In 2006, I was living in Oregon, working four days a week on an organic farm. The other three days I’d go exploring, taking trips to the coast, the river valleys, the Cascades, the eastern desert, enjoying the incredible diversity that Oregon has to offer anybody who’s in love with the great outdoors.
On one of these trips, I drove over McKenzie Pass and kept going east to Smith Rock, on the edge of the Oregon desert. Bowie and hiked up and over Misery Ridge and when we topped out on the summit, the rock formation nicknamed the Monkey Face captured me for the rest of the day.
Monkey Face is a 350 foot high pillar that resembles a monkey’s face when seen from the south: four sheer walls make the neck, a sloping cave is the mouth, a boulder for the nose and a round dome summit for the head. It’s a distinctive and impressive formation but what really caught my attention that day were the two people climbing it.
Watching them scale that rock, I could hardly believe it possible. That anybody could climb the Monkey Face – that anybody would want to – was beyond my comprehension as a non-climber. I sat there for hours while those two intrepid monkey men made their way up the neck, in one side of the mouth, out the other side, over the nose, to the summit, totally enthralled. I thought they must be insane.
Eight years later, I returned to Smith Rock, with several years of climbing experience tucked in my harness, and when a trusty climbing partner asked me if I wanted to do Monkey Face, I said hells yes! You might think this means I’ve gone crazy, and while it’s true that rock climbing makes you think about the world in a totally different dimension, I would argue a successful summit of the Monkey Face requires the opposite of insanity: mentally, you’ve got to be solid as a rock.
The easiest route up Monkey Face is a 5.7 A0, a moderately easy climb, well within my physical abilities. The real challenge is the exposure; spending all day dangling over an abyss can paralyze even seasoned climbers.
The climb is four pitches, or four rope lengths, from base to summit. My climbing partner Dan is far more experienced than I – he’s been living out of a van all summer, hitting all the classic climbing crags in North America – so he led the entire climb, placing pieces of gear in cracks on the way up to catch him, if he fell. He didn’t fall, but I did, repeatedly, not twenty feet off the ground.
Dan was above me, out of sight, belaying me from the anchor at the top of the first pitch and I was glad he couldn’t see me struggle. But he could surely feel me falling on the rope, failing to make any upward progress. This start did not bode well. I couldn’t muscle myself up and over a hanging slab of rock; there were no good footholds and the one decent handhold was slick from a combination of rat piss and sweaty desperate human hands.
After several minutes of wearing myself out, banging myself up against the rock, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into, I took a few deep breaths, dangled quietly in my harness and looked at the problem. This is one of the things I really love about rock climbing: the problem solving. If a move seems really hard, there’s probably a better, more balanced way to do it. Few climbing problems are solved with sheer muscle; more often they’re a matter of finesse.
And then I saw it: the problem called for a hand jam! I put my whole hand into the crack and made a fist. Like a kid with her hand stuck in a cookie jar, as long as I kept my hand balled up in a fist, it wasn’t coming out of the crack. And with that solid handhold, I hauled myself up and over the boulder and cruised right up the rest of the first pitch.
The second pitch went much smoother; the crux was a narrow finger crack that was painful but doable. And then we found ourselves standing at the base of the Monkey’s neck, looking up at the third pitch: the notorious bolt ladder. The Monkey’s neck is sheer rock on all four sides with only the slightest bumps for hand and foot holds. Some of the routes up the neck rank among the hardest climbs in the world, including North America’s first 5.14c route up the east face.
Mortals climb the Monkey’s neck via the bolt ladder: a 30-foot section with metal rings bolted into the rock every three to four feet. People who are into aid climbing have ladders made of webbing for this kind of stunt, but we just had makeshift ladders crafted out of ten foot lengths of knotted cordelette and daisy chains of webbing tied into our harnesses. Dan led the pitch by clipping his cordelette ladder into first bolt, stepping up into his ladder and reaching high to clip the next bolt up with his daisy chain. Then he pulled himself up, taking the ladder up with him to the next bolt. Clip, step, repeat.
Then it was my turn. I got the routine down pretty quickly, but a few of the bolts were too far spaced for me to reach even standing on the top rung of my ladder. Remembering my lesson on the first pitch, I told myself, don’t flail, think. What tools can I use? I ended up using a set of quick draws – a short length of webbing with a clip on either end – to extend the lengths of my rope ladder and daisy chain. Many pull ups and a few well timed lunges later, I belly flopped into the corner of the Monkey’s mouth, as exhausted and elated as I’ve ever been.
We took a short break in the Monkey’s mouth while Dan called his friend Thomas down below to check his progress. Bad news: Thomas and his climbing partner Beth had bailed on the first pitch and they weren’t coming up. According to the beta we had for the climb, two ropes were needed on the descent to rappel off the top of the Monkey’s head. Dan and I only had one rope.
“Ok, before we go any higher, are you sure we can get down with only one rope?” I asked. Dan thought for a moment and said, “Yes, it will be a little hairy, but we can do it.” I’d met this guy in a laundromat and only been climbing with him a few days, but my trust in him as a climbing partner was absolute. If he said he could get us down, I believed him. Onward and upward!
