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2015 / ISSUE 226

SEA OF DREAMS

W O R L D ’S G R E AT E S T CL IMBING S T O R IE S AND PHOTOS

SEE INSIDE

BRIDWELL’S UNTOLD STORY THE UNLIKELY EVERESTEERS WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

ABOUT HONNOLD’S HALF DOME SOLO

CLIMBING’S FASTEST WOMEN

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D I S P L AY T H R O U G H 2 0 1 5


Defined by the Line Josh Ewing had a good gig in Salt Lake—a corporate-job income,

DR AW YOUR LINE and join the fight to

the comforts of a city, regular climbing partners. Then he moved

protect these desert areas recognized and

to Bluff, Utah, where now he scrounges for climbing partners, makes long approaches to chossy rock and has to drive hours to get full-strength beer—all so he could be closer to the remote climbing areas he loved, like Valley of the Gods, Texas Tower and Indian Creek. But after seeing first-hand how aggressive oil and gas extraction and careless visitation were destroying the region, he drew the line. Now every hour he’s not out exploring his adopted red-rock country, he’s working to defend it.

revered by climbers around the world. patagonia.com/climb Photos: Mikey Schaefer © 2015 Patagonia, Inc.


A A SCE NT

ISSU E 2 26 2015

CO N T E N T S

10_ EVERYMAN’S EXPOSED GOOD WOODS: MAGIC WOODS AND MOUNT WOODSON. 12 _ ROCK AND ASH AN END AND A BEGINNING AT THE BUTTERMILK BOULDERS. BY CHRISTINE KORNYLAK 16_ THE STEPPING STONE BEHIND THE SCENES OF ALEX HONNOLD’S SOLO OF HALF DOME. BY PAT BAGLEY 26_ NEED FOR SPEED BREAKING THE WOMEN’S BARRIER ON EL CAP. BY MAYAN SMITH-GOBAT 32 _ THE SCHOOLING EVEN YOSEMITE’S EASIEST ROUTE CAN BE DEADLY. BY JAKE SALCONE 36_ LAND’S END EPIC SEASIDE PHOTOGRAPHY. BY JIM THORNBURG 42 _ SEA OF DREAMS THE UNTOLD STORY OF EL CAP’S MOST INFAMOUS BIG WALL. BY JIM BRIDWELL 50_ REBEL’S EDGE YOUTHFUL DEFIANCE LEADS TO A MAJOR ASCENT AND A LOAD OF STRIFE. BY AIRLIE ANDERSON 56_ PARTS UNKNOWN A GLOBAL JOURNAL WITH AMERICA’S MOST TRAVELLED CLIMBER. BY RUSS CLUNE 62 _ PHOTO GALLERY VISUAL STIMULI FROM DOWN UNDER AND OVER THERE. BY SIMON CARTER AND DAN PATITUCCI 78_ THE ROCK ORPHANS OF MEKELE A JOURNEY INSIDE ETHIOPIA (ACTUALLY INSIDE) GOES DARK. BY NICO PARKINSON 84_ REVERSAL OF FORTUNES THE TROUBLE WITH PARTNERS ... IS FINDING ONE FOR ASTROMAN. BY BRADLEY CARTER 90_ DAWN OF THE CLIMBING DEAD HOLD ONTO YOUR BRAIN, THE CLIMBING ZOMBIES ARE HERE. BY DAVE MCALLISTER 96_ THE UNLIKELY EVERESTEERS TWO NEPALESE FRIENDS MAKE A RUN UP EVEREST AND FLY OFF. BY DAVE COSTELLO 104_ DAMN YOU EVEREST! VERSE FROM THE MAN WHO HAS CLIMBED THE EIGER, TITAN AND JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING ELSE AND STILL GETS NO RESPECT. BY DAVE PAGEL 106_ VISION QUEST SHAPESHIFTING IN LOS REMOTOS, MEXICO. BY JEFF JACKSON 112 _ PARTING SHOT: GOING BANANAS OVER MASTER’S EDGE

A SCE SC NT

INSPIRING SINCE 1967

COVER: Chris Hampton with Andy Kuylaars and Ancient Astronought (24/5.11d), The Moai, Tasman Peninsula, Australia. C P PHOTO SIMON CARTER

Rock and Ice (USPS 0001-762, ISSN 0885-5722) is published 8 times a year (January, February, April, May, July, August, October, and November) by Big Stone Publishing, 2567 Dolores Way, Carbondale, CO 81623. Periodicals postage paid at Carbondale, CO, and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: send address changes to Rock and Ice, 2567 Dolores Way, Carbondale, CO 81623. Subscription rates are $29.95 per year, $44.95 for two years. Canada, add $12.50 per year for surface postage; all other countries add $15 per year for surface postage (US funds only). Canada Post CPM #7157697.

4 | ASCENT 2014


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S E A O F D R E AM S

O —Cristin Julian

N PAGE 42, the inimitable Jim Bridwell, “captain” of the Stonemasters recounts for the first time the story of the first ascent of Sea of Dreams, a revolutionary aid climb up a seemingly blank portion of the southeast face of El Capitan, Yosemite. One of the interesting nuggets that Bridwell recalls is the fact that the route was envisioned by John “Yabo” Yablonski, a climber who “had an expansive mental capacity that could see things invisible to regular people.” Coincidentally, Yabo was the first person to pick out the features on Midnight Lightning (V8), the iconic line up the Columbia Boulder in Camp 4. He dreamed up both Sea of Dreams and Midnight Lightning—completely disparate but equally groundbreaking climbs—in 1978. Climbing has always been a sport for dreamers. From the first critter that climbed out of the primordial muck intent on checking out the high ground to Tommy and Kevin on the Dawn Wall [No. 225], the act of going up seems to attract a strange breed bent on exploring perceived limits and exceeding them. Whether you’re taking on your first lead or pushing into worldclass terrain, climbers all dream up dragons and try to slay them. This imperative—the call to aspire—is one of the defining characteristics of ascent (and ASCENT) and is reflected again and again in the following pages. Take, for example, Mayan Smith-Gobat’s account [p. 26] of her quest to set the women’s speed record for the Nose on El Cap. Although initially intimidated and shut down, she persevered. Over the course of one year Smith-Gobat broke the record several times, first with Chantel Astorga and then with Libby Sauter, eventually shaving over five hours off the time and redefining women’s speed climbing. On page 50, Airlie Anderson recounts the riotous history of her first female ascent of the most famous gritstone route in the world, Master’s Edge (5.12d R), in 1994—reliving the dream, the realization and the sordid aftermath. My favorite story of dreaming big, however, is Dave Costello’s “The Unlikely Everesteers” [p. 96], about Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, two Nepalese men who, in 2011, came up with an audacious plan to climb Mount Everest, jump off, paraglide down and paddle a couple of wild rivers to the Indian Ocean. With no sponsors, practically zero gear, very little experience and almost no money, these guys and their friends got together and pulled it off—and had a damn good time along the way. All of these stories resonate because dreaming is such a huge part of being a climber. It takes a lot of gumption to ascend, whether your goal is Everest or simply the orange problem at your bouldering gym. Goals and aspirations are at the heart of this sport and these stories remind us that dreams do manifest through pluck and belief. And having an expansive mental capacity that reveals the invisible doesn’t hurt.

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ROCK AND ICE

Since 1967

EDITORIAL Publisher/EIC: Duane Raleigh draleigh@bigstonepub.com Editor: Jeff Jackson jjackson@bigstonepub.com Executive Editor: Alison Osius aosius@bigstonepub.com Online Editor: Hayden Carpenter hcarpenter@bigstonepub.com Editor at Large: Andrew Bisharat CREATIVE Production Manager: Quent Williams, qw@bigstonepub.com Art Director: Randall Levensaler, ad@bigstonepub.com Director of Digital Development: Virgnia Payson, vpayson@bigstonepub.com

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ASCENT ISSUE #226 Rock and Ice is published eight times a year, with a special annual issue of Ascent. A subscription is $29.95 for eight issues. Canadian subscribers add $12.50. Foreign subscribers add $15. Ascent is $11.95, newsstand only. To order Ascent, visit www.rockandice.com or call (970) 704-1442 ext. 118. or email risubscriptions@bigstonepub.com. Ascent and Rock and Ice depend on articles and photographs from climbers. Unsolicited materials and queries are welcome. If you would like to submit an article or idea for consideration, contact Editor Jeff Jackson at jjackson@ bigstonepub.com. Unsolicited materials should accompany SASE for proper return. Photos for consideration should be emailed to photos@ bigstonepub.com. Photos should be sent as low-resolution jpegs, no more than four at a time and a maximum submission of 24.

WARNING! The activities described in Ascent carry a significant risk of personal injury or death. DO NOT participate in these activities unless you are an expert, have sought or obtained qualified professional instruction or guidance, are knowledgeable about the risks involved, and are willing to assume personal responsibility for all risks associated with these activities. Big Stone Publishing Ltd. MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, OF ANY KIND REGARDING THE CONTENTS OF THIS MAGAZINE, AND EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS ANY WARRANTY REGARDING THE ACCURACY OR RELIABILITY OF INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN. Big Stone Publishing Ltd. further disclaims any responsibility for injuries or death incurred by any person engaging in these activities. Use the information contained in this magazine at your own risk, and do not depend on the information contained in this magazine for personal safety or for determining whether to attempt any climb, route or activity described herein.

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A SCE NT EVERYMAN’S EXPOSED

Jernej Kruder, Riders on the Storm (V13), Magic Wood, Switzerland. PHOTO BY LUKA TAMBACA

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Astrid Castens, The Cave (5.11a), Mount Woodson, San Diego, California. PHOTO BY MARTYN CASTENS

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ASCENT 2015 | 1 1


AN END AND A BEGINNING AT T HE BU T T ER MIL K BOUL DERS BY CHRISTINE KORNYLAK PHOTO BY KEN ETZEL

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D E ATH O N TH E P I Z BA D I LE FRO M “50 Y E A R S O F A L P I N I S M ,” PU B LIS H ED I N 1 9 8 1

BY RICCARDO CASSIN

ASCENT 2015 | 1 3


I

think I see Josh at the Buttermilk boulders, where we often climbed together. I’m shrugging on my pack when I look up and glimpse a familiar figure. I almost raise my arm and shout before remembering that I’m holding his remains in an urn that feels unnaturally dense in my hands, as if the physics of the thing defy the laws of nature. It’s the reduction to dust of someone I Iove. There was a day last October, when Josh was soldiering past his latest round of chemotherapy. Luminous, late-afternoon light bounced back and forth between white walls. Baby lay face up on her quilt pumping her legs while we watched the Presidential debate on TV. Life seemed normal. Then we got the call from the oncologist. He needed to see us. I walk toward Grandma Peabody, the first boulder we climbed all those years ago. Our friends are with me. We carry climbing shoes and crash pads, sandwiches, Baby, Josh’s ashes. The doctor averted his eyes when we arrived, reminding me that the jury never looks a condemned man in the face. Josh’s most recent scans indicated that his disease had progressed. Up to now, we had been hopeful, buoyant even, about the progress of treatment. We were fighting a battle that we thought we could win. The doctor gave Josh three to six weeks. Nothing more could be done. I watched Josh’s face when he heard the news. I wanted to look away from what felt like too terrible and private a moment, but I couldn’t abandon him like that, leaving him alone. We huddled together, Baby and Josh embraced by my arms, the Pietà struck to life in an examination room in Los Angeles. I’d had a few other cold moments of truth, like when I fell into the spring melt of a frigid river in Maine. I asked the doctor how many of his patients had ever survived Josh’s condition. He said none. This is how they tell you, at 33, that you’re going to die. There was nothing else to say. We stumbled out into an ordinary afternoon of sunshine and L.A. traffic. By evening, the doctor’s visit seemed like a strange bit of theater. We joked about sending e-mails to our friends: “Saw doctor. Disease progressed. Three to six weeks to live. Please come now.” We laughed together and felt better.

1 4 | ASCENT 2015

I NEVER NOTICED BEFORE HOW THE BUTTERMILK SAND, THE VARIED BITS OF QUARTZ MONZONITE, HAVE THE HUE AND TEXTURE OF BURNT BONE. ROCK AND ASHES. WE ALL COME FROM THE EARTH.

At the base of Grandma Boulder, we hold hands in a circle and talk about why we loved Josh. I sprinkle some ashes on the boulder, and we work our way up the hill to another favorite climb. Although all of us are feeling heavy with sadness and gravity, a few of our friends scamper to the top and release the rest of the ashes into the wind. I never noticed before how the Buttermilk sand, the varied bits of quartz monzonite, have the hue and texture of burnt bone. Rock and ashes. We all come from the earth.

Josh died in December, only eight months after receiving a diagnosis of melanoma. We started the New Year together with resolutions centered around life with our baby, due later that year. I ended the year without him, with a stranger’s life ahead of me, dizzy with vertigo as my once-familiar landscape tumbled end to end. I’m learning to inhabit this unaccustomed life. I’ve acquired new landmarks, but I’m still caught off guard by phantom sightings of the person I used to be. Here at the Buttermilks, I find myself thinking of the climbs Josh completed and the climbs forever left undone—all of life’s promise embodied in a world of rocks. No more chances to send. But the shared experiences and bloody scrapes from this rough stone remind me I am alive. The urn is empty. I glance around at my friends, all of us strong and fragile. Rock and ash. Baby toddles on loose gravel. She examines each stick, each strangely shaped pebble in her path. The world is brand new. The sun dives behind the pyramid of mountains surrounding our little slope of boulders. Josh is dust on the rock and sagebrush. What endures, in the end, is his love. Christine Kornylak is a writer and attorney in Los Angeles, California.


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BEHIND THE SCENES OF ALEX HONNOLD’S H A L F D O M E S O LO Byy Pat Bagley

1 6 | ASCENT 2015


TIM KEMPLE

Honnold, chilling on the Thank God Ledge, a locale where he “freaked” a little bit while filming the TV show “Alone on the Wall.”

ASCENT 2015 | 1 7


T

Thankfully, my current task was to look out, not down. Zak and I stood on the top of the Porcelain Wall’s aptly named Diving Board. From this gangplank of granite, we could scan the entire length and height of Half Dome, and with the help of the videocamera’s 2x-teleconverter adapter, we spied him.

Alex Honnold was free-soloing through the 5.11 dihedrals about 18 pitches up the Regular Northwest Face. Nick Rosen and Tim Kemple were filming from a rope beside Alex. A quick tilt of the camera, a peek through the viewfinder, and Zak slammed down the red record button. We’d captured the distance shot. I sighed a breath of relief. And then I looked up. Smoke from a distant forest fire augured into roiling clouds. The sky grew dark and the air went cold. Just down the valley a cloud erupted with a punch of lightning and a kick of thunder. Getting nuked by a storm on a big wall isn’t always fun but Tim Kemple, my boss on this mission to shoot Honnold soloing Half Dome for The North Face, said the ensuing experience was “one of my favorite road trips of all time.” Another sandbag from Kemple, one of the world’s best adventure photographers. “Everyone has seen [the footage of] Alex ‘Alone on the Wall,’” Kemple captioned in a 2012 throwback Instagram of Alex soloing the upper dihedrals, but “not too many people know about the thunderstorm.” In fact, there’s a lot about this particular shoot that not many people know about. IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 2009 and I was one of four crew members on the shoot that became the Emmynominated “Alone on the Wall.” “Zak”—not his real name—was working as an intern for Nick Rosen’s Sender Films. I was Tim Kemple’s intern. Honnold was there to re-create his September 2008 free-solo ascent of the Regular Northwest Face (IV 5.12a) for all of our cameras. The “Alone on the Wall” shoot began for me about four hours into the Nevada desert as Tim and I were driving toward Yosemite. Tim was riding shotgun, feet on the dash, straight-brim low, sunglasses large. Caffeinated and bored, I couldn’t help myself. I asked, “What would you do if Alex fell while you were filming?” Tim stirred from his slouched position, but said nothing. I feared the drone of the tires was going to be my only answer.

1 8 | ASCENT 2015

“Whatever feels right at the time,” Tim eventually said. He then turned to look out his window. I never knew if Tim was riding out a wicked hangover or brooding about life and death. Life and death, however, were inevitably on both of our minds as we sped through America’s wasteland. The shoot had been delayed when Micah Dash, Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson didn’t send back the camera they’d borrowed to document a first ascent in China. When we found out that the three had been killed in an avalanche, the Half Dome shoot was put off indefinitely while we grieved, until finally the time seemed right. Morning grew into afternoon as Tim and I crossed Nevada. We drove through the high country of Tuolumne and a ray of excitement burned away my ominous thoughts. I felt hopeful and excited as we descended into the Valley and drove directly to the hearth of Yosemite: El Cap Meadow. Alex Honnold occupied the top of a bear box near the Merced as casually as a lion drapes over a log in the zoo. And, like a lion, he seemed bored, proud, strong and aware of being looked at with awe. “Hi,” he said, extending a paw, “I’m Alex.” I still wish I’d said something cordial, or at least remotely normal. Instead, I blurted, “Dude! I know!” That afternoon, I now realize, showed that I didn’t have what it takes to be a videographer. I was too enraptured in the climbing world where ego is the international currency. I couldn’t help but drift off from Alex and Tim to go humble brag to some climbing buddies I saw hanging out nearby. Strike three? Cajones. On a good day, I may have found the pulse of a story, but I never had the confidence to attack its jugular like Tim would. Just as Tim could solo 5.13, he had no problem pointing a camera at intimidating subjects like Alex Honnold. For example, in “Alone on the Wall,” Tim badgers Alex about his ghetto Econoline van. “Do you have girls in here a lot?” Tim pries. Alex grabs a red aider from his unkempt bed and laughs. “Do I look like I have girls in here a lot?” That afternoon Tim and I met Nick Rosen and his assistant Zak in the


TIM KEMPLE

DESPITE HAVING A NEGATIVE REACTION TO SEEING FOOTAGE OF HONNOLD FREE SOLOING, I EAGERLY PARTICIPATED IN OUR PROJECT TO MAKE SIMILAR FOOTAGE. PERHAPS I HAD THE MENTALITY OF A FIREFIGHTER WHO STARTS FIRES. Pines Campground. Nick opened up his laptop, unveiling film of Honnold soloing Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12d). At the time only a few people had seen the footage. It was the first time Alex had seen video of him soloing anything that big. And it was certainly the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. I felt like I was in a haunted house; I was entertained, but so scared I had to tell myself: This can’t be real. To make the shocking footage more palatable to me, I also unconsciously distorted the reality surrounding Alex Honnold’s solo. I thought less of Alex for being rapt while watching footage of himself. I wondered if he was not the pure van-dwelling monk I’d put on a pedestal, but rather just as much a narcissist or egotist as any of us hangdogging heathens. And I thought less of Nick, too, imagining him as a purveyor of fears, goading an agreeable college dropout to do outrageously dangerous stunts. I didn’t think at all about what my caustic judgments said about me. Despite having a negative reaction to seeing footage of Honnold free-soloing, I eagerly participated in our project to make similar footage. Perhaps I had the mentality of a firefighter who starts fires. Or perhaps I was a young and dumb kid who lacked self-awareness and wanted to do something dope! So I could meet chicks? Jeah! That night I made plans to meet Emily Stifler at the Pizza Deck. She was one of the great white buffaloes of Yosemite, a beautiful woman who kicked ass on big walls. She had been gracious enough to climb Zodiac (VI 5.7 A3) with me during my first season in the Valley, in 2007. Despite being a smitten, testosteronecrazed pup in Camp 4, I had eschewed

Honnold in the Zig Zags, 5.11 climbing and the second-hardest pitch on the Regular Route.

asking Emily out. I valued her friendship, but I also wanted to avoid the shame of shitting in a WAG bag next to a woman who’d rejected me. As Emily and I shared a pizza, I couldn’t help but wonder if things might be magically different now that I was suddenly hanging out with the cool kids. No, nothing had changed. The big day—the first day on the wall—began as all should, with a huge egg breakfast. Naturally, Tim filmed Alex at the stove. The footage didn’t make the cut for “Alone on the Wall,” but it is immortalized in a Vimeo called “Honnold in Tuolumne.” The scene stands out to me because it is the first time I caught Alex distorting the truth for photographers. As he cooks the group meal, Alex jokes that he’ll “eat 10 eggs, an onion, some cheese, and a bunch of peppers. By myself.” If I had been an impressionable climbing newbie watching this on Vimeo I might think, Wow! Ten eggs is a lot. He must get really hungry soloing 5.12. But then Alex breaks into a smile and delivers his catch phrase, “It’s going to be amazing.” Geez, sounds amazing! But expensive. Oh wait! Is he joking? Alex continues in a voice that sounds either imploring, sarcastic or stoned. “I eat 10 eggs, every morning. And then, my muscles get huge! It’s amazing.” Gol-leee! I gotta try that before I solo! Then Alex added, “My cholesterol isn’t so good, though.” Oh boy, Alex thinks a lot about his diet too! Smart and Fearless! I want to be just like him. In fairness, when I told Alex I was

writing this article, he reminded me that “everyone was young and learning” during that shoot. Given that we all made mistakes in 2009, I think Alex was being silly and awkward because he had yet to cultivate a presence in front of the cameras that disrupts the reality they attempt to capture. In an e-mail he wrote between climbs in Patagonia in 2015, Alex told me, “Everyone always wants to shoot things as if it’s my normal life, despite the fact that the process of shooting makes it not my normal life at all.” I also remember that egg breakfast because it was the last meal any one of us would eat for days. After chowing down, we packed up and marched to the Death Slabs. The hike afforded the team our first chance to get to know each other. I already felt like I had known Nick for many years, mostly because I’d been listening to his voice-overs on Sender joints since 2006. We fell into conversation. I remember a touching moment when Nick complimented my ball cap, a red and white foam-dome that said “YOSEMITE.” I’d bought it at a gas station in Lee Vining and jokingly offered to trade it for his Patagonia “Live Simply” hat, but Nick said his hat had been a gift from Jonny Copp—it was an irreplaceable memento. Mortified, I apologized. I tried to offer sympathy for the loss of his friend by explaining that I had climbed with Micah a few months before he died and that I mourned him, too. Zak was more difficult to connect with. I now realize that in grieving for Micah’s crew, I may have been unfairly

ASCENT 2015 | 1 9


THAT SCENE SHOWS THAT EVEN ALEX HONNOLD GETS SCARED, THOUGH HE DOESN’T CARE TO ADMIT IT. KNOWING THAT HE HAS CHINKS IN HIS ARMOR, IMPERFECTIONS, MAKES HIM SEEM MORTAL. critical of Zak because I thought of him as a replacement to Wade Johnson. On a more superficial and conscious level, I viewed Zak as competition. While we had separate bosses, I realized that Tim and Nick were evaluating our potential to earn one of the rare jobs in climbing media. Yet Zak did himself no favors either. For instance, he left the Ahwahnee trailhead at a pace close to a run. This wilderness faux pas left us wondering if his pack was too light at our expense or, worse, if Zak would bonk and become a liability. As our group neared the top of the Death Slabs, we couldn’t find Zak anywhere. I called his name and tracked a voice rasping from a cave of manzanita. I found him still strapped to his pack, lying as though he’d collapsed backward and didn’t have the energy to get up. He seemed haggard, but OK. I should have realized he was probably just hungry. At the bivy sites near the base of the Regular Northwest Face we exploded our gear. I wouldn’t call it my worst nightmare, but for someone with a Ron Swanson-like diet, this one came pretty close. Aghast, I realized we didn’t have enough food. There wasn’t time to do a proper finger pointing and tongue lashing, but it emerged that whoever was in charge of meal planning would not be earning a merit badge. An inventory of edible material revealed practically a dime bag of fancy pasta, some sauce, a sliver of Parmesan, and a few packets of oatmeal and instant soup. And just in case anyone was still hungry, there was a mason jar of bean sprouts Zak had grown hydroponically on a windowsill in Boulder. It looked like we had maybe 2,000 calories to split between the five of us for the next two days. It was a bummer, but we left it at that. There was too much work to do before the sun set.

