Single Pitch Instructor Saga: One Truck, Loads of Climbing Gear, Four Family-Sized Cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli

Over Half Block, I drove to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California to take a Single Pitch Instructor course with the American Mountain Guiding Association. The SPI exam is a certification that allows you to work as a rock guide in a single pitch setting, meaning climbs that are only one rope tall and don’t require an intermediate belay. These exams are part of the AMGA, which is the accredited guiding agency in the U.S. Therefore, if a guide is accredited through AMGA, they can work for any company under the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. It’s much like how someone can get a driver’s license in any U.S. state and still be allowed to drive in other states.

Photo by Griffin Mansi

This was not my first SPI exam; I failed twice over the past year. However, after much practice, I figured: “third time is the charm.” I had arrived in Colorado with a few days to get my gear in order before driving 15 hours to California by myself. Luckily, I planned to get to Colorado early; I flew out of Boston three days late due to flight cancellations. Once I arrived, I packed all of my climbing and camping gear into my truck and hit the road on Jan. 11.

It began snowing when I reached Loveland Pass. I made it through Colorado only an hour behind schedule and entered the Utah portion of my drive. This was about seven hours of desert with few cars and even fewer gas stations. I spent the night at a Kampgrounds of America site in St. George, Utah, near Zion National Park. The next day I got up and started the final five-hour drive to California. This day was relatively easy, and I had time to drive down the Las Vegas strip. Google Maps took me straight through the Mojave Desert where I didn’t see a car for two hours. I couldn’t imagine my car breaking down there.

When I arrived at the Indian Cove Campground, I tried to find another Colorado College student, Cole Thompson ’18, who was taking the SPI Course (a pre-requisite for the exam). I found his car, but he was away climbing somewhere and didn’t get back until after dark. When he arrived, he said we would meet Tommy Lutz ’20, another CC climber, in the park to climb the next day.

The following morning, Thompson and I arrived to the meeting spot an hour early and decided to do a quick climb in an area known as Intersection Rock. Here we got a taste of runout slab climbing (climbing at an angle greater than 90 degrees with few bolts or placements to protect yourself) that J-Tree is known for. By the time we got down, it was past the meeting time we planned on and Lutz was nowhere to be found. We began to drive out of the park to get cell reception and passed Lutz in the other lane. After flagging him down, we finally reorganized ourselves and went to climb some of the J-Tree classics.

The highlight of the day was a beautiful 5.10a called “Taxman.” I learned the hard way that even though it felt like June in the sun, it was still January in the shade. We ended up getting back to the car in the dark with no headlamps and insufficient layers. Lutz got stuck in deep mud for about 20 minutes, so once we arrived at an open campsite with mud-covered cars, we went straight to bed. The next two days involved my exam in which I was tested on everything in the SPI canon—multiple anchor systems with different applications, climbing skills, safety skills, teaching skills. The exam culminated in a day with real clients. This was a non-stop day of taking care of everyone’s needs—from people who had climbed before to two 11-year-olds who would cry if they got more than 10 feet off the ground. After the clients left, we waited to hear if we passed. This part is the worst because it is like watching your professor grade your exam in front of you.

Finally, it was my turn, and I passed, which felt like a giant weight off my shoulders. However, I could only enjoy it for so long because I had to start driving back to Colorado that night. I scrapped my original plan to camp at the Grand Canyon and ended up camping near Flagstaff, Ariz. I arrived in Colorado the next afternoon tired, sore, dirty, and happy. A long SPI saga, but worth it.

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