Indy takes on "Psycho Urban Cache #13: Impossible! Give Up Now!"

June 30, 2007

with some slight tweaks, subliminals from xkcd #137

As a number of you know, in addition to my many other hobbies/activities, I also go off geocaching. Geocaching (quick primer for those who don't know; see also geocaching.com) is basically a high-tech treasure hunt using a GPS receiver and coordinates downloaded from the above website in order to find an object/container hidden somewhere in the world. There are well over 100,000 geocaches worldwide. Some are what are called "urban" caches (hidden in urban-type settings, such as somewhere in a parking lot of a local Wal-Mart) whereas others are more wilderness in nature, requiring the searcher to go off on some hike somewhere. Often these latter ones bring the searcher to a view, or to a view that most hikers might never see ( i.e., off the beaten path ;-) ). And some geocaches can be placed in extreme terrain settings and require special gear - caving gear, scuba gear, a boat, climbing gear, etc - and/or can be very very challenging to just find.

Located in the Potomac River just outside of Sherpherdstown, WV, stand three rather tall (~70') pillars, the remnants of an old railroad bridge that was washed away in a flood some decades ago. The pillars themselves were erected in the 1830s and have literally stood the test of time. Sept of 2006, an extreme geocacher named Vinny planted a geocache atop the center-most pillar in the center of the river. It was published as "Psycho Urban Cache #13 - Impossible! Give Up Now!" (it was the 13th in a series of extreme geocaches he's placed, and was by far the hardest one he had placed). It quickly became affectionately known as PUC13 (among other names) in the geocaching community. And has been labelled as one of the most difficult geocaches to date (mostly in the "getting to it" bit, not the finding it; that part is easy, as you can see it from an overlook on the WV side of the river ;-) ).

Cache container (yellow) to right side of pillar top

Uncommon in geocaching, Vinny offered some serious incentives to motivate geocachers into attempting this cache ($160 for the first to find team, some other stuff for the second to find team). The motivations offered weren't motivations for me, however. It was just climbing the tower to attain the cache that drew me in.

A few short weeks after the cache was published, a team of geocachers had managed to retrieve the cache, using lines, ropes and magnets. They managed to replace the cache in basically the same manner.

Since then no attempt at this cache was successful. Until this now...

I'd been looking over photos of the tower for months, talking to the cache owner about the tower, and putting a few feelers out to a few climber-types who I thought might be interested in the challenge (because how I wanted to do the cache - by climbing the tower - was going to take vertical experience and know-how over geocaching experience). But Life, schedules, and assorted other Interferences prevented any actual attempt from being realized.

Then I started talking to Gayle (who in the geo-world goes by the handle of GoGayleGo). She's a fairly hardcore geocacher and orienteer who started getting into climbing. Through her I came into contact with the team who had the only successful retrieval of the cache. They immediately offered their support services in order to see me on top of the pillar (I had thought originally the cache placer had used a helicopter to land on the edge of the pillar, but later learned that no, he dropped the cache onto the pillar from the helicopter hovering above :-D ). This fueled more incentive to climb the tower for me. :-)

We discussed the logistics of how to get me to the top. My plan was to rig a top-rope anchor so I could climb up without danger of landing on the planet below me. Lead climbing on the tower looked daunting - it was at least 5.9, no harder than 5.11, but protection points - especially in the first 30-35' - were few and far between (they used *good* mortar to hold those hewed stone blocks together back then!).

The plan gelled together to form this:

We would shoot an arrow over the top of the tower, trailing some fishing line. We would then pull up some mason cord with the fishing line up and over the tower. Then we would attach a 200' doubled-over static line that would become the top-rope anchor. As that was pulled up, the actual climbing rope would be connected to the anchor rope in top-rope fashion. The anchor rope would then be secured to the backside of the tower by gear or whatever what available. With that in place, the top-rope action should be safe.

We knew there was a lot of rock debris on top of the pillar, so we would be wearing helmets, top-roping or not.

Our first attempt at this occurred on Sunday, June 17. We went out and spent half a day trying to get the ropes rigged. After half a dozen shots and rope pulls, we concluded that

  1. the mason cord was not strong enough to pull the heavy static line up, and
  2. the chinks in the mortar between the overhanging blocks atop of the tower would swallow ropes and knots in a heartbeat.

Every line we shot over and pulled eventually snagged at some point in the process. It was disheartening, especially since on at least two shots the lines were dropped *perfectly* in the middle of the blocks, between mortar joints. But pulling lines and ropes forced them to slip into the cracks and become stuck fast. Grrr. Finally we had to call this attempt off (firstly because our archer had to head off to work). We rescheduled for July 15th.

