I Got 99 Problems and the Climb Is One

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Photo by Nick Schlichtman

I took a couple deep breaths trying to find courage somewhere. I cursed out loud for finding myself in another terrorizing situation. This wasn’t my first rodeo, sadly. I have a disease very few have. I tend to search for type 3 fun. Not on purpose, but because it includes the most adventure. I like to climb things most people are scared away from. I mean, how bad could it be?

Why the hell do you do this? Why do you seek for the loosest of rock? Why do you insist on scaring the crap out of yourself EVERY time you go climbing?  Why can’t you just be happy with sport climbing? Why can’t you just have fun?

I tried to find comfort in soaking my hands in my chalk bag. I tried to go to my happy place. Instead, I found myself in a dark place, reminded of the consequences if I should fail on this pitch. At my waist, I had 4 pitons in an expanding loose flake, and a 5 piece meager belay anchor in very loose blocks below that. All of the gear was in horrific rock. Above laid the unknown. There was steep choss with a double roof guarding the top 500 feet. I tried to commit but my body didn’t want to follow. I gently touched the first microwave sized hanging flake. I watched as it dropped an inch, and then hung on again. Above it laid 50 ft of several enormous hanging detached flakes far bigger then me. The gear would be unreliable, the climbing difficult enough, and the rock horrific. The kind of pitch that makes you do some soul searching. The kind of pitch that brings you into another mental realm very few ever experience. The kind of pitch I would never recommend to my worst enemy. I found myself making the first move, Nick’s words of encouragement soon becoming silenced in the background. Nothing mattered at that moment, except that next move, fully committed. In my own world 1500 ft. above I-70.

The International Buttress of Glenwood canyon is the king line of them all, a serious climb. A route with a lot of mystery from 5.11 X to 30 pitches to a route so loose that even Layton Kor found it to be too much. Some of these things are true. It’s one of the biggest routes in Colorado standing 2,000 ft tall. Split into three sections, two granite buttresses and a limestone buttress at the top. All of which is separated by a large ledge. I can remember the first time I drove by it when I was around 18 years old. I was fascinated by the mythical like walls awaiting those with a true sense of adventure. Something that has seemed to die down since many are concerned about the grades they climb rather then a soul searching experience. From then on I became obsessed with this route. I constantly asked many if they wanted to do it. Sometimes I would be very general, underestimate the hazards, and try to sell it like a car salesmen trying to sell a car that won’t turn on. Other times I’d scheme about lying that we’re going to Rifle and then demand of them to climb the International with me. Years went by. Nothing.

Harvey Carter first tried the International with Layton Kor. Kor turned around at the crux roof due to the nightmarish rock. Harvey then came back with Michael Kennedy and finally completed it at the modest grade of “5.9 A2.” Michael Kennedy then came back a couple years later with Jeff Lowe to free it at 5.9+ which he later upgraded to 5.10+. No known repeats were made for a couple decades until Michael Schneiter and Chris completed it in 2008. They reported there ascent in multiple magazines of the horror. It’s reputation grew. It’s the definition of adventure.

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International Buttress (IV 2,000′ 5.10+ PDW) “PDW” (Pretty Damn Western) is reserved for those special climbs where perhaps the “X” safety rating can’t even by applied. Cowboy up.

At the last minute, I switched plans from something big on the Diamond to the International. Almost playing the situation like a game of chess. It allowed almost no time for Nick to research the route. I also knew he was twisted enough that he actually might like it. I was right. Nick actually seemed excited! Could it be? I met Nick at the climbing gym in Golden several months ago while bouldering. He was fairly new to the state. Our first conversations were about the Black Canyon, Eldorado Canyon, and the Diamond. I usually hate climbing with random people I don’t know really well. I also feel like I know within a couple minutes whether or not I could trust my life to a person. Nick and I first climb together in Eldorado Canyon by linking up the Wisdom (5.11+ R) to Green Willow Wall (5.11+ R) to Lenes Dream (5.11c R) to the Naked Edge (5.11). The best linkup I’ve ever done in Eldo demanding strong mental and physical strength. Our second climb together was Tague Your Time (V+ 5.12+) in the Black Canyon. We ate too much rotten chicken that sat out in the sun. While sleeping at the Two Boulder Bivy ledge halfway up the route, I found myself missing my girlfriend terribly. I threw up a couple times in the morning and then went on to nearly shit myself while following another hard 5.12 pitch high on the route. After only a couple climbs together, we knew each other pretty well.