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In what seemed like minutes, Alex led the first 850 feet of the Regular Northwest Face. Tim, wearing a pack full of camera equipment, simulclimbed behind. Because they had only a few pieces of gear, they climbed with 50- to 100-foot runouts—if, of course, Alex placed a piece at all. At the top of pitch 7, Alex rappelled to a stance and stepped out of his harness. Tim then rapped to where he had a good angle, pulled the slack end of the rope up and coiled it so it was out of his frame. Alex then soloed the pitch he’d just rapped. Tim and Alex repeated this process until they reached the ground. Alex was soloing the first pitch (“5.10c polished fingers”) when his right foot just flew off the wall. His right leg arced way behind him, like a horse kicking. I looked around madly to see if anyone else had witnessed this … event. Somehow, Nick and Tim were both fiddling with their cameras and Zak was off in Godknowswhere. Miraculously, Alex was able to prevent a death fall by cinching down on the polished finger locks. He continued climbing, his body language crooning no harm, no foul. Five years later I asked Alex about this near-catastrophe, certain he’d remember it. “I don’t recall anything from the lower pitches at all,” Alex said. “It’s just one more day of soloing 5.10 in a sea of soloing 5.10.” That night we passed the rations around so everyone could have at least one bite of pasta. We’d agreed that Alex should eat a majority of the grub. Because we’d also forgotten utensils, we laughed as he ate with a twig. Tim whipped out the camera and captured what has become the bon mot of “Alone on the Wall.” Alex is sitting up with his legs in a sleeping bag and his jacket unzipped. It’s too warm for layering, but too buggy to go uncovered. He inserts the stick into a mass of chicken-noodle soup, equating the process to chimps using

sticks to retrieve ants from a nest. “It’s like primitive tool use, dude,” he says. Hoisting his cup of food, he adds, “This is what makes us human.” Inspiring music crescendos and then the film cuts to credits. In reality, when Alex was done eating, we all shook our packs upside-down, hoping for a stray granola bar to fall out. I stayed up late into the night, fearing a rock might fall on us or one particular climber might fall on us tomorrow. The next morning we ate what we could and then hiked along the left side of the cliff, gained the trail, and summited Half Dome via the cables. At the top of Half Dome, Zak and I dropped off what seemed to be half a mile of static rope and all the gear we had. Tim, Alex and Nick were going to build an anchor and rappel from the Visor, the feature at the top of the wall visible from the last few pitches of the Regular Route. It was a wild rappel involving a down mantel with roughly 4,000 feet of exposure. While they were rappelling, Zak and I hiked back to the base of Half Dome. As we did, I told Zak about Tim’s plan. Before leaving for Yosemite, I’d sat next to Tim in his office while he coordinated with Alex over e-mail. They discussed how Alex would appear in the images. Alex asked not to look too posed, “a la Michael Reardon.” They also discussed what pitches were fair game: the Zig Zags, 5.11d dihedral climbing on pitches 18 to 20—and what pitches Alex didn’t want to solo again: the 5.12a slab on pitch 21. Pitch 21 came close to killing Alex Honnold. The story goes that during his initial, unwitnessed solo, Alex had 50 feet of real climbing to go when his “mental armor” eroded and he found himself in the mother of all cruxes. “Fear crept up on me,” Alex wrote in 2009, “and it suddenly caught me.” His heart rate spiked, his fingers became greasy, and his feet slippery. Death was

TIM KEMPLE

Honnold using “tools” to eat the majority of the food.


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WHEN THE CAMERAS WERE ROLLING, ALEX TOLD ME HE’D MADE A GAME-TIME DECISION TO WALK FACE OUT, SIMPLY BECAUSE “IT’S BAD-ASS LOOKING.” CAN YOU SEE WHY PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE WORKING WITH THIS GUY?

a few tiring muscle fibers away. Alex stared down a bolt with a leaver ’biner clipped to it—and deliberated on what was more important: cheating death or cheating past a 5.12 move. “So on the slab I sort of stroked the ’biner,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “I kept touching it but not actually grabbing it. And then when I did the move, my finger was fully sitting on the bottom of the ’biner while still on my hold—the hold was right under the bolt. I thought I could catch it if I slipped.” The episode was so intense, Alex wrote, that it “redefined” him. “Alone on the Wall” takes some artistic license when it comes to this experience. In the film, Alex describes his “mini nervous breakdown” on pitch 21 vaguely enough that his words are easily superimposed on images of Alex cruxing out on Thank God Ledge (pitch 20). Either way, he couldn’t have planned a more perfect place to get scared in front of the camera. Alex recalls having walked, as opposed to crawled or hand-traversed, the Thank God Ledge during his original solo, but he couldn’t remember if he faced the wall or the void. When the cameras were rolling, Alex told me he’d made a game-time decision to walk face out, simply because “it’s bad-ass looking.” Can you see why photographers love working with this guy? In the film you see Alex sidestep across the ledge, then stop and freeze. Suddenly he looks like a kid who magically walked out of Freshman Calculus and into Pitch 20 of Half Dome. His arms splay wide for balance

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as he braces against the wall behind him. Maybe it’s just the wind whipping his plaid button-down, but it looks like he could be hyperventilating, too. “Just a sec,” you hear Alex say to the wall of air in front of him. He is too rigid to turn his head to the camera. “I’m freaking out, actually.” As he tends to do for everything, Alex “no big deal” today downplays this moment. “What you see in the film is the entire thing. It’s over in like 15 seconds. I shuffle over,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not much of an experience, but combine it with the voice over and it turns into a scene.” Not just any scene. It’s perhaps the single most important scene of “Alone on the Wall”—if not Alex’s career. The scene was the inspiration for Alex to return to the exact same spot for a National Geographic cover image. It’s the scene that gave rise to Alex’s very own social media trend (#honnolding). What’s more, that scene shows that even Alex Honnold gets scared, though he doesn’t care to admit it. Knowing that he has chinks in his armor, imperfections, makes him seem mortal. Even relatable (read: marketable?), perhaps. Meanwhile as Nick and Tim were documenting Alex getting scared on Half Dome, I had the opportunity to be scared with Zak on much easier terrain. Essentially, Tim told us: Don’t talk to us until you have a perspective shot of Alex climbing. To do this we climbed the Bushido Gully on the far right side of Half Dome’s base to get to the Diving Board. We did the 4th-class scramble, arrived at the Diving Board, and

got the shot. But that was only the beginning of our troubles. The raindrops were big and nasty and the thunder was close. Frantically, I tried to reach Kemple on our walkie-talkies. He didn’t respond. I figured he had enough of a mess on his hands. What I later learned was that Alex, Tim and Nick were all cowering into an alcove at the top of Pitch 19. Tim pulled up a radar app on his iPhone 3G and saw that the storm was but a blip. Neither Zak nor I had smartphones in 2009, so we had no way of telling how long the storm would last. Not that Zak was willing to find out. As soon as he started to get wet, he threw his gear in a pack and took off running down the back side of Half Dome. I yelled for him to “Stop! Stop! Stop! Wait!” Zak, however, ignored my pleas. Even as the rain and thunder passed, Zak charged madly into the woods, bounding over logs like a whitetail. If I don’t catch that man, I thought, we’ll never see him—or that footage—again. When I finally caught Zak, he calmed down and it dawned on him he had no idea where he was. We had no way of communicating with the rest of our team, no map, no food and no water. We were so lost, I doubted being able to find our way back to the Diving Board. Without a better plan, I decided to pick a stream and follow it down. Looking at a map now, I realize that we hiked off the southeastern shoulder of Half Dome, west of Liberty Cap. We emerged on the wild side of the Emerald Pool and Vernal Falls and found a bridge that belonged to the Mist Trail. The paved path felt like a luxury to

TIM KEMPLE

Honnold on the summit of Half Dome.


SERIOUSLY

LIGHT!

NEW METOLIUS

ULTRALIGHT

CHALK BAGS FOR THE WEIGHT CONSCIOUS

CLIMBER!

www.metoliusclimbing.com

Bill Morse suits up for a larger than life burn on “California 5.12”, a steep and thuggy 12c at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada Photo: Ben Moon


ON ONE HAND, I WAS STOKED TO HAVE ALEX HONNOLD POSTING ON MY WALL. ON THE OTHER HAND, HAVING AN ELITE CLIMBER COMPLIMENT ME ON MY HIKING SKILLS FELT LIKE BOBBY FISCHER TELLING ME I WAS GOOD AT CHECKERS. Honnold taking a break on Big Sandy Ledge, before getting into the Zig Zags.

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the device out of my pocket. The iPod flopped in the air like a hooked sunfish. Then the music stopped as the device slid off the end of the earphone jack. My studio-manufactured courage died; I watched it ping off the stance I occupied moments ago, then cartwheel down the slabs. For the first time in a while, I heard my own scared breath. The irony did not escape me. Soon after, I reached Tim, Nick and Alex. They had just left camp. We rejoiced in seeing each other. I felt like an equal, bumping fists and alleviating weight from their packs, but I knew I wasn’t cut from the same cloth even if I desperately wanted to be. A day or two after the shoot, Alex wrote on my Facebook wall something like, “Pat, you’re the best hiker I’ve ever met!” On one hand, I was stoked to have Alex Honnold posting on my wall. On the other hand, having an elite climber compliment me on my hiking skills felt like Bobby Fischer telling me I was good at checkers. In the five or so years after the Half Dome shoot, our crew really hasn’t changed much. Zak is no longer with Sender Film, and I didn’t thrive in the outdoor industry, either. I lacked the athletic and artistic talent to make significant contributions. I also learned the hard way I didn’t have game when it comes to schmoozing with advertising executives. And I was frankly unhappy turning my recreation into vocation. Game-changing technology forced

formerly still photographers like Tim Kemple to embrace videography even more. And so, Kemple transitioned seamlessly from taking images of climbing to making critically acclaimed TV spots with his team at Camp 4 Collective. Nick Rosen continued to burn the Yosemite oil and recently released Valley Uprising. The film was met with positive, if mixed, reviews and earned international attention. Alex, unfazed by last year’s media firestorm and public outcry when his sponsor ClifBar fired him (and a few other climbers) for soloing in front of the cameras, has grown as a climber and celebrity. His van is no longer spartan, he is no longer single, and his presence in front of the camera is no longer awkward. He continues to seek out deathdefying media projects that pay the bills. Most recently his solo of the ridiculously exposed 5.12d Heaven was filmed and used to pimp Squarespace, a website-building platform. Despite 90-degree temps and humidity, Alex got the job done. “I tell myself this is 12 moves of V6. This is training for when I have to do really hard shit,” he told me. “I see it as a stepping stone to things I really care about.” Since he entered medical school in 2013, Pat Bagley’s fears now include sitting too much and national licensing exams.

TIM KEMPLE

me, but Zak told me that his knee was injured and it was all he could do to get back to the Valley floor. Back at the van, maybe at 10 or 11 p.m., I made a spotty cell-phone call to the rest of the team. The service was just good enough to let them know we were still alive, but not good enough to articulate that I was coming back to them. Around 3 a.m., I began hammering up the Death Slabs in the inky dawn. The clouds from the thunderstorm lingered, preventing much of a sunrise. I knew that Nick, Tim and Alex must have suffered a wet and hungry bivy and would need help carrying all of our crap down. My goal was to top out the Death Slabs before they started to pack. I had never hiked with an iPod before, but for what felt like an extraordinary occasion, I plugged into some of the low-down dirtiest psychedup music I had. I hiked alone and as fast as I could. Along the way, I found myself at the base of a slick, exposed and somewhat technical section of the Death Slabs. I feared I’d hit a showstopper step. Was this the “death” part of the slab approach? Beads of sweat sluiced from the tip of my hat and my heart heaved so far up my throat I swore I could taste it. I wondered if I now had an acceptable excuse to turn around and join Zak. Too proud to actually do that, I pulled on some manzanita through the mini boulder problem. An errant branch snagged my earphone wire. As I lurched upward, the branch ripped


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FAS T TIMES ON EL CAP

BY M AYA N S MI T H- G O B AT

Entering the first rays of sunshine near Dolt Tower, pitch 9 on the second attempt in 2014, at around 8:15 a.m.

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3 STRINGS PRODUCTIONS/SAMUEL CROSSLEY

Vertical sprints. Hand jam after hand jam. The endless cracks steepen. My breathing is labored. Placing gear takes time, so I don’t bother. Falling is unthinkable, but is a possibility. Earlier, Libby had had a close call when her feet cut and she caught herself with a hand jam. On the Great Roof, a fixed nut fell out just after I’d pulled on it. I hadn’t clipped a single piece of gear on the lead.


Near right: Analyzing beta in the Meadow, after the third attempt in 2014. Lower right: Libby Sauter leads Boot Flake with no gear, pitch 14.

3 STRINGS PRODUCTIONS/SAMUEL CROSSLEY

The upper pitches of the Nose blur to the final bolt ladder. I practically dyno between the bolts. Then, 3,000 feet of granite drops away and I’m running for the tree—the finish line. Moments later, Libby races up the final slab and reaches for the tree. ON SEPTEMBER 23, 2012, my climbing partner, Chantel Astorga and I climbed the Nose in 7.26 hours, then kept climbing to become the first female team to do the “link up”: El Capitan and Half Dome in under 24 hours. The next day, basking in the last rays of sun in El Cap Meadow, we gazed contentedly at the Nose. When I had first arrived in Yosemite three years earlier, El Capitan had seemed unimaginably huge—I’d doubted whether a Kiwi rookie like me could ever climb it. Yet the next year I realized a dream by freeing and leading every pitch on the Salathé and a few days after that did a free-as-can-be ascent of Free Rider in 14 hours. The Salathé was a steep learning curve that taught me proper jamming, and how El Cap granite works. I began to trust bad finger locks and tiny foot chips, and to relax and move quickly and efficiently despite the exposure. I also realized that El Cap is serious—you can easily get stuck up there in a bad situation. As dusk fell over the Meadow, the once sizeable group of tourists, climbers and Valley bums wandered off. I remained, chatting with Sean “Stanley” Leary. Stanley was quiet and unassuming, and you’d never have known that he had already climbed El Cap over 70 times, held the speed record for the Salathé (4:55, and he climbed the Nose that same day), had done three El Cap routes in a day, and had blazed up the Nose in 2:36. “I’m looking for a partner for a speed run on the Nose,” Stanley said. I didn’t know if I could keep up with him, but blurted out a yes anyway. “I might be a little slow,” I added, “and have to be off by 2:00. I need to be at the airport by 4:00.” Stanley nodded, even offered me a ride to the airport. We spent the next few hours discussing strategy and racking. Our plan was to simul-climb the 3,000-foot

WE BO TH AC CEP TED THE RISKS EN TA IL ED IN SPEED CL IMBING, Y E T TH AT BRUSH WITH DIS A S TER M A DE ME C ONSIDER THE RISKS IN GRE ATER DE TA IL .

route in two blocks, Sean leading first, to Boot Flake, where I would take the lead. We’d carry a skeleton rack that wasn’t even two complete sets of cams and a few offset wires—a meager amount of gear for one of the biggest walls on Earth. We started at first light, moving together up the lower pitches. Although I was breathing hard, I kept pace with Stanley. I wasn’t a dead weight at the end of the rope, after all! When it was my lead, I raced through the upper half. We hit the top in 4:30. I was stunned. And hooked by the rush of moving quickly on a big wall. For decades the men’s speed record had continually gotten faster, yet women had never really dabbled: The women’s record was still over 10 hours. I had wanted to learn how Sean and Dean Potter, Hans Florine and the Huber brothers could climb the Nose in under three hours. Now I knew. Confidence, fitness and familiarity with the route let them shave hours, then minutes, off the time. They were also willing to

take big risks. Stanley and I had simul climbed, moving together with very little gear between us. Although we had carried a skeleton rack, it had been just enough even though we’d only done one changeover, and only had to tag gear up to the leader once, halfway up my block. Even though Stanley and I had worked well together, we knew we could go a lot faster. This run had been our first together, and neither of us was especially fit. If we learned to work better in unison, got in shape and made minor adjustments to our strategy, the record might be beatable—the women’s record certainly was. SEPTEMBER, 2013. When I returned to Yosemite my goal was the speed record. I spent the first week juggling partners, trying for records with Stanley and another good friend, Libby Sauter. Libby and I went for the record twice. Uncomfortable with simul-climbing the more difficult upper half of the route, we instead used the infamous Pakistani

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Death Loop (PDL) technique. The PDL is riskier than traditional belayed climbing, yet not as risky as simulclimbing. Using the PDL, the leader climbs a pitch, clips the anchor, quickly hauls up the slack on the lead rope and ties it off. The leader then takes off with 30 to 100 feet of slack and no belay while the second jugs. Once the second reaches the chains, the leader goes back on belay—it’s not uncommon for the leader to climb most of the next pitch completely unbelayed. Our first run felt slow, and we struggled with dehydration and hot, slimy rock. We flowed better on our second effort and trimmed off a huge amount of time, establishing a new female record of 5:39. Yet, Libby and I knew we could do better. We still had a lot to learn. Over the weeks, Stanley and I also roped up, refining our teamwork and gaining the fitness necessary for a subthree-hour push to break the men’s record. Almost ready for the real thing, we did one more practice run. Topping out that time, I saw Sean below me clawing up the summit slab. His hands were bloodied and he had fear in his eyes. After catching his breath, he said he had nearly slipped in the steep thin-hands section near the top while we were simul-climbing with minimal pieces between us. A fall would have been horrific. We both accepted the risks entailed in speed climbing, yet that brush with disaster made me consider the risks in greater detail. Then the unexpected happened. Yosemite was going to be closed for the government shutdown. Some climbers left, and others prepared for El Cap—if they were on the wall before the closure, they couldn’t get busted. After the park closed, rangers watched the popular climbs, ambushing climbers on their descents, fining them for breaking the law. Determined, Stanley and I planned for another run on the Nose. To avoid being caught, we’d wear clothes that blended with the rock. Friends would drop us off and warn us of ranger activity. Plan in place, Stanley and I walked briskly to the Nose in the first rays of light. There, we were surprised to see teams lined up on the first pitches— everyone seemed to have the same idea.

