"O-Face" – A Day of Hand Drill Bolting on Lead

Saturday morning and the cruise control was set at 80 mph heading down the turnpike towards the Wichitas. I just picked Jerel up from the McDonald’s rest stop half way between OKC and Chickasha. He was taking a much-needed break from his classes and work in order to belay me on, “O-Face” a route I’d started establishing over a year ago. The top-anchors were already in but the plan was to place the remaining two bolts on lead, the final route being a 5.10 mixed face climb.

“Now hear me out on this,” he said, “how about for the first bolt we drop a line and get the first bolt in, just so you have something [for protection]. Then after that if you want to go for it on lead that’s cool. But that way you have something in at the beginning. It’d be different if you were a single guy but…”

I understood what he was talking about. It made perfect sense. I’d been thinking about the same thing for two weeks straight. Here I was a father in mere weeks and I’m about to put my neck on the line. It was stupid to voluntarily risk injury or worse to place a couple of bolts. I didn’t have to lead it. But on the other hand…

“I know what you’re saying,” I said, “and all I can say is that I’m going to use good judgment. If I can’t get any gear in, if I get in over my head, I’m not going to run-it-out on hooks. I will drop a line and place them on rappel. But I have to at least give it a shot on lead.”

That’s how I’d convinced myself. I would at the very least try. What could it hurt to try?

Packs loaded down, wind blasting, fingers and ears numb, we pulled our fleece hats down and trudged out to Cedar Rock, the next formation past Lost Dome. By the end of three-plus mile hike we were toasty warm, shedding layers, and hungry. We pulled our pack-mashed Subway sandwiches out and ate while scoping the wall and surveying the gear options. Jerel suggested that I at least rap the route to determine where the bolts would go and suss out any possible hidden pro options. We hiked around the backside and set a line from the top. Rapping down jogged my memory about the moves through the upper roof section. This would obviously be the tricky part of placing a bolt on lead. No doubt I’d have to hang from a hook to place the bolt. There were virtually no opportunities to place any protection once above the roof. On the underside of the roof was a horizontal crack about a half-inch wide and two inches deep, enough room for a couple of small, hopefully bomber, pieces. Above that I would have to get creative. My plan essentially took the adage of, “necessity is the mother invention,” I will figure it out when I get there.

Continuing the rappel to the bottom half of the route there was a large span of blank face with one quarter-inch edge in just the right place to make the face climbable. Below that was an assortment of downward facing flakes that might take small gear but it was difficult to tell what would hold.

Back on the ground I sorted through the arsenal of gear I packed in. I filled up my harness with mostly small gear; brassies, tiny cams, some hooks, even a couple of knife blade pitons.

To break up the boredom of belaying and make things more comfortable for Jerel I brought a small radio and a pack chair. We found a classic rock station and before long Jerel was singing along to some Def Leppard song while I was shoving a #2 Alien behind a crumbling expando flake. The free climbing quickly turned to aid as I made my way diagonally searching for invisible and non-practical placements. A #1 Metolius got me a little further right, then a brassy and a micro-nut got me higher. I didn’t know if any of the gear would hold a lead fall, I didn’t really want to think about it. I just continued to step a higher until finally I could reach the placement for my tripod-shaped hook on the one good horizontal edge. Stepping onto it and looking down at my marginal gear a rush of imagery spiraled through my mind. Everything became “What ifs…” What if the hook popped? What if my swinging fall popped the micro-stopper? What if the little cam blew? What if I landed on the ledge below? All at once I was mired in the irresponsibility of it all yet hanging fully-weighted on the hook, totally committed. I was there and what else was there to do but pull out the drill and sledge and start banging the first bolt hole. The longer I hung on the hook the more confidence I gained until finally I was concentrating more on each hammer blow and the turning of the bit than the precariousness of my position. The fear once present had now become adrenaline-induced excitement. I was actually having fun!

