“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?”
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.
by Josh Smith. This piece is published in The Climbing Zine Book. Art by Rhiannon Williams.
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 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.”
We all talked about how perfect the drop had been, but in truth, luck was strongly on our side, and it was only after we circled again to mark the spot in our minds that I began to wonder what would have happened if it had landed in a stream or in one of the ponds we could see. A colony of beavers might suddenly feel that they’d been transported to a war zone.
On the return flight, I tried to reflect on what we had just done but had considerable difficulty putting it into perspective. The entire flight had been completely outside the realm of my experience, and I couldn’t begin to know if it was unusual, dangerous, funny, illegal, stupid, or magnificent. Mostly I felt triumphant. Jeff must have felt the same way because he said, “It doesn’t really matter what happens next. This trip is already a success!”
I myself was both thrilled with the ride and the drop and eager to follow Kennan and Jeff into the next phase of the adventure. We landed back at the Air Park, thanked our pilot profusely, and ceremoniously kissed the ground before leaving for the trailhead. Our hiking packs were filled with less impact-resistant food and gear and weighed fifty-five pounds each, which is still a substantial load. It was 3:00 p.m. We had fourteen miles to hike up an unfamiliar drainage, and our tent was in the haul bag. The seesaw of my optimism banged to the ground with a thud as Jeff and Kennan set off up trail with the rangy, mile-eating strides of experienced mountaineers. I trotted along behind, doing my best to imitate their effortless speed.
The trail was wide and flat and led past fields and then a massive horse stable. Both history and movies convey the integral nature of the horse to the spirit of the American West, and I appreciated the authenticity they added to ambience of our adventure. Soon, however, I felt that the elegant and noble equines would be better housed piecemeal in Alpo tins than in their comfortable paddocks at the gateway to the wilderness. Ironshod feet had widened the trail so that the three of us could comfortably walk abreast, and fragrant piles of biscuits squished moistly underfoot at each step. As we gained altitude, the ground became saturated, and we began to wade through ankle-deep pools of soup composed of three parts honest mud and one part processed hay.
Several hours in, I was certain we wouldn’t reach the valley before dark. Kennan and Jeff refused to even consider the possibility of an open bivy and charged up the trail, plunging heedlessly through turbid pools of foul muck, buoyed by an optimism that I wasn’t sharing and that made me wonder if I was cut out for this adventure stuff. Then it began to rain. As the slow summer evening settled in, we branched off of the main river valley and began to climb steeply into the side valley that held the Pope’s Nose. Kennan and Jeff got farther and farther ahead. My thighs were burning, but I pushed as hard as I could to keep them in sight. Eventually, we entered a meadow and spied the top of the rock formation through the trees. Even from a distance of more than a mile, the rock face was impressive: sheer, steep, and shrouded with clouds. With a sinking feeling, I thought, We’re going to climb that monster?
The forest closed in on us as we climbed, becoming richer and lusher. Mushrooms sprung from the ground in a startling variety of sizes and colors. Amanita, the death angel mushroom with its brilliant red, white-spotted cap grew to sizes I’d never seen. Huge brown mushrooms the size of dinner plates grew in profusion. “King boletus,” Jeff exclaimed, “excellent eating!” He collected several as we hiked along.
As we drew near the Pope’s Nose itself, we began to look for the grove of trees that marked our best guess as to where the haul bag had landed. The valley was larger than it looked from the air, and at least to my eye, there were several groves that might hold the bag. Kennan and Jeff, however, quickly came to agreement upon the most likely search area, and we dropped our packs at a suitable camp spot and grabbed our headlamps and forded the rushing stream. I didn’t bother to remove my shoes, as immersion could not make them wetter, and any change in state would make them cleaner. On the far side, what had appeared from the air to be a beautiful open field was in fact a dense hell of alders fifteen feet tall. Tucked in and about the alders were numerous marshes and beaver ponds. If the haul bag had fallen directly on our target, it might have lain there undiscovered for centuries, an enigmatic nugget in a mossy Colorado bog.