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S T Y L E D OE SN’T M AT TER, SPEED D OE S. YOU CL IP, P UL L ON OR S TA ND ON A N Y THING AVA IL A BL E. WE OF TEN ONLY PL ACE A C OUPL E OF PIECE S PER PIT CH. BEING “S A FE” TA K E S ON A NE W ME A NING. We simul-climbed and caught team after team. Realizing that we were speed climbing, everyone graciously stepped aside to let us pass. When I took over the lead at halfway, I had lost track of the number of groups we had passed. Higher on the route, the crowd thinned, but I still didn’t feel like we were moving fast. On top, I glanced at the timer. I was stunned: 3:29! Later, Stanley and I calculated that we had passed 11 parties, at least 22 people, costing us precious minutes. If we made another run when the route was less crowded, we were sure we could go sub three hours—faster than that was possible, but would be very difficult. Hiding in the Valley became increasingly difficult. The entrances were guarded and even residents were told not to recreate. It was incredible to experience the typically bustling Yosemite Valley nearly empty, but the fear of getting caught became too great, and I left the Valley on a perfect day in early October. OCTOBER, 2014: “Fuck!” I muttered, submitting to fatigue and slouching onto the small ledge. “I just want to be off this fucking route.” My body ached, my feet burned and my mouth was so dry that even eating a Shot Blok was impossible. Libby and I had been climbing on the Nose for over five hours, and we still weren’t near the top. Thinking that the day would be cooler—and that we’d move much faster—I’d brought just over half a liter of water, and drank that on the first half of the route. “You’re doing great, Mayan!” Libby said, nearly catching up to me as I

slowly started aiding the thin, flared pin scars of the Glowering Spot. “I hate aid climbing.” Tangled in a mess of aiders, daisy chains and clusters of cams, I wondered why I had wanted to break the record Libby and I already held. I had planned to return with Stanley and go for the overall record, but he had died BASE jumping in Zion. His death stunned me. I had been blown away that he’d ever climb with me, and we’d become good friends—he was one of the most kind and genuine people I’ve known, and an unsung hero of Yosemite. Tears flooded my eyes. Maybe my mother, who had also recently passed away, leaving another hole in my life, was right by questioning my drive to push everything to the limit? The destructive thoughts continued, the tears flowing down my cheeks. Then an inner voice told me to “fucking pull it together!” I quickly wiped my eyes to hide my breakdown from Libby, pushing my inner struggle to the depths of consciousness. At last, Libby and I reached the top. We were exhausted, glad to have the climb behind us but disappointed in our performance. We knew this run would be relatively slow as we relearned the route, but we’d been annihilated. “I guess doing a speed run up the Nose is still a rough intro to Yosemite, after being away for a year,” I said. “It’s OK,” Libby reassured me. “Remember our first run last year? It was the same thing. Then we crushed it the next time!” I nodded. She was right. After two days of rest and rehydration, we tried again. This time the Nose felt like a different route. Everything was easier and I was back to my usual self—blocking out danger and enjoying the climbing. We reached the top almost an hour under our previous time, with a new record of 5:02. Speed climbing on the Nose is an addiction. I love the feeling of climbing ceaselessly for 3,000 feet, when everything flows and you experience the harmony and trust required to climb quickly. Speed climbing requires me to discard all of the rules I generally follow. Style doesn’t matter, speed does. You clip, pull on or stand on anything available. We often only place a couple of pieces per pitch.


3 STRINGS PRODUCTIONS/TOM EVANS

Mayan Smith-Gobat nears the top of Pancake Flake, pitch 20.

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THE ROPE CATCHES HER AFTER JUST A FEW FEET—LIBBY HAS FALLEN IN ONE OF THE ONLY PLACES ON THE ENTIRE ROUTE WHERE PRO IS NEARBY AND WHEN SHE HAS A REAL BELAY. Being “safe” takes on a new meaning. We clip one carabiner to one bolt at belays. It’s a calculated risk. Each time I reach the top I know with small improvements I could go faster. OCTOBER 30, 2014. “Three. Two. One. GO!” I hit start on my timer, and Libby begins climbing. She moves smoothly up the first pitch, not racing, but aiming for perfect execution. “Move slow to move fast,” Libby says under her breath. “Start off slow, go go go. Start off fast, just won’t last.” These had become our mantras, the second a quote from one of the current men’s record holders, Hans Florine. Seconds later, Libby’s foot pops and with a cry she is off. The rope catches her after just a few feet—she has fallen in one of the only places on the entire route where pro is nearby and when she has a real belay. Though rattled, she pulls back on and finishes the pitch, still making it to the belay in record time. I consider asking if she wants to start over, but when she charges past the anchors, I yell encouragement. Moments later the rope runs out and it’s my turn to start climbing. After witnessing Libby’s fall, I

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place my hands and feet with care. “Take! I’m at the first pendy,” comes Libby’s voice, drifting down from above. “Perfect, got you,” I reply, yarding in on the rope and letting her counterweight boost me through the first crux, a few delicate moves halfway up the first pitch. “OK, back on. Climbing!” Libby yells seconds later. We continue, falling into a rhythm, talking only when necessary. The pitches zip by, and my fatigue and nervousness disappear as I realize we are moving faster than ever. Near the top of Sickle Ledge at the end of four pitches, I pause, waiting for Libby to reach the next bolt, and sneak a sip of water. “In hard,” comes her voice. I lower myself and sprint sideways across the slab, snagging a diagonal hold, then dyno for a bolt. “OK, off,” I yell. “I’ll pop the Gri?” “Fuck yeah! I’m climbing!” shouts Libby and we are off again, 60 meters of slack hanging between us, both facing terrible falls as we simul-jam the Stove Legs to Dolt Tower a third of the way up the wall. Five pitches later, Libby leads without

gear up Boot Flake, our change-over point. Fifty feet below her, I cinch down my shoes and shove a Shot Blok in my mouth. She finishes the pitch and I check my watch: 2:05—our record time! Libby takes me hard on the rope as I unclip and instantly begin running sideways across the big pendulum of the King Swing, leaping and lunging for a small edge. “Got it! Slack!” I shout, beginning to climb again. Once I reach the belay, Libby sends the remaining gear flying down to me, trammed on the rope. Slinging the gear over my shoulder, I move across a delicate slab, large loops of slack hanging below me. We continue moving together and soon I’m passing a belayer in the upper corners, and catch the leader just as he clips to a belay. He shuffles aside so I can join him, expecting, I imagine, that I’ll stop and belay Libby up to me. When I instead short fix the rope and take off unbelayed, his face scrunches up in confusion. Breathing heavily, I plug in hand jam after hand jam, barely stopping to place gear. “A hand jam is as good as a bolt,” I remind myself. Then, suddenly, I’m at the last bolt ladder, throwing from bolt to bolt, then running up the last slab and around the tree at end of the 34th and last pitch, not stopping until the rope comes taut. Almost doubling over, I wheeze as Libby sprints up the pitch, hands scrambling on the slab. She throws herself at the tree, fingertips just touching as she collapses. Beep. “4:43!” I yell, and run to join Libby. We’ve done it. We’ve broken our record by nearly an hour. Everything went perfectly and we are happy with our time. We never have to try again. We really are done. Yet, standing at the tree, gear tangled around us and with most of the day still left, we know we can go faster. New Zealander Mayan Smith-Gobat is one of the most accomplished climbers, male or female. Among her many firsts, is this article for Ascent.

3 STRINGS PRODUCTIONS/CHEYNE LEMPE

Left: Smith-Gobat races for the top, in the upper section of the Alcove, pitch 26, on the fourth and final attempt in 2014. Lower left: Sauter collapses at the Tree, end of pitch 28, stopping the clock at a women’s record of 4:43.


Black Diamond Athlete Whitney Boland climbs at her home crag in the Millbrook area of the Gunks.


TH E SCHOOLING

HARD LESSONS ON YO S E M I T E ’ S EASIEST ROUTE

BY JA K E S A LCO N E

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Royal Arches, lower left in sun, clearing after a storm.

ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

“Dave! Climb! You’re on belay!” I bellow into the wind. I listen. Did I hear something? I jerk the rope three times, then hold it gently, as if waiting for a fish to bite, feeling for a tug or some slack. Nothing. I stare at the graying sky. I wait.


I TIE OFF MY END to the anchor, check that I have my prusik and Tibloc ascender, and rappel our single line until I can see him around the buttress, sitting still, hunched over on the belay ledge. “Hey! What are you doing?” “The rope’s stuck.” “And you were just—” I stop. I try again, more calmly. “I can free it,” I say. “Then I’ll have to climb up the rope. Three short pulls means ‘on belay.’ We gotta hurry.” I yank the tangled rope out of the crack and quickly rig my prusik and Tibloc. Ascending the rope is slow and seems unnecessary on the low-angle wall. I scrap the prusik, climb hand-overhand tugging along my Tibloc. Soon I’m back at the belay and warmer. It seems to take forever for Dave to climb the pitch. I’m shivering again by the time he gets to the belay. The rock is damp. I am damp. But maybe it will just blow over? He has put on a light windbreaker. Damn. Didn’t have space for a jacket in my Camelbak. In my head Beth’s cheery voice is saying, “Cotton kills.” Beth, the cautious girlfriend/ex-girlfriend/woman-I-thinkabout-all-the-time-but-don’t-commit-to seems to be winning the day. But she will not say, “What were you thinking?” or, “I’m not surprised.” She’ll be sympathetic, despite my idiocy. Damn, she’s great. Maybe I need to tell her. I’d taken pictures of the route description in the guidebook. I zoom in on the small camera screen: “Retreat: Rappel the route with two 50- or 60-meter ropes. Retreating below pitch 15 requires leaving gear at some stations.” We’ve just finished pitch 11. We have one 70-meter rope. Neither of us has been on the route before. In fact, we took a 60-minute detour around pitch 4 when a nice-looking crack and some tattered webbing led Dave astray. The crack got hard, we knew we must be off route, and we rapped back to try another way. Now we are five pitches from the rim. I offer to keep leading and Dave seems happy to follow. We are mid pitch 12 when the clouds regroup. Why didn’t I look at the weather report? “This doesn’t usually happen in California,” I rationalize. Hail. Stinging pellets smack my arms and prohibit me from looking up. But I

must look up to find the route. Should we try to retreat? Stop and wait? Keep climbing? I weigh the options silently. I keep warm while I climb, but shiver at each belay. A consistent drizzle settles in. Water is running down the rock. The 5.4 slabs feel like 5.11. I expect to fall, but don’t think about it. We need to keep moving. I guess it’s 6 o’clock. Maybe later. I hesitate at the last slab traverse, and Dave offers to lead. Halfway across the 50-foot slab, he places a nut and a small cam. With each step, ice water piles up against his shoes as if against boulders in a stream. He inches out, slips and careens 15 feet on his belly. The rope catches just as he hits a ledge of dirt and bushes.

manzanita, re-soaking my clothes each time. Light has turned smoky gray as we crest Washington Column. I’m cold. Too cold. I prepare to refuse if Dave suggests we bivy. Despite strenuous scrambling, I shiver continuously as we negotiate the loose, steep terrain. The headlamps come out. THE NORTH DOME GULLY is a miserable descent. In any conditions it would be insecure. There is no clear trail. The steep gully is booby-trapped with cliffs. Between and above the cliffs are loose rocks and boulders; decomposed granite gravel and coarse sand; thick, stiff manzanita and occasional ponderosa pines.

WHAT IF I REACH THE END OF THE ROPE MIDAIR? I AM NOT CAPABLE OF REASCENDING. I RAPPEL. “Fuck!” “You all right, man?” He evaluates himself. “Yeah. Glad I didn’t break an ankle.” He climbs up the bushes and hastily builds a belay at a tree located horizontally from my exposed position. I follow, start to remove his gear, and pause. “I’m probably gonna fall, too.” A broken ankle would make this situation way worse. “I’m gonna leave the nut and a biner. Just lower me down to the bushes.” We scramble through the exposed fourth-class loose dirt and trees until it’s obvious we are on the rim. The rain has stopped. The valley is brilliantly green. We are OK. We made it. I EAT THE LAST OF MY BAGEL and some of Dave’s almonds. It’s after 8 o’clock. We have 30 minutes of fair visibility, then it will be headlamps only. There will be no moon through these clouds. I am nervously aware that the guidebook states succinctly, “Do not attempt at night unless you are familiar with the descent.” We are crossing slippery slabs that roll off steeply to our right, terminating at a 1,200-foot drop off The Arches. On safer ground, we scrape through thickets of wet, stubborn

I’ve been shivering for most of the last four hours. It’s getting worse. I generally don’t mind the cold. Growing up in South Dakota I would camp in subzero temps, just to see if I could stand it. But this is a feeling I have not experienced before. My jaw hurts from clenching against chattering teeth. I’m hypothermic. The admission hits me like a ton of bricks. It’s raining solidly again. Dave’s proposition finally comes. “Man, maybe we should bivy.” I think a second. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say. “I’m too cold.” I remember my emergency blanket. Soon I’ll get it out, when there’s a safer place to pause. But there isn’t one. Dave’s voice has changed. He sounds like an annoying child. “Are we going the right way?” “I don’t know, Dave.” “Can I step here? Is this way OK?” I don’t respond. I can’t stand his neediness. Nor can I ease his fear. We reach an impasse. Fuck this goddamn descent. Only darkness below. Thirty feet? A hundred and 30 feet? I find webbing and a rap ring on a tree. “Maybe we’re going the right way. We can rappel here.” “Are you sure? How far is it?” “I don’t know.”

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I MUST LOOK RIDICULOUS, I THINK, WRAPPED IN A SILVER SHEET, NO SHIRT ON. I throw the rope and think I hear it land in some bushes. I go first. I can’t feel the rope in my hand. I’m not sure if I’m squeezing or not. I don’t care. I just keep moving as if I can evade my coldness, like shaking off a swarm of gnats. I’m losing clarity. My brain feels like I ate a big pot brownie. It’s not fun. It’s terrifying. My safety-in-the-mountains theory is simple: Do not die an avoidable death. It would just be embarrassing. Some people like to joke about their epics, romanticizing poor decision-making. I love the stories, I laugh at the stories, but really I feel like a disapproving parent. Secretly, I hope people ask me about my climbing injuries. “None,” I would say. “Well, I bruised my heel once in a big fall on a slab. Yeah, 15 years.” It would be too embarrassing to die on Royal Arches. The thought almost makes me smile. Nick, Andrew, my best climbing buddies, would smile, too. They’d get the indignity. I reach the ground easily and yell, “Off rappel!” I pull off my Camelbak and peel off my drenched T-shirt. Survival mode. I ring out at least a cup of icy rainwater; wipe off my face and shoulders with the shirt. My muscles are tense and quivering. I’m covered in goose bumps, neck to waist. I tear open the plastic packet with my teeth. I have never once opened an emergency blanket. It’s windy and I struggle with numb limbs to wrap up in the crinkly blanket. I put my Camelbak on over it and awkwardly buckle the waist and sternum straps with claw-like fingers. I squat and pull my knees to my chest. Instantly I feel a change. I do a few quick squats. Up down, up down. Dave lands and pulls the rope. I tuck my shirt under the arm strap because leaving it would make my situation seem more desperate. In my head I’m battling panic. You can do this, Jake. Just keep moving. You can walk all night if you have to. I’m grateful that Dave gathers up the rope. He must not be as cold as I am. Wet, loose, steep. We hunch over,

3 4 | ASCENT 2015

feeling our way, digging hands into gravel and roots when we might slip. Another cliff. There is a tree, but no webbing. We must be off route. Can’t think. I wrap the rope around the tree and throw it into the darkness. I cannot see the ground. I don’t know if the rope reaches, and I don’t know if we will be able to pull the rope free from around this tree. I don’t care. I must move. Every foot closer to the Valley floor improves my chances. Chances? God, did I just think that? Well, what are my “chances”? As probabilities go, I guess they are pretty good. Probably better than 50 percent. Maybe. If I can keep moving. What if I reach the end of the rope midair? I am not capable of re-ascending the rope. Shivering. Hands feel like meat hooks. I rappel. Water runs down and launches off the cliff, icy, pouring on my bare chest. The thin silver blanket blows around, barely on me. I reach the ground! I don’t tell Dave he will rappel through a freezing waterfall. He might try to find another way down. That would take forever. Again we scramble, slowly. Are we closer? We can see lights in the Valley. I can vaguely feel Washington Column to our right, but cannot see it. Perhaps it’s getting less steep? Another cliff. God damn this descent. We should have tried to rappel the route. This time we see the talus below; it’s only 30 or 40 feet. Too far to jump. We rappel a third time, rope around a ponderosa pine. There are more trees here. Live oak, bay laurel. The wind abates. We stumble and fall through the dark for another hour. Maybe 30 minutes. Progress feels disappointingly slow. No more cliffs, just boulders. Over, under and around, we work our way downhill. At least we know to go downhill. I can’t close my fists, but my head seems a little clearer. My chances are better now, I think. Seventy percent? I notice Dave stumbling a lot, cursing. “My headlamp is about dead,” he says. “Shit, really? Stay near me.” Our progress slows again just as I had gained hope. Sometimes I think I see

a trail, but then we are bushwhacking again. Maybe my headlamp is dying? It sure feels dark. Another long, silent 30 minutes and we find a real trail. Six feet wide, decomposed granite. This is it! We’re fine! I think we can follow this even in the dark. I expect to pop out at the Ahwahnee Hotel any minute. But we don’t. Another 20 minutes of walking. Dave is awkwardly close, but when I get ahead he trips and swears. “What trail are we on?” “I don’t know. The one that goes by the Ahwahnee, I hope.” “Are we going the right way?” “Uh, I think so. What do you think?” “Fuck, I dunno. Seems like we should have recognized something by now.” The trail has become relatively flat. It’s hard to guess what direction we are going. We could be walking east, farther from the road to Camp 4. No moon, no stars. But it’s not raining. I marvel at how tired I am. No more food. Of course I’m bonking. I force myself to straighten up. We’re close, Jake. You’re fine. Just keep walking. I smell smoke, hear faint voices. Then we see light on the trees. Campfire light. We have to hop across a small stream. What campground is this? It doesn’t matter, I can no longer die. Whoosh. A rush of relief floods over me. My eyes fill with tears. I suck air through my mouth and hold it for a second. Thank God. Dave mumbles something I don’t understand. We walk slowly up to the campfire. College kids. The fire is roaring. It’s raining again. Someone notices us: “Hey, you guys climbers?” “Hah. Yeah.” “Dude, join the fire!” We stand side by side close to the blaze, staring at the flames. “Hey, you guys want some brats?” Someone holds out a bun filled with a steaming sausage. Not sure how much he is offering, I pinch through it with a stiff, dirty hand, demolishing it as I try to tear it in half. I don’t think to apologize, just stuff it in my mouth. The animalistic act penetrates his drunken brain. “Dude, are you wearing an emergency blanket?” “Uh, yeah.” “Are you guys OK?” “Not really. Is there a camp ranger


>

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around here?” “Yeah, man, the camp host has been driving around. Over there.” He points. I hope they offer to drive us. I don’t care how drunk they are. But they don’t. “Where were you climbing?” “Royal Arches. Got caught in the rain.” “Damn. You need a blanket or something?” “Uhh, we’re good. Thanks, guys.” I don’t know why we don’t wrap up in blankets and sit by the fire. I guess we both just want the night to be over. We wander off to find the camp host to beg for a ride back to Camp 4. This is the Upper Pines or Lower Pines campground, two or three miles away. The camp host’s trailer is dark. It must be late. We stand around for a moment trying to decide what to do. Is this an emergency? We don’t need a “rescue.” A truck pulls up to the restroom. “You guys driving to the lodge by chance?” I ask. “Uh, no.” There’s an awkward pause. “You need a ride somewhere? We could take you to Curry Village.”

“That’d be awesome, thank you.” We hop in the back of the visitor’s truck. Bicycles, plastic bags covering gear, a cooler. The ride is cold and I start shivering again. We are silent. At Curry Village, the campgroundregistration guy calls someone on a walkie-talkie. “Van will be here in 10 minutes and can take you to Camp 4,” he tells us. We mumble, “Thanks,” and stand in place. We don’t ask if we can wait inside, just stand in the small, bright lobby. I must look ridiculous, I think, wrapped in a silver sheet, no shirt on. Drenched. Helmet on my head, gear hanging off my harness. Wet rope, coiled poorly, dangling off Dave’s back. The clock in the van reads 12:11. The van is warm and the driver is a very nice middle-aged lady. She talks to us in a caring voice. I’m grateful she doesn’t reprimand us. Our tails are already between our legs. Dave says good night, “I’ll find ya in the morning.” I grab my travel towel and go to the restroom. I take off all my clothes and dry off, standing on my shoes to avoid the

cold concrete floor. I put on fleece long johns, a Capilene shirt, and my down jacket. I find dry socks in my tent, zip my bag up to my chin and fall straight asleep. I don’t think about anything that has happened. As I blink awake the next morning, the first thing I think about is my hands. I don’t seem to have any feeling in the ends of all of my fingers. My middle and pointer finger on my left hand are the worst, the first two segments stiff and numb. Some nerve damage, I guess. Otherwise I’m just tired, but fine. “Wow,” I mumble. It’s raining lightly. I have the comfortable feeling of knowing I am not going to do anything all day. I spend the day in a daze, drinking coffee in the lodge, wandering around the Valley, rubbing my fingers. I write Beth a postcard, sparing the details but telling her that I’d been scared and can’t wait to see her again. I call my brother and my best friend, downplaying the epic, but sign off with, “I love you.” The trees above Royal Arches are encased in ice. Jake Salcone is a resource economist, currently marooned in the South Pacific.

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PHOTO /Vikki Glinskii on an unnamed (yet five-star) V4 traverse at the Call Box Rocks, Sonoma Coast, California.

LAND’S END PHOTOS BY JIM THORNBURG


PHOTO / Sarah Peet traversing at Panther Beach, near Santa Cruz, California. No grades or names at this spot. The problems are different almost every time you go, due to constantly changing sand height.


PHOTO / Eve Cowen bouldering at the Baths, British Virgin Gorda.


scarpa.com/vapor-v

You only get 26,320 days, more or less. How will you spend them?


Dale Bard sets off on the Ace in Space, pitch 16, during the first ascent of Sea of Dreams, in 1978. RURPS, hooks and other aid wizardry would define this pitch—and much of the route.

