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Explorer on Lily Rock

5 September 2005

By: George Wysup


As you probably know, HPS has a new emblem for 100, 200, etc., Explorer peaks, that is, climbing peaks by 3 different routes. I am on a quest to attain the 200 Explorers emblem. At this point I have amassed a total of 138, and getting 62 more is appearing very difficult for a senior citizen with my limited talents.

Some time ago I was at Humber Park, above Idyllwild, with Mary Jo Dungfelder and Gary Schenk, staring at the awesome Lily Rock. They pointed out a route called "The Trough" that they said was easy to do. They had both done it, but not bothered to go to the true summit (rock climber types don't bother with anything less than class 5). I understood that "The Trough" was, at one time, the very definition of class 5.0. I guess I must have muttered something like, "Gee, I'd like to try that. It would give me an Explorer on Lily." They allowed as how that would also give them and Explorer. They had previously summited from the Tahquitz Peak traverse, and up a climbing route called "White Maiden" (5.7).

Then I forgot about this repartee. Last week I received a message from Gary saying that he and Mary Jo were ready to do this on Labor Day and did I want to join them. Talk about mixed emotions! I had never before climbed any real class 5 and never been roped up on rock, except for being top roped up a short rock at Indian Cove during BMTC about 30 years ago. I knew little about roped climbing and knots and belaying and that kind of stuff. It sounded a little scary but, after all, it's only 5.0, right? I jumped at the chance.

I found, with some difficulty, my harness and rock shoes and my sole carabiner (which I carry so I might look to some like a mountaineer), and bought a helmet on sale at REI. They would provide the ropes and hardware. I asked if I should take my hiking poles. "Probably not a good idea", responded Gary, the master of understatement.

We drove to Idyllwild, had a good breakfast, and proceeded to the Ernie Maxwell trail. Gary and Mary Jo produced a 50 and a 60 meter rope (2 different colors so they don't get confused) and an incredible array of cams, chocks, stoppers, slings, various kinds on 'biners, whatever that must weigh half a ton. I got to lug one of the ropes. They decided Gary was to lead all 4 pitches for the experience because MJ had already led this route. MJ was to do all the belaying from below. "What do I get to do?" I asked. "Just climb and don't screw up too badly."

We hiked a short distance down the trail and up to "Lunch Rock", about 900' above the trailhead while Gary explained to me the various shouted commands. It seemed to me that the most important is "falling". We assembled the gear for the climb, donned the harnesses and helmets, stowed the packs, and set out unroped for a while. Then we got to the serious part (which was just around a corner, so I couldn't see how nasty it looked) and paused for a long time while Gary and MJ built an anchor and flecked the rope (see, I'm learning the lingo). They gave me one last chance to bail. But now I was really interested.

Gary, carrying that heavy rack, began climbing on belay. I thought it took a long time for him to reach the end of the pitch. I learned on my way up that the time was taken up in figuring out the route, placing hardware at many spots, and setting up a solid belay at the top. OK, my turn.

It started out fairly easy, but soon became quite tricky. I concentrated on finding the holds and tried not to forget to swap ropes on the many anchors, so there wasn't much time to contemplate fear. This is almost fun! It is nice to be on a trusty belay, where I am very unlikely to fall more than a couple of feet. I developed a respect for the lead climber who has to place firm anchors on the way up and who can fall quite far before the fall is arrested. Finally I reached the top of the first pitch, tied into the anchor and tried to get out of the way as Gary belayed MJ up. She looked quite professional on her ascent. I'm sure I didn't.

Then there was a very long rest (almost boring except for the great view) as they, very carefully and safely, prepared for the next pitch. I felt quite safe in their hands. In our conversation Gary mentioned that this route used to be called class 5.0, but the latest guide rates it class 5.4. This, I did not want to know. It's good they waited until now to tell me. Now the only thing I wanted to do less than keep climbing up was to go back down. They also said that there is a 5.1 route, but it's 7 pitches and takes too long.

After interminable preparation, Gary climbed the second pitch. This one took him even longer than the first. It was because the second was harder. I climbed and my head got back into the task at hand and away from the negative stuff. I confess to "batman-ing" (I love that term) up the rope at one tough spot where I just couldn't find holds to my satisfaction.

To shorten the story, we finally got up the fourth and last pitch, at about 7800'. I managed to get the following rope caught somehow, maybe under a rock, so that it was very hard to pull it up behind me. Just what I needed. There were cries from all over the rock; "climbing", "tension", etc., as many lucky people were enjoying their day on one of the finest and most popular climbing spots in the world. At the top of pitch 3, along came a young man effortlessly free climbing the route. He went around us, taking a route that I could never even consider on belay.

OK, on to the summit, off belay. This route was, it seems to me, class 2 up the west side of the rock about 200'. The rock shoes helped a lot on the steep slabs. It might be quite hairy wearing hiking boots. Sign in, Explorers for the 3 of us, high fives, and a group hug.

On the anticlimactic downhill trudge by the usual route, the famous "turn back ye fearful" spot, where the scrubby mountain mahogany is, seemed like no big deal. At the saddle below the summit we saw a fellow belaying his partner up a 5.7 route. We stopped here to change into trail sneakers. Gary pointed out a route called "Open Book", now rated class 5.9 that Royal Robbins climbed in sneakers many years ago.

The trip, car to car, took about 9.5 hours. We had some cold Eastern Sierra Lager in the car. We drank it. Mex dinner in Idyllwild. Life is good.

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