On this trip to Tahquitz, I wanted to allow Corinne to get more leading experience, so after perusing several options in the guidebook, I settled on a long 5.4 called White Maiden's Walkaway. The last time I had climbed with her (when we climbed Traitor Horn), her gear placements were sketchy, to say the least, and she didn't seem to know much about anchor-building. I figured this would be an easy enough route that there would be little chance of her falling, so she could really take her time and practice making gear placements, without getting pumped out and without fear of falling on them. I would follow her to critique her placements. Ken and Mike decided to do the same route, partly because Ken had never been to Tahquitz before, and we only had the one guidebook. Although Mike had been to Tahquitz a few times, it had been several years, and it had been quite a while since he had done any trad leading, so he didn't want to lead that day. So Ken and Mike followed us, with Ken leading.
Unfortunately, the whole day was clusterfucked, and nearly turned into an epic. Corinne didn't have most of her personal climbing gear, so she was going to borrow a harness, shoes and a belay device from Mike. He forgot to bring the shoes, and the guidebook he had, and she forgot to ask him to bring a belay device. So at the Nomad gear shop in Idyllwild, she rented shoes and I bought the guidebook. (Aaron was out of town so I couldn't borrow his.) We didn't realize until right when we were about to start climbing that she didn't have a belay device. So I gave her mine, and I belayed her with a munter hitch the whole day. I knew how to use one, although I had never had to use one for real. I think Ken did too, but Corinne had never used one before.
Now, so far, lots of little things had gone wrong, all due to forgetfulness and lack of preparedness on all of our parts, but nothing major. Well, then Corinne started leading, and promptly got well off route. As I've said many times, route-finding at Tahquitz is often tricky, and can be one of the most challenging aspects of climbing there, especially for someone new to multipitch trad, or just new to the area. She set an anchor at a reasonable spot, and I followed up, battling a small tree on the way. When I got to her anchor, I showed her the guide book and tried to explain a way that we could probably (hopefully) get back on route. Then, as she was about to start leading again, she dropped my belay device. Now we would both have to belay with a munter hitch. I quickly explained to her, as simply as I could, how to set up and use one, and she started off. Fortunately, Mike was still on the ground, so he scrambled down and fetched my ATC, and brought it up to us. She would only have to belay me with a munter for two short pitches. Of course, amidst all this drama, Corinne and I also forgot to rerack the gear I had just cleaned from the first pitch, so she had to get by with only what gear she had left. Another little fuckup, just due to stupidity and carelessness.
Eventually, after two short pitches that were definitely harder than 5.4 (though probably not harder than about 5.7), we got roughly back on route. Corinne's rope management at the belays was nearly nonexistant, and at the belay after one of these pitches, a big loop of rope snagged twenty feet below me. After Corinne reached her next anchor, I had to downclimb with Ken belaying me to release the snag. On one of the later pitches, Corinne again went a little off route, and ended up getting into harder terrain, but not too bad. She did at least make it to the correct belay at the end of that pitch (I think... I'm still not completely sure we ever got back on route.) From there, she was able to direct Ken and Mike up what we thought should have been the correct way.
The other major problem that had been ongoing all day is that we were just moving slow. Way slow. We didn't actually start climbing until after noon, and Corinne was leading very slowly (which I think is natural for a new trad leader, especially when they're not sure where the hell they're going). At this point, we were getting worried about reaching the summit, not to mention getting down, before dark. So finally, I took over leading. The next pitch was supposed to be trivially easy, so I figured I could just run up it quickly with very little pro. I did, and to my surprise, I found it to be the last pitch, even though the guidebook indicated there should be one more. Corinne reached the summit moments before sunset, and she and I got to enjoy a beautiful sunset while we waited for Ken to surface. He showed up just after the sun disappeared below the horizon, but well before it got dark. I let him reuse my anchor so Mike could get up quickly and we could get the hell outta there. Mike reached the summit just before it got totally dark.
Now, of course, as if there weren't already enough minor fuckups in the day, only Mike had brought his headlamp. Ken had left his in his pack at the base, and I had left mine at home! At HOME! I never go climbing without my headlamp, but I had forgotten it! Argh. Even when we started climbing, I figured it wouldn't matter, because I knew it wouldn't get dark until late, and I thought, “There's no way a 5.4 could take us THAT long.” Famous last words. Ironically, and further adding to my stupidity, I completely forgot about the Photon micro light that I always carry on my chalk bag just in case of a situation like this. I didn't remember it until we were almost back to the car. Still, it's a damn good thing to carry in case of emergency... provided that you actually remember that it's there.
Now, the descent at Tahquitz can be tricky. Imagine doing it in pitch black (the moon that night was the tiniest sliver I've ever seen) with one headlamp for four people. Fortunately, since I had done it three times in the last two months, I knew the route quite well, so I was able to lead us all down without incident. In fact, I did basically the whole descent with no light at all, since I was ahead of the others. But we didn't get back to the packs until after 10:00, and didn't get back to the car until 11:00, and thus didn't get home until 2:00 am. After sorting gear and dropping everyone off, I didn't get home until just before 3.
This just goes to show, it's quite possible to have an epic even when the climbing should be really easy. Lessons learned:
This last statement probably sounds particularly directed toward Corinne, and I guess it is, though I don't mean it to sound like an attack on her. Truth be told, the fact that we summitted so late was primarily due to her leading slowly and getting off route a few times. But it was probably as much my fault for not taking over the lead earlier, especially when I knew we were off route. (I offered to take the lead at every belay, but she really wanted to keep leading.) I also probably should have spent more time showing her the guidebook and the topos, and making sure she understood what the descriptions meant, before she started each pitch. At one point while she was leading, I was yelling directions up to her, and I said, “Climb up a left-facing corner until it starts to get steeper, then move left to a crack.” Her response: “What's a corner?” I had one of those Hollywood “Oh man we're screwed” moments, but kept it to myself. I will say this, however: throughout all of this, Corinne kept a remarkably cool head, and led very bravely even when none of us knew what kind of climbing the next turn would bring. Having the right head game can also be crucial on long climbs.