Up (and over) the Pope’s Nose by Josh Smith

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“Think we could throw a haul bag out of an airplane? That would make the approach really easy.”

Kennan was looking at me and Jeff with a twinkle in his eye, and unsure if he was serious, I asked, “Can you even open a plane door in flight, and if you could, wouldn’t it destabilize the plane and make it crash?”

by Josh Smith. Note: the full version of this piece is published in The Climbing Zine, Volume 10. Art by Rhiannon Williams. 

Jeff chimed in on Kennan’s side, “I think it will work, and it’s a great idea! I once pitched bags out of a plane when setting up resupplies in Alaska. Of course, the planes in Alaska had the doors taken off—and we never found one of the bags—but if we don’t try, we won’t find out. And I know just the pilot.”

Thus began our quest for the first free ascent of the Pope’s Nose.

In the mid-1990s when this story took place, Kennan and Jeff were both well-established names in the climbing world but newcomers to Durango, and they were in the process of exploring the area’s potential. Several old timers from Durango’s small climbing community had told them enticing tales of a thousand-foot dome of white granite hidden deep within the moist folds of Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. This schnoz-shaped gem was called the “Pope’s Nose,” and it had never seen a free ascent. Five multiday aid lines wound their way up its face, but the fourteen-mile hike, the difficulty of the climbing, and the intensity of the summer monsoons had so far denied a free climbing prize. The lure was irresistible to them, and although I was a climbing neophyte, I took advantage of a long friendship with Kennan to shoehorn myself into the adventure. It was the chance of a lifetime to tag along with two such experienced masters. I had only read about first ascents, and there was a mythical quality about them that I longed to be a part of. I wanted to see how an ascent was planned and maybe even contribute to something that would become a permanent part of the sport.

We shopped for supplies in City Market with an optimistic disregard for the weight-conscious precision that usually governs the selection of backpacking food, gathering canned meats, blocks of cheese, peanut butter, and other luxuries that might survive a fall from an airplane. Jeff departed for home to continue his personal packing while Kennan and I sorted supplies into three small piles and one big one. The more we tossed into the haul-bag pile, the more dubious and curious I became. Kennan and Jeff, both veterans of many remote wilderness adventures, seemed to feel that the drop would work, but it was becoming clear to me that it was not exactly common practice.

However, Kennan had good ideas: pack compressibles with noncompressibles; put the tent near the top so that it would stream out and act as a parachute; pack such that the goods inside would explode out the top, releasing energy upon impact. He said that he was confident that the haul bag, which was about two feet in diameter and five feet tall, wouldn’t rupture upon impact. This was the first haul bag I’d seen up close, and it looked tough, but I wondered how a tube of nylon could withstand a terminal velocity impact with, to pick a random example, a talus field of jagged granite boulders? I posed questions as a novice but raised no objections, partly because I didn’t want to display my ignorance too openly, and partly because I was dying to see how events would unfold.

When we finished, the haul bag was packed to the top, and the slick, brown tube weighed nearly one hundred pounds. “Are you sure we can push this out of an airplane?” I asked.

“We’ll just have to see what our pilot says,” Kennan replied.

The author.

The next morning we met our pilot at a Durango coffee shop. To my apprehensive eye, he looked very young, a little hung over, and not rested enough to be allowed near the yoke of an airplane. My experience with small aircraft was at this point purely theoretical, and I had been hoping he would be a grizzled veteran with decades of experience rather than a newly minted aviator who wished to add to his forty hours of flight experience without having to foot the bill for plane rental and fuel. His manner, however, was winning and intelligent, and I found myself liking him quite a lot.

At the Animas Air Park, I got my first glimpse of our aircraft. The aging, tiny Cessna appeared incapable of carrying two people, much less four men and a haul bag the size of a water heater. Chained to the runway next to our battered ride was an identical-looking Cessna that was clearly grounded for eternity. Its prop was bent backward from plowing into the ground, the wheels were wrenched backward, and strands of brush hung from various crevices around the nose and wheels so that it looked like a cow that had died with a mouth full of grass.

“Does that happen very often?” I asked, trying to get a sense of just what we were getting ourselves into. I liked our pilot, and I could even forgive his youth and good looks, but forty hours didn’t sound like much flight time, and, boy, did our plane look small. And old. He said no, then asked our weights and the weight of the bag, and began the preflight checks, only to say he didn’t think that we’d be able to get off the ground with all of us and the bag. I volunteered to stay behind if need be, but when he checked the fuel level he said that with the tank that low, we should be able to get airborne. I wrestled internally with that statement for a moment before letting my desire for adventure trample any latent timidity.

“How do we do this?” the pilot asked. Kennan and Jeff decided that because I had never been in a small plane, I should sit in front for the best view and be responsible for opening the door. Jeff and I would push the haul bag out on to the wheel strut and then off into space.

“How fast will be we going?” I asked.

“About 120 miles an hour.”

“And I’ll be able to open the door, right?” I looked at it and pictured the pressure I felt sticking my hand out a car window on the interstate. The door seemed flimsy, as if it might fold in half against plane-speed wind. Jeff brought up the effect of an open door on flight characteristics, and when the pilot said yes, he’d have to compensate for that, I was relieved to see that he had considered the implications and thought we’d be able to get the door open.

