El Topo an Epic

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Ben and I have been climbing around the Verdon for about a month and a half. In that time we have done some really good, steep, tufa cragging as well as a good deal of multipitch and technical, typical Verdon style climbing. One of the long routes that has my interest is a line called “El Topo.” Originally established in 1981 with a grade of A2 6b+ the 14 pitch journey now goes free at 8a. Although all of the pitches have been free climbed at one time or another, the route has never really seen a single push free ascent (a team of two Brits free climbed the route wall style this past August, but they did jug out towards the top and ventured into town for baguettes before rapping back down to complete the route.) Thus, my interest is piqued at the prospect of really giving this bad boy a go in a push and Ben has very willingly signed up.

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We decided to give it a go on the Sunday before a week of rain was forecast. We figured the grand effort would have us tired out and appreciative of the rainy day rest days. Instead of partying with the rest of the locals Saturday night we went home, made dinner and packed everything for the next days excursion. Ben took a picture of the route with his iPhone as well as the neighboring routes to prevent any confusion. We even packed a small, telescoping stick clip, just in case. We felt prepared and super psyched.

We arrived at the Gorge around 7am, it was exceptionally cold on this November morning. We decided to rappel with the tag line and the lead line and since we would be hauling a small pack we kept our coats and socks and shoes on. We made three long rappels to a small pillar, we would either rappel down another couple of hundred meters or stop short after two more rappels and start climbing a pitch 5. We pulled and threaded the ropes as we talked about it deciding to make the call when got to the last big ledge a little ways below us. As I placed the ropes through my ATC and pulled in the slack my hand hit Ben’s hand, the iPhone has was holding went flying out of grasp through the air. We stared on, mouths agape as it flop-flopped through space, smacking the next ledge below and continuing it’s summersault out of view. We looked at each other in disbelief, there went the iPhone and the topo, too!

I felt bad and somehow responsible as well as a little concerned about the route finding that lay ahead. We disguised it briefly and then continued on with the rappelling. Our effort would not be thwarted by this mishap. I rapped down to the next ledge, this marks the start of the 2nd pitch of Les Marches du Temps. We had climbed this with French friend Jeff Arnoldi just a couple of weeks prior. The route has been great but I was excited to be on our way to trying something different and harder.

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I arrived at the ledge and noticed a guidebook off and to the left, misplaced in some bushes and teetering on a small ledge. I had hopes that we could get the topo after all. As Ben descended towards me I told about the book and he made his way to it, climbing over trees and under bushes, through loose rocks before being able to retrieve it. Sadly, though, this book seemed to have been lost for some time as it was hard as a rock and could hardly be opened. The pages ripped apart as Ben tried to pry them open and eventually discarded the dead weight and continued with our rappelling.

Ben made one long rap about 55 meters down to the ledge that marked the start of the 5th pitch of “El Topo” I watched as he rapped over the lip, his ropes catching in two small bushes. I didn’t really like the looks of those bushes and thought that we should probably be going to the right of them, but, I wasn’t sure where the next anchor would be and decided to make the call once I was over the lip and could see below better. A few minute later he yelled that he was off and I shoved the ropes into my ATC. I made my way to the bushes with that initial feeling of needing to go to the right, but I could see down to where Ben was and he was positioned more to the left which meant that the ropes might get stuck if they were draped to the right ad dragging through the bushes. Abandoning my instinct to go around to the right I tried to clear them to their left. I shook my head as I passed them feeling that we might be in for a weird pull. On my way down I noticed an anchor halfway down and had the thought that we should be stopping there but looked down another 25 meters to Ben below and kept rapping down.

When I got to the ledge I realized that the anchor was to the far right and that it was totally arbitrary where we positioned ourselves on the ledge. I had a bad feeling about the ropes upon this realization and commented that this pull might be difficult. We started to pull the red tag line and it moved about 5 feet before stopping. We pulled and pulled and nothing. We tried to pull the green lead line, nothing. Ben walked to the far left and pulled – nothing. We both got on the rope together using our weight to help the scenario and nothing. Neither side would budge and after 15 minutes of this we realized that we were indeed stuck there with hardly any rope left to do anything with. We were at a juncture where there were no climbs which led out of this spot except to the far right where “El Topo” snaked its way up a subtle arete – but this did not help our situation. Above us loomed two roofs with huge bowls carved out of the rock in which the ropes were completely free hanging. To the left were choosy crack systems which led to no mans land. The ground remained about 150 meters below. The only way out would be to prusik up the ropes to our last rappel anchor.

