Not Quite Heaven
September 14, 2003
It all started with a spontaneous taking of the long way home on blustery Saturday afternoon. As I hiked on the Mesa Trail above NCAR, I spied this large slab of rock in Skunk Canyon with a beautiful looking crack running up it's face. "Wow, that looks neat!" I said to myself. "We'll have to come back here and climb this thing."
Well, it turns out that this is Satan's Slab and the climb is a scary, unprotected 5.6. But there is another climb just to the east on Ridge One called Stairway to Heaven (5.4*, indeed the entire ridge is known by this name) which is one of the Flatiron Top-Ten and has a great reputation. Long, easy and not described in Rossiter's Flatiron book. Beta was sketchy but this wouldn't be the first time we tackled a climb low on details.
Sunday started out chilly but gorgeous and we set out leisurely to climb this classic. The hike from NCAR was pretty and easy and mercifully short. The turnoff to Skunk Canyon is an unmarked, faint trail at a switchback soon after the Mesa Trail crosses the creekbed. The trail used to run all the way to the summit of Green Mountain but is now severely overgrown and blocked by many blowdowns. I guess it was closed for reforestation and it appears to have heartily worked! We fought through thickets and scrambled up and down loose scree slopes battling with poison ivy and other tangling vegetation.
At length we arrived at the base of an easy-looking slab near a particularly narrow part of the canyon. A huge roof on the left showed chalkmarks and the terrain above looked like the sketch I had in-hand. There was no one else in sight and everything was very peaceful in the sanctum of Skunk Canyon. We racked up and I took on the first pitch climbing up a steepening trough between layers of strata. The going was somewhat wiggier than I had guessed from the ground (though still easy) and I found myself sweating more than usual. Granted, the first pitch of the day is always an exciting one for me.
The standard route on the Stairway to Heaven ridge in Skunk Canyon (photo by Jake Wyatt on 3.31.2003). Green dots show our approximate bellays. Pitches 1 and 2 are not visible from this perspective. The olive band shows the boundary between the Ridges 1 and 2 (which is not obvious from this viewpoint). The Like Heaven summit has an old pair of bolts (marked). The true summit is visible on the right in front of the higher summit of Ridge 2. Satan's Slab is the large face to the west of the route.
With about 25' of rope left, I reached the smallest of the three roofs which interupt the slab. No good stances here and the gear was marginal. I traversed left with nice underclings and pulled around the roof on a great horn. Easier terrain now, but I was running out of rope and no comfortable bellay stations could be seen. Finally, I had Amy move up a few yards and I got to a 6" cedar tree crammed into a slot above. No other pro here, but I managed to sling a very marginal horn for a second peice making the anchor at least okay.
Amy came up with little trouble and, as there was little room for two in my cramped nook, she continued on up the easy terrain to the ridgeline. Finding little in the way of pro up there, but confident on the 4th-class terrain, she continued up the ridge setting up a bellay in a spacious nook under a 20" diameter pine. The route was now a bit more obvious. I took P3 up the easy 5.0 ridgeline as far as the rope would go enjoying the moderate exposure and surpassingly easy terrain. With a few inches of spare rope, I set a compact anchor in a crack. Amy passed me again and took on a rather annoying traverse pitch. About then a quartet of noisy climbers passed. Three of them were soloing and the fourth (never having climbed before) was being bellayed by one of the leaders. We waited while they got out of the way (eventually).
Pitch 5 started at the base of the Like Heaven tower and headed up. After two or three pitches of easy, sometimes frustrating traversing, it looked like the good stuff was about to start. I took the lead and got out onto the steep (for a flatiron) face. Battling fierce rope drag, I set up an anchor part way up on a comfortable ledge with a horizontal crack. Amy came up and tackled the fun-looking P6. This was her first real flatiron slab lead and she faced it with vim and determination. The sun had set behind the rock at this point and it was quite cold on the ledge. She climbed over plentiful holds but stingy pro before making some rather bold moves through a small flake/roof onto easier ground above. After a bit of work, she established an anchor at the junction between Like Heaven and the continuing ridgeline and brought me up.
The view from the ridge was great! Satan's Slab could be seen in full glory to the west and the slabs of Dinosaur Mountain were visible to the south. Gliders and birds soared to the east and the shadows lengthened over the plains below. Cold, tired and hungry, we decided to head for home instead of tackling the last few pitches. I lead two short, traversing pitches on easy rock hampered by more extreme rope drag.
Finally, we landed on the broad platform a the base of the final Heaven pinnacle (another two pitches?). It looked very nice, but we'd had enough. There was a rappel to the west through a steep slot and a walk-off to the east. We picked east and quickly regretted it. The downclimb was steep, faint, covered in dead wood and loose scree. And really long! 8 pitches, most of them traversing, generates a lot of ground covered and we spent probably half an hour getting down. Toward the bottom, the scree and brush cleared mercifully and left us with uninterupted smooth rock chutes. Negotiating this in sandals was not my idea of a good time, but getting down was becoming a priority. Back on the Skunk Canyon "trail", I thrashed back to retrieve my pack, and we fought back to the Mesa Trail. The evening chill made for a nice walk back to the car and dinner.
This is one of the Roach Flatiron Top Ten climbs but, in retrospect, I have to wonder why. Oh the climb is easy enough with only a couple pitches of actual 5th-class climbing. And that climbing is quite enjoyable with solid gear and solid rock most of the way. But the logistics are enough to remove a star or two from the rating in my opinion. There are several long, traversy pitches which detract from the experience. The Skunk Canyon trail is a mess and the scramble back down from the walk-off below the summit is steep, loose and features a lot of smooth, rocky chutes. Probably more dangerous than the climb up. An interesting climb with some definite highlights, but only if you're in the mood to thrash around in the shrubbery just as much as climb.