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THE DREAM WEAVERS

BY J I M B R I DW E L L P H OTO S BY DAV E D I E G E L M A N

T HE UN T OLD ST ORY OF T HE FIRS T A SCEN T OF EL C AP’S M OS T REVERED ROU TE

I

cannot take full credit for the discovery of the sequence of scant natural features we now know as The Sea of Dreams on El Cap. In part, the character we affectionately knew as John “Yabo” Yablonski perked my interest in the line one day while we were lounging in El Cap Meadow. Yabo was young and had an expansive mental capacity that could see things invisible to regular people. Midnight Lightning, a recent—1978—problem on the Columbia boulder in Camp 4 is another notable example of his imagination turned reality. Now, he was jabbering about the blankest section of the Captain.

I borrowed a pair of binoculars from a spectating tourist to scope the potential route. Binoculars alone, however, couldn’t reveal what Yabo had seen. Those weaknesses would require a more powerful tool. The Questar telescope, used by YOSAR to examine stranded or injured (or worse) climbers on El Cap would do the trick, and I still had access from services previously rendered. I asked John Dill, a true patriot and the mastermind behind YOSAR, if I could use and keep the Questar for a few days. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail,”

said Benjamin Franklin. Joined by Charlie Row and his VW van, we returned to the El Cap outdoor theater with the telescope in hand. The small but powerful refractor immediately drew a gathering of curious friends. I chose a 500x power eyepiece and did a quick geometrical calculation to get an approximation of distortion. Of most importance, of course, was the angle of the sun. I’ll go no further into the variables of celestial bodies other than to note that it was June and at that moment only right-facing features, casting shadows, would be

Dave Diegelman and Bard stock up on provisions before setting sail.

revealed. This, I took into account. I scrutinized a discontinuous system of features that most people would consider a lark, an incomplete line. But I knew that the universe is anything but random. Everything—everything—is the effect of a cause and those micro features were there for a reason. I had long recognized a universal “superconscious,” a subject I had discussed at length with the theoretical

ASCENT 2015 | 43


The high priest Jim Bridwell nestled in on a new invention, the portaledge, at a hanging bivy on the Sea of Dreams. Bridwell was the architect of hard wall climbing in the 1970s and early 1980s, and went on to apply his craft to big, extreme faces in Alaska and Patagonia.

physicist and visionary free climber Frank Sacherer. One evening sitting around the great fireplace in the lodge lounge, he told me that he and another physicist in Switzerland had, within three months of each other, come to pursue the same thesis. Coincidence? I think not. I had relinquished the telescope to Charlie when a white Cadillac with Texas plates pulled to a stop. The power window rolled down, exposing the bluish-gray hair of a woman in her late 60s. “What are you boys looking at?” she asked. “Climbers on the big white rock,” I replied and pointed. Her face turned into a mix of amazed disbelief and anger from long-held prejudices of public opinion. The husband, who sat in the passenger seat, appeared frozen by the stagnation of dementia. The woman got out of the car with unexpected nimbleness and demanded the location of the criminal invaders of the vertical. I gave her the binoculars and located the climbers for her. “There oughta be a law against that,” she said. “Don’t worry, there will be,” I said, prophetically, because after our ascent of Sea of Dreams only one more route would go up on the southeast face of El Cap before it was closed by the authorities for falcon nesting. Study through the Questar showed me that the route would demand nothing less than the best effort of the best climbers. I was juiced with

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excitement and eager to dial-up my partner, Dave Diegelman. Without hesitation Dave offered to secure most of the non-perishable food stocks and necessary personal equipment. I returned from the Meadow to find Dave taping webbing handles on the greatly improved half-gallon plastic soda bottles we used to safely transport life-giving water. I gathered most of my hardware and Dave his. We spread the plethora of pitons, nuts, carabiners, nylon slings and tie-loops. Dave got a full dose of my propaganda, finally succumbing to the measured adrenaline release of impending adventure. We spent the next couple of days scoping the proposed route from six locations, which I will reveal before I die, if I’m not too busy. I studied the line until I had closely calculated the number of drilled holes we would need, and the number of drills, and how many and which of the various technologies presently available we would apply— cams and a wide range of hooks, many personally modified by me, had just appeared. At that moment we didn’t have any cams ourselves, but fortune, I knew, would provide. When we weren’t scrutinizing the route, we carried loads of water, bivy gear, hardware and ropes to the base. Dave and I fixed three pitches, both leads of the quality that offered potential excellence for individual character improvement. That evening, the last before we would commit to the wall, we attended a party at the

Yosemite employees’ annex, a gathering that I had no doubt would be exemplary. Knowing the austerities that awaited us on the wall, we excused ourselves from any restraint. Mental stability at a premium, we sought the sanctuary of sanity within our self-imposed nightmare. That defines irony. I was on my second glass of wine when Dale Bard, another young climber and friend, asked if I minded having three people on the wall. Dale said that Dave had given his OK if it was OK with me. “No,” I said. “We are ready to start tomorrow and I planned for two, not three.” Three was a bad number I had learned from psychology, and odd numbers were disadvantageous in general for cooperation and distribution of labor. Dale was persistent, however, and offered the use of Ray Jardine’s cams and to buy more food and carry more water, so I finally assented. Dave and Dale jugged the ropes to the top of the third pitch, where Dave led the fourth, leaving the fifth for Dale. I made adjustments to food and water and carried loads to the base. That evening we made our final assessment of the challenges and our preparedness to meet those or other potential problems. At last, the only thing left was to pick personal music selections. Dave’s choices included a Little Feet tape with the lytics “You know you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promises your body can’t fill.” “Is that for me?” I asked. He chuckled. At the age of 32 I had naturally evolved into a father figure to some and was obliged to represent sound values. There’s a fine line between boldness and stupidity, and prudence and cowardice. I was there to help define the line. I had seen too many young climbers fall prey to self-glorification. It is inevitably fatal, but then so is life. Dale and I reached the top of the fixed ropes early while Dave wrestled with the bags. Before me was what we appropriately named the Potato Chip, a thin flake of superb El Cap granite. This was the perfect application for the new gadgets Dale had borrowed from Ray. We had gotten the use of four of what would be called “Friends,” one of each size from one inch to three inches with doubles on the #2. These Friends, and a couple of


Diegelman and Bard, two of the best wall climbers of the 1970s, and hand picked by Bridwell for the Sea of Dreams.

strategically place pitons made easy work of the flake. I lowered to make a difficult pendulum to a narrow ledge. I missed on the first try, so lowered a bit more and this time I was able to hang on and set a hook for just long enough to beat in a RURP and stand on the ledge. Dale cleaned the pitch. I hauled bags and Dave jumared the rope to me and began the next lead. Dave hooked around some loose blocks in the small corner above the belay and my head. It was late in the day when he finished his pitch, and once again no drilled holes were needed. I was stoked—so far only three holes had been drilled at anchors. Everything was fitting together in a way that conferred measured confidence, “measured” being the operative word. Arrogance will find its own punishment. We set up our newly invented portaledges at the end of the “Laura Scudder” traverse for our first bivouac. Dale led a necessarily short pitch the next day, set up a no-bolt belay and brought me up to start another short pitch to the extensive ledge system of “Easy Street.” Darkness was three hours away, inspiring efficient use of skills. The crack continued for 17 feet before it disappeared, demanding the intrusive use of brute force focused on a single point to prick the hide of El Cap. I drilled two holes and arrived at two dimples in the rock, one four feet above the other. Minimal enhancement yielded rapid progress to the final two holes and the pendulum point. To fill our holes,

WE SPENT THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS SCOPING THE PROPOSED ROUTE FROM SIX LOCATIONS, WHICH I WILL REVEAL BEFORE I DIE, IF I’M NOT TOO BUSY. we had exchanged the standard ¼-inch aluminum dowel for the ¾-inch long by 5/16-inch diameter machine bolt with a slightly tapered tip. The machine bolt was a few hundred pounds stronger and trusty for pendulums. I had Dale lower me only five feet and started swinging, eventually running up the wall and jumped for an ample hole. “Slack!” I yelled, manteling onto our cozy bivouac ledge. The next day would answer one of my critical questions: Did I know the geology of El Cap or was I full of shit? Unfortunately, the next pitch was Dave’s. He would have to be my eyes for this coming adventure, but make no mistake I felt both envious and paternal. Basically I would have the day off, as Dale would have the next lead, a section I assessed would consume the entire day. I awoke early to the hum of the earth’s solar engine and began the rituals of self-maintenance. I dug out the food bag and the water allotment for

the day. It was an unobtrusive method of waking up the team to pursue the goal of excellence. I told the lads to do their best this day, and settled in to enjoy the action. I had just come onto the initial effects of a mild dose of a hypothropic agent when the tell-tale repetition of a hammer hitting the drill signaled that something was awry: There should be no drilling yet. Distracted from my reverie, I moved up to a better view to offer alternatives. Dave had already begun a second hole when I asked why he was drilling. “Dale told me to,” he said. “What will you do when Dale isn’t available to give orders,” I asked. “The mind fails long before the body, you must believe in yourself.” Dave hooked right along a quartz ledge then started upward on thin aid cracks before placing three machinebolt rivets for the pendulum that ensued. I was proud of his inventiveness when he hooked sideways, tensioning in opposition off the pendulum rope. It was great to watch him put together one of the world’s exceptional pitches, the “Hook or Book,” drilling only three rivets and one bolt at the belay, a relocation in total of three grams of El Cap granite. I was, in fact, so engaged watching Dave I almost forgot about the LSD. Almost. Dale cleaned what there was to remove from the pitch, and promptly engaged the next testy section that would bear the route’s only geographic

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Diegelman and the pitch that would go down in infamy, the A5 Hook or Book.

connotation, in the crossing of the Sea of Cortez, also A5. The boys were truly passing muster, stringing together leads that were the hardest yet done on the Captain. I happily contemplated putting off cleaning Dale’s pitch until the next day when friends of ours, Max Jones and Mark Hudon, arrived at our comfortable station. They had come to grief trying to repeat the nearby Pacific Ocean Wall, a line to the left that I had established three years earlier with Billy Westbay, Jay Fiske and Fred East. The PO had been an early foray in linking micro features and was a step up in thinness for big-wall nailing. The thing that made the PO different from other routes, I had told Billy, is “There are no corners to hide your ass in. Unless sticking your nose in a two-inch corner is hiding.” Mark had proved this very thing by expanding a piece of the flake on the pitch off the Continental Shelf at the end of Easy Street and smashing a finger. They were on their way down, and gave us their extra beer and water and wished us well. Our goal the next day was Big Sur ledge, 11 pitches up the North America Wall. The first pitch was mine. A short pendulum to the left off an equalized RURP and a blade saved a bolt. Then it was easy aid to another no-bolt belay. Dave led another inspired A5 pitch to Big Sur about halfway up our route. To this point we had had the convenience

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of commodious ledges, but from here there would be no ledges and we were about to enter a section of the heartless diorite, where good cracks are behind loose blocks and the rock is like layers of rotten cardboard. There is a reason the black rock is steep—the rest of it has fallen away. After another comfortable night, Dale led a pitch that ended only 20 feet higher, but involved circuitous free climbing to the top of the Peregrine Pillar, named for the birds I had been watching for the past three days. Soon, I was at work on the following pitch, an intriguing series of problems unique to the very weird brown cardboard diorite rock. The rock appeared blank, and I reluctantly reached for the drill, but discovered it was easy to just beat a hole to set one of the new Chouinard hooks. In January 1971, I had clipped a bit from a London newspaper that read: “No wall worth climbing is easily scaled.” Indeed. This section reminded me of the veracity of that quote. While Dave was consumed with the “Blue Room” pitch the next day, I took inventory of our food and water to ascertain whether adjustments to consumption were or would be necessary. The sun had just left the wall when Dave yelled down to Dale that he was off belay. Suddenly I felt what I thought were raindrops, but on a cloudless day seemed unlikely. Dave was pissing and thanks to the Coriolis

effect it spiraled clockwise, down to me. Unfortunately, I looked up to discover its source. Concomitant to this Dale voiced concern about the security of Dave’s anchors, which Dave assured us were adequate. Dale wisely demanded a bolt or he wasn’t coming up. Once the bolt had been placed, Dale cleaned the pitch. Dave recorded Dale’s expression by taking a picture of him upon his arrival at the six-RURP belay. That photo would get published in George Meyer’s Yosemite Climber a few years later, and remains one of the most recognized images from the 1970s. The wisdom of the bolt would be verified by the demands of the next lead, the Ace in Space: RURPS, hooks and other aid wizardry would end at one of the few two-bolt belays, justified because the anchor needed to hold the weight of at least two of us and everything else. That evening we set new goals and named the route. I was stuck on a song, Sea of Dreams, by the Electric Light Orchestra. The name fit, and we all agreed to it. We also agreed to finish the climb using 40 holes or less. At that point we had placed 11 bolts, mostly at anchors, and 13 rivets for upward gain. The goal would stimulate the best type of competition that inspires personal character development—competition is essential to social evolution. Whether it is productive or destructive is individual in motive and representative of the prevailing social mores. Only the future would tell if this was the correct choice for motivation. We efficiently hauled the four pitches we had fixed in two hauls, allowing me to begin leading the next pitch by midmorning. The route ahead followed a quartz dike that shot across the diorite all the way to the Roof on the North America Wall. The separation between the two types of rock offered challenging aid climbing consistent with the route, with tied-off fat Leepers to knifeblades interspersed with the occasional RURP. The anchor was 14 pins carefully equalized in groups of three with higher pin groups backing up the other lower ones—it was bomber. I named this pitch the Bull Dike in recognition of the


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THE SEA OF DREAMS WAS HARDER, AND HARDER FOR LONGER, THAN ANYTHING YET DONE.

Rock sommelier Bridwell gives the “It’s primo” sign.

degradation of American mores. Dave lowered out with the bags, which I hauled while Dale cleaned the pins from my pitch. Dave had begun the next lead when Dale arrived, and had already used two hooks and just finished placing the first of two rivets. The 25-foot void between my belay and the beginning of a dirty, arching crack that led back to the left had taken him over an hour before he began pulling out large chunks of dirt and moss from the crack. These fell harmlessly 15 feet out from the belay. It was slow, exhausting work. As darkness approached, Dave equalized three pins and I lowered him until he was level with the belay, but nearly 20 feet out from the wall. He would need to finish the “9-to-5” pitch the next day, thus the name. Dave set the anchors at the end of the 9-to-5 right at the lip of an arching overhang, one of the most airy belays I had ever experienced. The wall was so steep I didn’t bother packing my portaledge for hauling, and at the belay, Dave and I sat in comfort watching and belaying Dale. He aided left on a good crack and began hooking up rickety flakes in the dubious brown rock. Encountering a short blank section, he thought to place a standard inchand-a-quarter-long bolt, but ended up using a two-incher that was still only body-weight worthy. After a couple more hooks Dale draped slings over reasonable flakes and even ventured the odd free move before ending the pitch under a small roof. For days the upper part of the wall had been obscured. Finally it was possible to see the way ahead. A thin 48 | ASCENT 2015

white flake undulated rightward across equally excellent white granite—this was going to be good. Drawing from a plethora of pearls of wisdom my father would cast my way, I recalled, “He who hesitates is lost,” as confirmation for action. I started up the flake forthwith. When it was somewhat horizontal, I found that by standing on hooks it was possible to place substantial pitons to protect the second following. In places where the flake rose more vertically, I fashioned the placement for a sling, which, vectored with the rope, held it in place for the follower. Finally, the flake ended in an upward arch where I welded a copperhead and reached far right to take advantage of a small slope, which I measured and drilled allowing a hook to be sprung firmly in place. This I used to tension to the right, to free climbing. Once again I found solid anchors without the tedious process of drilling bolts. So far, we were averaging about two and a half pitches a day, assuring we would top out the following day. Dave climbed nearly half of his lead before darkness dictated descent to the bivy site. That night we discussed but did not settle on a rating for the route. A grade could only be surmised using known related experiences—the weight of the burden was on me for credibility. I compared previous climbs and their accepted equivalency of difficulty and duration of difficulty. The Sea of Dreams was harder, and harder for longer, than anything yet done, but I also considered that repeats would pin out the placements, making them more secure, and that new, more functional

and efficient equipment would change the perceived difficulty. Certainly the range of cams would expand and practically eliminate the angle piton, reducing many of the A4 and A5 pitches. In the morning, Dave jugged the rope he’d fixed, but the pitch was more resistant than first thought, maybe A5, requiring another two hours to complete. As soon as Dave drilled two bolts for the anchor, Dale leapfrogged past and jumped on the next pitch, the one that sealed the deal. From there, I scrambled up easy slabs, climbed over a roof to a short corner and stood on top. We hung our ledges from a large tree near the rim of the Captain. Dave played the Little Feet tape with the taunting litany of reality as we finalized our assessment of our new route. The accounting tallied nine pitches of A5, three of A3 and the rest were A4, with 39 drilled holes. If the climb had been in an alpine environment it would have been a candidate for Grade 7 status, but it wasn’t, and the traditional Grade 6 was assigned. And so it is with classifying the status of the achievement—it is only applicable to the prevailing standard of the time. Rating distinctions are ever dependent on the evolving conventions. More important than a number was that we did the best we could. Sea of Dreams was imperfect because we aren’t perfect—yet. Endnote: I placed no bolts at any of my belays, which likely accounts for changes in location of belays. For example, the pitch off Big Sur ended on top of the Peregrine Pillar, which now lies about eight feet from the base of the N.A. in the crater it made when it fell off, changing the number and length of the pitches to The Tooth. We did not go to the Igloo, but finished on the original N. A. about 80 feet right of the Igloo. The addition of 60 or more new holes, mostly bolts, has no doubt changed many of the original ratings.


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Rebel’s Edge YOUTHFUL DEFIANCE LEADS TO A MAJOR ASCENT AND A LOAD OF STRIFE BY AIRLIE ANDERSON

50 | ASCENT 2015

Airlie Anderson above the shot holes at roughly mid- height on Master’s Edge (E7 6c / 5.12d). This photo was taken a few days after her ascent; she did not climb to the top this time.

DAVE PEGG

M

y mother corrects me when I say I was expelled from school for fighting. “You weren’t expelled, Airlie,” she says. “They just said it would be better if you didn’t come back.” When I was 16, my mother, aware of the futility of trying to dissuade such a battler and in acknowledgement of my strong climbing desire, allowed me to move from my town near London up to Sheffield, England. Sheffield was where all climbers lived and trained, the streets paved with chalk, the center of everything I wanted to be.


JASON MYERS

The first house I lived in I shared with Neil Gresham and his friend Matt Smith. They were always in the midst of writing a training book, staying up late discussing different methods, talking about their ideas as if training was the most important thing in the world. There was a climbing wall in the cellar, but attention always focused around an elaborate hangboard mounted above the entrance to the living room. A product of a multitude of discussions between Neil and Matt, the board was a 33-degree overhanging matrix of holds that you could move between—or not. I could not. Everybody else in the house loved it. Shirtless, with loud music playing, they seemed to be on it for hours. But I couldn’t be a part of it. The board separated me. I wished they would climb in the cellar again with footholds, where at least sometimes I could shine. I went to the pub often, more than anyone else in the house. The Broadfield was a constant in my life; boyfriends, housemates and climbing ambitions were all subject to change. The pub was always smoky, sometimes crowded. Odd-looking people lined the room. There were “local” locals and “climber” locals; I was of course a climber local. A good example of a local local would be Jim the Murderer—he had apparently murdered his wife. Jim the Murderer had staring eyes and an oversized, heavily scarred forehead. He would stare at me and I would stare back, meeting his gaze confidently. Sometimes he would wink. Johnny Dawes was often there, playing pool in a ridiculous style, jumping balls over each other, often right off the table. I experienced real fear playing with him. Johnny could not be found doing pull-ups or discussing training, but he climbed in a way most people only wished they could. Always favoring gritstone, where footwork, balance and timing were everything, Johnny was the antithesis of the mindset I was struggling against. My housemates said I wasn’t serious enough about training, and it was true; I would smoke cigarettes under the hangboard, laugh and make a face when told to stop. That’s how I found myself in the crazy house with Johnny. In this second house were brightly colored half-finished murals on the

walls, steadily multiplying dogs, and everyone living under the guise of athlete or artist, no semblance of a job. The early 1990s in Britain were the era of claiming unemployment benefits. The opportunities could be endless or just as easily squandered. Living there felt like an after-party mixed with a circus. One day I persuaded Johnny to try Master’s Edge on toprope with me. He was going through a period of refusing to dress normally, wearing canvas coveralls cut short at the arms and legs and a long knitted hat. He screeched around corners in his car while I tried hard not to scream—that was what he wanted, and it would only make him go faster. If I complained too much he would make a U-turn and take the corner again. Johnny could—on the right or wrong day, depending on your point of view— have soloed Master’s Edge. The toprope was for me. Standing at the bottom, nervous, full of too much desire, I could hardly bear it. Turning around to check whether Johnny had me on belay, I saw an evil grin spread across his face, bursting with anticipation to give me shit. Johnny was every male relation I never had: older brother, younger brother, perverted uncle. I fell off near the start and Johnny immediately lowered me to the ground, telling me it seemed like my bottom was going to get in the way of doing Master’s Edge after all. Ron Fawcett made the first ascent of Master’s Edge, in 1983, and is quoted as saying it is the single route he is most proud of. The route has its own Wikipedia page, where it’s described as the most famous gritstone climb in the world. The line follows an incredibly striking 60-foot arete, pure in its form save for a pair of shot holes at roughly half height left over from the quarry days. Laughing, I demanded another go. I made it halfway up, fingertips grazing the shot holes as I fell. “Don’t fucking lower me,” I shouted, grabbing the shot holes and pulling back on. I fell off the last move: an intimidating lunge to a jug high on the arete, with barely any footholds and so far above the protection I was appalled by the thought of doing it on lead. That night my imagination ran wild. I imagined falling from the top, swinging

in hard against the sharp arete. Or falling off the start, breaking my ankles. I also imagined climbing it easily in front of a crowd. The next morning I came down to find the curtains drawn, lights off. Johnny was playing Super Mario Cart, all the cushions from the couch propping him into the perfect driving position. He had always wanted to be a race-car driver—should have been a race-car driver. No possible way he would climb today. I phoned Dave Pegg. Dave had until recently been my boyfriend and often at that time I wished he still was. I wanted— needed—Dave to belay me. I waited at the window, next to the sleeping bodies of people I didn’t know on the floor, left over from the latest party, for his familiar white van to pull up. Arriving at Millstone, I quickly ran around and set up the toprope. At the

Dave Pegg lends a helping head, with the controversial mattress used to pad the landing.