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I was annoyed at myself for ignoring my instinct because I felt certain the knot was stuck on those puny bushes. Ben felt the knot was caught on the lip, but my recollection of the lip was that it was fairly featureless save for a few bumps of rock here and there. I commented again that I had feeling about those bushes and that we would have been better off going to the right or at least stopping short that way it would’t be so far to get back up. But neither of those things mattered anymore and all that need to happen was to ascend the ropes.

Kicking myself for this huge waste of time I proceeded to set up to prusik up the ropes. With two cords – one being Ben’s chalk bag cord and the other being extra tat for hauling our bag I ascended the two ropes back up the 55 meters to the anchor. It started off awkwardly and slow but about 15 meters up I finally fell into a decent rhythm and started making outstanding time of less than a meter a minute! At that rate it was as if I could see the leaves changing color with the fall weather. As I dangled and prusiked and spun around in space I thought about the Yosemite pioneers and their impressive feats on El Cap with their archaic gear. I thought of that iconic picture of Bill Price prusiking his way up El Cap – I couldn’t imagine doing that for numerous pitches over numerous days and while I felt satisfied with our self-rescue capabilities I also felt like a true bumbler as I fumbled with my cords to slide them up our stuck ropes.

I finally reached the anchor we has passed and fixed the lines there so Ben could start to ascend as well. Then I kept going the last 20 meters to where the ropes were caught, as I got closer I saw our simple over hand knot caught beneath a branch of the bush no bigger than an inch in diameter – this partially dead thing was all that stood between us and the ability to pull or lines. Now, though this knot posed a different situation in that I needed to get my prusiks to the other side of it. This was a little complex and spooky but passed without much of a hitch and soon enough I was up at the anchor – tired, relieved, and a bit disappointed because we had lost a fair amount of time and we would be pushing the limit if we decided to continue with our original plan.

Once Ben arrived at the anchor we made the call to climb out on Les Marches du Temps and for the second time around we suffered in the heat of the low, fall, sun on sharp crimps, water pockets and small feet. The misery of the situation sent me further into a grumpy mood and no matter how hard Ben tried to cheer me up I sank deeper into dismay. Luckily the climbing on Les Marches is no harder than 7a and we ascended the pitches quickly. Somewhere around pitch 7 as I followed I heard a whizzing coming by and looked up just in time to see something the size of a softball fall a ways behind me and crash into the wall below before exploding into pieces. I yelled up, “What the *uck was that?” To which Ben responded solemnly, “My power paste.” He had dropped his homemade energy paste – another casualty of the day. It seemed like we would be lucky to get out of there without losing more possessions.

We topped out around 2:30 just as the intensity of the sun was making us a little delirious. It was hard to say what the underlying reason(s) were that thwarted our attempt that day – was it the unseen powers of the universe telling us no in order to save us from some bigger blunder? Had the dropping of the iPhone with the topo been the first warning to abort mission? And once we ignored it the ropes got stuck to further dis-sway us? Or was it just bad luck, and bad judgment and we were due for learning some lessons? Either way we didn’t get to do what we set out to do but we didn’t die trying and I learned (once again) to go with my instinct and in the end we are more curious and psyched to try “El Topo” than ever. So after these many days of downpour we are hoping to get back out there and try our luck again.

Sorry there are no pictures of the mini-epic but the phone got dropped!

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About Katie Lambert

Born in Louisiana December 21, 1979, a date of great change; of death and rebirth - my whole life has been centralized around that theme. I View all posts by Katie Lambert

One response to “El Topo an Epic

  • DL

    I love Verdon! I was super amazed when I visited during the spring. Glad to see you enjoying it there. And wow, what an epic you guys got into, but glad you’re still determined to send it. I hope you get it!

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