A good climb in a beautiful area, but with some shortcomings…
I’d been looking at the route Death By Chocolate (5.9 R, according to the first ascensionists, 9 pitches, 1700’) for years. It just seemed awesome—I mean 1700 feet of 5.6 or easier with a single 5.9 crux pitch? Yes please! The route is located on the Eastern Reef Slabs of the San Rafael Swell, a giant desert wasteland smack dab in the middle of Utah.
I recruited Thomas for this adventure. I’d only climbed with him once before—in Little Cottonwood Canyon a couple weeks prior. I actually called him to see if he wanted to climb some chossy little towers and then maybe go to the Eastern Reef slabs to check out a potential new route. He convinced me, though, to forgo the towers and just do a route on the slabs. After a fair amount of deliberation, we decided that we’d do Death By Chocolate.
The day of our climb, I picked Thomas up at 8:30 on campus (he had to go to his Portuguese class…) and after going to his place to pick up his gear, we were on our way. After about two hours, the eastern reef slabs came into view. The Death By Chocolate slab was easily visible and it looked absolutely massive. We exited the freeway and drove south on the dirt road that parallels the slabs.
Seeing the slabs up close for the first time was amazing. I’ve seen them at a distance a million times when driving to and from Moab. But seeing them up close made me realize how much rock there really is out there! I mean, there are several miles of 1000′ or taller slabs! Crazy! The place is stunning even from a non-climbing perspective. If the slabs were anywhere but Utah, I’m pretty sure they’d be part of a national park or national monument or something.
About two and a half hours after leaving home, we parked the car. The hike to the base of the route took about half an hour or so. The first part was over some dry, sandy washes. We didn’t see any trails, but we walked on sand and rock where possible to minimize any damage caused to the very prevalent and delicate cryptobiotic soil. After about fifteen minutes we entered the small slot canyon that leads to the base of the route. In one section the canyon was only a couple feet wide and we had to chimney our way up it. Further up, the canyon forked and we didn’t know which way to go; both ways looked like they involved some serious scrambling. We took the right fork and had to make some sketch moves on polished slabs over water-filled potholes. Fun!
The start of the route wasn’t too hard to find. An easy scramble led to a couple bolts to belay from. We got our harnesses on, got the gear ready, and headed up. I took the first pitch. There were three bolts in 300 feet of climbing, and the second (which Thomas led) was about the same. While the climbing wasn’t difficult (both of these pitches were about 5.6), the quality of the rock was less than stellar. A lot of the climbing was on hollow flakes and fragile edges. I wonder how much longer the features will be there for!
The second pitch ends at a ledge. From there you rappel down and right 80 feet to avoid some steeper slab climbing above. The next pitch, the third, is the crux. It was my lead and it actually wasn’t bad at all. There were several bolts that were relatively close to each other, and I even got a purple Camalot in near the start. The topos and commends I read online said that this cruxy portion was 5.9, but it felt like easy 5.8 to me. Thomas even thought it was 5.7. Either way, this was the only pitch on the route that wasn’t a full 200 feet long, and as such it was over pretty fast.
The next pitch (the fourth) went up a big, wide trough to belay at a couple boulders. There was no pro on this pitch, though the last few moves require some thought. The description we had of the fifth pitch (5.3) said to keep going straight up the trough to an anchor above a couple bushes. I could see some anchors above two bushes, but they were up and to the right, not straight up. I figured that those must be for one of the neighboring routes. I started climbing straight up but eventually got to some terrain that definitely felt harder than 5.3, and still I had no pro in. So I ended up traversing back over to the right on less than positive holds. After about 150 feet, I got a cam in, then got another one in 30 feet or so above that.
Thomas headed up the next pitch (the sixth), which started out going up a nice flake to a bolt. The second bolt was pretty far past that, but eventually Thomas found it. I was pleasantly surprised to find two bolts on the seventh pitch; I thought there was only going to be one. Thomas started to literally jog up the penultimate pitch, “Just so I can say I ran up it.” The pitch had one bolt. This led to me getting the final pitch. It’s an interesting thing to be climbing a pitch and facing a 400 foot fall. Yeah, the climbing is easy, but… zero protection on a 200 foot pitch? Is that really necessary? This isn’t juggy climbing. It’s a slab with small edges. And like I said earlier, the edges aren’t super solid. One of these days, one of those little edges is going to break and someone’s going to go for a massive ride.
Anyway, so I brought Thomas up to the final belay. The info we had said that there’s 40 feet of scrambling up and left to the top. Interesting… The scrambling looked no different from what we’d been doing for the last couple pitches. In fact, it was even a bit steeper. I gave Thomas a quick belay as he climbed to the top, then I tied the rope off, untied, and scrambled up after him. We topped out about three and a half hours after starting the climb.
The views from the top were awesome. In addition to miles of rock extending north and south along the reef from where we were, we could see the La Sal Mountains near Moab off in the distance. We signed the summit register (we were only the 14th party to climb this route since its first ascent in 2003. Interesting. I thought it got climbed more often than that.) and wandered around a bit. There was a cool arch down to the east a nice “zen garden” (as Thomas called it) of trees to the west.
After spending about 15 minutes on top, it was time to get going. I down climbed/scrambled back down to the anchor and Thomas followed suit. The ensuing 8 rappels (one down each pitch to the bottom of pitch 3, then one 200′ rappel to the bottom of the canyon) took us about an hour and a half and were relatively uneventful. We were surprised to find a patch of snow at the bottom. I wonder how much snow there is here in high winter?
From where we ended up at the bottom of rappels, there is a 20 foot piece of rope connected to a bolt. It makes for a nice hand line while down climbing the tricky section. Another tricky move around a corner and a few more minutes of scrambling bring you back to the start of the route.
The rest of the walk back to the car was uneventful, with few things of note. We saw a big piece of petrified wood in the canyon that we didn’t see before. It was just propped up on top of a small boulder. Pretty neat. Also, remember how I mention above that as we were hiking up the canyon, we took the right fork? Well this time we took the left fork (though it’s the right one as you’re facing down the canyon…) and I think it was easier. It was more secure, anyway. And finally, just before we made it back to the car we stumbled upon a couple small knolls total covered with small pieces of red jasper. Very cool!
We still had a fair amount of daylight left, so we drove along the reef a bit, then headed north of the interstate to Black Dragon Wash, a very cool, narrow canyon with beautifully sculpted walls and some interesting petroglyphs. With that, the trip was over.
All in all, it was a fantastic day. I didn’t like the way the route was bolted, though. Sure, most climbers probably won’t fall on the 5.0 or 5.3 pitches, but eventually someone will and they’ll get jacked up. What for? In the name of “purity” of ethics? Or in the name of being too cheap to put more bolts in? Either way, I think it’s a shame the route was bolted the way it was. And I’ve bolted on lead, I know it’s a pain to have to drill 10 holes or more on a pitch when you’ve got to find stances to drill from, etc. But it doesn’t take that much time, money, or energy to put, say, 4 bolts in on a 5.3 pitch.
Oh, and I’d call it 5.8 X, not 5.9 R.