Climbers Get Blasted by Sandstorm 1,000 Feet Up

Renowned climbers Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold don't like to make it easy on themselves. After summiting all of California's 14,000-foot peaks in an expedition aptly named “Sufferfest,” the duo started planning Sufferfest 2. The climbers set out to climb 45 of the most iconic rock towers in the American Southwest desert and bike from tower to tower—in just three weeks—as part of a National Geographic grant. Not too surprising from someone who calls himself a "crazy, madman explorer," as Wright does.

While the partners could plan somewhat for the combined 12,000 feet of vertical climbing and the nearly 800 miles of biking, they weren't planning on being blasted by sandstorms for three weeks straight. Wright recalls, "We really were expecting fun-in-the-sun climbing; I got a sunhat and a bunch of sunscreen. Then one second you're on the side of this cliff enjoying beautiful climbing and then you look out in the distance and you're like, 'Huh, what's that giant, black, foggy cloud out there?' And three minutes later you're inside a heinous sandstorm. You feel like you're going to battle."

Missing out on a mean tan wasn't the only contingency of the storms. "One of the dangers of wind is that your rope can get blown around the mountain, and you could be in a serious situation where you can't retrieve your rope. It could mean you don't come back down the mountain, you just get stuck up there for days," Wright says.

Navigating the 1,000-foot spires—wind or no wind—was complicated by the apparent lack of structural integrity. "At its worst, desert tower climbing is not rock climbing, it is mud climbing. You are literally climbing vertical mud. You look up and the mud is just raining down in your eyes," says Wright. "Honestly, some of the most loose, terrible rock is in the American Southwest. And we climbed a lot of it.”

Wright and Honnold had to overcome both the shoddy rock and crazy winds during their ascent of "the Whale," an experience leaving Wright questioning the sanity of the trip. "I'd never seen anything like it—this black wall of death coming for us. A wall of wind, rain, and sand is barreling down [on] us. And we're trying to get off the mountain, and we get to this anchor and it pulls right out of the mountain. And I'm thinking, 'We are so screwed. We have no anchor to come down the mountain, we have no way to drill bolts or anything. We could legitimately be stuck up here.'”

Employing some nontraditional climbing techniques, Wright and Honnold were eventually able to descend the tower. "Basically the lesson is always have a Honnold with you, because I repelled off of his body with no anchor, placed gear in the crack, and then he down-climbed. So yeah, always have a Honnold on the rack, that's the lesson," Wright advises.

Wright doesn't deny that typically, upon encountering such risky conditions, it would be easy to call it a day. "On a normal day of climbing if there had been winds like that we would have immediately gone to the coffee shop, but because we were on the program, we had to go out there and get it done. We're very mission-based. For us, if we didn't get those 45 towers done, then we failed. That meant climbing in 55-mile-an-hour winds, that meant climbing in snowstorms, it meant that it was basically this horrendous sufferfest. And I don't know what we were thinking," Wright says, laughing. "I'm so glad it's over."

Despite Wright's relief upon the conclusion of Sufferfest 2, he'll surely undertake some version of a Sufferfest 3 in just a matter of time, and he hopes you do, too. "The message I hope people get is that they too can plan this crazy, audacious sufferfest, and if they just get after it day after day, they may be amazed that they've achieved what seems like an impossible goal. Find an opportunity for horrendous things to happen to you, and then you'll never forget it. People should suffer more."

Watch another unexpected yet adorable encounter from Sufferfest 2, when Wright and Honnold rescue an abandoned puppy. And be sure to check out the entire Sufferfest 2 film.

Click here to read more with Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold.

SERIES PRODUCERS: Jennifer Shoemaker and Chris Mattle
GRAPHICS: Babak Sha and Chris Mattle
VIDEO: Cedar Wright