I clawed through the alders, snapping branches, grumbling and crawling over clumps of vegetation on my hands and knees. By the time we reached the more open far slope, it was growing quite dark, and we split up to speed the search. I spotted a body-sized tube of tan off in a talus field, but it turned out to be a log. Kennan and Jeff had headed up the valley, and I lost track of them in the growing darkness. I stuck my head into the bushes, traversed up and down, and tried to guess where the bag might have landed. The search was beginning to seem futile.
Then I heard a distant shout, and I supposed that Kennan and Jeff were calling it a night. It promised to be a cold one. I traversed the slope in the darkness, reluctant to turn on my headlamp and loose the adaptation of my eyes to the darkness as I kept hoping that I’d stumble across some sign of the bag.
“We found it!” Kennan exclaimed.
Jeff was even more enthusiastic. “How do we rate?!”
“Look uphill where it hit,” Kennan said. The bag had plummeted through an opening in the aspen canopy, missing anything that might have slowed its descent. It had hit a particularly innocuous spot on the steep slope, scattering soft loam in a three foot wide crater, then bouncing about forty feet downhill from the impact point, shedding its contents on the way. The bag appeared undamaged, but I couldn’t imagine that it would have fared as well in virtually any other scenario.
“Whose bright idea was it to put food in the haul bag?” asked Jeff as he began to extract supplies from the bag.
“That would be me,” I said, adding defensively, “I double bagged everything,” realizing as I said it how silly it was to think that two Ziplocs would be any better than one in this situation.
“What is this?” Jeff asked, and I winced as he pulled out a sleeping pad covered in alfredo noodles, rice, and miscellaneous dried foodstuffs, all held together by a viscous matrix of something brown.
“You threw peanut butter out of an airplane?”
The sixteen-ounce jar of peanut butter had discharged like a shotgun shell, spewing chunky glop into the contents of the haul bag with astounding thoroughness and force, coating everything.
“You put tuna fish in here?”
“That was Kennan’s idea,” I said quickly. The can of tuna was horribly distorted but unbroken, much to our relief. Most of the goods were usable, but we were missing a collection of pitons, which Jeff said could be critical to a successful climb. At the bottom of the bag, we collected half a pound of miscellaneous dried food thinking that the noodles, powdered sauces, spices, peanut butter, and bits of forest debris might potentially make a good soup.
The next day dawned cold and overcast, and we were particularly happy to have the tent. It was drizzling, and the Pope’s Nose was lost in clouds. I put on clean socks and hung my boots near the fire in hopes of drying them out a little. Despite all the washing they’d received the day before, they were still remarkably befouled. Mid-day, we headed back to the haul-bag landing site and spent a long time looking for the pitons. I expressed concern at not having them, but Jeff said once again that with any reasonable yardstick, the trip was already a resounding success. I was surprised by his attitude, having assumed that both he and Kennan would single-mindedly pursue the first ascent and that the rest of the trip was merely window-dressing.
Back at camp, we waited for the Pope’s Nose to break out of the clouds, which eventually it did. Using binoculars, Kennan and Jeff could identify a couple of the aid lines from photos they had seen, and they discussed the merits and drawbacks of different new lines on the face. I quizzed them about planning first ascents, and they said they generally just picked a line, started up, climbed to the top if they could and came down if they couldn’t. That was annoyingly obvious, of course, and I figured it meant I was asking them to articulate something that couldn’t be put into words. I did know why climbing is usually learned as an apprenticeship; real lessons come from having someone patient take you along and show you the way, and that’s what I was hoping for. The weather, however, was wetting down my self-improvement strategy.
The next day dawned rainy as well, and we heaved a collective sigh and cooked a leisurely breakfast. The valley was beautiful, but I had little patience with the weather. I had found a fishhook in a tree near the creek, so I borrowed some dental floss from Kennan’s emergency kit and cut a stick of alder to serve as a pole. There was an abundance of worms in the rich earth, so I stripped off my shoes and headed for the creek. I worked up and down, with no success. It was difficult to fish in the stream because I could only stand in the current for short periods of time before my feet grew numb. The chilly air dropped a light, intermittent rain.
