Sunday, March 16, 2014

Benighted on Mount Wilson

There was never a question as to if  I would ever get "benighted", but a question of when I would.
The actual dictionary definition of benighted is:
1) To be in a state of intellectual or moral ignorance
2) To be overtaken by darkness
Both of those definitions could be true for the situation we got ourselves in, but the actual definition in climbing terms is to be stuck on the cliff or summit at dark, with the inability to retreat/sleep in your own bed.
Most of my friends with more experience in the art of big wall climbing have a story or two of their experiences being benighted. I had always wondered when it would happen to me. I had a close call in Yosemite on my first real big route in the valley. But after some bad decisions and a couple near misses, we  somehow managed to touch ground in the dark. In hindsight, I still think that sleeping on the wall would have been the safer option that day. I have a deep fear of freezing my ass off. I'm not exactly well insulated, or cut out for the cold. So being benighted scares the crap out of me, but it also seemed like a right of passage, and I knew my time would come one day.
Which leads me to two days ago on Mount Wilson....
Mount Wilson
My good buddy Davey Z and I had our sights set on a one day push of The Resolution Arete 5.11d V 23 pitches, located in Red Rocks, Nevada. Up until then I had been bouldering, sport climbing and a little bit of single pitch trad climbing in Joshua Tree. Dave was prepped with 2 months of avid x-country skiing and the occasional boulder session on his home wall. Neither of us had climbed any big routes in a while but Dave, a father of 2, had 9 days off and one chance to do something awesome before going back to cold Ontario and teaching high school business. Regardless of the lack of prep work, Dave and I are pretty damn confident with a rack on our harnesses, and we were pretty sure that we could pull it off together. Though it would be tight.
I was really stoked about this 2500ft line that shoots up the central arête of Mount Wilson. The coolest part of this climb is that it is 100% pure trad, not one bolt on the entire 20+ pitches. It would also be my first Grade V route, which means that by taking into account the climbs height and length of approaches and descents, it is technically a multi-day route. And with the shorter days, it still is was despite our attempts to do it in a day.
The Resolution Arete follows the ridge-like arête for 2500ft to the summit of Mt. Wilson.
We nailed the 2 hour approach after an early alpine start (4:20am), and made it to the base by sunrise. Dave then linked pitch 1 and 2 and I linked 3 and 4. Despite our quick belay changeovers, running it out and linking pitches, these 150ft pitches moved slower than we had anticipated. The climbing was a lot more physical and serious then we had expected from the Red Rocks, and the tricky route finding and chimney pitches slowed us down quite a bit. By the time we had reached pitch 10, the base of the crux 5.11d roof, we both knew that we wouldn't make it to the summit in time. But funny enough, we both kept these thoughts to ourselves and continued on without a word spoken about our pace. We ate and drank water while belaying, and when we weren't belaying we were climbing as quick as possible. We essentially didn't stop once, except for when we were trying to figure out where the heck to go.

Dave starts up pitch 1,
which most definitely set the tone for the difficulty of the route.


Dave coiling our trusty purple power Sterling nano

Dave high up on Resolution Arete

Dave leads up another sustained 5.9+ pitch, high off the deck

We were at the last two pitches before the final 500ft of "fourth class" and it was almost dark. At this point we needed a miracle. Dave turned it on for the summit push, and flew up the final 5.8 and 5.7. And strangely enough, that final "fourth class" was the most testing part of our day. I don't know if we had missed the line (which is highly possible as it was now dark and we were delusional) but it was more like 5.0 with sections of 5.5, all on terrible rock. We stayed roped up for all of it, and considering it was now dark, we pitched it out to the top. Dave said it best, "When its dark, its dark, there is no rush anymore".

Views from another chimney pitch

The sun setting faster then we can climb

It was pretty cool to summit at dark and with an almost-full moon. The view of the Vegas city lights from the summit was neat to see. To be in such a wild mountain environment with the views of this colourful city below is such a strange contrast. After a quick break, we set out to find the descent which is supposed to take 4 hours if you know where you are going. "We just have to get lucky now Timms!", Dave laughs, but 'lucky' we did not get. After hiking down and around in the wrong gully for hours, we had reached our tipping point and made the decision to spend the night on Mount Wilson. We were now out of water, and could barely walk. We had been benighted.
Full moon and fire glow

Thankful for fire

Our bivy site. I "slept" on the rope and cordellete.
Winds from the north picked up and we tried but failed to find a spot out of the wind. We kept a fire going all night to stay warm. Survival spooning had to occur a few times, and I don't think I slept for more then 15 minutes at a time. By sunrise, the fire had some nice coals so we decided to stay and enjoy it for a bit after a night of shivering. Dave saved a sausage that he packed and we cooked it on the fire for breakfast. It felt so gourmet after that night. We were so ridiculously excited about this sausage.
Sausage breakfast, cliff gourmet.

We made the trek back up to the summit to rappel another route to the ground, but strong wind gusts cancelled that option. We feared our rope getting stuck and not having the energy to get out of that situation. Plan C then came into effect and we descended the slabs on the back side for what felt like an eternity. After a couple hours of hiking, we had a cell signal and called our worried better halves. Turned out that Kyle and our two wonderful friends Adam and Craig were already on their way in. Ready to rescue us. They caught up with us after a few hours of descending and brought us water and snacks. They were my favourite people in the world at that moment, though I doubt that I could of expressed it as I drowned myself in water and food. But alas we had made it back safely, unscathed, with new found appreciation for everything. Not to mention a good story to tell.
Summit views at dawn

Next day summit selfie

Dave and I begin the 4 hour descent with no food/water/sleep.
I have done rustic solo camping in the past, but this experience was much different. Sleeping on the cold ground, without enough clothing, food and water is a different level of "camping". Unplanned usually coincides with unprepared and it is amazing how much an experience like this can make you appreciate the simple things. It was most definitely a character building experience, one that I would do all over again to climb that route with Dave. I have never felt more alive and dead at the same time.
As I rest up in a nice hotel room for two days, I picture poor Dave on a red eye flight home, with two  sick baby girls, and then back to teaching high school the next day. But I know that despite not sleeping for 4 days, he is now truly content, with a climb/experience under his belt that will keep him going strong for a long while. That makes me smile.
I plan to rest up and gain my strength back for the final stretch of this trip. Home by the end of April after a little sport climbing in the Utah Hills. Surely seizing the day from here on out!


  1. Wow! Sometimes the mountains have their own ideas!

  2. Thanks such an amazing adventure, id be scared ...less