Climbing with Reservation


"Hey. I'm heading down to Flagstaff for a few days to check it out. I'll be driving from California tonight."

It was Jim Bridwell, calling about a previously planned trip to Flagstaff.

"Right on," I responded, and immediately started thinking about some climbing plans. I was psyched for the opportunity for an adventure with Jim Bridwell, the big-wall daddy of 'em all, and adventure abounds around Flagstaff. So I started thinking about a desert classic. Jim had already done Shiprock, Spider Rock, so of course: the Totem Pole, the outrageous spire of spires in Monument Valley, heart of the Navajo Reservation.

So after putzing around on the local Flagstaff bouldering and basalt crackeneering for a few days, we racked up and were off to Indian Country.

On the way, I warned Jim about the Navajo appreciation of climbers. I had already been questioned once, and on another occasion incurred a broken car window as a result of sneaking around and climbing on the reservation.

"Well, you know, summer-time and all, could be a lot of Navajo Rangers cruisin' about. They pretty much handle you any way they want. Could mean sitting in jail for a few days..."

"But I've got to be in Italy in 2 days!" Jim responded.

Thinking covertly, but with our true nature exposed by my blatanty decorated and abused Toyota, we drove down the dirt roads into the Monument Park, to the Totem Pole Lookout. Signs warned of further travel: "no cars beyond this point" and "no hiking in the park" and "no camping in the park" and a few others describing the local scenery. We hung out for a while waiting for the tourists and a few families to leave the scene, acting typically by stopping, taking a few snaps, and motoring off. It was mid-afternoon and we decided to zip past the signs on a faint side road, find a good knoll to hide behind, and prepare for the next day's ascent. The road kept getting worse and worse, until there was only one option: accelerate and hydroplane through the thick sand until a turn around became available.

We didn't make it, and the car came to a wallowing halt, tires spinning and the chassis beached by the depths of a giant sandbox. After struggling with it for a while and making little progress, we sat, listened to Paul Harvey and his slightly gloomy news on the AM radio, and pondered our options. Some dried-out bushy vegetation, bits of wood, and flat chunks of sandstone were absconded as tools, and combined with hours of digging, we managed to progress a short distance.

By this time dusk was approaching, and we were getting seriously concerned about our chances of getting out of there in time to catch Jim's plane to Italy, let alone climbing the Totem Pole, which loomed above in the gathering darkenss in our front windshield.

"What we need now is an act of God" Jim commented. Minutes later, out of nowhere, clouds moved in and a light rain developed.

"Holy Moley!" I commented.

The rain made the road less sandy, and combined with our inspriration to transform the signs that warned us of our fate into 3- foot long driving platforms, we invented a method of moving the car 3 feet at a time: dig, jack up the car, dig some more, put a sign under the tire ("writing side down" Jim warned, so as not to excessivley mar the signs), lower the car, repeat for other tire. Each 3-foot event took about 20 minutes, but it was progress.

All the tricks were used: we removed gear from the car, some of which seemed to disappear in the sand, and let air out of the tires.

On our way to get the signs, we approached 2 women with a Jeep Cherokee, the perfect vehicle for towing us out. Seeing our approach and obviously scared by the sight of two shirtless, sweaty men, fully armed with large wrenches and screwdrivers (for sign removal), they prepared to leave. Neither Jim nor I had the ability to stop them and beg for their help.

About 10:30 at night, after 5 hours of toiling, sweating, pushing, shoving, enduring wicked windstorms and a stalling car, we made it to a turn-around, and celebrated our first victory. The remainder of the road looked extremely dubious, but we agreed not to think about it until after we gave the Totem Pole a go. Later, it turned out that the climbing took less time and was simple by comparison than moving the car, though we covered about the same distance in both cases--300 feet.

That night, a heavy rain forced us to bivy in the cramped and totally disorganized car--and we didn't get much rest for our sand- beaten bodies.

We got up at first light, and set off for the Pole. Jim flew up the first pitch, eschewing the use of all the large protection arsenal that I had deemed "necessary", including #7 friends, Seismos, and Big-Bros preferring to free-climb the notorius and awkward wide sandstone crack instead. "Off Belay" came before I even had the chance to fully wake up from the strenuous night before, and proceded to Jumar.

Starting up the 2nd pitch, Jim broke into a long joke (sometihing about cows with halos and copulating indians) from the belay. I listened attentively from the middle of an awkward wide-crack stance/move. Another joke shortly therafter (something about dick transplants) sent me well into the pitch.

Nearing the 2nd belay, I called down to Jim, "you're leading the next pitch, right Jim?"

"Well, I don't know, etc." But when he arrived at the 2nd belay, he handed me his line, implying, "put me on belay, I'm on this sucker."

Jim climbed thru the overhanging crack of the last pitch, and, with the clever tieing-off of our big 4-piton selection, zipped past the "missing bolt section", which had stopped some previous parties.

From the top, we got a good view of the road, which meant that the road was getting a good view of us, and laid low.

The ropes got stuck on the rappels. A scary jumar to the jam ensued. We got down finaly, miraculously cruised through the questionable sandy road section, and feasted on Navajo Tacos in Kayenta. A grand adventure.