At the edge of a pool, I stood on a spongy bar woven of twigs and branches stabilized by sand and tossed the dental floss into the current. Wham! I had a ten-inch trout on the line. I moved downstream, hooked another fish. Excited, I moved farther down and climbed out on a boulder that extended into a pool. The rain-slicked granite held less traction than my bare feet needed, and I suddenly found myself plunging over my head into the shockingly cold pool. Gasping with cold, I extracted myself, collecting several scratches in the process, and grabbed my fish from the bank and hurried back to camp to warm up. That night, we feasted on poached trout cooked with garlic and king boletes and had a cranberry cake with cream cheese icing for desert. Kennan reveled in the quality of the food and echoed Jeff’s line.
“Is this trip a success or what?!” Full and content by the fire, I could see his point.
The next day, my last, dawned clear, and we waited impatiently in camp for the most obvious of the water streaks to dry before heading up the hill. At the base of the rock face we walked back and forth, looking for the line that was most likely to go free.
Kennan and Jeff focused on a series of obvious cracks that led to a large roof. The line looked difficult but doable and didn’t show up on their topo. At the right side of The Nose, we found one of the previously climbed lines. Bolted anchors were visible up to a height of about four hundred feet. The Durango climbers who had put up the route had pushed it all the way to the summit on aid but had given up on the free attempt after three pitches of 5.12. I was impressed with their audacity. It was the most obvious line on the face, but also the most obviously difficult, following a series of thin cracks and shallow dihedrals to the summit. Given the time of day and the conditions, we decided it would be best to do the first few pitches of that route to get a feel for the rock and then call it a day. Weather permitting, Kennan and Jeff would come back the next day and begin on the line they’d picked out, and I would have to give up on participating in their attempt at a first free ascent. That was a bit of a bitter pill, but starting up an unknown line at midday didn’t make sense.
I started up the first pitch, which was varied and 5.10-ish and led to the 5.12 pitches. The protection was a bit strange, consisting of gear, a few bolts, and some odd wires I’d never seen before that had metal heads bashed into creases in the rock. Jeff said they were copperheads and generally used just for aid climbing but that if I fell, one might hold me. I climbed carefully and examined the copperheads with interest, wondering how such an unlikely and horrifying innovation had begun. Jeff followed the pitch, and from the belay we could see that weather was moving in. Kennan said he would stay on the ground to give us more time to climb, and Jeff offered me the next lead because it was my last day. I looked up. Like a capricious Roman god, the summit ducked in and out of the dark clouds, trying to decide whether it was worth pausing to smite the mortals below. The cracks that we could see were seeping from the night’s rain.
“Fair is fair—your lead,” I said, handing over the rack. Jeff moved quickly through the 5.12 terrain, pausing only a little at one section; that kind of competence was why he was a pro and I was tagging along and picking up tips. I top-roped the pitch, and when I was twenty feet from the anchors, it began to rain in earnest, and we headed down and back to camp.
It was still raining the next morning when I packed up, said good luck and thanks to Kennan and Jeff, and hit the trail. It had been a stimulating and exhausting few days for me, but on the long hike out I had time to ruminate. Both of them seemed willing at each point to remain positive to adapt to circumstances, and maybe one of their “secrets” to being successful mountaineers lay in that flexibility. It was clear to me that when the weather cooperated, they would apply the same high level of energy and creativity to the actual climb and that would likely lead to their first ascent. I chewed on that thought as I examined my own attitudes and on the large number of novel experiences I’d just had; the airplane ride and the haul-bag drop, the high-speed hike into the mountains, and even the alfredo—peanut butter explosion. It became clear that even without the first ascent, the trip had been an unqualified success!
Postscript: Kennan and Jeff stayed a couple more rainy days. They didn’t climb again. However, several weeks later, they went back and climbed the line they’d selected. It went free at 5.11+, with the crux below a large roof at the top. I continued working on my skills and then went back myself the next summer with another friend. We climbed one of the aid lines up the middle of the face and then climbed a new aid route of our own on the left side of the formation.