Indy, GoGayleGo, and extremeJeep at the base of the pillar

Well, as Life Events happen, schedules and plans made often need to be replanned and/or rescheduled due to unforeseen circumstances. In this case, my gf, Lisa, got sick a week and a half before her open water scuba certification dive, and the instructor was adamant (born from experience) that one needs to be healthy for two solid weeks before trying to get in the water and deal with the rigors and task-overloading challenges that scuba diving requires. The trip was canceled. And I found myself with a free weekend. I contacted the crew to inquire their schedule availability.

Happily, 80% of the group was available! Including our archer, Dwight (Snurt in the geocaching world; why "Snurt" I don't know, I keep meaning to ask but keep forgetting when I'm around him :-/ ). We made plans to go out, and prayed that the weather would not get brutal hot or rain.

The weather, as it turned out, was stellar fantastic! We once again assembled at the boat ramp in Shepherdstown, WV, at 7:30am. Will (extremeJeep) brought his jon boat to ferry the gear and myself over to the tower. Gayle and Snurt brought their inflatable kayaks. Bucky would be our shore observer at the Rumsey Overlook and let us know what he could see from up there our progress as we strung the line.

This time instead of mason cord, Gayle brought 200' of parachute cord (450# breaking strength). That should be enough to haul up the static line! (well, we hoped).

Originally I was going to climb up the Maryland side of the tower. The tower leans *ever* so slightly towards WV, so I thought it would be good to take every advantage I could while going up. ;-) Plus there were places to stand on the MD side and stay dry; not so much really on the WV side. Alas, as we were once again attempting to rig the lines (and *almost* got the anchor line over - except the knots in the rope managed to slip into a crack and...well, held fast :-( ). Between that and the trees growing out from the side of the tower on the MD side, and the tree growing out from atop of the tower, we decided to pull the rope from the other side of the tower and set the top-rope up to climb up the WV face.

At this point we started having issues getting the arrow over. The 'heavy' arrow we lost in a line breakage in the tree at the top of the tower. Luckily Will had two carbon arrows along as spares. They were, however, lighter than the arrow Snurt has been shooting.

And the wind was picking up.

Then next half dozen shots met with failure. The arrow wasn't heavy enough to overcome the drag of the fishing line across the rock at the top, or would get hopelessly tangled in one of the side-of-tower growing trees/bushes/poison ivy. Fortunately, the team was steadfast in their resolve. They weren't going to leave until after we got this line over!

"If you die..."

Finally Snurt tried another tactic. This time he fired the arrow such that it went straight over the tree at the top, on the theory that if we kept the line off the rock, maybe the branches would have less friction and the arrow would drop. I was skeptical on several levels, including the concern that if this worked, what might happen when we drag up the static line? We had no way of getting it out of the tree from below! This made me more than a little nervous. But as nothing else was working, let's see how this does...

We managed to get the arrow as it s-l-o-w-l-y came down, the weight *barely* enough to overcome the friction of the line through the tree. We then carefully pulled back up the parachute cord (which necessitated Snurt and Will to go to the far tower on the MD side and pull, as the friction from pulling straight below was too much to overcome). THEN we dragged up the static line...things were going well. As it went up, it pulled up the top-rope. This was as close as we had ever been! I crossed my fingers and pessimistically waited for SOMEthing to snag.

But it didn't. Within a few minutes we had the carabiners connecting the static rope anchor and the top-rope climbing rope together at the top of the tower as guided by our overlook observer, Bucky. Woohoo!!! Quickly I secured the static line to the backside of the tower. I was originally going to use trees, but the angle of pull I didn't like (straight up along the line of the trees), so I placed a few tricams and a #1 camming unit (the red one for those who know) in cracks at the base.

The anchor rope was secure. The next question - how would the tree affect this set-up?? This was not nominal, and every climbing instinct I had screamed that I really wanted to anchor rope on the platform, not hanging in the tree.

But little choice had we.

climbing up the tower!

To test the strength of the tree, I had two of the team hang on the static line while I held fast to the top-rope. The tree did not even sway (which surprised me, since it's not THAT big!). Okay...we'll see.

It was now 1pm. We had been at this for 5-1/2 hours. We then took a much needed break for an hour and snacked while we waited for Bucky's girlfriend's brother to come out with his high-dancing hi-tech digital camera. Once he arrived, we got ourselves ready. I roped in, put on my climbing shoes, and traversed over to grab the static line that Gayle would be ascending (this is a separate line from the anchor line and top-rope rope). And up I went!