Getting out of the Monkey’s mouth may be the hardest move of the whole climb. Nicknamed “Panic Point” our guidebook called it “the most exposed 5.7 in North America.” They weren’t kidding. You step out of the Monkey’s mouth into air. There’s a couple of good handholds, but no foot holds so you’re smearing your feet against little bumps with hundreds of feet of air under your soles. Dan led Panic Point like a pro and as soon as he gave me the all clear that I was on belay, I went for it. I knew if I sat there for even a moment, I might chicken out.
A few breathless, terrifying moves and I was standing on the nose. And then a bit of easy scrambling and I was standing on the summit. A handful of spectators watching us from the same spot where I had watched those monkey men cheered and clapped, as incredulous as I had been all those years ago. Even standing on top, I couldn’t quite believe it. Evolutionary progress be damned; I am proud to have evolved from a wide-eyed spectator of monkey men into a full blooded monkey woman.
We sat on the summit for awhile, enjoying the late evening light on the Cascades. I pointed out the volcanoes I’ve climbed this summer – South Sister, Tumalo Mountain, Mount Thielsen, and Mount Adams – and the ones still on my to do list. But as with all triumphant summits, at some point, you have to admit you’re only halfway home. As we started to pack up to leave, Dan yelled to the spectators, “How do we get down from here?!” Funny guy.
The only way down off a spire like the Monkey Face (other than BASE jumping, which some people do) is to rappel. And because the Monkey Face is a bulbous overhanging head, it’s a free hanging rappel, where you dangle on the rope with nothing under your feet. Most people bring up two long ropes so they can rappel in one go from the summit all the way down to the ground. But since we only had one rope, we would have to do multiple rappels, moving lower from one anchor to the next until we reached the ground.
Dan had me set up the rappel through my ATC device and an autoblock prussick first so he could check my system. I’ve rappelled plenty of times before and I got it right the first time, but I was glad for the double-check. And then I waited while he went first, leaving me standing on top of the Monkey Face by myself.
Here’s the hairy part of rappelling Monkey Face with only one rope: you have to somehow get back into the Monkey’s mouth. Dan had to lower himself level with the mouth, then push off the rock and gain enough swinging momentum that he could swing back into the cave. The floor is sloping and there’s nothing much to grab on to, so it’s quite a feat. I couldn’t see him down below, but judging from his Tarzan yells and the horrified looks on the spectators’ faces, I gathered he was putting on quite the show. After a few minutes, Dan called up that he had made it.
I lowered myself over the edge, placing all my trust in the rope, a bit of metal and my harness, and let my feet dangle over the void. I did not look down. I slowly let the rope run through my rappel device until I was level with the Monkey’s mouth and then Dan pulled me in by the ends of the rope – a move called a fireman’s rappel. Even with his help, getting back into the cave was terrifying. At no point was I in danger of falling, but the idea of sliding across the floor and swinging out over the abyss by the rope horrified me. By the time I got myself securely clipped into a bolt my hands were shaking.
As Dan set up the next rappel, the sun slipped below the horizon. Now we were racing daylight. While I waited, I allowed myself a few moments to freak out. I didn’t yell or cry or do anything that anybody might have recognized as freaking out. I simply sat quietly and allowed all the nervous energy to quiver its way through my body to my fingertips. Then I placed my hands on the rock, took a few deep breaths and let it all go.
By the time Dan called up for me to begin my second rappel, I was rock steady. Thank goodness. Because the next rappel was even worse. As I lowered myself below the cave, I started slowly spinning on the rope. With hundreds of feet of air under me, I kept my eyes on the horizon, aware that a part of me – the spectator girl – was petrified, completely paralyzed. And yet, the climber in me kept it together and rappelled like a pro.
As I lowered myself down to Dan’s perch, I saw my next problem: I was dangling in mid-air between two rock faces. In order to get down to the anchor, I would have to stretch myself out horizontally, push off the one rock face with my feet and grab for a hold on the opposite face with one hand, while controlling the rappel device with the other. The scared spectator girl said, “I don’t want to!” The climber girl, said “well you have to”. So I took a deep breath, leaned back into my harness, stretched farther from toe to fingertip than I thought possible, and found purchase on the rock. I hauled myself over to Dan along a crack, aware that a slip would send me Tarzaning out into space. But by the time I got over to him, he was grinning at me like a monkey, and I found myself grinning back.
The last rappel was much smoother and we touched down on Terra firma right at dark. We hiked around the Monkey Face, retrieved our packs that we had stashed 7 hours earlier and started the three mile hike back to camp by the light of a bright half moon. We had headlamps, but we didn’t use them. After the Monkey Face, everything was illuminated.
Two days later, I went back to the Monkey Face to watch Dan and Thomas climb it. As I hiked over the summit and the spire came into view, I nearly burst into tears. Even after sitting next to it for several hours, photographing the guys as they did headstands on the summit, I was total awe. Not just of the rock and the route, but also of myself. Where on Earth will I go in the next eight years? Onward and upward!
My first post on Smith Rock is here. Also check out Thomas’ blog about traveling in his van: Travelin in Bertha. Thanks to Danimal and T-Dawg for an awesome week at Smith Rock! Our climb up Monkey Face will always be one of the highlights of my life. 🙂