than he was, considering his phobia and extreme dislike of ticks, but he seemed resigned to whatever happened. He suggested we could go back down to the bottom of the canyon and try again. I felt more like giving up on Machete Ridge, and in the end that's what we did. We simply continued up from where we were, hiking the upper, brushy portion of Machete Ridge to the High Peaks Trail. I figured we could do Scout Peak, then hike back down via the trail to do Machete Ridge if we still had time later in the day. We spent more than 45 minutes whacking our way up the overgrown ridge. Use or game trails helped make passage easier, but it was still a good deal of brush to overcome before we found the High Peaks Trail.
Upon reaching the trail, we paused to remove more of the ticks we found on us. Thankfully they would be the last ones encountered today. We had something to drink, then continued on. The High Peaks Trail is interesting in that it is one of the older ones in the park and took a good deal of work to construct, with steps cut into rock faces with railings and short bridges installed across gaps. The steel railings are worn smooth with many decades of hands that have run across them. The trail weaves along the crest of the High Peaks, a collection of impressive rock pinnacles that form the original core features around which the national monument was created. At the south end of High Peaks is a restroom where three trails come together. Behind this, several use trails head further south towards Scout Peak. The left one that goes along a rock ridge is marked with a closed sign, but another to the right that goes along the base of this rock feature was not similarly signed.
It was 11a before we found our way to Scout Peak, at the uphill side on the northeast end where it connects to the lower, rocky ridgeline. Vertical or overhanging rock prevents easy access to the summit of Scout Peak by the shortest route. We moved around the left side, first examining the 5.6 Tracker route just passed the connecting saddle. Adam didn't think it was any big deal, but I thought it looked tough enough that we should look for the easier route. This we managed by continuing around the left side until we found a low-angle chimney-groove that looked easier, to me at least. This turned out to be the Leonard-Horsfall Route, rated 5.3. We did not find it to be guano-filled as described in the guidebook. After changing our shoes, flaking the rope and going over signals and procedures, Adam took the belay as I led up the chimney. My pack made the already tight fit more awkward, but with some stretching of my extremities I managed to get a quickdraw on the rusty hanger found buried in the chimney about 25ft up. From there I climbed out of the chimney and onto the face to the right, finding good and ample holds up to a second piece of protection, a ring attached to a piton pounded in a crack. I continued up this diagonal line expecting, but not finding, a third piece of protection. Luckily the climbing was low angle and no more than 5.3 as advertised (the initial chimney proving to be the crux). The hardest part was overcoming the drag on the rope, part of which I think may have come from Adam keeping me too firmly tied to his belay device.
We probably spent 45 minutes setting up for what proved to be 10 minutes of climbing, but so it goes. At the top I found no belay anchor (a rappel anchor is found on a boulder about 50ft to the east), so I simply tossed a sling around a rocky protuberance nearby and belayed Adam from there. Adam had no trouble at all with the climb and fifteen minutes later he was joining me at the summit. I left him to coil up the rope while I moved east to the rappel station. As did I, Adam visited the highest rock on his way over to join me. We looked around very briefly for a register, but didn't find one. It was not obvious that the 50m rope we were using would reach to the bottom of the north side for which the rappel was designed, and we briefly discussed getting out our second rope to make a double length rappel. Knowing that the long drop is partly an illusion (the rope usually reaches further than one initially imagines), and seeing that there were intermediate points to stop on rappel if needed further down, I elected to just go with the single rope. After running the rope through the rappel rings, I tossed it down over the north side. The view to the bottom is blocked by the bulge over the north side, so one has to take it on faith somewhat. I rapped down to find we still had a good 20ft or so on both ends of the rope and called up to Adam to come down in turn. He sat up there a good while with the rope through his rap/belay device, pondering the descent.
This was only the third rappel that Adam had done, I came to find out as I called up to him to find out why the hesitancy, and the longest he'd ever managed. He didn't like the fact that he couldn't see the bottom and was nervous about doing a free rappel. I assured him that there was no free portion and his feet would remain on the rock at all times, but that didn't speed up his courage-building process. Though it seemed a very long time, of course it wasn't nearly so. He took ten minutes to work up his courage to start and then another ten minutes to do the rappel. I coached him from below to keep his legs apart, straighten his back, and reduce the tension in the muscles of his brake arm, but most of the time he seemed to be ignoring me and fighting his own mental issues with the unnerving task of trusting one's life to climbing gear. I further coached him to move his descent route to the right to avoid a bush directly under him, but this went unheeded until he had the stiff branches poking him in the behind. By now the rope ends had got tangled up in the bush making it difficult to drop the final 10ft, giving me much to laugh about at Adam's expense.
By the time Adam was off rappel it was nearly 1p. I figured we wouldn't have time to do Machete Ridge and get back to the cars before dark, so offered that we could leave our rope in place and toprope a few additional routes back up Scout Peak. Adam was game. Already quite adept at scrambling, Adam didn't need the practice in climbing as much as in rappeling, so this seemed a good way to do so. We flicked one end of the rope over towards the southeast side to bring it down the line for Tracker. With so much friction on the line I didn't bother to build an anchor, simply choosing to belay him from a standing position (I'm not a very good role-model for safe climbing practices). As expected, Adam had little trouble on this route. The crux proved to be right in the beginning (a piton is available a short distance off the deck to protect this route on lead). After climbing to the top, Adam pulled up the rope and made a second rappel down the north side, only slightly faster than his first one. More practice was needed.
I took my turn at tracker, then on rappel I tried to offer some additional lessons to Adam. I showed him the difference between having one's back straight and hunched over (as he was apt to do during the entire descent). He did well enough to keep his legs straight, but was always bent over at the waist. I also showed him that I could take my hands completely off the rope and let the rope's weight below me hold my position - Adam was prone to keeping too tight a grip on the rope and had to stop periodically to rest his arm. And lastly I showed him a quicker rappel, dropping the length of the rope in ten-fifteen seconds rather than ten minutes. Afterwards Adam took the rope again to climb up the Regular Route (5.5) on the north side, just right of the rappel route. He climbed the initial chimney and moved left to the start of a second groove, but then moved further left off the standard route at my suggestion. I had pointed out that the Regular Route would be hard to adequately protect on our top rope since it would lead to an increasingly wide pendulum. It may have been fine since the route eased off from that point, but the top rope would allow him to try more difficult face climbing up the rappel route. He got stuck at one lichen-laden spot just at the start, and had to cheat by hanging on the rope in a few places, but for the most part did a really good job on a difficult bit of climbing that is probably around 5.8-5.9. His third rappel went a little better, though it was obvious more practice in that area was warranted. As it was now 3p, I elected not to do the last climb and we went about packing up our gear instead.
It took about 45 minutes to hike back out to West Side parking lot, passing half a dozen parties on our way. The parking lot was nearly full upon our return, in stark contrast to how we'd left it in the early morning. The weather had ended up being exceptionally fine after the first few hours, blue skies holding sway over most of the afternoon. A cool breeze had kept things a bit chilly, but overall a much better day than the forecast had led us to expect. Though I'm not sold on the merits of rock climbing at Pinnacles NM in general, Adam and I agreed that it would be worthwhile to come back in the future to give Machete Ridge another try...
Adam and I came back a few weeks later to do Machete Ridge, but failed miserably. We couldn't even find the start of the route and worse, couldn't find this huge formation. It didn't help that it was overcast and foggy with poor visibility, but really, it shouldn't have been that hard.
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