The pilot looked at the strut below the door and said, “If the bag gets caught on that, we’re going down.” To minimize the risk, we secured all the straps near the top of the bag with duct tape so that it ended up looking like a turd with a tin hat. Kennan and Jeff piled in the back, and Jeff took the monstrous bag on his lap. It brushed the roof, completely obscuring his forward view. The pilot fired up the plane, which rattled and roared and shook as if it were trying to tear itself apart. Inside, the plane didn’t look like any car rental I’d seen. The seats and siding were of a style and shade of vinyl that was popular in diners in the 1970s, surfaces were worn smooth of paint in places, and the handles were loose. The door pocket on my side was stuffed with napkins, as if someone had just been through the drive-through at a fast food joint.

As we taxied and turned into the wind, our pilot spoke to us through our earphones, telling stories about the unique and often challenging crosswind conditions that affect Animas Air Park. “If you can learn to land here, you can land just about anywhere.” That explained the dead plain chained to the runway—and now I was worried about the return as well.

As we accelerated down the runway, the plane rattled and roared louder and louder, stumbling forward like a game but geriatric sprinter. I looked back to where Jeff was compressed beneath the haul bag. Kennan grinned huge at me. The pilot pulled the plane into the air, its wings wobbling. Within moments, we were over the river, going up rather than down, and then like magic, we were aloft in the sky above Durango. Minutes later, city streets turned to mountain roads, and we passed over Vallecito Lake, which marked our trailhead. The pilot navigated by suggestions from Kennan and Jeff, and we soon entered a secondary valley. Beneath us, fractured clay-colored cliffs were replaced by white granite, and more rock out appeared. On the right side of the plane, a waterfall jetted off a cliff face, making a shimmering silver line in the morning light. My nervous stomach warred with a tremendous sense of wonder at being up in the sky in this tiny aluminum shell.

Suddenly, we could see the Pope’s Nose itself, a massive rock face dominating the landscape. The interior of the plane was alive with religious, sacrilegious, and anatomically unlikely commentary on the magnificence of the rock. How could such a thing exist so close to Durango yet still remain relatively pristine and unknown? The pilot flew us perhaps one thousand feet above the top of The Nose, which was still below the level of the mountain ridges forming the valley. The pilot announced, “Ok, pick a spot to drop the bag.”

“That clearing!” shouted Jeff, pointing to an open meadow that looked tiny and oblong, but was directly in front of The Nose.

Oh no, I thought, how could we possibly know when to push the bag out so that it would land in the meadow? And when it landed in the trees, as it inevitably would, how could we possibly have a prayer of finding it? We circled at the head of the valley, and the pilot said, “Ok, open the door!”

“Josh, you yell go when we’re ready to release!” Kennan said. I pulled the door handle on the plane and shoved. The door opened six inches, fluttering on its hinges, and the wind roared in with grasping fingers.

“I can’t open it!” I shouted. Jeff shoved the bag off of his lap and up against the door. He pushed the door with his foot, achieving much better leverage than was possible for me in the front seat. The door opened eight, ten, fifteen inches, and the bag began to emerge from the door. The plane suddenly tilted radically, and the pilot said, “Wow!” and played with the controls. We righted, but the wind was screaming into the cockpit, and the enormous haul bag was jammed in the partially open door. Jeff and I shoved, and the bag came to rest on the strut. We were rapidly approaching the clearing.

Kennan said, “Josh, say go!”

“I can’t see anything beneath us!” I dithered.

“Go!” shouted Jeff, giving the bag an enormous shove. It slipped free of the plane, which suddenly swung the other direction.

The pilot pulled the plane around hard, yelling, “Look for it!”

“Got it!” Exclaimed Kennan, then Jeff, then me. The bag was a tiny tan plug in the air. It fell for an impossibly long time, dropping so perfectly in front of the Pope’s Nose that I was sure it would hit the cliff, and then when it missed the face, the slabs at the base. Still it kept falling as the plane pulled around. Tracking it was somewhat akin to trying to follow a tan golf ball in flight, yet more difficult and weird, since we were moving in three dimensions, the bag was moving in three dimensions, and both had as a backdrop the convoluted mountain landscape.

We saw it enter a grove of trees just north of The Nose. “Oh, that’s going to be easy to find!” I exulted.

More realistic, Kennan said, “Well, it’ll look a lot different from the ground.”

“How high do you think we were?” Jeff asked the pilot.

“We were about 2,500 feet off the deck,” the pilot said, “I was afraid to go much lower because I didn’t know how the plane would handle.”

“Good idea.”

The rest of this story is published in Volume 10, The Raw Issue, available in print and on Kindle. 

Josh Smith has spent the past twenty years looking for new cracks to fall out of. He recently took up bouldering and has discovered that it’s just as much fun to fall on top of your friends. He lives in New Mexico, which offers plenty of novel opportunities for both.  

Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $36.99 for two years (five issues), and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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