ASCENT 2015 | 5 1


bottom of the climb, I felt focused and ready. I remember not wanting to waste Dave’s time. I started climbing up, trusting the friction, feeling dynamic and confident. Pausing briefly for my body to come into balance, I caught the shot holes easily. Rising into them, I was able to shake out, calm down and breathe, but not for long. I laybacked the upper arete and, reaching the final move, committed to a faint hint of a foothold that was perfectly placed for me. Where taller men had to lunge from lower down, I could stand and reach. Grabbing the final jug, I felt an immense desire to lead this route. I wanted to climb it again on toprope to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, to help cement the moves in my mind. With too much expectation I started back up the arete. I missed the shot holes, falling back on the rope. Angered at myself, I tried again and missed again. Feeling more pressure, I tried again and my foot popped. I screamed in frustration; this move didn’t even exist if you were tall. Dave had retracted his head like a turtle and disappeared inside his down jacket. He would later write in Climber magazine about his experience belaying me that day. I would find it quite hard

52 | ASCENT 2015

to read, feeling shame and regret as he eloquently and amusingly described my meltdown. I was secretive about my desire to climb Master’s Edge. No women had attempted headpointing anything; the phrase itself was brand-new. Headpointing is applying redpoint tactics to a traditionally protected route. The climber rehearses moves on a toprope, or by any other method, then leads from the ground up. Master’s Edge was an iconic route; just seeing other women leading at a gritstone crag was at the time rare. Again at night I imagined what it would be like to take the long fall off the last move—the belayer notoriously has to run back to prevent a ground fall. I felt rushed to lead it, maybe scared of another bad toproping performance or a wane in motivation. I walked to the other side of Sheffield, the location of the only climbing store in town, and bought two Tricams, the only gear that would fit the shot holes. Bouldering pads didn’t exist back then, but I wanted to somehow protect the move to the shot holes. I decided to drag a mattress up to the crag. No one had done this before, and it would be controversial.

Again arriving at the base of the arete, I felt unstable, the shaky mattress amplifying my already heightened nervous state. At some point I stepped off the mattress and onto the arete, leading. Feeling strong and maybe too eager, I reached the shot holes. Eagerness doesn’t help for that move and just as I had imagined, I fell off, dropping over 20 feet onto the mattress. I didn’t know how to fall, had no concept of drop and roll, and my knee smashed up into my chin, chipping my tooth. I packed up and went to a cafe and had tea and cake in a bid to calm down. Less than an hour later I was back under the arete. The mattress felt steadier than before, my body more habitualized to its wobble. I started climbing up the now familiar bottom moves, feeling calmer. I caught the shot holes easily, clipping the rope into the two Tricams. I felt relaxed and confident, high stepping as before into the bottom shot hole. But that suddenly felt wrong; with the thick webbing of the Tricam in the hole, there wasn’t enough space for my foot. My other foothold, also a shot hole containing a Tricam, felt worse. I couldn’t rest, shake out or calm down.

ALEX MESSENGER

The great crag of Millstone. Master’s Edge takes the arete dead center of the photo.


marmot.com


“It feels fucked up,” I shouted. “Just fucking take.” I came down feeling annoyed and cheated—not sure what to do. Dave had duct tape with him in case his worn down jacket sprang another leak. I felt guilty and demanding watching him patiently rap down and tape the straps off to the side for me. What happened next was another area of controversy; I believed that we had pulled the rope before my next attempt. That would have been the right thing, ethically, to do. But a member of the old guard was watching, remaining quiet at the time and for many years, and it was his observation that I hadn’t. The move to the shot holes was an easy reach for most but for me, at 5’ 4”, a desperate smearing maneuver. Maybe I used that to justify the mattress and debatable ethics. The biggest challenge for me was the upper arete; I was very scared of the big fall, trusting the Tricams, and trusting all my weight to that tiny foothold. Time slowed as I neared the top on lead. I remember committing to the foothold, reaching up for the finishing jug, and even thinking I was amazing. Those feelings of happiness and elation lasted a long time. As I walked to the Broadfield that night, friends shouted congratulations from across the street. Over the next few days, people came by the house to congratulate me. I needn’t have rushed: It would be 14 years before Master’s Edge would see its next female ascent, by Katy Whittaker, again as a headpoint, and as any sane person would, using bouldering pads. In any case I was proud of the ascent and ready to defend my tactics, convinced they were justified. Some people thought the mattress was ridiculous and invalidated the ascent. For good or bad, I was the talk of the town. One night in the Broadfield, things came to a head. One climber local notorious for phrases such as “I’m climbing like a fucking woman,” started criticizing my ascent. I leapt from my seat and punched him in the face. Fights in the Broadfield were commonplace at that time and I always felt I could do whatever the hell I wanted. A “local local” like Jim the Murderer would surely have my back. “One of the lads” was how I was often

54 | ASCENT 2015

described. It would take years for me to realize I wasn’t. I just had an attitude.

T

he old guard watching and judging: What must it have looked like through his eyes? He had done every route at Millstone except Master’s Edge.

“CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THEY SAID I YO-YOED MASTER’S EDGE! THERE GOES MY ONLY CONTRIBUTION TO BRITISH CLIMBING HISTORY.”

I had done none other. Graham Hoey would wait 20 years before, as co-writer of a history book, calling me out. The book was Peak Rock: the History, the Routes, the Climbers, by Phil Kelly and Graham Hoey, published in 2013. I was excited when I first received an e-mail from Phil Kelly stating that he wanted to add a section dedicated to my ascent of Master’s Edge: the preparation, style of ascent, and aftermath. He asked me a few questions, and I gave my thoughts and recollections. None of the questions pertained to pre-clipped gear; they were mostly mattress-based. It was a shock in mid-December to receive a copy of the book as a gift and read in it that, aside from rehearsing the route on a toprope and using a mattress as a crashpad, I had purportedly lowered from the Tricams in the shot holes, then climbed the route with the rope preclipped, “effectively top-rop[ing] the lower arete in safety rather than risking the fall onto the mattress once more.” The book allowed that “climbing the upper section of the route would not allow any such controversial practices, with the upper crux moves being so far above the protection,” and that I made

no mistakes there. My reaction was an immediate post on Facebook: “Just got my copy of Peak Rock for Christmas, can’t fucking believe they said I yo-yoed Master’s Edge! There goes my only contribution to British climbing history.” Dave Pegg backed me as best he could, being honest about his inability to remember, pleading years of alcohol. On Christmas Eve 2013, I phoned England and talked to Graham Hoey directly. He recounted seeing me at the crag that day, and that he had wanted to borrow a specific piece of gear from me (he even remembered what piece). I had told him he could borrow anything he wanted. I realized the old guard could be right. The specifics of that day were hazy with time—my memory, like Dave’s, favoring emotions rather than detail. Reflecting back on my ascent, I can’t pretend to have no regrets. I could have taken a little more time to get things right. I had the chance and went for it; what I lacked in preparation and experience I made up for with pure wanting. Phil would later contact me to say he “wrote the piece as honestly ... as I could, based on what I learnt. My error was in not coming back to you and discussing things ... What I wrote was a piece on you that showcased a BLOODY TERRIFIC ASCENT by yourself, and don’t let anybody take that away ... you climbed Master’s Edge.”

I

was 19 then and my experience will be with me forever, the memories of Dave’s unwavering support all the more significant now that he has gone. He died in October, and I spoke at his memorial, describing him as best I could and thanking him for believing in me and “always sticking up for me in the face of all the adversity that I created.” That strong desire I felt to do Master’s Edge can seem in short supply now. But I can remember it, finding confidence even when it’s hidden and overgrown, by drawing on my attitude of old.

AIRLIE A NDERSON is 40, lives in Colorado and splits her time between climbing and shouting at her family.


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PARTS UNKNØWN Story and Photos By Russ Clun e IN THE 1980s, Russ Clune was America’s most-traveled climber, with passport stamps from some 30 countries—not all still in existence today. Often, the gregarious Clune was the only American on the rock, and nearly as often he was the first American to visit the crag. Throughout the adventures, Clune met and climbed with a veritable climbing Who’s Who, including Wolfgang Gullich, Patrick Edlinger, Todd Skinner, Jerry Moffatt—if you were serious about climbing, chances were high that you’d shared a rope with Clune. Clune’s adventures made him a witness to climbing history. As revealed by his photos, rock climbing in those days was quite different—in gear, clothes, and especially attitudes. Organized competitions were in their infancy and held on real rock, full-time professional climbers were as rare as Lowland Gorillas and 5.12 was a magical grade. Still, climbers then, as now, shared ideas and influences, and formed easy friendships with this adventurous drop-in visitor. What follows is a memoir of routes and people he met around the world.

5 6 | ASCENT 2015

SOUTH KOREA AS AN ARMY draftee stationed in Seoul in the early 1960s, Yvon Chouinard discovered that South Korea has excellent granite cragging. World-class even. Spurred by rumors, I arrived in midMarch 1985, and was promptly escorted to the headquarters of one of the numberous Seoul climbing clubs. There I met Yoon Dae-Pyo, an accomplished Korean alpinist. Up to that point, Korean climbers had focused on alpine climbing—difficulty on rock wasn’t part of the program. The members of Club HQ looked apprehensively at my lack of an alpine resume, but decided to take me climbing anyway. We went to the “Bongs,” the domes of Insu Bong and Suninbong that rise like stone bread loaves above Seoul, and are just 45 minutes from the noodle shops downtown. The Bongs, as I found, had boulders, short routes on outcrops and climbs up to 700 feet long. In the West an area such as this would have been on untold magazine covers. Indeed, the crags were well used by locals, but had seen few visitors outside Chouinard, and the ethics were rooted in the old ways. Climbs still had some aid. Difficulty didn’t get much beyond 5.10. T HE ME MBE R S OF Yoon and I were to climb a fiveC L UB HQ L O OK E D pitch route on the north side of Insu Bong. A crew of photographers were to A P P R E HE NS I V E LY climb beside us and record this fiasco: AT M Y L A C K It was freezing cold and breezy. The OF A N A L P INE Koreans seemed determined to make R E S UME , BU T this outing into a miserable alpine DE C IDE D T O TA K E adventure for me. At the base of the first pitch, Yoon ME C L IMBING looked at me sternly and said, “I A N Y WAY. guide!” With that, he blasted the pitch and belayed me up. At the belay he asked, “How hard?” My hands were clubbed from the cold and I was stiff as a 2x4. “Not sure,” I said. “Maybe 5.7.” He arranged the rack and again said, “I guide!” and up he went. We repeated the pattern for a few pitches, until arriving at the base of a bolted slab. Yoon led again, but this time he pulled on the bolts. I looked at the slab, felt pretty sure I could free it, and did. When I got to the belay, Yoon was wide-eyed. “How hard?” he asked again. “About 5.11d/.12a,” I said. “You guide!” he said, and handed me the rack.

Upper left: My hosts, at Insu Bong.

Above: FFA of Butternuts. At least, that’s what I called it. The climb was similar to Yosemite’s Butterfingers, but better.


GREAT BRITAIN Above left: Jerry Moffatt at Burbage; a day of bouldering/ soloing and once again getting sandbagged by the master.

Above right: London Wall (E5) at Millstone. A must-do gritstone classic of the era.

Right: White Wall (E5 6b) at Millstone Edge. A testpiece of the early 1980s grit.

IN THE EARLY 1980S the rock-climbing center of the world was the United States. The hardest routes were here—at least as far we Americans were concerned. The only other place with “proper” hard free-climbing was Britain—the natural location for my first overseas trip. I camped at Stoney Middleton, a greasy, damp, polished yet exceptionally popular crag that was the epicenter of Peak District climbing, not only for the climbing, but because of the I ’D JU S T central café where all the daily ME T JE R R Y plans would hatch. There I found a bunch of MOF F AT T. I T talented and motivated climbers. W OUL DN ’ T BE One afternoon my friend Nigel T HE L A S T T IME and I were yo-yoing a small roof with a stubborn move at the lip. HE W OUL D A kid sauntered up and asked to BUR N ME OF F. have a go. Nigel apparently knew the guy and handed over the sharp end. The kid went up, pulled on a hold we’d missed and yarded over the lip. He stood on the secret handhold and it snapped off, though he stayed on. “Well, guess it won’t go that way anymore!” he said. I’d just met Jerry Moffatt. It wouldn’t be the last time he would burn me off.

ASCENT 2015 | 57


AUSTRALIA IN 1983, Ronald Reagan was President, the dollar was strong, and the center of Australian climbing was Arapiles. When I arrived at the Pines, the primitive campground below the massif, I pitched my tent beside a small crew of full-timers. Once the weekend crowd dispersed on Sunday evening, Mark Morehead, Jon Muir, Malcolm “HB” Matheson, Mike Law and others would convene around the campfire. Tea was the beverage of choice. I was the only American, and while W HIL E T HE Y they sometimes grew bored of S OME T IME S climb-speak, no one got tired of GR E W BOR E D OF bashing all things American. C L IMB - S P E A K , NO The insults were never directed at me, rather at our military, ONE GO T T IR E D foreign policy, environmental OF B A SHING record, McDonald’s, Jiffy Lube— A L L T HING S whatever. As long as it was American, it sucked. I quietly A ME R IC A N . listened to this, until the night we switched from tea to beer. Urged on by the malt barley, I couldn’t take the dissing any more. “So, please tell me this,” I said. “Who did your grandfather rape to get sent to this godforsaken prison island?” My outburst could have gone sideways, but everyone just had a good laugh.

5 8 | ASCENT 2015

Upper left: Robin Miller takes on a 5.11 roof at Moonarie, South Wales. It’s a very long drive into the middle of nowhere, but the rock is worth it. Upper right: Glenn Tempest on the fantastic seaside granite of Cole’s Bay, Tasmania. Right: Ordeal By Fur (5.12a/b), a classic Mike Law creation outside Sydney.


CZECHOSLOVAKIA AND EAST GERMANY

Above left: Teplice, Czechoslovakia. Luckily, the jams are solid, since jamming knots in parallel cracks doesn’t provide much stress relief. Above right: Happy Ending, Teplice. Awesome face route with reasonable protection, at least as defined by Eastern European standards of the day. Left: Wolfgang Gullich at the Elbsandstein. I don’t recall the route name, but I’m sure the climb was scary.

IN 1984, I visited the fabled sandstone towers of what was then called Czechoslovakia. I was to meet a couple of English friends there, but they never arrived. English speakers were in short supply. Luckily, the first morning I met a couple of East Germans who knew the area and spoke a bit of English. They let me join them, and I spotted a cool line up an arête with three big ring bolts, each about 40 feet apart. It looked like there were intermediate horizontals where you could also jam knotted F OR S UR E , slings—regular protection and T HIS WA S A BI T chalk weren’t allowed. MOR E T H A N I I climbed up only to find that the horizontals were sloping H A D B A R G A INE D slots that wouldn’t hold knots, F OR , A ND M Y and it seemed like the hardest TS HIR T BE C A ME moves were always right before the bolts. For sure, this was a INC R E A S INGLY bit more than I had bargained S O A K E D A ND for, and my T-shirt became F ILT H Y A S I increasingly soaked and filthy C ONS TA N T LY as I constantly tried to dry my sweaty hands. I don’t recall T R IE D T O DR Y M Y the name but it was something S W E AT Y H A ND S . around 5.12- or so. I was never so happy to see the top of a route. I found out later that I’d inadvertently done an FFA. About a year later, I joined Wolfgang Gullich for another hair-raising adventure, this time in East Germany in the Elbsandstein region around Dresden, where the sandstone towers and ethics are nearly identical to those I’d experienced in Czechoslovakia. That trip was another lesson in squelching fear. The routes were hard and scary, and we still weren’t allowed to use chalk. I always found that most disconcerting.

ASCENT 2015 | 59


U.S.S.R I FIRST MET Todd Skinner in Hueco Tanks, Texas, in 1983. While talking of past adventures and future trips, we agreed on a rock-climbing trip to Russia. Of course, the USSR and the United States weren’t on great terms at the time, and the only way to get permission to climb there was for the American Alpine Club to sanction us as the official U.S. Speed Climbing Team to compete at the biennial event the Russians hosted. Luckily, Jim McCarthy was a friend and president of the AAC, and he convinced the T W O BE L AY E R S board to approve us. It was one of the wackiest things I S IMP LY had ever been involved with (check H A UL E D IN out the dude with the Totes on his feet and the coconut shell on his SL ACK WITH in the upper right photo … T HE IR GL O V E D noggin despite the look, that guy was fast.) H A ND S . T HE Y Ten countries were invited, L O W E R E D Y OU most Eastern European. The only B Y L O O S E NING other “Westerners” were from West Germany and Japan. The speed T HE IR GR IP S routes were single-pitch topropes 165 ON T HE ROP E . to 300 feet long, where two belayers simply hauled in slack with their gloved hands. They lowered you by loosening their grips on the rope. Besides the toprope routes, we also had to do a team ascent of a multi-pitch line. This was led, but the leader was also clipped to a steel-cable “toprope” connected to a winch that cranked in the slack as you climbed—just a precaution, the Russians said, in case someone got careless. Rules? Nebulous, subject to interpretation and lengthy. Somehow, we managed third place.

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Upper left: Route # 1 at the Speed Comp. Make sure not to cross the line. Ten years in the gulag if you do. Upper right: Check out this competitor’s rubber slippers—he was amazingly fast. Above: The much-pleased crowd. Right: Todd Skinner, my fellow U.S. team member.


BRAZIL

Above: Rest days in Rio didn’t suck. Sugarloaf from the beach. Right: Besides bolts, a rototiller would have come in handy. I don’t recall what this climb was called.

WINTER IN NEW YORK in early 1984 was snowy, so I flew to Brazil with my friend Tony Herr. The Rio area had a vibrant climbing scene, with a ton of rock that was similar to Tuolumne, if vegetated. However, it was hot, as in 100 degrees and humid. We settled into a routine of super-early morning climbing, long siestas, climbing late afternoon until dark, partying with the Brazilians, catching a few hours sleep, repeating. Sugarloaf was the biggest formation and easy to access so we decided to put a route up on it. We needed bolts and one of our young Brazilian friends, Marcelo, wanted to be a part of it. He had bolts so he was in. The Brazilian bolt of the time was handmade. It seemed sturdy, but you T HE placed it by drilling the hole (hand drill—no power drills BR A Z IL I A N yet), stuffing a couple of BOLT OF T HE pieces of shredded aluminum T IME WA S can into the hole on either side of the bolt, then H A NDM A DE , pounding the bolt into the A ND rock, using the aluminum S HIMME D as shims. Sometimes WITH this method worked well, sometimes not. S C R A P S OF Our route Birds of Prey A L UMINUM was seven or eight pitches, CAN. up to mid 5.11. We were blasted by the sun, my feet swelled and hurt, and we ran it out to minimize the agony of drilling. At one belay, Marcelo turned to Tony while I climbed high above my last wiggly bolt and said, “I am pretty sure your friend wants to die.” In 2014 in Potrero Chico, Mexico, I ran into Marcelo. I hadn’t seen him since Sugarloaf. He seemed happy, surprised even, that I was still alive.

ASCENT 2015 | 61


_ SIMON CARTER _ AUSTRALIA

photo gallery A SCE NT

Six hours north of Perth in Western Australia, Kalbarri Gorge offers a selection of quality sport and trad climbing on brilliant sandstone. Example: Monique Forestier attempts Kalbarri Gold (26, 5.12c), one of the area’s best and hardest trad routes. The crux is exiting the crack after 25 feet of horizontal roof climbing.


Some say West Cape Howe is one of the best sea cliffs in Australia, but you still usually have the place to yourself. Chalk that up to the sandy fourwheel-drive approach and the adventurous trad climbing. Here, Ali Chapman leads as Ashlee Peeters belays on pitch two of Southern Ocean Swell (12, 5.5). At times, the hammering waves can break halfway up the cliff!


Sydney is home to over 4 million people, yet near its outer suburbs Matthew Brooks, incredibly, discovered (and developed) several brilliant crags including The Hideaway, home to the 75-foot roof Ghetto Superstar (28, 5.13a), climbed here by Sean Powell.


Kate Swain belayed by Chris Swain on Baylac Direct Direct (18, 5.10a), Albany, southwestern Australia. This seaside crag is dominated by the Southern Ocean—its moods can shape your experience. Regardless, be prepared to get wet and salty, and unwind at the inland wineries.


A SCE NT

photo gallery _ PATITUCCIPHOTO _ SWITZERLAND Simon Duverney on one of the world’s most coveted ice routes, the 1,400-foot Crack Baby (WI 6), on the Breitwangflue, above Kandersteg, Switzerland. This route, done by the late Xavier Bongard and Michael Gruber in 1993, is a showpiece, but just one of many fine ice routes in the region that just held its 15th annual ice-clmbing festival. In 2014, Dani Arnold free soloed Crack Baby in 27 minutes, 13 seconds.


