The Smiley Project: Stuck in Steck Salathe

If it’s not immediately apparent, Mark and Janelle Smiley are committed. They’re tackling North America’s 50 Classic Climbs, but not just merely checking it off a list; they’re committed to learning from every experience. And if completing all 50 classic climbs isn’t enough, they are not beyond revisiting old sites to climb in better style, use better technique, and perhaps even send a few routes in the process. So this is how they found themselves back at the Steck Salathe Route on Sentinel Rock, three years after their initial ascent.

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This 16-pitch route’s crux is definitively the “Great Chimney”. Or as Mark Smiley describes it, vertical caving. 

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And like all great expectations, not all are met with success—especially when you get stuck for an hour inside the chimney and need to be hauled up the climb by your partner. 

 This is the start of the Narrows. Allen Steck and John Salathe climbed the outside of the wall on the first ascent in 1950, which avoids the lion’s share of the squeeze chimney. Janelle and I had followed the first ascentist on our first ascent, so we had not been in the slot. This go, we decided to give it a try. Janelle took the lead and did a wonderful job, as did Ian and Jed. They each took roughly 30 minutes to get up this 60 foot section.

I went last. I had sent (climbed without falling or resting on the gear) every pitch to this point and didn’t want to blow it here at the last crux.

Walking my legs up the far wall I was able to get my head, chest and stomach into the narrow section just fine. Now, the problem was that I now had to get my legs from the wide part to the skinny part. This requires some kind of double chicken wing arm bar move.

I am as flexible as a brick. This personal attribute did not help me make any upward progress. Things got ugly. After flexing every muscle in my body and going nowhere, 20 times in a row, I ran out of gas and took on the rope. I blew the send. I was mad. Then I got stuck, and got really mad. The ego spanking I was taking made me madder yet.

There is a section that is so tight, when I’d turn my head from the left to right, my nose would scrape on the wall. Then the backpack that I was trailing started getting stuck below me. It too was a little too wide with two helmets clipped to it.

I lost it. Started screaming at the world. Not my proudest moment.

Eventually I fought my way up, while Janelle performed crevasse rescue on me with a 3:1 pulley. It was miserable. You can’t even call it climbing, more like hangdogging on top rope, only your belayer has tied the rope to a car bumper and is driving slowly away, effectively towing you up. To make things worse, Jed filmed it all. I guess I asked for that one.

Third time’s a charm right?

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