Gemini Dragonfire

The past few months have been the most dynamic and fulfilling time of my life.  I’ve felt busy, running between climbing trips, family visits, and weeks of field work.  A day after I returned from my season in the Red River Gorge, I hiked in to the Grand Canyon to sample sediment at Phantom Ranch during the Colorado River High Flow Experiment.  Spending time in the Canyon is a big part of my life, as my work takes on another level of meaning in such an epic landscape.

Meeting new and interesting people is a great part of working in the Grand Canyon, and this trip was no exception.  During our work, travel on the river, and camp time I was engaged in conversation with Michael Collier, a Flagstaff-based doctor, pilot, photographer, and writer.  He documented our work in the Canyon and produced some incredible images, which I am looking forward to sharing in a forthcoming post.

After days of cold rain, it was a relief to reach the boat ramp at Diamond Creek and make the drive back to Flagstaff.  I hadn’t seen Carrie for six weeks, before I left for Kentucky, and arriving back in Flagstaff and returning to her was incredible.

The rest of November and early December flew by with a frigid sport-climbing trip to St George, Utah and a road trip to California to visit her parents, meet my new nephew, and sample some of California’s sun-soaked crags.  Every spare moment of time between these trips was spent up at the Waterfall with Carrie, cleaning and working on a new project in the amphitheater.  Late fall was incredible at the Waterfall this year, with perfect conditions and many days spent with good friends.


Joel Unema in the crux of Gemini Dragonfire

In mid-December, I finally unlocked the moves on the project, which had earned the name Gemini Dragonfire.  Just as I began getting close and putting in some solid redpoint burns, winter delivered the first snow of the season.   While the Waterfall generally stays dry, once the significant snowpack atop the rim felt the sun’s intense rays, the meltwater soaked the amphitheater.   Carrie and I continued hiking up to the Waterfall, me anxiously waiting for the route to dry while she made impressive progress on some of the Waterfall’s other testpieces.

Ice at the Waterfall.  Photo Wade Forrest

Ice at the Waterfall. Photo Wade Forrest

Blake McCord enjoys a icy and beautiful day at the Waterfall.  Photo Wade Forrest

Blake McCord enjoys a icy and beautiful day at the Waterfall. Photo Wade Forrest

The send was so close, all I needed was one dry day, but time ran out as Christmas Eve arrived and I found myself headed south…. far south.  Venezuela was an incredible experience, and that story and the ways my life has been changed by that trip will be told soon, through a slideshow through Flagstaff Climbing, and a full story in an outlet to be announced.

Carrie Albrecht on There Will Be Blood 5.12+, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Carrie Albrecht on There Will Be Blood 5.12+, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Dreams of Dragonfire filled my head during the long days of travel back from Venezuela, and I returned to Flagstaff fired up, riding an emotional high from a successful expedition, and happy to be back.  The weeks of demanding climbing, and the long days of travel with little sleep caught up with me and took me down hard.  I was drained.  Exhausted.  Sick.  Five days after our return, I succeeded in making the trek up to the Waterfall with Dave Bloom, but upon reaching the top I was gasping for air and so tired I didn’t climb a single pitch.  Recovery came a a gentle pace, and I began to feel like myself again.  Carrie and I squeezed in a couple more days at the Waterfall before I left for the Outdoor Retailers Show in Salt Lake, but I wasn’t able to put it together.

The OR show was a whirlwind of meetings, reunions with friends, and promotion of media from the Venezuela expedition.  I was happy to be back on the road for Flagstaff after a few stressful days in Salt Lake.

I had only one day free between the trade show and a departure for USGS field work in Big Bend National Park, Texas.  This gave me one more shot at freeing the route before a 10-day break from climbing.

Blake McCord and I headed up with Clay Mansfield, a new friend and talented climber who just moved to Flagstaff.

Conditions were perfect and I managed to pull through the crux on my second attempt of the day, finishing my longest battle with any route at the Waterfall.

Gemini Dragonfire is a beautiful and unlikely line in the heart of the ampitheather between two classics; JJ’s mixed masterpiece Pyrokinesis (5.12), and the classic Black and Tan (5.10).  A few developers had taken a look at the thin seams that make up the route, and had found it lacking in holds and protection.

JJ Schlick on Pyrokinesis, Gemini Dragonfire shown in Yellow to the right

JJ Schlick on Pyrokinesis, Gemini Dragonfire shown in Yellow to the right

I had to take a look for myself, so I rappelled the line, cleaning the vegetation and dirt out of the tiny seams.  Holds appeared here and there and gear placements became apparent in the seams… not only might this line be climbable, it might go on all gear!  Through continued cleaning and top-rope work, ninety percent of the moves came together quiekly, with no climbing harder than 5.12-.  The remaining few feet provided a puzzle… there were enough holds to know the moves were possible, but small enough and far enough apart that I wasn’t sure I could pull them.

A nine-move boulder problem defines the crux and begins from a good rest.  A long reach off good holds gains a thin crimp rail, then another long reach with the left hand presents a unique triangular cutout.  Above the cutout lie thin holds in the seam, and thee hardest moves begin with hiking the feet up to small edges and cutouts to stem and stab for a small sharp sidepull in the seam.

The difficulty of the climb boils down to this boulder problem, which was probably the most difficult I have pulled, either on the ground or on a rope.  Pure physical difficulty, technical footwork, and a bit of faith in thin gear are all required, as last 3-4 pieces protecting the boulder problem are red and yellow Ballnuts.

I took numerous falls on the ballnuts at the crux, and while they were difficult to place, the pieces never popped when placed correctly!

Joel Unema finishing the crux on Gemini Dragonfire 5.13+ Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Joel Unema finishing the crux on Gemini Dragonfire 5.13+ Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ Photo Blake McCord

I propose a 5.13+ or 5.13d for the pitch based on the boulder problem, which felt V9-ish to me.  A couple friends of mine have attempted the moves, and while they only tried a few times, the moves have not been done by anyone besides me.  The smooth rock and tiny features leave very few hand or foot options for this sequence, leading me to believe that there is probably not a drastically different way to climb this crux.

Grading routes can be stressful, and I try not to get too hung up about it.  In the end, I want to use grades as a tool and a guideline for aspiring ascensionists to know what they are getting in to.

Regardless of grade, this line is one of the most beautiful pieces of stone at the Waterfall or anywhere!  I spent many incredible days staring up and attempting the moves with Carrie, and also had help from Dave Bloom, Clay Mansfield, John Crawley, Darren Mabe, Matt Swartz, and Blake McCord!  Thanks to Wade Forrest for his incredible images!

Thanks to the whole Waterfall crew for the encouragement and support during the process of making this line a reality!

Blake McCord was up filming the day of the send, and captured it on video.  I’m really excited for him to release the footage soon… stay tuned for more video psyche from the Waterfall!

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