Ueli Steck cracks the case of the Pink Panther (M9+), on the Ueschenen, another great mixed crag above Kandersteg.


Duverney at the Breitwangflue. Backstory: Just before this trip, Duverney put his ice axe through his finger. He still managed to climb, but on his first route an ice curtain collapsed, jerking his wrist and dislocating his thumb.


Auréllien Vissiere and the Kandersteg classic, Pingu (WI 5+). This long—four pitches, 700 foot—pure ice line on the Oeschinenwald is steep and sustained, but has good belays.It’s also north-facing and reliable; one of many climbs that make the region Europe’s ice Mecca.


TH E ROC K ORPHANS O F M E K E LE

A C LI M B TH RO U G H E TH IO PIA’ S B ED ROC K

BY NICO PARKINSON

I

jumped down from the bus and hurried out of the station before any street urchins attached themselves to my shadow. Finding a nearby hotel, I dropped my bag and headed out the door. I’d been in Ethiopia just four months and, in such a mountainous country, had made it my custom to get to the highest point above every city I visited, to scan for climbing opportunities. My climbing shoes were always stuffed in my backpack.

GABE ROGEL

Ethiopia’s northern plateau in Tigray is strikingly similar to the desert Southwest, with a proliferation of sandstone towers.

The village of Mekele sits in the high desert in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, just a few hours from the famous Gheralta massif, a world of sandstone towers and rock churches. I reached the edge of town and came across a holy man. With my broken Amharic, I mustered the question: Path to mountain? He may have interpreted my request as more metaphysical than literal, and took me by the hand up a series of steep, rocky roads, walking for some 10 minutes to an Ethiopian Orthodox church. I told him I was looking for dingay, the Amharic word for rock. Spotting an interesting boulder, I bade him farewell. He sat and watched from the church wall. When I reached the boulder, he gestured that it was indeed a dingay. Curious to find more, I walked around a corner, looking back at the holy man. He waved his arms furiously with his sacred book in the air, as if trying to tell me something about the dingays. I immediately came to a half dozen boulders at the base of a 40-foot wall. In seconds, I was surrounded by children who gathered in excitement, shouting the word farenji, or foreigner. There are few moments of solitude in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country. If not following you, asking questions, holding hands and vying for gifts and friendship, rural Ethiopians

could just as easily spend the day staring at you. But that day felt different, and perhaps the holy man had been trying to save me the trouble of dealing with a pack of desperate kids. On the hunt for boulders, I had crossed an invisible line and entered the hectic world of the Mekele rock orphans. They may not all have been orphans by strict definition, but were in my mind, because I knew them, neglected and independent, from every town I had visited. Such children live in small houses of rock and corrugated tin, on the edge of town. Some have no parents and live with relatives, some might have one parent, and some of the boys are already on their own. They sell lottery tickets or shine shoes at an early age but would prefer to stay in school and own books if they could afford it. Their caretakers, if they have them, work unskilled jobs or get by through subsistence agriculture. This crew spent the days playing on the rocks. If they were lucky, they ate one meal a day. A boy wearing tattered pants and an oversized, dusty white T-shirt stepped toward me. He said his name was Samy and he was 12. He grabbed my hand. “Come,” he said in Amharic. The rest of the boys eagerly watched as I followed Samy to a small opening at the bottom of the cliff. He crawled out of


I COULD NO LONGER SEE THE ENTRANCE TO THE CAVE, AND THE TERRAIN ABOVE RESEMBLED A NARROW MOUTH OF CROOKED TEETH LEADING TO AN EVER-TIGHTER ESOPHAGUS.

the sunlight into the rock, and his feet disappeared in a tunnel’s shadows. “Come,” he repeated. Without much assessment, I bent down and started crawling up the ramp leading to the cave. After 10 feet, I reached a chamber where Samy waited. I switched on my Ethiopian cell-phone flashlight and saw that the space was just three feet wide. I assumed this was the end of the cave tour. I looked back down the tunnel, where numerous scrubby-headed rock orphans entering behind us blotted out the light and the rest of the world. Samy pointed up and started climbing. “Come,” he called from above my head. I stuck the cell phone in my mouth and employed my chimneying technique. The walls of the cave were conglomerate masses of rounded stones, frozen in time following an ancient volcanic explosion in the Great Rift Valley long before there were orphans. After another eight feet, I reached the next chamber, where Samy was wedged between the walls, smiling. I could no longer see the entrance to the cave, and the terrain above resembled a narrow mouth of crooked teeth leading to an evertighter esophagus. Suffocating, difficult. I wrestled thoughts of claustrophobia, sought quiet, steady breathing.

8 0 | ASCENT 2015

I looked at Samy and read an adolescent coolness in his beady eyes. He had sat here numerous times. Again, he pointed up and moved. I had to remove the backpack and give it to Samy so I could maneuver through the vertical cavern. After another seven feet I reached a chamber where I could look down, into the darkness where I could hear the voices but see no children. If the rock orphans were after my backpack, this was their time. Samy was just below me. All he had to do was drop it to his friends. Instead, he handed it up and joined me in the chamber. This time he smiled even wider and pointed to a corner of the cave where a faint light filtered through the darkness. “End,” he said. I didn’t know if he meant it was the end for me or the cave, but I was thrilled to see sunlight. The final move—which I will call the birth canal—required worm-like maneuvering. Headfirst, I shifted my shoulders through a 12-inch split. After negotiating the shoulders, I slid my hips through, one at a time, and came out in a small cave perched 25 feet above the ground. I was overcome with happiness and looked back at Samy, whose 75-pound body seemed to dart through the hole. We hugged and shouted our triumph over the top of the city. If the holy

man had prayed for me, his prayer was answered. I struggled to understand the kid, but thought he said I was the first farenji to do this. Among the rock orphans, only two others would follow us through the birth canal, while the rest, too afraid, climbed around the outside and joined us in the cave. Again I was surrounded by 10 children, all smiling and laughing with the curious farenji. The biggest rock orphan wore jeans, had yellow teeth and acted like their leader. As we celebrated, he demanded money. I was charged up after the birth canal and wanted to adopt Samy or at least take him out for injera (Ethiopian bread). Without thinking it through, I handed Samy 10 birr (75 cents), which was way too much for a 12-year-old, but the smallest bill in my pocket. Immediately the rock-orphan bully took the money from Samy and slid it into his pocket. “We’re brothers,” he said in Amharic. I was sure I had made a mistake. Samy wasn’t going to see any of that money. Samy disappeared around the corner and started climbing up the second half of the wall. Apparently I still had to complete the rest of the orphan tour. Out of the cave was a 15-foot face to the top. I decided to put on my climbing shoes. These boys had never

POL CUCALA

Solitude in Ethiopia, a country of 90 million inhabitants, is rare even in the hills.


A ROCK ORPHAN HAD JUST FALLEN FROM THE WALL AND HIT THE GROUND 15 FEET BELOW. HIS BODY SEEMED TO BOUNCE ON THE ROCKS, THEN HE ROLLED ANOTHER 10 FEET DOWN A SLOPE.

seen climbing equipment and were especially mesmerized by the chalk bag and my supply of white dust, which they believed would make hands stick to any surface. I passed the chalk around, allowing them to experience the farenji magic. Amid “oohs” and “aahs,” a multitude of miniature hands all tried to grab as much magnesium as possible. I put the chalk away and started climbing huecos to the top, where I joined Samy. The bully struggled with the climb and arrived sweating and exhausted. He turned to another orphan, showing his hands, clearly complaining that he didn’t have enough chalk. The other kids took the trail to the top. The 10 or so orphans and I mounted a stone wall, formerly used for terracing. I was about to take a photo when I heard a shuffle. Turning around, I saw a rock orphan, who had just fallen from the wall, hit the ground 15 feet below. His body seemed to bounce on the rocks, then he rolled another 10 feet down a slope. The fun disappeared from the air. We climbed down and found him sobbing softly and bleeding from his ankle. I tried to check his spine and head for possible injuries. But his friends quickly picked him up and told him to walk; to them, if he was strong enough to survive the fall, he was strong enough to walk. I decided to carry the boy down the mountain and see if he could limp into the city from there. I picked up the shoeless 10-year-old, who weighed about

8 2 | ASCENT 2015

60 pounds, and slowly marched down the steep mountainside, negotiating small boulders and drop-offs. It was on this terrain that the orphan bully decided to take advantage of his friend’s unfortunate tumble and unbuttoned my back pocket. When I felt his fumbling hands reach into my trousers, I dropped his friend on the rocks. The rock orphan’s second fall produced a hollow thud, followed by a pained sob. “All right, you little fuckers. You’re on your own,” I yelled at them. I chased the long-fingered boy off and threw rocks at him. His friends stared at me like I was a wild animal. I walked along on my own, nonplussed by the situation. On the main path, I stopped two men walking side by side. I explained that a boy was hurt and might need a hospital. The boy appeared on the trail behind me, piggybacking on the back of a friend. One of the men walked up to the child and asked him something in the local Tigrenya dialect. The boy replied with a smile. The man wagged his finger at me, saying nothing was wrong with the boy. A bomb of confusion created a plume of doubt in my head. I wondered if he had a broken foot. Did he really fall? Did his friend push him? Was this part of an elaborate scam to try to rob me? Did I really just slither through a vertical cave and free solo on the heels of a 12-yearold orphan in Northern Ethiopia? Nearing town, I turned and called

Samy to me, walking the last block together. “The rock I like very much,” I said in Amharic. “Thank you.” “Eshi,” he said, a typical affirmative response to anything. Feeling regret for my outburst, I could only think to say: “There are thieves.” “Yes,” he said. “There are thieves.” A rush of empathy washed away my anger. Though he had done nothing wrong, I had blamed Samy, the rock orphans and even all the underprivileged children in Ethiopia. I was also frustrated by the insurmountable poverty—helping one individual seemed inadequate. What I really wanted was to apologize to Samy. Apologize for my reaction, and for him being an orphan; for my having everything and him nothing; but I didn’t know the words. I walked back to the city, regretful, passing street cafes and juice houses filled with Ethiopians enjoying the beautiful day. One month later I was back in Mekele and ran into Samy in a large park downtown. He was wearing the same dusty white T-shirt. I bought him a Fanta and sambusas, and we ate together. The next day I walked past the bus station and saw the rock orphan who fell off the wall. He was limping. The author has spent the last four years in Africa working in the development aid sector. He writes at www.nicoparco.com.

POL CUCALA (LEFT), NICO PARKINSON (RIGHT)

The author, Nico Parkinson, with a young friend. RIGHT: The Ethiopian rock orphans know their way around the cliffs.


REVERSAL OF FORTUNES MAN M EE TS M Y TH M EE TS A S TRO M A N BY B R A D L E Y C A R T E R

I

In Islam, believers must in their lifetimes complete a Hajj, the journey to Mecca. For this mostsacred outing, they walk seven times counterclockwise around the Ka’ab, drink from the holy well, stand in meditation in the plains, stone the devil, shave their heads, and, finally, sacrifice an animal. In Yosemite, believers must visit Astroman. The first pitch, the Boulder Pitch, turns away the weak, the lame and the soft of mind. This is followed by the Enduro Corner, a diamond-cleaved dihedral of His best stone. Infidels go no further. Those who are free of want achieve the Harding Slot, an inverted V of blasphemous proportions. Then, it’s through the gates of the Changing Corners and the Face Pitch. The final flagellations—often on hands and knees—are made while descending the North Dome Gully. Thus unfolds climbing’s pilgrimage. 8 4 | ASCENT 2015

I saw Astroman in 1991 in a rockshoe ad in the first climbing magazine I ever read. The promotion had a photo of a Yosemite Imam named Werner Braun, 35 feet out from the belay on the Enduro Corner. He had half a hand folded delicately, almost lotus-like, in a crack, his feet squeegeed on unseen and possibly non-existent smears. His rope trailed, a gossamer line, to the distant speck of a belayer. The ground was hundreds of feet below. My God! I was 19 and living in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sport climbing was just starting to catch fire there, and you could say that it was a climbing backwater. Still, I vowed to climb Astroman. To train for its 10 pitches I climbed as many ropelengths as I could every time I got to the crag. Often, I’d only hit my mark by begging partners to belay as I lapped routes over and over. By 1996, I was regularly sending 5.12 sport routes and leading 5.11 trad. My only remaining problem, and not an insignificant one at that, was finding a climbing partner. A group of about eight of us went to the Valley that spring,

but no one else was even remotely interested in Astroman. I put a “Partner wanted for Astroman” note up on the Camp 4 bulletin board, and waited for the line to form. This was, after all, Yosemite. Every true believer climbed Astroman. Our group settled into Camp 4. Everyone had a blast climbing and partying except for me. I remained chaste for Astroman and didn’t want to get fatigued on other routes. I soloed a circuit on Swan Slab, worked the Camp 4 boulders and waited for my first qualified Astroman applicant. A week passed and with only three days left on the trip, I began to really get worried. So worried, in fact, I went to the Yosemite guide service to see if any of those dudes wanted to climb Astroman. I’d even pay! To my genuine shock, none of the guides had ever climbed Astroman, nor did they want to. That afternoon I sat at our Camp 4 picnic table listening to a friend tell me about all the rad moves he’d just done. My back hunched and I perched

COURTESY FIVE TEN

The 1991 ad that launched a thousand dreams.


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my chin on both palms, and nodded unenthusiastically. “Yes, yes, sounds awesome.” Then, over my buddy’s right shoulder, I saw a vision of hope. Striding through Camp 4 with a kind of stately air, his magnificent long hair swaying Fabio style, was none other than the German über-man Thomas Huber. I knew immediately it was him. His brother Alex had just freed the Salathé while he had been on the sidelines with an injury. I knew Thomas must be in the Valley to catch up to his sibling’s status quo. If there was anyone who wanted to

Separate Reality. Separate Reality needs little introduction. Although it is only a single 60-foot pitch somewhere around 5.11+, it starts way off the deck with big-wall exposure and has a grab bag of moves. It begins with a burly offwidth layback, to hands, then it’s out the ceiling on thin hands to fingers with a final gymnastic foot-over-the-head flip at the exit. Huber, as I expected, onsighted it in fine style. He lowered, pulled the rope and it was my turn. I tried to beat back my anxiety, but I was nearly unnerved. The exposure I

Again and again he tried to coax the Dart to life until he finally popped the hood. We stared at the engine. Neither of us had any idea what was wrong. Huber let the hood slam shut and we climbed back in. This time the relic sputtered and burst to life. We looked at each other. Huber lifted his Teutonic eyebrows, smiled enthusiastically and we putted off down the road We pulled into the Ahwahnee parking lot, and headed up. Eager to climb and also a bit jittery, I practically sprinted up the trail. When I looked back, Thomas was nowhere to be seen. I sat, huffing

S TR I D I N G TH R O U G H C A M P 4 WITH A K I N D O F S TATE LY A I R , H I S MAG N I FI CE NT LO N G HAI R SWAY I N G FAB I O S T Y LE , WA S N O N E OTH E R THAN TH E G E R MAN U B E R - MAN TH O MA S H U B E R .

climb Astroman, it would be him. Maybe he’d even climb it with me. Without taking time to think about it, I just walked up to Thomas and blurted: “Excuse me, hello, my name is Bradley and I was wondering if you might want to climb Astroman with me?” He tilted his head to the side as if watching an odd and colorful fish in an aquarium. “Yes, vee vill do ziss. For me it’s juss training,” he said. It was a shock. “When?” I asked. “Vee send tomorrow,” said Huber. “Sure. Tomorrow. That’s great.” “I am going to Sep-a-rete Re-al-itee right now,” he said. “Vant to go?” Whoa! I had gone from almost clinically depressed with no hope of climbing Astroman, to partnering with one of the greatest climbers in the world. I snatched up my gear and off we went to the iconic roof crack

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could handle, but I knew Thomas was testing me. If I flailed like a gumby he might change his mind about Astroman. I didn’t onsight, but I didn’t thrash, and pulled off Separate Reality with one hang. We assembled our rack that evening. We’d go light and fast. A double set of cams and a liter of water. No tag line. No rain gear or headlamps. A single Power Bar in my pocket would be it for rations. Retreat would be difficult with a single 60-meter cord. It was still cold in the morning when we ate a quick breakfast and got in the car bound for the Ahwahnee Hotel, the parking spot for Astroman. Huber’s rig was a beat-up 1960s Dodge Dart on loan from Valley local Mark Chapman. The Dart was straight old-school, complete with push-button transmission. Huber hit the ignition but the car just wheezed.

by the trail, catching my breathe, until Thomas, plodding along, steady and sure, caught up to me. Obviously, he was saving his power for the climbing—that is a lesson I never forgot. I could go through a pitch-by-pitch description of the climb, recounting move-by-move details. The struggle, the fear, the glory. But that kind of blow-by-blow bores me, so I’ll just say I was scared as shit. The plan was to swing leads and I got the second pitch, the Enduro Corner. Thomas dispatched the opening Boulder-Problem Pitch and I crimped the slim granite edges up to his stance. Now, I’m pretty methodical about rope management, but Thomas just let the cord fall into a tangled rat’s nest. I stepped politely over the mess—what was I going to do? Call him out up there on the Column? I don’t think so. I took the rack and headed up the

HEINZ ZAK

Thomas Über ... err, Huber.


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Enduro Corner—and hung right away. I did not know then that the start of the dihedral was the crux and that after 15 feet it gets a lot easier and you can stem and rest your arms—just like Werner had done in that old 5.10 ad. I cruised the rest of the pitch after my hang, but my confidence was rattled. Huber took the next two leads. To my great surprise, even he was intimidated by the loathsome, dark and festering bowels of the Harding Slot. As you probably know, your first trip up that thing is a bit intimidating. The Slot just looms up there full of epic stories, and bones of people who got stuck and died, and who knows what else! Thomas screamed and took. Indeed,

other routes, and we hustled down. At one point Huber stopped to lick some mossy seepage on a slab. We arrived at the car in great spirits, eager to get back to camp and spray about one of the world’s great climbs. We settled into the old Dodge Dart ready to relax. The Dart, however, was nearing its end, and we barely got its motor running. We backed out of the parking spot, but as Huber manipulated the push-button transmission, the Dart rebelled. The car thrutched and shook like an old mule that simply refused to budge. Traffic piled up behind us as the Dart convulsed in the lane. Huber pushed it into reverse and, magically, the car backed herself into a parking

TH E S P ECIALIZ E D TECH N IQ U E R EQ U I R E D FO R TH E H A R D I N G S LOT I S O N LY LE A R N E D A F TE R C LI M B I N G M A N Y F L A R E D P ITCH E S O F VALLE Y G R A N ITE , O R TH R O U G H C A R E F U L S T U DY O F TH E K A MA SUTR A .

the Harding Slot has made many climbers cry. The specialized technique required for the overhanging bombay is only learned after climbing many flared pitches of Valley granite, or through careful examination of the Kama Sutra. But Huber was no cry baby. He rallied and battled through the slot. I followed and was so scared I asked him if he would lead all the remaining pitches. “You are climbing well,” he said. That vote of confidence, coming from a Huber, was like spinach to a weakly, withered-armed Popeye. I grabbed the end, tied in and dispatched the Changing Corners and the final Face Pitch. We finished in under six hours and were on top by mid-day. We could have climbed more, but our gamble to go light had left us as thirsty as Bridalveil Falls without a snowpack. The descent down North Dome Gully is long, loose and taxing, yet I knew it well from trips up

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spot, letting traffic ease by. Once again, Thomas pulled the car out of its parking spot and onto the loop road. Inexplicably, the Dart wouldn’t go forward, but it would go backward smooth as silk. Again the famous eyebrows lifted and the big, straight white teeth showed in a smile. Huber had an idea. “Vee go backvards!” he declared and began driving the two miles back to Camp 4 in reverse. In traffic. Driving the speed limit. If you have never driven backward for any length of time, feel free to try it. Huber drove perfectly, his focus intent and unwavering. It was as if we were being pulled by an invisible tractor beam. We must have been quite the spectacle: two extremely thirsty and raggedy-assed climbers in an ancient car going backward through the busiest park in the world.

“You’re crazy! You’re insane!” shouted a woman walking in a meadow. Another tourist staring at the waterfalls through binoculars lowered his magnified gaze to us and shook his head. We pulled into Camp 4, came to a stop, glanced at each other and smiled. We shook hands and said goodbye. Huber, of course, went on to free the Salathé and much more. I went back to the campsite to tell my story about Huber. As you can imagine, nobody believed me. But I wasn’t finished with Astroman. It still needed to be redpointed. It needed to be linked up with other routes. I had to master it. Eventually, I did all that, and I was even foolishly benighted once, ironically making me late for my very first training course as a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR). YEARS LATER, I bumped into Huber again. I was hanging with friends in Camp 4 the night Thomas and Alex celebrated their record-breaking speed performance on the Nose. They had a big bonfire near the YOSAR site and lots of people were gathered around partying and congratulating the brothers. I wondered if Thomas would remember me. He was sitting in a chair, smiling an inebriated grin, content to stare at the fire. I walked over, knelt down beside him and stuck my hands out to absorb warmth from the blaze. After a second I nudged him and he slowly turned his gaze my way. “Thomas, remember me?” I asked. “We climbed Astroman many years ago. You drove that car backwards from the Ahwahnee.” His eyes lit up. “I remember. I remember!” he said and pounded his thigh. “Yeah, that was a good day! Right? You were just learning to climb cracks. Sucking water from moss. The old Dart. But we did it, man. We climbed Astroman. So crazy,” I said. “Yes! Yes!” he said. “None of my friends believed me. They said I was full of it, but now you are here. You must tell them what happened!” Bradley Carter is a musician in Asheville, North Carolina. This is his second feature for Ascent.


