Questa Dome, Questa Direct

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary Clark, Richard Smith |Trip Dates: September 15, 2001


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The Quest for the Best

New Mexico - an enigmatic and fascinating "State of mind" as much as it is a geographic area, and the place where the magnificent cordillera of the Rockies finally gives way to the desert. Is there any worthwhile climbing here? I had my doubts when I moved to the "Land of Enchantment" in 1985, and it wasn't until 1988 that I was led to some of the best short cragging I had ever seen. Within a few years I was back into form enough to start looking for longer "classic" climbs, such as those I had climbed in the Sierras back in my California years. It was clear they would be hard to find in the comparatively low and rounded mountains bisecting the northern half of the state. The highest mountain, I learned, was Wheeler Peak, a scenic but unexciting "13er" near the ski area of Taos Valley. A hundred miles to the south is the Sandia Range, which presents huge slabs of high-angle granite impressively visible to anyone traveling to Albuquerque from the west. I climbed there a few times, but was discouraged by the length of the approaches and the generally poor quality of the rock, which in spite of its appearance from afar, is often pathologically unsound and dangerous (with notable exceptions). There is Shiprock, of course, an amazing desert formation that was the scene of some of the most interesting climbing history in the U.S. However, it is now off limits to climbers.

I had to look north to Colorado for bigger objectives, the most obvious of which were the classic routes made famous by Roper and Steck. After climbing most of those, I began to wonder if anything in New Mexico might be comparable in quality. Recently I began more serious research into the question, believing that with all the climbing in the state, there might just be a route or two that might be worthy of designation as a classic of the continent. One day I ran across this route description in the 1996 guidebook to New Mexico and Texas rock climbing by Dennis Jackson: "Question of Balance" (III 5.11) Questa Dome - This excellent route, one of New Mexico's very best, offers 5 long pitches on excellent granite." I had never climbed at Questa Dome, but had heard that it was home to difficult, run-out routes. Being more prone to seek out relatively easy and very well protected routes, I didn't rush right out to climb it. However, it was worth further research, and I thought of my occasional climbing partner Rick Smith, on whom I often call when I want to do something harder than I am. I knew he had climbed there, but didn't realize the extent of his knowledge of the area. He immediately replied to my query about 'Question of Balance' that it was a great route, but there was an even better alternative on Questa Dome. It combines the first two pitches of a route called 'Another Pretty Face' (how many of those are there on the continent?), the middle pitch of 'Question', then finishes with a direct line over the middle of the big overhang that crosses the entire formation and dominates the route finding decisions. This was not only the most aesthetic line, he said, but offered the best climbing. He called it the 'Questa Direct'. The upper pitch was his creation, so there might have been some bias here, but I had to admit when seeing a photograph of the Dome that, in terms of purity of line, nothing else came close. "How hard is it?" I asked. "Oh, it's not bad, there is some easy and mid 5.11, with most of the rest 5.10." In my vocabulary, "easy 5.11" is an oxymoron, but my interest was kindled enough that I went on to ask "Do you think I could get up it?" Rick has very good social skills, so he lied convincingly in the affirmative, but we both knew it would only be with him on the sharp end. I offered to drive, provide the rope and rack and a six-pack for after the climb, and a date was set.

We rolled out of bed in Los Alamos early enough that we could pass through Taos while it was still mostly asleep. Later in the day the traffic here is always horrendous, and I give it a wide berth. On north through the small village of Questa to an even smaller village called 'El Rito.' This is one of several 'El Ritos' in New Mexico, and this one is so small it might be mistaken for a single ranch from a distance. We drove to the end of the pavement, and then I began to regret I'd volunteered to bring my vehicle. The dirt road to the parking spot is true 4-wheel drive, and we lurched and bounced the next several miles until Rick indicated it was time to park. There are no signs to lead you here, and no obvious trailhead, so it might be tough to locate the optimum parking spot on your first visit, but basically you're trying to connect with a trail that runs up the left (north) side of a nice year-round creek. The trail provides a good warm-up for the muscles, with about 45 minutes of steep hiking. Finally it's obvious that one should leave the trail to hike the short distance up to the base of Questa Dome, looming to the north. The route we wanted starts about mid-way along the base of the feature, and is easy to locate from the topo. As we prepped for the climb, I looked up to see what seemed to be easy-appearing features from a climbing standpoint. I was wrong.

Rick took the first lead. After an easy ramp to the right, he turned sharply back left, put in his first pro, chalked up, started up, backed down, chalked again, put in a second cam, started up, backed down, and finally called down "It's not that hard here, it's just a little hard to commit." I was amazed to see him given pause this early in the climb. I knew that anywhere Rick might pause would be a spot I'd be in deep yogurt. Finally he made the move, moved up to clip a bolt, and then chalked again at the corner. After pulling around the corner he was finally directly below the main feature of the first pitch - a long crack system leading up the left side of a narrow "pinnacle" in the Glacier Point Apron tradition. This is just a feature lying against an otherwise smooth face that has a recognizable left and right side, and a rounded pointy ledge at its "summit". Rick climbed smoothly and deliberately up this long crack, sometimes jamming, sometimes stemming, but always in perfect control. It looked like excellent climbing. At the top, he spent some time preparing a belay anchor, because there was only a single ¼" bolt here that he had to back up with cams at his feet. In 2004, a good double-bolt anchor was installed here.