I left the Springs at 3am to meet Nick in Golden. Soon we were on our way to Glenwood Canyon with rainy weather. I’m optimistic. It would improve.

“Dude, I’ve never pounded in pitons before.” Nick stated.

“You’ll be fine man.” I quickly replied.

We arrived at the parking lot with a tube, a third rope, and shorts to swim across. You have to cross the Colorado River to get to the climb. When I tried a new line in Glenwood with Chris Snobech last time, I belayed him across as he swam desperately. Ten meters from the other side he ran out of rope. I quickly put the gear in one raft and jumped in the other, making sure not to let go of the gear raft. We simul swam that ten meters and he pulled me across. We did the same method, in the dark, on the way back. Only I tried to swim first this time. I got halfway across and lost all my strength. The current was taking me. I screamed at Chris to pull me back scared out of my mind. Lesson number one for a Glenwood canyon climbing partner, they must be a good swimmer because I am not! And you must not tell them about these complications until you get there.

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Water scares me

Nick knew I wasn’t swimming first. We organized the gear and started the hike. Soon, it started to downpour rain, soaking everything. It kept on raining and raining. We joked about doing the first rain ascent. We looked for the right spot to swim across. I was shocked. There was a ton of flow for August. But soon we spotted a Tyrolean! What’s the chances of that? We cruised over to the other side with light rain falling. Soon we were scrambling up horribly wet lichen covered bushy 5.4 slabs. We sat at the base underneath a small bush in the rain. Being realistic, our chances of succeeding were slim. But I didn’t want to bail yet. Soon it stopped but remained cloudy. The rock was as slick as candle wax. It wouldn’t dry for a while. We needed to start climbing soon to be off by dark though. I volunteered to lead the first 3 pitches, for some odd reason. Sometimes I really enjoy suffering. I stopped after 80 ft and belayed. I had already placed all the gear. My feet must have popped off 15 times. It might be the most desperate 5.8 pitch I’ve ever climbed. The next two long pitches lead us up to the second buttress. The rock was getting more dry but my rock shoes were still completely soaked.

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Nick on a cool 5.8/9 corner of P2 

Nick took over and lead a 60 meter 5.9 pitch characterized by having huge bushes in your face the whole time, even had a thorn bush mantel. He then lead up another rope stretcher of sustained awkward 5.9+. The rock was finally dry. Another pitch led us to the final show, and really what the climb is all about.

I took over on the very pronounced buttress. I could tell that we both wanted to bail but we never really talked about it. The rock was now steep loose limestone instead of lichen covered granite. The climbing got steep and significantly more loose. After 3 long pitches of 5.9ish climbing I found myself trying to find a belay anchor underneath the crux roof pitch. Everything was severely loose and I found no reliable anchor. I placed 6 pieces in several different detached blocks, and belayed Nick up tightly. I looked up at the crux pitch.

“Dear God, that looks beyond nightmarish. Maybe I can somehow get Nick psyched on leading it.” I thought to myself.

I was bonking and getting mentally fried from every pitch being very loose and a no fall zone. And this pitch far and away looked 10 times worse. I wanted to bail. This wasn’t fun. This wasn’t worth it. Nick arrived at the belay.

“Don’t hang on the anchor.” I quickly stated.

It was his pitch. He looked up and I could see the fear in his eyes.

“That looks fucked.” Nick stated

I quietly continued to hand gear to him. I hoped I could TR this pitch. I wanted nothing to do with it. To make matters worse, this pitch looked completely different then the 2008 ascent pictures. Clearly the bottom half of this pitch fell off. It would still go, right? Or would these massive detached flakes fall off while we’re climbing them?

Nick started up and 15 ft above the anchor stood on the last tiny ledge before things got really steep. He placed a sub par small nut in a fractured flake. He battled himself but just couldn’t get his body to commit. He kept trying. Fifteen feet below the sub par nut laid me and the meager anchor. The consequences were very real, if he should fall on that nut, and then the anchor.

“Dude, I can’t do this. I’m not experienced with this type of climbing.” Nick stated.

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Bushy climbing on the second granite buttress

Soon he down climbed to me. I knew it was the right decision. I was so close to just bailing but I knew I’d beat myself up if I at least didn’t check it out. I’m twisted enough that I’d come back if I bailed. I didn’t want to come back! And I had one advantage, I could hammer in pins instead of relying on that horrible small stopper.