DAWN OF THE CLIMBING DEAD

BY DAVE MCALLISTER ART BY LYNN SUYEKO MANDZIUK

Like the reanimation of a corpse, the zombie outbreak snapped to life in a matter of moments. Transnational refugees sought asylum; intercontinental flights stuffed with the bitten spirited the walking dead to every corner of our planet. As the Zombie Wars charge into their second year, updates continue to find their way from the North American Alliance (NAA) to the civilian populace. Using this stream of invaluable information, pockets of survivors have weathered the bloody onslaught and have started to fight back. Transmission 5.14a.V9.C2/WI7.A5 contains information on a wildly dangerous ghoulish subset, the Climbing Zombie. Cobbled together with field research, statistical data and eyewitness accounts, this report gives civilians the means with which to recognize, evade and finally destroy this chalk-dusted corps. The five most murderous classes of the Climbing Zombie Phylum are detailed in the following communique, although countless subsets roam across our annihilated planet, including the ubiquitous Gym Zombie, the bizarre Aid Zombie, the mostly innocuous DWS Zombie and the miserable, sad and crossspecies Slack Zombie. Winston Churchill once said, “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Heed this report. With grace, luck and an overbearing weapons arsenal, you may just survive.

BOULDERING ZOMBIE (BZ) Characteristics: “Lumbering” does not begin to describe the perambulation of this bovine terror. With a convex back of knotted brawn, welded forearms and banded abdominals, BZ cuts the most spine-chilling figure in the Zombie

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Another foolproof escape strategy is to lead Sport Zombie into the elements, notably snow-covered flatlands or areas without cell service or lattes.

Climber Phylum. Add to that a set of mighty jaws fabricated from a lifetime spent spraying beta and you have the bloodcurdling razor wire from which nightmares are spun. Habitat: BZ, because of its gymclimbing background, wanders our land coast to coast, although Middle America seems to offer a modicum of protection against this very aggressive breed. Escape and Evasion: Attempting to escape from the athletic and overwrought BZ via sprint, hike or urban asylum generally ends badly for human quarry. Most successful getaways occur when the pursued seeks higher ground. Ascending over 30 feet up a cliff, no matter the grade, logs a 94 percent rate of survival in recorded BZ encounters. BZ is known to ascend exceedingly technical terrain within 15 feet of terra firma, but generally grows confused and displays odd signs of dread when climbing even one ropelength. Descriptions of the skittish BZ high off the deck include but are not limited to a rapid pistoning of the legs, a high-pitched chatter and ultimately a swift locking of all movement in any direction. Witness any of the preceding behaviors and you are free. Combat and Destruction: BZ’s finetuned reflexes, dynamic power and almost idiotic psychopathy matched with its berserker fighting style make for a terrifying encounter, but survivors of clashes have observed a stark lack of strategic skills. Indeed, BZ, for unknown reasons, is easily confused or otherwise stupefied. One fighting method noted by survivors is the employment of shiny objects—especially traditional climbing gear, even quickdraws—as

tools to engender disorientation and bewilderment. Shaking these charms in front of BZ affects a sort of befuddled daze, culminating in a peculiar shimmy and lurch backwards. This is your moment to attack!

SPORT ZOMBIE (SZ) Characteristics: Possessing many of the skills and strengths of a boulderer and the endurance of a trad climber, SZ seems to defy categorization. Perhaps its most defining characteristic is a relentless focus when chasing human prey. There is, however, one important caveat. Statistics show that SZ abandons the hunt when either the skies gather with snow or heat/humidity levels rise above a certain threshold, wherein it will generally stagger into urban landscapes and fall into apathy until conditions return to a level more amenable to killing. Garb: bro tanks/manpris and sports bras/booty shorts are common, but by no means a hard-andfast dress code. In the wilder Wyoming/Montana killing fields, SZ have been noted to roam the desolation in Carhartt britches and plaid button-downs.

speed to outrun it, a long slow plod with the loping corpse on your heels generally leads to SZ fatigue, usually in under 20 minutes. Another foolproof strategy is to lead this wretch into the elements, notably snow-covered flatlands or areas without cell service or lattes. In a curious aside, during one of the initial SZ mass attacks, over 100 survivors successfully sought refuge in an American Alpine Club chapter house, outside of which SZ wandered aimlessly, attempting to fill out membership cards. Combat and Destruction: A powerful adversary, SZ should be engaged in combat only with great caution. Pulling its shirt over its head to impede vision proves imprudent. Instead, experts recommend attacking the spindly and grossly emaciated legs. Once SZ topples, attack with your full arsenal. Additionally, authorities recommend the use of earplugs when attacking a downed SZ, as the foul creature emits a warbling banshee howl with each failed defensive maneuver.

Habitat: SZ habitat extends from trailaccessible alpine to seaside cliffs, making it the widest-ranging zombie in the phylum. Escape and Evasion: Because this former quickdraw clipper probably “turned” while wearing flip-flops or tight-fitting, downturned climbing shoes, a quick sprint from the ghoul usually leads to safety. Should you lack the

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TRAD ZOMBIE (TZ) Characteristics: TZ, moaning and harrumphing, is the fiercest undead walker you are likely to find wandering our terrorized nation. Ranging wildly, TZ haunts urban locales, craggy hillsides near towns, the wild backcountry and even the most remote alpine ranges. It shambles continually, slow and determined and choleric. One may imagine an easy alliance for such a free-ranging monstrosity with other damned members of the zombie nation. Yet, no. TZ is the most aggressive zombie for those residing outside its classification, regularly attacking other phylum, which may put you at an advantage were you to run into a mingled corpse gathering. Easily recognizable, TZ stands apart from its wrathful brethren. A bevy of traditional climbing gear often hangs from its mangled harness. Occasionally a bandolier, clanking with aluminum, bisects its concave chest. Perhaps a rope remains expertly coiled into a backpack tied onto its stooped back. In the absence of those telltale signs, TZ’s furious face gives it away as the ruthless executioner it is. TZ ranges in age from very young to very old, although the older specimens have been known to attack and sometimes destroy their young. Authorities believe this cannibal aggression harkens back to ephemeral human memories of territorial domination, legacy and hierarchy. Physically, TZ wields some crafty weapons. Although lacking BZ’s raw power and AZ’s (see below) otherworldly endurance, this undead nightmare displays an indestructible will to hunt and destroy—at any cost—making evasion problematic. Many TZ are known to have “turned” with a nut tool in hand, lending the zombie a terrifying weapon linked with muscle memory of yanking, jerking and wrenching, followed by much cursing. Escape and Evasion: A relentless tracker, TZ makes escape and evasion tricky. Leading a rampaging TZ into the realm of another zombie clan

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Many TZ are known to have “turned” with a nut tool in hand, lending the zombie a terrifying weapon linked with muscle memory of yanking, jerking and wrenching, followed by much cursing.

stands as the optimal, though risky, means of escape. Upon discovering it has wandered into enemy territory, TZ grows enraged, altogether forgetting its human prize. Seek your liberation as TZ launches an intra-zombie assault.

Combat and Destruction: Lao Tzu wrote, “The best fighter is never angry.” Unfortunately for TZ, the Tao isn’t on its reading list. Thousands of survivors credit inciting TZ’s fury as a means to elude or destroy it. As noted above, leading TZ into a roiling pit of zombies remains the best method. If you’re caught in a grapple, however, remember that TZ’s wrath will work in your favor. If you have a bouldering pad, heave it down. The rotter will fall on the mat with gnashing teeth and scrabbling claws, rising to its feet only when foam wafts through the air and fabric ribbons cling to its face. If you lack a crash pad, simply sidestepping a storming TZ may cause it to lurch safely past, chomping at nothing but air, such is its single-minded fury. An easy death blow presents itself in both situations.


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ICE ZOMBIE (IZ) Characteristics: IZ, as one might imagine, is the most recognizable zombie terrorizing our world, although encountering one sparks more scientific interest than panic in the human masses. Simply stated, for reasons unknown, IZ generally steers clear of both human and zombie populaces. Ice tools, crampons, helmet, neon pack and heavily tattered Gore-Tex or soft-shell clothing characterize IZ. Many IZ have been seen frozen solid, tangled and dangling from half ropes, sometimes yo-yoing through the jerks of an infected belayer that cannot detach its device. More than any other Climbing Zombie, IZ is pitiable to humans. IZ is often found affixed to frozen waterfalls, unable to work its leashes or clear its tools until it yanks free from both rotten appendage and tool and plunges into the snow and spindrift. Habitat: IZ maintains a tight habitation sphere. Generally, humans encounter this specimen in one of two places: alpine country or high-altitude cragging locales near mountain towns or, sometimes, larger cities. If waterfall ice forms nearby at any time of year, expect

to find this bashful killer crunching through the slush and powder, nose running and sending frothy icicles down its beard-stubbled chin. Escape and Evasion: An easy jog generally allows escape from this plodding pariah. Remember, IZ roams the frozen realms with at least 18 sharpened spikes protruding from its appendages. Ordinarily, these deadly daggers become lodged in any obstacle IZ attempts to climb over, walk through or slither beneath. Combat and Destruction: Despite its plethora of metal spikes, IZ is the easiest of all the climbing undead to dispatch in hand-to-hand combat. In its blood lust to find victims, IZ has likely punctured and lacerated itself over the course of its zombification. This places IZ in acute risk of dismembering itself. You can render IZ harmless by a simple swing of your avalanche shovel, were you clever enough to pack one.

ALPINE ZOMBIE (AZ) Characteristics: The least dormant and most active of all climbing zombies, AZ is a terrifying force when encountered in its natural habitat. Few confrontations end well for hapless humans seeking shelter in the high country. Indeed, the only comfort to be taken is the strange habit of AZ to ignore its own soulless brethren and even human prey. A solitary figure, AZ wanders the mountains dining on small mountain creatures and only attacks when the living cross its path. Habitat: AZ sticks almost entirely to rural landscapes and high mountain vistas. The only noted sightings in urban areas are attributed to the formerly human alpine climber visiting to give a slide show at a climbing shop. Escape and Evasion: There is no escape. The best thing a potential victim may do after confronting this stoic demon is seek seclusion and allow it to lope about the snowy heights. AZ is

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AZ is a mindless spawn bereft of all emotional ties and gifted with the super-human ability to suffer the most nightmarish of landscapes and depravity. a mindless spawn bereft of all emotional ties and gifted with the super-human ability to suffer the most nightmarish of landscapes and depravity. In other words, pray the plagued slayer ignores you. Come to think of it, you probably can’t hide, either. There is only combat and destruction. Combat and Destruction: Since one most often finds AZ in mountainous terrain and seldom surrounded by other zombies, high-caliber weapons are recommended: bazookas, dynamite, depleted uranium bullets. If you have the ability to raid what is left of our former government’s military stockades, do so before heading into the high country. Hand-to-hand combat is not recommended, as AZ retains all the stubborn might of the human it once was. No record of hand-to-hand combat with AZ exists, which stands as a telling statistic. Dave McAllister is a freelance writer and climber living in Colorado.


BY DAVE COSTELLO

Sano Babu Sunuwar tests out the new ultralight wing, smuggled into the country from Malaysia, at Kala Patthar near Everest Base Camp.

THE UNLIKELY EVERESTEERS

BY DAV E CO S T E L LO

HOW AN INEXPERIENCED AND ILL-EQUIPPED NEPALI CLIMBING TEAM MANAGED TO SUMMIT THE WORLD’S TALLEST MOUNTAIN—AND FLY OFF IT

ano Babu Sunuwar looked down at the map laid out on the short table in front of him. A piece of string connected a point on Everest’s summit to one on the mountain’s Northwest Ridge. “Do you think we can make it?” he asked. Ryan Waters, a lanky 37-year-old American climber and professional mountain guide, sat beside Babu, scratching his beard. “It seems like you should be able to do it,” Waters said, his breath rising in the diffused yellow light of their domeshaped tent on the Khumbu Glacier in Everest Base Camp. “The math seems to work.” In his hands, scrawled on a sheet of paper, were rough calculations for Babu and his climbing partner Lakpa Tsheri

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The following is excerpted from Dave Costello’s new book, Flying Off Everest: A Journey From the Summit to the Sea (Lyons Press, 2014).

BALKRISHNA BASEL

S


Sherpa’s anticipated rate of descent from the summit of Everest. If his calculations were correct, Waters reasoned that Babu and Lakpa could launch their tandem paraglider—essentially, a large parachute wing, only with better steering—from the Northeast summit ridge over in Tibet, clear the Northwest Ridge and fly back into Nepal. If he was wrong, they’d hit the sheer North Face of the mountain at 20 to 50 miles per hour. “But I don’t know anything about paragliding,” Waters added. “It’s all good,” Babu said. “It will work.” Since Babu and his friend Lakpa had arrived at Base Camp a month earlier with plans to paraglide off the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, then paddle nearly 400 miles to the Bay of Bengal, they had shared Waters’ camp with him and his crew. Waters was recovering from a recent breakup. He and a 32-year-old New York– based French alpinist and motivational speaker, Sophie Denis, were to attempt the fourth-highest mountain, Lhotse, Everest’s neighboring 27,940-foot peak to the east. “I was there on kind of a personal journey that spring,” Waters says. “I was like, ‘I just want to go to the Himalaya and go climbing, and be away from people.’” When Lakpa showed up with Babu, who had no real climbing experience, and told him that they wanted to become the first all-Nepali team to summit Everest, paraglide from its top and paddle to the ocean, completely unsponsored, Waters just rolled with it.

THE SCHEME AFTER HATCHING THEIR SCHEME just six months earlier over a few beers at the Pokhara Pizza House, Babu and Lakpa had requested permits from the Nepali government to fly off Everest. They were denied even though two other foreign teams had been permitted for the same thing. Undeterred, the two friends hopped on a two-prop plane to the small village of Lukla in the Solu-Khumbu Valley and began the 38.5-mile walk to Everest Base Camp. They had no paraglider (it was still en route to Nepal from the manufacturer in France), no kayak (likewise in transit to Nepal from the manufacturer—in Tennessee), no permits, no camera to film the movie they were supposedly making, and, in Babu’s case, not even some of the basic equipment he would need to climb—

namely, a harness. Babu also didn’t have any money. “He borrowed money from friends— $100 here, $200 there—but didn’t use it at all for the expedition,” Lakpa says. “He gave it to his family. He came with no money.” Before leaving Kathmandu, the two did convince a local outdoor-apparel company called Mountain Blackstone to provide them with full-body down suits, so at least they wouldn’t freeze high on the mountain. Lakpa also contacted his friend Tsering Nima, owner of the Kathmandubased outfitter Himalayan Trailblazer, at the last minute and asked him if he might be able to help. Nima, a longtime friend of Lakpa, told him that Himalayan Trailblazer would be happy to cover the equipment expenses for the expedition, except for the bottled oxygen, which would cost $3,000. Nima also offered Lakpa the use of Waters’ base camp (Nima was outfitting Waters’ team) and promised to send two climbing sherpas to help shuttle loads up the mountain. Nima then called two young low-altitude trekking guides, Phu Dorji Sherpa (Ang Bhai) and Nima Wang Chu—both of whom had climbed only once in their lives—and asked them if they would be willing to join the expedition as climbing sherpas, without pay. Remarkably, both agreed. One week later, Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu were on their way to Everest. Ang Bhai had no climbing gear. “I had to get some equipment from my brother, who works as a climber,” Ang Bhai says. “I didn’t have good shoes. My brother gave me his shoes. They were quite big.” He didn’t have gloves or a helmet, either. Before Babu and Lakpa’s departure, their 29-year-old friend Balkrishna Basel (Baloo, as his friends and family call him), a Nepali tandem pilot working in Pokhara, agreed to carry the paraglider with him to Everest Base Camp and meet them there. The expedition’s cameraman, Shri Hari Shresthra, one of Babu’s childhood friends now living in Kathmandu, would meet Baloo at the capital and accompany him to Lukla and on the trail to Base Camp, carrying the camera equipment for a documentary about the expedition. Baloo took up a collection among their friends and fellow paragliding pilots in Pokhara to help pay for the expedition’s supplemental oxygen. Babu and Lakpa’s

BALOO, A HANDSOME YOUNG MAN WITH GENTLE EYES AND A SOFT VOICE, PUT THE FABRIC WING IN A BACKPACK TO HIDE IT FROM THE POLICE—THEY STILL HAD NO PERMIT TO FLY OFF EVEREST. trip would require, at minimum, 12 fourliter bottles (three per person) at $250 per bottle. They managed to raise $1,250, less than half of what was needed. Lakpa picked up the rest of the tab by selling some of his land outside of Kathmandu.

GEARING UP WATERS’ CAMP WAS SMALL compared to most. Located on the far north end of Everest Base Camp, intentionally on the outskirts, nearest to the start of the Khumbu Icefall, it consisted of a single large, bright yellow dome tent; a cook tent (really just a series of plastic tarps strung over an aluminum frame); and a few smaller, yellow domeshaped tents for individuals to sleep in. The camp was to support five people including Waters, a tiny team compared to the 40-plus-member expeditions nearby, and microscopic relative to the International Mountain Guides (IMG) group of almost 30 trekkers and climbers, and over 70 sherpas and cooks. When Lakpa arrived with Babu, Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu, the size of Waters’ camp nearly doubled. When Waters was told that Baloo and Shri Hari would also be joining them once the long-awaited paragliding wing arrived in Pokhar, he didn’t mind. “It was good for us,” he says. “At least for me—I enjoyed hanging out with them. Most nights we just ate Sherpa stew in the cook tent and drank tea.” He fed off their constant, unyielding enthusiasm. They kept their gear, what little there was of it, in Waters’ large expedition dome tent. It took a few days, but Ang Bhai eventually managed to obtain a helmet and gloves from people leaving Base Camp who either had spares or didn’t want to

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pack the gear out. He swapped his brother’s boots, which had given him painful blisters on the hike in from Lukla, for a pair that fit. There was still the problem of Babu not having a climbing harness, so Lakpa gave him his and donned one of their lightweight paragliding harnesses, which lacked a front tie-in point. Lakpa remedied the problem by attaching two pieces of one-inch webbing to either side of the paragliding harness and tying them together in a knot in the middle. He’d fashioned a crude belay loop for attaching ascenders and a rappel device, although he was unsure if the jury-rigged harness would hold a fall. Every day, Lakpa called Baloo back in Pokhara on his cell phone to check on the status of the paraglider and kayak. For over a month the answer was the same: Neither was even in the country yet. So far they had told no one at Base Camp except Waters and his team about their plans to fly off the mountain. “Their plan seemed to change day by day,” Waters says. “They weren’t really sure what they were going to do.” The first step would be to establish a camp above the Khumbu Icefall, the teetering, 2,000-foot wall of continually moving blocks of ice and deep crevasses that inconveniently open and close without warning. The icefall is the most technically demanding section of the entire South Col route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used to first summit the mountain in 1953. The route follows the Khumbu Glacier up the lower part of the mountain, then cuts up the adjacent Lhotse Face to the snowy saddle of the South Col, to Everest’s Southeast Ridge and, eventually, the summit. From the bergschrund at 23,000 feet, where the glacier begins, the ice flows 2.5 miles down a gently sloping valley known as the Western Cwm, where it cracks and splinters in a fairly manageable and navigable way until it tumbles spectacularly off a sheer cliff, forming the now infamous icefall. It is here that Babu, Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu learned to climb. And quickly. On their first day climbing, in mid-April, Babu and Lakpa found themselves still in the middle of the icefall dangerously late in the afternoon. Babu could hardly breathe, had a searing headache, and had to rest every few feet. Lakpa wasn’t sure what to do. They would need to travel through the icefall at least eight to 10 more times. To minimize the risk they would need to do it much, much faster. Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu were left to shuttle loads up

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BALKRISHNA BASEL

Waters’ base camp at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall.


erdmannpeisker / Robert Bösch

FOR AN ENTIRE DAY GALE-FORCE WINDS BLASTED THE LHOTSE FACE. LAKPA AND BABU’S TEAM HAD TO LEAN AGAINST THE TENT POLES TO SUPPORT THEM SO THEY WOULDN’T SNAP. to Camp I and each succeeding camp. They left the first day at 3:00 a.m., following another group of hired climbing sherpas who were also shuttling loads up the icefall. “The first time I went through the Khumbu Icefall, I was really scared,” Ang Bhai recalls. “Really scared. I didn’t know what’s going on. I didn’t know anything. The whole time, I walked behind other people because I didn’t know the way. I didn’t want to get lost, so I followed them.” After carrying his first load—a single tent—up the icefall in strong winds, he was completely wrecked. “I spent two days after that in Base Camp with a really big headache,” he says. Of the four members of the climbing team, two were suffering severely from altitude sickness. Only Lakpa and Nima Wang Chu seemed to be able to function, even at Base Camp. After they had set up Camp I, they spent four days shuttling even more gear 1.74 miles and approximately 1,500 vertical feet up the glacier through the Western Cwm to Camp II, directly below the Lhotse Face. During the day, temperatures in the cwm soared above 100 degrees, the sunlight reflecting off the snow-white faces of Lhotse, Nuptse, Everest and the Khumbu, turning them into a mountain-sized magnifying glass. Babu and Ang Bhai felt terrible. They were losing weight and having trouble sleeping. By May 15, Babu and Lakpa still didn’t have their paraglider. Babu could hardly walk, but the two decided to push on to Camp III at 24,000 feet and spend a night to acclimate for their eventual summit push. Getting to Camp III requires climbing a steep 20- to 50-degree wall of hard-packed snow and ice. Even though there are several 200-foot-long fixed ropes, Babu was uncertain whether he could make it. His altitude sickness, which Lakpa had kept telling him would go away, wasn’t. Back at Base Camp, Babu asked Waters if he thought he could make it. Waters, not entirely certain himself, but not wanting to upset his friend, told him he thought he could. Babu did climb to Camp III, but on the way back to Base Camp he began to hallucinate, seeing “five ropes instead of one.” Other climbers started laughing at him, he says. They thought he was dancing. Shit, I’m not dancing, Babu thought. I can’t see straight!

