The Maiden, Skunk Canyon

Sunday 5 February 1995

07:00. We park the van at the Mesa trailhead and start the hour walk-in with our gear ladened packs. The trail is steep but enjoyable, the morning beautiful and quiet and I don't feel the hike. We turn into Skunk Canyon and when it's time to break trail we realize that we underestimated the walk-in. We cross a talus field and ascend to the base of the Devil's Thumb, a very prominent feature in the Boulder skyline.

The climb is a star rated 5.8+, a very short section followed by an easy section to the top. The crux is an awkward off-width protected by a very dodgy looking bolt. We manage to surmount this and solo on to the top. 11:00. We rappel off the steel bar anchor for a no longer existing tourist ladder and begin the descent to another prominent pinnacle, The Maiden.

The towering wall overhead is impressive, reminding me of Mirror Wall with its seemingly blank features. The route is a star rated 5.8- and looking overhead I decide it deserves a lot of respect. Matt leads the first traversing 5.5 pitch, which with its exposed nature would be inadvisable for a beginner leader. Pitch 2 is rated 5.7 S, the S stands for severe it is sometimes used by American guidebooks to mean lack of gear, oh for the Irish system. Our route finding abilities are put to test, distracted by chalk overhead and a rappel sling where a previous leader got into trouble. I step high over gear before realizing the mistake and am fortunately able to gingerly backclimb. We spot the correct traverse and I venture north on positive feet, using my hands for balance. A long step with my right foot means I can reach a high undercling for my right hand as I step into a shallow corner. A groove offers cam protection but I can't stop here, I reach behind my right shoulder and balance in that direction managing to mantle a horn and throw a sling around it at the same time.

Pitch 3 is the crux 5.8- pitch, I survey the holds and thank God it's not my lead. It has a beginning traverse and Matt moves past a coming at you bulge, his only gear a lousy piton, metres south. He is out of sight, a shout, I'm ready for a fall, but it's a dropped walnut. I can hear the sheer panic in his voice and brace, I know my belay can take a long swinging fall but doubt Matt's body will be intact with the many obstacles in his path. He sees a piton to his right and shakily gets to it; nearly an hour passes before I begin the pitch. It's not long before I have christened it the death pitch, why was it not given a S rating? As the second I am also unprotected on the traverse and face the reverse swing. Barely hanging onto the in your face rock I come to Matt's gear, in the fear stricken state he was in, he put in enough gear at this point to winch up a tank. Up to the belay is straightforward, Matt still looks visibly shaken. We look at each other and understand that we both will never climb again.

Time is not on our side. I blitz the 5.6 pitch, stepping around an exposed drop as I cross to the north. The last pitch I see as a scramble, though quite exposed. I make the mistake of placing no gear, Matt is still shaken and complains about the serious swing he could have taken.

17.00, not much light left, we tie the ropes together for the 120 foot rappel to the crows nest, the most exposed rappel in Colorado. Once you leave the lip at the very top, it is completely free and you are hanging an insane distance from the wall. The crows nest landing is the site of the next rappel station, getting to it has been likened by Pat Ament to landing a plane on an aircraft carrier. The descent offers incredible views of Boulder and the plains and equally spectacular photo opportunities, one of which has graced a guidebook cover. Matt can guide my landing but at one stage he was 20 feet from the nest and it took him a while to swing into it. Freak city.

It's dark as we pull the rope. After giving it a thug I know we are screwed. The day having begun so perfectly, we had not expected another epic. We know that neither of us can ascend that free hanging rope. Our options, sit it out for the night waiting for a rescue in the morning. Matt worries about the cold. Though at times we are caught in the wind, I know that with the unseasonal weather we would be ok. If we were rescued I knew we would always say that it was unnecessary, we could have got out if we had controlled the fear.

I think through things in my mind, fighting blankness. I had prusiked fixed ropes in controlled situations - on the wall by the Glendalough hut, in the gym and from my garden tree. Once I had prusiked a little for real, this came about when I was abseiling for gear and my backup prusik got caught on tape stupidly marking the middle of the rope. I looked up at the rope blowing in the wind. This is different. Recently I had been shown jumaring techniques which I hadn't quite mastered. I wanted to apply them to this situation as I knew that my awkward prusiking technique would otherwise blow my arms before I was half way up the rope.

We hear something clatter against the rock and smash far below, the battery pack had fallen from my head torch. Luckily, at the last minute I had thrown another torch into the second's pack. 19.57. It's time to ascend, ok check the system, I test and retest, Bachmann prusik moving around too much, 3 wraps for the german prusik, too tight, 2 wraps, can't move the damn thing, 1 wrap I'm slipping. I told you I should have used a french prusik. Leg loop too high, leg loop too low, lower prusik is not taking my wait. After the umpteenth check the system seems to be in order. Time check. Jesus christ it's 21:00, what the hell have I been fiddle fucking at for the last 2 hours.

I can't believe how smooth and fast the ascent goes. I surprise myself, all nerves are gone and I really enjoy the ascent, suspended in the darkness, the lights of Boulder far below. "I'm under the lip". My top prusik is underneath the lip unable to go any higher. I go as high as possible in my lower prusik and clip the top of my daisy chain. Grabbing the other tied off rope I overhand it and lunge for the slings at the top of the lip and mantle onto the top, held back a little by my prusiks. "I'm up". The rope had been threaded through 4 old "rings" and also 2 new proper rings. So many slings were passed through these new rings, that there was not much of a margin for the rope and also the end of one of the slings had slipped down, possible further jamming the rope passage. More importantly the knot had been left this side of the lip, unable to pass with the friction created at the lip.

The rappel this time was not unnerving and I arrive at the nest to see a smile on Matt's face. The second rappel has a much lower lip which probably would not have proved a problem but enough was enough. I rappel past the knot and landed amidst my shattered battery. 22:30. We descend down, through the trees, rock and scrub and come upon a path. We just keep walking, my shoulders are fried and my back aches, the consequence of a skiing accident. It does not end, we push ahead knowing Matt's girlfriend will call mountain rescue at midnight. We stumble into the parking lot and speed to a phone. 00:15. Melissa is in bits, a rescue has been called but we get her to cancel it.

Would we climb again, oh yes, but maybe after a few days break, ok.