Big Kangaroo, South Face Right

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6 August 2006

South Face of Big Kangaroo Big Kangaroo with the South Face Right drawn

Between us, Ross and I have climbed a lot of the routes in Alan Kearney's Classic Climbs of the Northwest over the last few years. I really like this book, which highlights "only the best" routes, all of which the author has climbed - rather uncommon for a book of this scope. It features historical accounts and personal experiences, both of which greatly enrich it. The topos and route descriptions are excellent, for the most part.

From his own list of first ascents, Kearney took a "particularly hard look" and picked five. Of those five, last summer Ross and I climbed the Direct Northwest Face on Mt Stuart and the Direct North Buttress of Bear Mountain, both of which we found to be excellent routes. Among his criteria for the routes in the book, he lists "attractiveness of the peak, interesting climbing, rock quality, charismatic name, and remoteness." The South Face Right line on Big Kangaroo caught Ross's attention; it sounded like a hidden gem: challenging climbing on granite and plenty of fuel for the ambitious free climber, given the author's suggestion that the aid sections would go free at mid-5.11.

Proper preparation for this excursion, for me, consisted of getting spanked at Index the two days preceding the attempt to emancipate the marsupial...

Ross and I leave town early Saturday afternoon. The mission is to do some really cool alpine routes in the WaPass vicinity Sunday and Monday. We stop at a grocery store to get some really important supplies, mostly coffee and beer. We reach WaPass before dark and enjoy a very pleasant evening at the super-secret car-camping bivy spot, complemented by campfire.

Sunday morning, I wake to Ross making some stout coffee. Ross sorts the gear and we wait for nature to call. It's nice to go light.

We start hiking from the Highway 20's hairpin circa half past seven. We follow Early Winters Creek until we can see a sandy notch north of Half Moon. Crossing the creek, we encounter some old plane wreckage. In retrospect, the wreckage might have been an omen. Anybody know anything about an old plane wreck up there?

The scramble to Kangaroo Ridge goes quickly. It features a bit of unpleasant looseness, but nothing out of the ordinary. From the ridge, the South Face of Big Kangaroo is spectacular. The route is easy to spot; the left-facing corner of the third pitch is huge. The descent from the ridge presents no difficulties, so we're en route to the South Face shortly.

The first pitch features a few moves on kitty litter and scrambling up a curving ledge system to gain the huge corner. I take the lead, hoping I can link the first pitch with the short chimney of the second pitch, putting Ross in prime position for the "5.10a OW."

Several very questionable flakes make the first pitch interesting.

Ross leads the chimney and finds it awkward. As he progresses up the next pitch, he comments on the scary wideness. Naturally, we're both wearing packs. That's how we've always climbed in the alpine. Ross is taking his time, intermittently apologizing for being a puss, mumbling something about how it would be nice to get a good piece of gear. I'm relaxing at the belay, thinking how glad I am not to be leading that stupid offwidth, so I tell him, "It's your world, bro. Just do what you gotta do."

Soon he's clawing his way up the heinous crack, left leg and left arm fully buried, inching up the chasm ever-so-slowly. He gets to within several feet of a place where the crack narrows and promises a good hand jam, but his right foot keeps slipping. It definitely looks heinous. Ross is clearly making a mental effort; he positively vocalizes, "Here comes the hand jam!"

Then the right foot slips again. He begins to wiggle his way down the wideness. He speculates that he doesn't have the right gear for the crack above him, which is likely true. Once he downclimbs below the pro, I lower him to a stance above the chimney. I clean the belay and climb all twenty feet to Ross.

So much for being glad not to lead the wideness. It's my turn. I've never seen Ross retreat from a pitch, but contemplating that doesn't seem like a good idea right now.

I very awkwardly thrutch my way to Ross's highest pro. I quickly note that it's a cam placed behind a shitty, loose flake lodged in the offwidth. It held Ross's body weight, but there's no way I want to fall on that thing. I have all the gear; I gotta give this thing a shot. But the pack has to stay, so I clip it to the cam behind the crappy flake.

All right, this is no time to think about my well being. Right hand on the wall to my back, right foot on the side of the corner in front of me, I press as hard as I can with my left arm and move my left leg upward. Squeeze, thrutch, repeat and YES! I have a hand jam. It sure feels good to get out of there! I place a nice, solid cam in the crack and get to jamming.

offwidth one Sky, deep in the clutches of the offwidth.

After the offwidth, the corner features long, sustained parallel cracks. I move from side to side, depending on where the jams or feet feel better. This pitch is probably the most pleasant on the route, but it's still a bit disturbing to find loose chockstones lodged in the crack, poised to pelt the belayer. Soon the fist crack on the right exits the corner and leads to a belay ledge. Now we have to haul the packs, something new for both of us.

I build a belay on the edge of the ledge. I stack the rope until it's taut to Ross. Ross climbs to the cam behind the crappy flake. I make the rope taut and tie a knot to keep it that way. I clip a carabiner to the stacked rope and start lowering it to Ross. After struggling to get my pack dislodged from the crack, he clips both packs to the rope. After a short bicep/forearm workout, I have the packs with me on the ledge.