I climbed up with the soul purpose of getting a good first piece to commit off of. I stood there wailing on a pecker, two lost arrows, and one knife blade. All of them weren’t good. Some were expanding the flakes out wards while the others went in too easy. I clipped a screamer to the top one. I now had 5 pieces that I was confident would barely hold my body weight, if that. BUT I had 5 pieces! Remember, I’m optimistic. Maybe just maybe, one of them would hold. I looked at Nick in terror. There wasn’t one piece between us that was good. I felt out the first move and touched a 4 foot flake that dropped an inch. Okay, don’t touch that. I went right and grabbed some small crimps, weighting them first, to make sure they wouldn’t break. I made the first two moves. Soon the gear was at my knees and I realized I was climbing. OH NO, I’M CLIMBING! Reversing the moves would be more dangerous then just continuing to the better rock 40 ft above, or so I thought. I made more moves before placing two cams in the biggest hanging flake of them all. As I placed the cams the rock started to break off. I kept my mental cool and focused. It was slightly overhung but soon I clipped an ancient pin in a very very loose block and locked off with my right hand making a big insecure 5.10+ move with my left. I continue on. I was forced to pull outwards on these super hollow flakes hoping for the best. It was very precise climbing. A sort of climbing you have no choice but to levitate up. Soon I grabbed the jug and desperately placed a #5 in the roof. The first piece that was good. I breathed deeply, absolutely gripped. So mentally fried I just asked Nick to lower me. He pushed me on to keep going. I was shaken like I had went through something humans are simply not meant to experience. I bumped up the #6 in the double roof. The rock quality was much better now with face holds to help out with the overhanging off width. I soon gunned it over the last roof and shoved my knee into the crack locking it into place.

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A zoomed in picture of the crux pitch in 2008 of the third ascent. The bottom half of that flake you see is now gone leaving behind similar terrain. (Photo my Michael Schneiter)

The rope drag was hideous and I was nearly out of gear. I spent 15 minutes building another 6 piece anchor. I never weighted it. I kept my leg locked into the crack hanging off it and a small foothold. I belayed Nick. He soon got to the belay and brought me a bomber  #5 cam I could place to make the anchor much better. He gave me a look upon arriving. I’m not sure if he was really impressed about what just happened or if he thought I was stupid. Or it was the look that he was never climbing with me again. Regardless, I was psyched. I would get to top rope the rest of the route! It was Nicks block. I hung there in pain. It was getting late. I hoped we wouldn’t get benighted. What about the descent? Are we going to find it? In the dark? Forced bivy? My fiancé, Savannah, is going to kill me if I have to bivy. I thought about these things while hanging way above the river. Nick soon dispatched a cool steep loose pitch to a small ledge. I arrived.

“Thanks for not falling and weighting this anchor.” He stated.

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The steeps on P9?

He lead off on another steep overhung hand crack with face holds. He soon yelled rock. And from 50 ft above, the toaster sized rock hit my right knee. I screamed in tourette’s. Well that hurt. After I followed, Nick told me he had service. Quickly I sent Savannah a text.

“One pitch from the top.”

Nick lead the last 60 meters. He managed to dismantle another rock 60 ft up. This one was big. I thought I was out of the way. It hit me on the right knee again. I screamed in pain. It started to bleed. I was going to walk with a limp for a few days now. Soon I arrived at the top as the sun was setting.

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Last pitch (Photo by Nick Schlichtman)

Nick accidentally left his rock shoes on top and we ran off to find this gully descent. With just enough light, we found it. The descent was miserable. Glenwood canyons gullies are far and away the worst of gullies I’ve ever experienced. But at least we didn’t have to do several rappels. We arrived back to the river, worked.

As we hiked back to the car in the last light, I saw the buttress for the final time. Now I knew what was up there. I was no longer curious. The mystery of it was now gone. It was just another horror fest where I found out who I was, as a human, to the core.

“That was a level of adventure beyond adventure. Something only those that have climbed the International Buttress will understand.” I stated to Nick

“I’ll see you next month.” Nick replied.

The drive back was quiet. I felt out of touch from society and life. I needed a few days to soak in what happened. These type of climbs change who you are, shape who you are in life. Be humble, tread lightly, be safe, push yourself, and seek out as much out of life as you can. The greatest failure is taking life for granite.

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About Noah McKelvin

Never skip a day of living life
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