Now it was my turn. I expected to have great difficulty with the first crux, but he was right - it was only a commitment problem for the leader, and on top rope I moved quickly past it. Unclipping the bolt (another ¼"), I hoped to have the same luck with the lieback around the corner. Smearing a shoe on a very steep face, I reached long for an undercling as I had seen him do, and committed to the move. My mind told me I would soon be dangling on the rope, but amazingly the shoe stuck, and I was through it. Although only rated 5.10-, this would prove to be one of the harder moves on the entire climb. The rest of the pitch was as good as any crack and flake climbing I have ever done. While never severe, it was very continuous and offered few rests where it would be convenient to place protection. I knew I would not have been in control on this had I tried to lead it.

I arrived at the stance, clipped in, and looked up at the crux pitch. There were two bolts visible, then a vast nothingness. "Where the hell does it go above the 2nd bolt?" I asked. "Well, you can't see it too well from here, but there's a pretty good crack off to the left." Rick replied, while re-racking the gear. I thought it was ominous that he left all the big gear with me, to save weight. "There aren't any holds out there." I offered, looking up at one of the smoothest faces I've ever seen. I was strongly reminded again of Glacier Point Apron in Yosemite Valley, where I've climbed scores of times. However, this was much steeper than anything I'd ever done there. "Well, the holds are small, but it's really a face climb, not a friction climb," he opined.

For the next 20 minutes he worked the face carefully, sometimes making a tentative move to an imaginary line of holds, then backing down and trying something else, until finally he had progressed past both bolts and up to the crack. I was relieved to see him drop in a cam, because the runout was by now making me nervous, just watching. The crack went quickly, and then I was on belay. I'll spare the reader the gory details, but suffice it to say that I'd have had no trouble with this pitch at all had there been any holds. Perhaps my mistake was not to bring reading glasses - when you pass a certain age these become necessary evils for dealing with small text, details on maps, and face holds invisible to the unaided eye. I was glad no parties were below (indeed, there was nobody else on the entire rock, the normal situation here) who could witness my pathetic whimpering alternated with blasphemies. I also wished I had a decent pair of shoes on - my trusty Mythos were eaten by a marmot earlier in the summer, and I hadn't been able to replace them. I was in some very comfortable, oversized "all-day" shoes in which I could climb all day then hike the descent. I've hiked for 3 hours in the desert in these. Rick later confirmed that "rubber is important" on any route on Questa. Soon after this climb I did some serious shopping, ending up with some sticky slippers that are to my all-day shoes as a Porsche is to a truck. OK, there's my excuse, and I'm proud of it. (It couldn't have been a simple lack of ability.)

Meanwhile, back on the Dome, we are finally looking up at a pitch I can lead. Pitch 3 drops down to the right a ways, then traverses right to the next feature on rounded depressions that locally decrease the angle to a point where even my tired rubber adhered. I wasted some time before deciding to ignore Rick's advice on how to do the crux move to a crack, then invented something else a little lower that worked for me. The crack above was superb at 5.9, and then it ran out. Moving tentatively to a narrow line of holds back on the face to the left, I was becoming acutely aware of the exposure and the runout. Stopping to chalk away the sweat now pouring from my palms, I was startled to see a bolt directly in front of my face. It was exactly where it needed to be, and I could relax the rest of the way to the belay as good holds began to appear and the difficulty relented. Another superb pitch, and one I was very glad to have led, since I had so far contributed little else to this adventure.

Now for the physical crux. While hanging from two bolts that Rick had placed in 1996 in preparation for this lead, I handed him the pieces he wanted, then belayed carefully as he moved up to the overhang. He went up to place a cam, then another, and then backed down for a short rest before committing to the move. I had no idea what was above the roof, and neither had he on the first ascent, establishing the pitch ground-up according to the ethic of the area. However, now he knew exactly what to expect - a good sharp edge on a leaning splitter crack. He belayed shortly above to avoid the inevitable rope drag incurred by a big roof. I didn't do it as well, but after a long time on my fingers I finally dragged my considerable mass over the roof to the relative safety of a good stance. Now it was a lark to the top. I grabbed the rack and headed off without reorganizing it, since it was clear I might not need much in the way of protection. The next 60m were a welcome release in vertical motion up a heavily featured wall that might be lower 5th class, might be 5.6 if you don't do your route finding, or might be 4th class. I could have believed I was on one of the "Furrows" pitches on Charlotte Dome in California. Setting an anchor I knew was unnecessary, I brought Rick up, we coiled the ropes, and I agreed he had just shown me what might be the finest rock climbing New Mexico has to offer, and a climb that deserves to be recognized as a classic of the continent. I was happy to buy dinner back in Taos.