It began just as most hare-brained climbing schemes do: worn out climbers, lying on our backs on a boulder, staring up at the walls above. The only difference between us and the countless others who had gazed up at the same view is that Alex and I were too dumb to know any better.
Dried out from the steep approach in stagnant air, worn out from pitch after pitch of steep basalt, and strung out from day after day of trudging up to the Waterfall, our brains may have been addled just enough to dream big. Lying on the boulders, savoring our moment of rest, we stared wide-eyed at the imposing roof of rock hanging 150 feet above the main amphitheater of the Waterfall. The Oak Creek Waterfall is a 100-150 foot overhung basalt amphitheater flanked by steep walls of the same height on each side. The amphitheater is capped by a 45 degree overhanging tier of stacked basalt columns.
This improbable, seemingly impassable skirt of stone was the object of our affection, the subject of our conversation, and the seed that planted itself within my mind. As we stared up and dreamed of knee-bars, upside down power-stemming, and wild block hugging, the seed sprouted and began to take root.
The first tier of the Waterfall had been developed in several waves, starting in the 1980’s, but the step second tier had remained in the realm of imagination; untouched and un-inspected. Whispers circulated of canyoneers rapelling the entire Waterfall, and an adventurous kindred climbing spirit, Chris Passay (sp), inspecting the second tier a decade prior, but no-one in Northern Arizona knew anything about what hung above the first tier of the waterfall.
“It’s a house of cards”
“A chossy death-roof”
“A good way to get yourself killed!”
While no one seemed to have reliable information about the second tier, everyone had an opinion. The cautions of my close friends and trusted mentors were inadequate to stop the spreading of the roots and growth of the seed that had nestled deep in me.
Despite the warnings, the roots spread and the sprout began reaching higher, once again I was unable to resist the call of the Waterfall.
Access to the cliff was the first challenge. The blocky nature and loose appearance of the stone made a ground-up assault unthinkable to my timid mind, so I began exploring routes to the top of the second tier to inspect on rappel.
My first attempt at route-finding ended with my trembling fingers and wobbly legs unable to traverse the loose, exposed scree ledge atop the second tier. After some careful topographic consideration and satellite reconnaissance, I hatched a plan to hike up and around the entire waterfall, tiers 1, 2, and 3 and infiltrate the stone stronghold via a series of rappels down the main waterfall. Spinning tales of wildly overhung lines, good stone, and incredible photo potential, I talked my good friend and photographer Blake into helping me explore the second tier with plans to develop and shoot the new climb.
Pioneering one of Sedona’s finest low 5-th class ridge traverses, we reached the center of the Waterfall, hanging hundreds of feet above the crag base. We rappelled in to the hidden grotto, choked with trees and boulders, marveling at the potential for climbing in the third tier, above our intended goal. After gawking at the gorgeous rock of the third tier and savoring the incredible position above the Waterfall, we made our way to our target.
A gnarled oak served as our anchor as we fixed the 200′ of retired dynamic rope over the section of the cliff that looked most promising. As I slid down over the lip and began to see the blocky roof below, my mind spun off into dreams of 5.14 stemming and burly steep climbing in such an incredible position. I placed a cam as a directional on the way down to stay in close and only half-inspected the rock quality and features as I slid down the skinny single line.
Blake followed me down the line after I reached the ground and we stood, staring again and contemplating the exact path our climb would follow. The complex corner systems and sharp angles made picking a line difficult, but we settled on a probable route up a series of steep corners and roofs. We planned to return in a couple days with a drill, bolts, and the tools of route cleaning and creation to bring our dream into reality.
As the day was drawing to a close, we packed up and prepared to hike down. One last glance up at our fixed line revealed a couple locations near the top where the rope ran over sharp edges in the basalt. We had neglected to pad the rope or protect it in any way, so I decided to jug back up to pad the rope for when we would return.
Materials for padding the rope were nowhere to be found and the plan was almost abandoned until we called upon our finest dirtbag tactics and ingenuity. Carhartt 12oz spun cotton would make a functional rope guard, and I just happened to have two suitable sections of exactly that… covering my legs. Quick work with the pocket knife and one pair of pants becomes some stylish shorts and desperately needed rope guards!
As I set up to ascend the line, I realized the very act of placing the rope guards was putting me in the situation that they are meant to prevent: ascending an unprotected line running over edges. Blake and I discussed the risks and rewards and eventually decided that there was no use in delaying the inevitable, and I might as well get up there and protect the line now, before any wind and weather continued to wear the line.
Pulling off the ground on my ascenders, I considered the thin strands of nylon above, the unforgiving basalt edges, and that extra scone I had devoured that morning. Thinking light thoughts, but feeling dangerously heavy, I began ascending the line. As soon as my feet were off the ground, I swung out over the boulder field at the base of the amphitheater, instantly gaining 40 feet of exposure.
“There’s no going back now”
I carefully inched the rope through my ascenders, making my way towards the directional cam holding the rope close to the wall. Fine white snow began falling around me and suddenly I realized that the snow was white nylon: rope core. My heart dropped into my bowels and every muscle in my body sprang into tension as I looked up and saw the worn-through rope above.
