Desert Climbing with the Crag Baby – Part 1

May 29, 2011 at 6:40 pm

The long Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of high climbing season in the Rocky Mountains. The spring thaw is (usually) under way, the days warm, and the rocks dry out. This holiday has been an opportunity for our group of climbing buddies to reunite and celebrate the opening of the rocks.

A little lizard

In the past, we’ve had weekends in Vedauwoo, at Tres Piedras, and in Penitente Canyon. This year, most of our group has traveled on to bigger and better things, so we few stragglers decided to go back to where it all began, on the warm desert limestone near the Cheesehead Ranch.

G is ready to hike on Saturday afternoon!

We arrived on Saturday just before noon, and started off at the Bank parking area to try and track down Doug, Liz and JoAnna. We found their car with a mysterious note taped to it: “Change of plans, we’re climbing at the Piggie Bank today.”

Now, Mark and I counted, and we have probably been climbing at Shelf Road more than 15 times. We have visited almost every crag and area in the region, and we have never heard of “the Piggie Bank.” In fact, neither had anybody we asked. I hypothesized that it might be a newer area near the “Cash Wall” and “The Vault” at the east end of the the Bank. Sounds reasonable…

We hiked over to Cactus Cliffs with the baby, about a 20 minute walk, and finally found somebody with a copy of the new guidebook. There! The Piggie Bank was listed as its own area in this book, and it was at THE OTHER END of the Bank – probably 2 miles in the opposite direction.

Mark and G hiking (the wrong way) across the desert

We trudged along the wall of the Bank in the afternoon heat. G napped on and off, but demanded a few breaks, making the hike take a little longer. It took 2.5 hours to find our way up to the base of the crag where Doug and Liz were climbing! It turns out, recent activity in the crag surrounding Number 1 Super Guy has produced a new and very nice climbing area at Shelf Road.

Zonked baby by the time we found the crag

When we arrived the baby was napping, so Mark and I hopped on a top-rope and climbed a new, fun 5.7. Doug and Liz had been climbing newly bolted moderates on the sunny south-facing crag all day long. The area has a (rightfully gained) reputation for holding a few difficult-to-get-to classic Shelf test-pieces. But we discovered a trove of long, fun moderates, and a much nicer trail for access. This area is likely to see a lot of growth in popularity over the next few years. It could even become a good alternative for the crowds at Cactus Cliffs.

Our lovely campsite

Brian spent the previous weekend clearing and leveling a spot for our little trailer. It was perfect – down the hill from the crowd and noise, easy to get in and out of, and more level than any of the expensive sites we’ve had so far. This was our first weekend of “Coyote Camping” (using the trailer with no hookups in the middle of the desert) and it went great. We had plenty of water, gas, battery life and tank space to make camping easy and luxurious.

Coyote Camping

The camper proved itself especially worthwhile on Saturday evening. G was napping, and I was reading and staring out the window as Mark pulled food out for dinner. A dark shape moving quickly past the window just above G’s head caught my eye.

My first thought was “Somebody’s dog is loose.” and then I realized, it was a BEAR.

A (relatively) small brown-colored bear tore through our campsite, running at a strong gallop just under the trailer windows and then up the hill behind the communal fire ring and other campsites. I pointed and yelled and jumped up and down, scaring the crud out of Mark and waking the baby up.

We told Brian what we saw, and he said it was the first bear sighting on his land in the 15 years he’s owned it. Mark and Brian wandered the hillside looking for prints or claw marks, while Brian carried around a plate full of bar-b-que pork, presumably for bait.

It was an exciting end to our first day in the desert. I felt the money spent on the trailer was worth every penny for a bit of extra bear protection, and the ability for us all to get out camping! I laid next to G in the trailer that night, staring out the window at a dark sky full of stars just above my baby’s head.