The climbing was fun, if difficult. It started out solid 5.9, but was quickly punctuated with 5.10a and 5.10b moves. Barely within my level to do. 25' up and I was already pumping out. So, yes, I hung on this climb. A lot. The tree above never moved an inch. For which I am immensely grateful. :-)

View from the overlook

At the midpoint in the climb I hit a blank section of rock. Above me, about a body-length away, was the next hold I could use. In between...not so much. Esp not with my forearms burning with hard pumpitude. There were holds there, but the moves at that spot were *just* beyond what I could do. Fresher I might have made it through them. But as pumped as I was...not today. I figure the moves right at that spot are 5.10c in difficulty. But as I was climbing a man-made structure (granted, made of real rock :-) ), I had no qualms about the hanging I did, nor did I agonize over pulling on the rope to get past a section. Practices that in 'pure' rock climbing are frowned upon (the latter termed 'french freeing'). My goal was to get to the top. My secondary goal was to do it as clean as possible ( i.e., not using the rope to pull me up, only to prevent me from going down the hard way ;-) ). I moved over, grabbed the rope going to Gayle (who was belaying me), and pulled myself up four feet until I could find a hold my fingers could use again. Glancing around the spot I just pulled past I saw holds, but I wasn't going to be able to use them with my hands/fingers. My feet...no problem. :-)

at the top!

From this point I kept going, hanging once or twice more from sheer exhaustion. Then, I was at the top. I needed a final break before I pulled myself over the edge. After a couple minutes of shaking my arms out and staring at the final big holds, I went for it - and was up! The support crew below, and all the people who had gathered at the overlook, erupted in a cheer that probably alerted all of Shepherdstown that something just happened in the river. Heh. :-)

setting up the top anchor system

I quickly got myself secured and went off belay. I then secured Gayle's rope and posed for a few pictures with the cache for the overlook party. I also found Snurt's arrow, buried to the nock in a crack in the mortar in the tower. I retrieved it to give back to him later. I then put Gayle on belay while she worked up her static line using a jumar ascender and a grigri configuration. In a few minutes she, too, was on top of the tower. The second person to make it up and stand there proudly!

Ha-hah! Take that, Vinny. :-D

GoGayleGo and Indy at the top

Next we did the cache thing (signed the logbook), took some photos with Gayle's camera, and Gayle went back down on her rope. I then thought through all the potential rope-snagging variables for retrieving the top-rope ropes and anchor line and rerigged tthings so I would rappel off the MD side of the tower. The tree would be my rap anchor point, and it was right at the edge of the WV side of the tower. I wanted to minimize the downward torquing pull on the tree as much as possible. There is now a rap station at the tree.

Not that I expect it to be used very often in the coming years. ;-)

Once down, derigging and pulling down of the ropes went without issue, thankfully. It was now around 3:30pm. Just upriver 0.2 miles was a shorter tower (maybe 25' high) that had a cache on it. Several of our party had never done that, so we went over and rigged that. There were some issues getting a rope up there (I was far far far too tired to contemplate soloing the crack that so many college kids do, and did not have big gear to protect a lead up it), but with our stalwart young photographer stepping up to the plate, the rope was rigged, I went up, and then belayed everyone else who wanted to come up to the top. Alas, I had forgotten my extra harnesses in my packing rush at 5:30 in the morning, so we had to use Gayle's harness for most everyone except Bucky who was just a little too large for it. I managed to remember how to rig up a Swiss Seat out of what webbing I had available and got Bucky safely to the top. :-)

After we were done there, we rapped off and went to Tony's Pizza/Stonewall Pizza in Shepherdstown for some much needed food and drink. I returned home by 11pm, some 17 hours after I had departed that morning. Sunburnt and exhausted to the core.

But it was a good day. :-) The only casualty was Snurt's inflatable kayak suffered a 2-1/2 inch triangular slice in the bottom when he accidently ran over a submerged rock near the tower. Fortunately that only compromised 1/3 of his flotation and he could still get around. But it was like going from driving a high-performance car to maneuvering a city bus.

ps: for any concerned, the rap station on the tree at the top is loose enough to allow the tree many years of growing before it conceivably stretches the webbing - and by then the UV rays from the sun should have weakened it enough the tree should just bust right out of it :-)


Return to The Adventure Library
Mk - Sept 5, 2007 }