The directional had re-routed the rope over a slight edge and with the tension of my weight and the bouncing of my ascending, the sheath had completely worn off, and half of the core strands had cut.
Hanging from a fraction of an already worn rope, 150 feet above a field of sharp basalt boulders, I realized there was no way to go but up. I pushed out of my mind visions of freefall, abstract paintings of deep red on the dark grey of the basalt boulders below, and paralyzing fear. My ascenders slid up a millimeter at a time as I gingerly crept towards the frayed section of rope. Every movement was a stroke of the basalt saw blade on the pitiful strand of nylon supporting me, but somehow I reached the frayed spot and moved one ascender above it.
The instant the steel teeth of the ascender bit into the undamaged rope above and I transferred weight onto the safe line, the whole-body pucker that had been contorting my muscles and mind released. Ascending the rest of the line passed quickly, and I re-fixed the line, cutting out the core-shot section and placing Carhartt rope protectors over all the edges.
I rappelled to the ground with hardly a glance at the cliff. Reaching the ground in a speed-controlled descent, rather than the hurtling freefall I had been imagining, was sweet release indeed. Thankful for life, thankful for everything, and feeling truly fortunate to be spared, Blake and I turned our backs to the wall and headed down.
The seed that had been planted in my mind, the idea that had taken root and started to grow was battered by the storm of that experience, but proved to be a resilient and hardy variety.
Our return trip, the first attempt to clean and bolt was thwarted when JJ Schlick, the prolific developer and current caretaker of the Waterfall was developing a route directly beneath our line, so we postponed development to another day.
JJ and I talked about the probability and safety of our intended line through the second tier. I carefully considered the input from a mentor and climber I truly respect, and resolved to pursue the upper tier project with safety in mind. The untamed steep wall must be inspected properly and developed, but only if doing so would not endanger the climbing (and climbers) in the main Waterfall area.
The delay in development stretched for months rather than the intended few days. My fixed line hung, tight as a bowstring as a reminder of what lay in wait.
“Every season is Waterfall season” I like to say, but the mid-summer heat made conditions challenging up there.
After dozens of restless nights reliving the fear of that frayed rope, dreaming about the mind-blowing climb waiting in the second tier, and agonizing over the logistics of safe development, I picked a day, assembled the tools and resolved to return and bolt the line. The storm-battered seedling flexed its limbs in my mind and I packed the haulbag.
I chose my birthday to mount my campaign, and rode off to the waterfall on a solo mission to settle my score with the upper tier. As I clipped into my ascenders and began the climb up the line, all memories of my previous experience were pushed from my mind. Soft-eyed focus and an open mind were my guiding principles as I reached the top of the rope and installed an anchor. Re-fixing the rope and seeing the strand hang untouched for 190 feet to the ground stoked the fires of my psyche.
As I rappelled off my new anchor and began visualizing the direction of the route, the placement of the bolts, and the likely positions from which to clip, these projections of my will onto the rock were shattered by the harsh unwavering reality of the rock.
It was choss.
Every block I tapped shifted and rang, every flake wiggled, and there was so much loose rock I couldn’t even begin to place a bolt. I had lived in denial of the opinions of others, holding to the hope that this gorgeous house of cards was solid and climbable.
I was wrong.
The resilient storm-battered seed that had sprouted as a dream in my mind was withered in an instant; dead.
All my dreaming, planning, spraying to other climbers, and worry about safety had led me to an unavoidable conclusion. It was choss. As I packed up and started for home, I savored the day and the lesson learned. As I swam in Oak Creek, picking blackberries and scribbling out this story, I realized this lesson I have learned before, in other aspects of my life.
Rock cliffs exist as concrete physical objects. We as developers can find lines, install bolts, place gear, and climb features in a sort of communion with the rock. We cannot project our desires, our dreams, or our pride onto a panel of rock and conform it to our will. I had built up an idea of what the second tier was, a gorgeous immaculate stack of solid blocks that would lend a 5.14 free climb. I planned to climb it, distribute photos, stroke my ego, and make a name for myself.
Rock is unyielding, however, and the Waterfall didn’t even feel my desires and projections. All of my planning couldn’t change the nature of the rock, and in the end it was just choss. This principle proves remarkably familiar to a lesson I have learned about projection in relationships. All desires and passion for another person are useless unless they are based on who that person really is. Projecting my desires onto another human has never created the relationship desired, but fulfillment is found when I truly know someone and accept the good, the bad, and the true nature of that person.
In the end, I put in some hard work, got scared, and (re)learned an important lesson relevant to climbing and the rest of life. The second tier of the waterfall may not have lived up to my hopes and expectations, but countless other cliffs, crags, and roofs lie waiting for discovery. The second tier retains a harsh beauty despite its loose nature and danger to climbers, it is a gorgeous and intimidating feature, beautiful even when unclimbed.
After a serious reminder of the importance of seeing objectively and without projecting my desires, I hope to be ready to find what lines the rock has to offer and work in cooperation with the stone to open new, beautiful, and inspiring lines.
Thanks to Blake for the hard work, help, and photos; JJ for the wise council; and all of my friends for inspiring me and being yourselves!