The First Ascent of Jailhouse Monkeys

By Timmy Kuss 3/16

Dan Steaves on Jailhouse Monkeys
Dan Steaves on Jailhouse Monkeys

It must have been the early 1990's or sometime, I don't even know, when I convinced my longtime climbing partner "Pete" to commit to a trip to the Valley. At the time, he worked for the late, brilliant, Dave Waggonner as the machinist and the main man there at the Alien shop, assembling Aliens, testing new gizmos, and generally trying desperately to keep up with orders. In those days, Aliens were by far (still probably) the most innovative and useful camming units to be invented. They exceeded the competition to such a degree that they became swamped with orders and production fell many months behind. I loved to go and hang out with those guys at the shop. I actually worked there briefly, but I'd typically go there most days just to hang out and talk climbing. Dave would usually offer one of those huge cans of Budweiser that he drank all day, and Pete would offer a doobie or bong hit. It was what climbing was.

So I think it was after they got their first CNC machine (a computerized hulk that would zip off cams and parts for Aliens by the bucket load) that Pete found the time to blast off on a climbing trip. He'd never been to the Valley and my 'wall fever' from recent trips there was causing me angst and sleep loss. Pete got the machine programmed and instructed Dave to keep feeding it metal but not to mess with the settings. All there was to do was sit and braze heads onto cables. There are few people qualified to handle this part of the assembly, and with copious parts heaping, Dave needed to catch up.

Astroman. It was the baseline hardman route. It was pictured in ads and the subject of magazine articles and mini-guides. The page in my Yosemite book was already greasy and dogeared. We were gonna send the Boulder Problem pitch, run out the Enduro corner and hike the Harding Slot. We loaded up Pete's Toyota Tercell and drove the hell out of Durango.

We smoked our first bowl before we got to Hesperus. The drive goes so much quicker that way- excited climber conversation and all in the travelling zone. I knew this drive like I know the first pitch of The Watch Crystal. Mancos. Cortez. Arriola. Lewis. Pleasant View. Cahone. Dove Creek. Monticello... And then, just before Moab, there he was- the Man, the American Taliban, Officer Russel Whitaker, Mormon minion of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, coming our direction just outside of town. I looked down at the speedometer just as we pass and he lights 'em up... Shit.

"I pulled you over because I have you locked at seventy seven in a fifty five." He looked like Humpty Dumpty but with really baggy eyes and an alchoholic red face- more of a Boss Hawg look. At that time, 55mph was the law on all highways. Who the fuck can crawl all the way to California at that rate? Might as well hire a team of mules.

"License and registration?"

I yield my license while Pete fumbles in the glove box for his registration. A pack of ZigZag premium quality rolling papers flips onto the open door of the box, along with all manner of other trash and trinkets. Pete grabs the document and jams the clutter back in. Now, Pete was, for sure, a rolled tobacco smoker but Big Russ didn't know that and took it as a sure sign from God that we were his easy quota for the day.

"I smell marijuana. Step out of the car please."

"I don't think so, officer" I plead.

He tells us to hand over the dope or he's gonna search the car. We're both adamant that we have nothing. He gives us the "easy way or hard way" ultimatum again and we, of course, throw down and call his bluff, insisting that we're clean.

So out we go, out onto the shoulder of U.S. Highway 191 to watch him slowly pick through the first of the numerous bags within the hatch.

"Whose is this?" he asks triuphantly, holding up the little wrinkled sandwich bag between his thumb and forefinger, shaking it.

"That's mine" Pete says chuckling resolutely.

More picking through bags..

"Whose is this?" holding up another sack of shake.

"That's mine" Pete claims that one as well.

By this time we're both standing in handcuffs on the shoulder, in the annoying Utah wind, very aware that every car passing by can see exactly what's going on.

Officer End Times continued rifling through every last duffel and rucksack, bringing forth several more odd bags of Pete's stash, plus my prized brass bat, it's little wood box, and it's kind content. We were there, handcuffed, watching traffic watch us for most of an hour before he had all our gear searched and piled around the car. He decided he'd found all of it and put us in. Sitting in the molded plastic rear seat of the cop car while wearing handcuffs was disenchanting, to say the least, but worse was the sinking realization that our climbing trip was done. It's bad enough to fail because you're not a good enough climber, or because of the weather, or by of any of the infinite excuses we give for bailing, but to have your dream intercepted by a sweaty redneck who can't see even the faintest glint between church and state is just disturbing.

Back we went, back toward Monticello, cruising at the speed of a low-rider on a Saturday night. It was unbelievable. I visualized kicking both feet up and bashing the back of his head in with my heels, and after we crashed, escaping into the desert. He cruised; smugly hauling his hippy prisoners, reversing our intended route.

The Monticello jail seemed a busy place. What with the inexhaustible stream of Indians, dope smoking climbers and all sorts of "others" travelling through, it is plainly a top revenue producer for the San Juan County Churchandstate. Pete took the one phone call and rang Dave, who drove out with our bail. Meanwhile, Pete's car was impounded in Moab. We couldn't believe he had missed the little bong under the floor mat no less, and a pipe stashed somewhere else. While I waited in the holding cell, I practiced my barefoot, painted cinder-block, blank-corner stemming, under the watch of the surveillance camera pointed at me. I wondered if the Mormon minions were watching.

Back in Durango at a loss, we had nothing better to do than go climbing. We decided to try a new route on the Watch Crystal because we might as well do something new since getting away didn't work. I remember it being a kind of surreal day. It was warm, there were lots of friends climbing and it felt like home. We hauled ropes, drill kit, plenty of hardware and some weed, of course, up to the Durangatan belay ledge. The intended route followed a seam to a short section where it opened to a thin crack. After that, it was obvious that it would be easier face climbing to the top. It would fit nicely between Apes of Wrath and Durangatan.


This is the part of the route where you get some gear and insecure jams
This is the part of the route where you get some gear and insecure jams

Our method was to lead with a thin haul rope running through a pulley on the harness. We would free climb to an aid placement and hang while the belayer hauled the drill to the leader via the pulley system. That way we didn't have to climb with the drill and the belayer could belay the drill if it was dropped. We would place a bolt and hang the drill on a Fifi hook there, while we climbed to the next placement. I fell a couple of times at the crux trying to stay with the seam. (later ascents discovered holds just right that make it slightly easier)

I gained the crack, got the Alien placements and jammed through to the lower angled climbing above. There, we made bigger runouts on the easier terrain and drilled from stances. As we climbed higher, more haul rope hung from the pulley and began to equal the weight of the drill-on the other side. This started to pull the drill off its hangar whence the leader then had all the weight of the haul rope and the drill plus the lead rope. I recall the resolution being to feed a bunch of haul rope to the drill and try to get more on that side of the pulley.

The route intersects with the original third pitch of Durangatan, which used to traverse from the second belay ledge to a bolt and finished on the last moves of the Watch Crystal. That bolt became the last bolt of our new route. I believe it to be an old Star Drive and one of the last remaining Star Drives at East Animas. This is where the route derives some quality East Animas "essence". The climber must climb above that old bolt with the top of the cliff becoming very attractive as he gets further from the rusted piece. Then, with top in hand, the climber is obliged to press out a mantle onto the sandy ledge with the belayer out of sight and a hundred and fifty feet below.

We called it Jailhouse Monkeys (on dope)

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