Airing it out on O-Face

Fun Fact: The name “O-Face” is a reference to a line from the 1999 movie Office Space by Mike Judge.

Cedar Rock is a hidden formation that lies just beyond Lost Dome.  It’s an unassuming squat wall by comparison to its neighbor, Lost Dome, with not nearly the quality and grandeur of those routes. Nonetheless, it’s another granite crag in the Wichitas that, arguably, has continuous quality rock that is climbable.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that I “discovered” Cedar Rock as much as I just happened on to it one day when roaming around looking for bouldering potential.  Cedar Rock, as I began calling it, was most likely one of those crags that got passed up for bigger and better objectives back in late ‘70s and ‘80s. I’d wager a bet that someone at some point most likely climbed the obvious line, a crack up the middle that I called the Crack of Fate (aka Pillar of Fate), and thought nothing of documenting or naming it. But as it goes in the Wichitas, everything seems to be rediscovered rather than actually discovered.

In any case, I was intrigued by the possibilities on Cedar Rock and made several forays to examine, rappel, and work out the moves on the crag in the hopes of establishing a few fun routes. That’s what spurned my interest in the section of wall that would become O-Face.

I suppose before proceeding much further, I should preface this tale with where I was at in life, for that always governs where our psyche is; I was about to be a new father, and well-settled into a work-a-day career. I felt life was on the verge of drastic change with my son about to be born and there seemed to be this feeling of having to get all the “dangerous stuff” out of the way beforehand. I suppose we’re always looking for that opportunity to ride the lightning a bit, to shake things up, to feel “on the edge,” in a sense. And so I decided that if I was going to put up any new routes – from this moment on – I would embrace the full experience and establish it on lead. To not do so would be to miss part of the value of the route, I felt. Plus, I was looking forward to developing my aid climbing skills and this would be a good opportunity to test my limits, or at the very least, discover what I needed to brush up on.

During the fixed anchor permit process I had a discussion with the late, great, Jimmy Forester, who, at the time, was the head of the Advisory Bolting Committee for the WMCC. He’d surveyed the route, top-roped it, and he liked it. His feedback was that it could do without one of the lead bolts. So instead of three bolts it would be two. It was at a location down low that he felt you could “get gear in.” I knew the area he was talking about and trusted his assessment, and agreed that the route could do without the bolt. It also meant I’d have to hand-drill one less hole, which was a good thing. He was supportive about me establishing the route on lead – and so with his blessing, and a finalized permit, I went for it.

I convinced my buddy, Jerel, to hike out and belay me for the ascent. It would take a while, sitting down there in the weeds, watching me pound away with a hammer on a small hand drill, as he inched out rope, but it’d prove to be more than a spectator sport for him.

I worked through the lower moves, half freeing, half aiding, and tensioning off the lead rope, placing small cams in the shallow right angling crack. It felt awkward from the beginning, tinkering in small cams. I’d need to move up and right a bit before stepping back left and up onto the face where my first bolt would be placed. The gear below was semi-ok – marginal – I’d say, but somehow I managed to step my way through in my aiders to reach up and left to the face…where I placed a hook.

If you haven’t hung, full-body weight on a small metal hook connected to a step-aider, it’s quite an experience. The sharp end of the hook where it contacts the rock is no more than a few millimeters on a knife-like edge. This force is so directed onto a sliver of granite that it creeks, the hook flexes, settles, and crunches with the sound of metal against stone. The base of the hook, opposite the sharp end, counter-balances against the face, creating a mini-tripod of sorts, to that a small loop of webbing is attached which allows a carabiner to be attached and then, an aider to stand in. The moment comes when you have to place your foot in a step of the aider and slowly weight the precarious setup.  From the beginning there is really nothing about this contraption that instills confidence.  It feels like stepping onto thin ice, at any moment the ice could break and in you’d go.  The first step is the worst, that is, until you have to take the second and third steps and to get higher.  The idea is to maximize your height, settle into your aider, attach a daisy chain and eventually, lean back and rest in your harness.  It’s during these tenuous moments; a combination of balance, delicate slow-motion tai-chi, almost as if you are sneaking up on the placement, that things can go sideways. A hook that explodes off the rock is like a gunshot.  

I successfully navigated placing the hook, moving into my aider and resting in my harness. Now it was time to place the first bolt.

I could go into a lot of detail about what it takes to hand-drill a bolt – the amount of time and labor – but this story gets better if we move along. So for time’s sake, let’s just say it took me about 25 minutes of hammering, twisting, hand cramps, and rock dust until finally I was able to place the first bolt. I do have to note that there was quite a bit of satisfaction in placing that bolt on lead.  I’d placed a bolt on lead in Mexico at El Potrereo Chico years before, but that time was with a power drill – this was the first bolt I’d place by hand, on lead.

I clipped the bolt and continued moving upwards. I went into top-stepping and semi-free climbing mode until I reached the next decent placement under a small roof. I placed a Number 1 Camalot in a horizontal downward facing crack. The next section was the crux area; a small box-roof up to another face section. In terms of leading I would need to find a decent rest point to hang and place the next bolt on the upper face. There was a good jug-like handhold, the best hold on the route really. I fiddled around with other gear but it became clear that I was going to need to use a hook on the jug hold in order to reach up and place the next bolt.  Back in lead mode again I placed the hook on the crunchy granite jug. It didn’t settle like the last hook placement. This one was off-kilter, angled a bit weird, and didn’t “set” the way I’d hoped it would.  Still, what else was there to do? I clipped my aider setup to it and inched onto it in similar fashion.

This was airing it out. Away from my last cam placement, hanging out there. Trying to flag in my aiders to stay centered while using core-tension to stay balanced under the hook. So far this didn’t feel too good.  But I moved up. Stepping up. Clipping in my daisy and resting on the precarious placement. Finally I started to settle and began fussing around with my rock drill and hammer.  This hammering was going to be more difficult for sure, it was a higher reach to get the bolt where I wanted it. Still, I started hammering. Bang! Twist! Bang! Twist!… and on. Settling into to the plight of hammering.

All at once was the snap of granite cracking and I was airborne!  The rock blurred in front of me as I plunged downward. Rushing past the cam I placed under the roof and then the fall halted and my feet came back into the rock face.  The rock had broken. The jug hold I was hanging from by the hook snapped

Jerel looked up and asked if I was okay, which I was. The cam under the roof held. I took account of myself, my gear, what had happened. Trying to make sense of it all. Luckily the chunk of rock fell away from the wall and didn’t hit him.

After a few minutes of settling my nerves, I made my way back up the rope to check out the situation. It didn’t look promising. I messed around with other ways to get where I needed to be to place the bolt but just couldn’t find a solution. After another little while of analyzing and messing with gear I ultimately made the call to come down.

I went back around to the top of the cliff and rapped in to place the second and final bolt. As much as I wanted to do the entire thing on lead it just wasn’t meant to be. The blown off hold also made the upper moves a bit harder.  If you go out to climb it you can see the scarred rock and the site of the incident.  O-Face indeed proved to be the full-value experience that I’d hoped for, a maybe even a little more than I’d planned for.