Ross gets the pleasure of climbing the route's best free pitch without having to worry about killing his belayer. His happines is short-lived, however, because when he gains the ledge he immediately heads to the corner at its far side and inspects the next pitch. The phrase I recall most vividly both declares exasperation and demands explanation; Ross shouts, "What the fuck!?"

Here's Kearney's description of the pitch:

[4] Climb a left-facing corner and then a steep face on the left (5.10-) and work back right to a belay on the ramp.

Notably missing from his description is any mention of a deep chimney or anything of that nature. A more accurate description could go something like, 'Climb an eighteen-inch wide chimney and try not to get too claustrophobic. Make a cool move left onto the face, then climb a scary groove filled with kitty litter and loose chockstones.' The features are much too obvious, so there's no way we're off route. But the description leaves something to be desired.

On a positive note, we have a happy intermission tossing rocks off the ledge. The face is really steep and it's fun to toss a rock, wait five seconds, then hear it crash off the rocks at the bottom of the face.

Ross finds the imminent pitch distasteful, so I prepare to lead it. There is a bright side: it's nice and cool in the recesses of the chimney, a welcome respite from the hot August sun. I squirm into the chimney. On either side at its back are eight-inch cracks. I layback several moves up the chimney. The hardest part is actually moving; shoulder and hip jams are too secure for comfort.

There is a nice crack in the chimney's side where the route exits left onto the face. It takes a great effort to reorient myself with my back on the wall. Keeping my right leg in the wide crack on the belayer's left side of the chimney, I push down with my palms on the corner at my crotch to thrutch up the chimney until I can move left to a good hand jam. Hooray for hand jams!

Moving left onto the face, Kearney's "steep face" becomes my offwidth, kitty-litter-and-loose-chockstone-filled groove. With poor protection and my own session of WTF!?ing, along with some negative feedback from my right shoulder, I work my way up the groove. Perched at its top I find a big pile of loose rocks.

I sling two huge, apparently stable flakes and clip a small cam for the belay. I pull our packs to me via the same procedure I used after the last pitch, then put Ross on belay. It looks like the steep pitches above us might be good.

After intermediate belay-moving shenanigans, Ross makes a valiant effort and free climbs the first difficult finger crack, with some hang time. There is a sloping ledge before the next steep finger crack. Ross bemoans the necessity of climbing on the 'ultimate belayer slayer' en route to the upper steep crack. Placing two cams in the upper crack, he realizes he's running low on gear, so I lower him to the sloping ledge and he belays me from there.

I make the first difficult move free, then I come to terms with the fact that I'm pumped as hell. I don't even want to try to pull these moves and it's really late in the day. So, it's time to learn aid climbing.

Aid climbing sucks.

Ross says, "It's easy, you just gotta be systematic and get a rhythm. You're a good scientist, you should like something so systematic."

I respond, "Who the hell told you I'm a good scientist?"

I join him on the ledge and take the gear. All thoughts of freeing the climb have been abandoned. As I climb toward the cams Ross placed in the upper crack, I marvel at the 'ultimate belayer slayer.'

There is a big rock, precariously perched on a seventy-degree slab, about three feet wide and eight feet long. The mind boggles at its improbable position. How has it stayed there? Worse, there are no features to use to climb around the damn thing. Yikes! If it goes, it will destroy Ross and cut the rope. Well, it doesn't go.

Aiding my way up the upper steep crack, I knowingly nod when I reach the top. The rock above is slabby and lichen-covered, really slick. The crack turns into a flaring offwidth, which quickly becomes filled with vegetation. This would be such an awesome free climb!

I quickly scramble to the shelter of the large roof above me, where one last aid section awaits Ross after I build my belay.

Aid climbing seems more pleasant and appropriate from under the huge roof. A chockstone, the only one on the route that seemed well secured in its place, makes for a good handhold to use to get on the slab left of the roof. Really cool parallel hand cracks provide the last technical climbing on the route.

I'm very happy to climb when Ross has made his belay. The sun is below the ridge, the breeze is cool, and I'm elated to get off this face. I reach Ross, grab the gear, and scramble to the ridge.

We admire a beautiful sunset from the notch next to Big Kangaroo. Ross really enjoys watching Pernod Spire on fire in the sunset. The descent is uneventful.

Over beers and wine, we discuss the route. Ross thinks the best part of the route was an exploding pile of shit. I really liked hiking down the west-facing, scree-filled gully off Big Kangaroo. Either way, plans for a Monday climb get scrapped.

The route could still be climbed free. Get after it, fellas! I'd highly recommend this route to anyone who enjoys masturbating with sandpaper, or connoisseurs of offwidths and chimneys with coarse rock.

Mr Kearney, I still like your book, but I don't think too highly of this route.

2007 ed: That's a beautiful line. It's pretty obvious why Kearney would be elated with this FA. Meanwhile, Ross is fishing for offwidth ropeguns for next next summer's marsupial jailbreak attempt. It won't be me. At this point, I'd say that it's a fine route, but the first 10- pitch deserves an "R" rating. Fair warning and all that, in light of the detailed topo in the book.... And watch for the belayer slayer!

July 2007: Ross and Eric emancipated the marsupial. Good job, fellas.