That said, it’s a sad state of affairs when it takes you longer to get to the first stance than it does to actually drill the hole and place the bolt. And I felt bad for taking so long. But I was making progress so I was in a great mood. And though I’m sure that belaying must have been pretty boring, Jerel was a great sport about it. I think Jerel he was enjoying the show.

With the first bolt placed I changed gears and went into free-climbing mode. I lowered the hammer and the drill bag, stashed my aiders and other gear and climbed through a few moves above the bolt to get to the roof. There I placed two pieces in a horizontal crack in the roof, a yellow Alien and a 0.3 Camalot – small cams. Both of them had direct downward pull so I equalized them with a sling. I reached up as high as possible to an incut edge above the roof – this would be a hook placement. I remembered thinking I might be able to use the incut edge as a hook placement when I was rappelling down but I wasn’t sure which hook would work the best. I started with the largest hook I had. It seemed almost too big, I thought it might shear through. I chose a smaller hook but the problem now was that the tip of the hook wasn’t touching the inside of the hold. Instead the bend of the hook was weighted and when I shifted my weight the hook rocked back and forth. No matter, I stepped higher in my aider. Looking right, there was a large protruding flake about 2 inches thick that formed a small constriction between it and the main wall. The hold itself is a jug but a very delicate jug given how much it sticks out from the wall. It is an important hold because it’s what you use to get through the roof section. I selected a stopper, reached far to the right and slotted it between the flake and the wall. I tugged it good and hard. It was not great but it was all I had. The stopper was wedged but I would have to be careful not to rock it out of its placement. Without much forethought I clipped an aider into it and shifted my weight onto it – now halfway between the hook and the stopper. The stopper was holding – this was great, I thought. All I needed to do was step up in my aider and I’d be just about there – ready to place my second and final bolt.

I was anxious to get moving, off of the teetering hook and onto the stopper. The gear beneath the roof was now a fair distance below my feet. The next decision was clear – grab the hold – the bomber flake and yard up on it. That’s what I did. I reached up with my right hand and pulled and at the same time pushing up in the aider. At once the flake cracked like a whip and exploded from the wall, the remnants driven by the force from my hand flung it into the trees below and luckily, away from Jerel. With the flake gone the stopper behind it blew instantly and I dropped left onto the balanced hook. The hook popped as quickly as I shock-loaded it and down I went, zipping past the roof, past my gear. I crashed sideways into the face below. I felt a sharp tinge in my hip. Looking up I was staring at the two pieces I’d placed in the roof – still there – thank goodness.

You don’t realize how quickly things happen in a fall until you’re hanging fifteen feet below your high point. In my mind the sequence of events seemed clear but it all happened so fast that there was no time to realize that I was falling. There was no time to yell “Rock!” There was no time to get off the vanishing flake and back onto the hook. Not like that would have worked anyway. But now, hanging there, eye-level with the first bolt I placed, I realized that maybe it was a bad decision to trust that hold. Sure, it’s easy to analyze now but then it seemed like such a good idea to trust that hold. Luckily, the pain was short lived and what followed next was laughter. It was really what I needed. Either I was going to bolt this route on lead or I was going to fall trying. In this case the rock failed before I did and to me that meant that I had done my best – I’d given it everything I had and I was good with that.

With the route a good number grade harder now and my options in aiding through the already tenuous roof section severely diminished I decided it was time for me to place the second bolt on rappel. When I rapped down for the second time I realized just how close I was in being able to get my second stance and place the last bolt – the hold that broke was about a foot away from the final bolt placement. It would have taken one more placement just a bit higher, another hook placement on a good edge, and that would have been it.

I hammered in the bolt on rappel and called it done.

In retrospect, I think I did just about everything right, aside from yarding on that time-bomb flake. But that’s a risk you run in climbing and if it hadn’t been me pulling the hold off it certainly would have been someone else – maybe someone trying to make the clip at the last second. So I’m glad it was I who took the fall and not another unsuspecting climber. You might think I would be apprehensive to go out any put something else up on lead but honestly, it’s only made me more excited to do it again.

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