GET SERIOUS BACK IN POKHARA, the paraglider they had specialtyordered from a manufacturer in France had finally arrived. Baloo loaded it and himself on a flight to Kathmandu, where he met Shri Hari, a bespectacled, smart-looking Nepali with wavy, slicked-back black hair who had been hired by Babu and Lakpa to make the documentary of the expedition. Once in

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Matterhorn calling. 150 years ago, Edward Whymper and his team made alpinism history by summiting the Matterhorn for the first time. To honor this incredible feat, Mammut and the Zermatt Mountain Guides illuminated the Hörnli Ridge to highlight the route of the historic first ascent. www.mammut.com


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Kathmandu, Baloo and Shri Hari boarded a flight to Lukla arriving in Everest Base Camp four days later. Baloo, a handsome young man with gentle eyes and a soft voice, put the fabric wing in a backpack to hide it from the police—they still had no permit to fly off Everest. After arriving at Base Camp, Baloo and Shri Hari were both stricken with altitude sickness. Baloo developed a wicked headache and a persistent cough. They had gained too much altitude too quickly, hurrying their approach from Lukla to deliver the wing to Babu and Lakpa. According to Baloo, he and Shri Hari had also spent a good deal of time drinking “Sherpa Roxy,” a whiskey-like grain alcohol, during their rush to reach Base Camp. “We were already dehydrated from the altitude,” he recalls. “I think the whiskey only made us more dry.” Happy that their paraglider had arrived, the team spent their last few nights in camp dancing, drinking and playing loud Nepali music out of the small Chinese CD player Lakpa had brought from his home in Kathmandu. According to Ang Bhai, whose patience was beginning to run thin with Babu and Lakpa’s lack of planning and what he viewed as their disregard for his safety, “They were always laughing and singing. They were not serious. I work with French people. I know how if a foreigner is doing a project like this, they are really serious. But Lakpa and Babu are not serious.” Frustrated, scared and nearly desperate, he asked Babu and Lakpa to get serious. “This is not game,” he said. Babu and Lakpa told him to relax. Everything would be fine. Suddenly and unexpectedly, at 9:00 a.m. on May 15, a weather window for summitting was projected for the morning of May 21. Unfortunately, the winds were expected to increase again significantly in the afternoon that same day. Not a good thing when attempting to launch a tandem paraglider. Still, Lakpa and Babu decided this would be the window they would shoot for. They just needed to get to the top and fly to the bottom before the wind started up. “No problem,” Lakpa said. The gear for their final summit push sprawled on the floor of Waters’ dome tent. Seeing that Babu and Lakpa had packed only rice and beans, Waters gave them a few of his freeze-dried

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BALKRISHNA BASEL

Ryan Waters does the math with Sano Babu Sunuwar to see if they’ll actually clear the Northwest Ridge when Babu and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa take off from the summit.


IT WAS THE FIRST TIME BABU HAD EVER TRIED COFFEE. “IT WAS GREAT,” HE REMEMBERS. HIS ALTITUDE SICKNESS SEEMED TO DISAPPEAR ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AND HE PRACTICALLY RAN UP THE REST OF THE MOUNTAIN. meals along with a handful of Snickers bars before they set out from Base Camp. He also gave Lakpa one of his extra pairs of goggles, noticing the experienced guide didn’t have any. After climbing for what they hoped would be their final time through the icefall, with Ang Bhai carrying the remaining few bottles of oxygen and Nima Wang Chu loaded with the paraglider, they spent a night at Camp II. Lakpa and Babu were together in one tent, Nima Wang Chu and Ang Bhai in another. At Camp III the next night, both Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu had to stay in the tents of sherpas working for other teams, as their team of four had only one tent set up at both Camp III and Camp IV. For an entire day gale-force winds blasted the Lhotse Face. Lakpa and Babu’s team had to lean against the tent poles to support them so they wouldn’t snap. Snow piled up, drifting on the tents, which sagged precariously inward. A constant howling and flapping of fabric berated the climbers. They didn’t sleep at all and began using their bottled oxygen to help alleviate their altitude sickness, which both Babu and Ang Bhai were still feeling significantly. Lakpa smoked cigarettes.

tFlyi Flying ng you to Kah Kahiltna iltna Base Camp and beyond tLargest fleet in Alaska tComplimentary bunk house available tIndoor space to sort gear and organize tOver 50 years’ experience

INTO THE DEATH ZONE THE CLIMB FROM CAMP III to Camp IV on the South Col is only 0.8 miles, but it takes three to six hours and reaches 26,300 feet, the Death Zone where humans can’t survive more than two or three days regardless of their acclimatization. Miraculously, both Babu and Ang Bhai started to shake off their altitude sickness. On May 20, Ang Bhai, who had spent the night at Camp II after running loads to the higher camps for Lakpa and Babu, climbed all the way to Camp IV to meet the rest of the team for their summit push scheduled to begin that night. “There was a lot of people,” he says. “I just followed them.” Once all of them were in Camp IV, they huddled in one tent, not sleeping but trying to rest, drinking and eating as much as they could while awaiting sunset. They, like most teams, planned to leave in the middle of the night to avoid the strong winds and storms that typically rake the upper flanks of Everest during the day. Low on food, no one remembered the Snickers, which were now frozen solid at the bottom of one of their bags. They made black tea with no sugar. As the wind howled around them, crows circled overhead, looking for scraps in the otherwise desolate and sterile white wasteland of the

ASCENT 2015 | 1 01

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Sano Babu Sunuwar, Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and Nima Wang Chu prepare the wing for takeoff on the Northeast Summit Ridge.

South Col. By the time the wind died around 10:30 p.m., the team was more than ready to leave. Before departing, however, Lakpa made an extra-strong batch of coffee, as he typically did before every summit push. It was the first time Babu had ever tried coffee. “It was great,” he remembers. His altitude sickness seemed to disappear almost immediately. “I couldn’t keep up with him,” Ang Bhai says. Babu practically ran up the rest of the mountain. After nearly 10 hours of climbing, Lakpa, Babu, Nima Wang Chu and Ang Bhai reached the summit around 8:15 a.m. on May 21. Ang Bhai, who had no expedition mitts, wore thin fleece gloves, soaked through and now frozen. His hands were spared severe frostbite only by a pair of hand warmers given to him before the expedition by his brother, who had lost several digits after working for years as a sherpa. After taking a few pictures of themselves on the summit holding the Nepali flag and photos of their families, Babu, Lakpa, Ang Bhai and Nima Wang Chu walked down the opposing Northeast summit ridge. They stopped on a small, gently sloping snow platform perched between a 10,000-foot drop into Tibet and an 11,000-foot plunge down the Kangshung Face. Here the small Nepali team spent nearly an hour unpacking their paraglider, and waited for the wind to subside.

1 02 | ASCENT 2015

FLYING HIGH CLOUDS ROLLED SLOWLY through the lesser mountains to the north. Babu looked up at a brilliant cold blue sky, feeling suddenly light-headed. It wasn’t just vertigo; he realized he had run out of supplemental oxygen. His body was beginning to shut down. Lakpa, standing in front of him and attached at the waist by a pair of locking carabiners, took his last remaining bottle, which he was using, and hooked it up to Babu’s regulator. Lakpa turned it on full flow, deciding that he wanted the man who would be piloting the paraglider to stay awake during its upcoming flight. They were no longer laughing or joking. Babu, feeling only slightly more coherent, began to pray. During a brief lull in the wind, Babu told Nima Wang Chu, who had been holding the wing firmly to the snow behind them, to lift it up and launch it. Babu and Lakpa took a step forward in unison, toward the 10,000-foot drop into Tibet. The parasail caught an updraft, taking off like a kite. Their feet lifted off the ground. For a moment the two were airborne. Then they crashed, landing exactly where they had been standing a moment earlier. Getting up from the snow, apparently unfazed, Babu yelled over to Ang Bhai, who was roped into the fixed line leading up the Northeast Ridge to the

summit, crouched behind a boulder, holding a small video camera. Babu told Ang Bhai to unrope and help Nima Wang Chu launch the parasail. If Ang Bhai helped Nima, Babu knew, there would be no footage of him and Lakpa taking off from the top of Everest except for what was being recorded on the small GoPro camera dangling from Babu’s left wrist, attached to a stick. He didn’t care. “Run,” Babu told Lakpa, firmly but without yelling. “Run.” After they inflated the wing, an updraft ripping up the North Face launched Babu and Lakpa 50 feet straight into the air—their crampons dangling above 10,000 feet of exposure. The Rongbuk Glacier stretched into the distance nearly two miles below. Lakpa, who had skipped breakfast for a cigarette, and had given his last bottle of oxygen to Babu, couldn’t get enough air into his lungs anymore. As they continued to rise, Lakpa felt an invisible hand tightening around his neck. With what air he had left in his lungs he shouted at Babu, who was desperately trying to control their rapid ascent, “Oxygen! Oxygen! Oxygen!” But Babu’s last bottle was nearly empty—they needed to descend, he knew. Now. Babu pulled hard on the brake lines above his head to direct the wing out of the updraft that threatened to blast them into the stratosphere. Lakpa, now completely out of air, could no longer scream. Then, almost as quickly as they had taken off, they began to drop, the enormous wing above them struggling for purchase in the thin air. Babu flew back toward the summit, passing directly over it. The SPOT Locator GPS they carried registered a maximum altitude of 29,085 feet, making theirs the unofficial highest free flight ever. After dropping below the summit,

PHU DORJI SHERPA

LAKPA, WHO HAD SKIPPED BREAKFAST FOR A CIGARETTE, AND HAD GIVEN HIS LAST BOTTLE OF OXYGEN TO BABU, COULDN’T GET ENOUGH AIR INTO HIS LUNGS ANYMORE.


BALKRISHNA BASEL

Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa and Sano Babu Sunuwar pose with the Nepali flag at Everest Base Camp.

Lakpa regained his breath and began to sing. Loudly. What song, he doesn’t remember. “I sing when I’m happy,” he says. Babu said nothing, focused on flying the parasail in conditions he had never experienced. Still, he did it with one hand, the other holding the telescoping rod mounted with the still-running GoPro camera out in front of him. After flying over the Khumbu Icefall,

Babu turned them southwest, crossing the massive flank of Nuptse, still well above 23,000 feet. They beelined over the summit of 19,049-foot Pokalde Peak, past the snowy ramparts of 22,493-foot Ama Dablam to a narrow patch of gravel known as the Syangboche airstrip. Their crampons scraped against the ground as they landed, still wearing their full-body down suits. They folded up the wing, put it back in a backpack, unzipped their

down suits so they wouldn’t overheat, and walked into town—where they were promptly arrested. All they had to do now to complete their journey was escape the police and continue flying south, 40 miles across the Himalaya—with no provisions, through a series of deep gorges and canyons no one had ever flown a paraglider through—to the confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Sun Kosi Rivers, get in a tandem kayak and paddle nearly 400 miles through Class IV and V rapids of the Sun Kosi, to the slow, wending silt-laden channels of the Ganges River, through India and the great mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans to the ocean. That Lakpa couldn’t swim and had never paddled a kayak were minor details—the climbing at least was over. A former Rock and Ice intern, Dave Costello is an Alaska-based writer and photographer, and a contributing editor at Canoe & Kayak.


B ECAUSE IT ISN ’ T TH E R E BY DAV E PAG E L

O

One day I’ll sit by the fire and write Of my much-envied life as a brave alpine knight. With a glass at my elbow that’s brimming with port, I’ll gather the chapters to file my report: Accounts of the Tower, El Cap and the Eiger, Of a boy from the plains—then a man—then a tiger! Who prowled the crags like a beast on the stalk, And bagged mighty routes tho’ he never used chalk. But when I review all my mountains and glories I’ll sigh ’cause there’s one thing that’s not in these stories; Though my climbs are diverse, my résumé’s shy— There’s a hole in my list nearly six miles high! Despite all the summits I’ve set down in print, The one people want is the one that I didn’t… And that’s why the Public won’t give me a look, The fact that Mount Everest is not in my book.

“But wait!” I will say, “I’ve got rats on the Nose! I’ve got falls on the Matterhorn, Canyonland woes! There are tales of Alaska, Scotland, the Alps, Of ropes that yank teeth and climbs that take scalps! I’ve partnered with doubt, known fear in excess, Shed tears on the Grand—and the Eiger? Oh yes! Been bombed on the Dru without getting scratched, Escaped from a canyon (with both hands attached!), Nearly trampled by elephants, drowned on a wall, I’ve survived forest fires and a 90-foot fall. I’ve had climbs melt away while I’m miles o’er the scree, Did I mention the Eiger? Twice before? Now it’s three! And here’s something else: I’ve chummed with Steve House, Petzoldt, MacInnes and Heckmair and spouse. Shaken hands with Bonatti, belayed other Greats, It’s all in these pages—and more here awaits!” “Well that sounds impressive,” the Public will say, “But who is Bonatti? And what is ‘belay’

1 04 | ASCENT 2015

And where is the stuff that we love to hear? ’Bout a team that’s assembled from folks far and near, Some are ex-models and some are just jerks, But you’re all very rich or you’ve mortgaged the works For a two-month ascent of the ultimate tower (Tho’ the Sherpas fix ropes to the top in an hour), And your Guide calls the shots from Camp Mission Control. Where a fistfight breaks out with some climbers from Seoul. Who keep jumping the queue on the route to the Col, But you all work as one after somebody’s fall, Then finally, up top, sucking gas in a swarm It all goes to hell when you’re slammed by a storm!! These are the stories that thrill and amaze, We can’t get enough of this Everest craze!”

“Now look,” I will counter, “you really must see That there’s more to this sport than is shown on TV! Great mountaineering is not just the highest, The fact is, the media’s Everest-biased! There are other hot climbs that could sizzle a Geiger, For example, a peak that the Swiss call the Eiger—” “No thanks,” says John-Q, my entreaty is nixed, There’s a news-alert flashing! Attention is fixed On breaking reports coming out of Nepal: Our reporter is live at the scene of the fall! … And so I will sit with my wine by the fire And a stack of rejections from publishers higher Than all of the pages ’bout mountains I’ve penned, Without Chomolungma ’twas moot in the end, Despite all the years and the effort it took, F***ing Mount Everest is not in this book!! David Pagel is author of the new collection Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber on Classic Peaks & Among Legendary Mountaineers.


PHOTO CAMP

ISSUE 213 | OCTOBER 2013

Summer 2015 the h

M O U N TA I N O F D O U B T U E L I S T EC K ’ S S O LO O F A N N A P U R N A C O N T E S T E D

PHOTO ANNUAL

What:

ZACH MAHONE, MARTINA ZANDONELLA, JEFF RUEPPEL, JASON KRUSE, DAVID CLIFFORD

ISSUE 221 | OCTOBER 2014

p.60 DURA DURA

WHAT IT TOOK TO SEND THE HARDEST CLIMB By Andrew Bisharat

N D PAIN p.70 HAND COULD UL LD BE AIN N IN N A PAIN EC THE N NECK

By Dr. Ju Julian ulian Saunders

p.32 SHARMA

IS THAT GOOD. IS HE REALLY THAT NICE? By Niall Grimes

HUNDREDS OF ROUTES, DOZENS OF CRAGS

THE ONLY THING OURAY IS MISSING, IS YOU

The Rock and Ice Photo Camp is an intensive clinic and the only one of its kind. Under instruction from climbing’s leading photographers and Rock and Ice editorial staff, student photographers will learn how to bring our visually dynamic sport to life through the viewfinder.

Get Published: As a benefit, students will shoot for a feature to be published in Rock and Ice—the two covers shown here were taken by students.

When: June 23-26. More info: www.rockandice.com/photocamp

Location: High Alpine Rock at Hagerman Pass, CO.


vis ion B ENJ I FI N K AN D TH E S HAPE S H I F TERS O F M E XI CO BY J E FF JACKSO N

LAST NOVEMBER my dear friend and climbing partner Benji Fink died in his sleep in Vail, Colorado. Apparently, he just drifted off peacefully, exactly the way he lived. He was 44 years old. Despite not having hung out with Ben for over a year, I can honestly say that he was more than a friend, more like a brother—such was his openhearted and loving nature. This tall, burly sportsman, who lived to hunt, fish, bike, ski and climb, was raised in North Texas, close to where I grew up. Gentle, wholesome and patient, he was beloved by animals and children. Women also seemed to gravitate to his easygoing demeanor, wry humor and soft-spoken Southern accent. I once wrote that Benji could sweet-talk the panties off a nun, and it’s true, but the relationships never seemed to last beyond that inevitable moment when his inamorata would ask, “What’s next?” In a world of anxious people, all scrambling to advance toward some imagined horizon and goal, Benji was truly content with his life as it was, whether he was working at a paint store or fixing up condos in a ski resort. While others struggled for security, Benji was simply looking forward to getting up at 3 a.m. and killing some ducks, bouldering at Wolcott, and then, hopefully, taking a nice nap. That complacency didn’t sit well with a string of girlfriends who wanted … well … a little show of ambition, probably,

1 06 | ASCENT 2015

COREY RICH

La Popa, a 900-foot limestone massif near Mina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Locals call the north face, shown here, El Gavilan (The Hawk.)


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that stands out most in my memory took place sometime around 1995, in a little ejido called Los Remotos, about an hour into the Chihuahuan desert near Mina, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

Benji Fink starting up pitch 8, 5.12d.

or maybe just a commitment. At his packed memorial in Vail, a group of local women stood up and spoke about how much they were going to miss old NCB—NonCommittal Benji. Though I know Benji died in the way we all hope to check out—painlessly, happy with life, in his sleep—I haven’t gotten over the fact that he’s gone, and I doubt I ever will. I think that’s because Benji was a touchstone of sanity for me, like a rock in a sea of whitecaps. I’d been swimming in the rough waters of life for a decade, striving, but it was a comfort to know that Benji was out there, possibly taking a nap. Another reason I’m so broken up about Ben’s death is that he was a character in some of my most important memories, and, as everyone knows, the stories of our lives are the bricks with which we build our true selves. Now, literally overnight, Benji’s gone, and somehow this big piece of me has disappeared with him. A couple of weeks after Benji died, his mom, Donna, e-mailed to suggest I write something about him. Knowing how much Benji loved his mama, I couldn’t refuse, but so many stories came to mind: Canoeing in the icy predawn darkness to Benji’s Secret Spot on the Colorado River, stomping out a duck blind and getting our limit of pintails; playing the “waving game” in the 1990s in Rifle, where we’d sit by the road and wave at famous climbers as they drove out of the canyon just to see who was cool and who was an asshole (so many “non-wavers” back then); but the story

1 08 | ASCENT 2015

O

ne day, way out in the desert digging up peyote to use for … medicinal purposes, Benji and I spotted a huge stone prow in the distance, flanked by steep gold and gray limestone walls, standing a couple of thousand feet above the cactus scrub like a massive schooner of the gods. “Damn,” Benji said, “we ought to climb that thing.” And so—skipping for the time being our uncanny encounter with a truck full of federales who appeared like a nightmare and searched our car, found the peyote, inexplicably wished us a buen dia and let us go—a plan was hatched. We talked it over that night with our friends the Gutierrez-Villarreal brothers and discovered that they not only knew of the towering formation—called La Popa, after the poop deck of a ship—but that one of the brothers, Memo, actually worked near the wall, dumping industrial waste. He was decked out in his plastic Hazmat suit even as we spoke, getting ready for work by drinking a few holiday beers called Indios. “Yes,” he said proudly. “We get waste from all over the world. Germany, Los Estados Unidos, Peru, Canada. But this desert is a very strange place. Sometimes the little green men run beside the truck at night and bang on la carga. Oh, yes. And the mummies walk the desert at night, and los naguales … ” “Wait a minute,” Benji said. “What’s a naguale?” “Shape shifters,” Memo said. “They look like regular men but they can change into animals.” “Dude,” Benji said, looking at me with concern in his eyes. “I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said. “Do you?” “Maybe. This is Mexico, man. Weird shit happens.”

Early the next morning, we found the allure of a first ascent to be stronger than our fear of the green men, mummies and naguales, and we packed up our gear, food and enough water for five thirsty days. We also looked around for our bag of peyote, which we planned to eat that morning for … sustenance. When Homero, another of the brothers, ascertained what we were looking for, he brought out several bottles of rubbing alcohol and pointed to the white lumps, like chunks of potato, floating in the liquid. Trying to be helpful, he’d chopped up all our peyote buttons and soaked them in the alcohol. Turns out that the locals had no idea that peyote could be ingested. They used it as a liniment. And so, mildly disappointed, we thanked Homero and told him we’d look forward to rubbing peyote juice on our sore muscles when we returned, then set off in my beater Nissan pickup, following a vague dirt two-track, gunning through lakes of deep dust that shot like geysers across the windshield, rumbling over washboard ruts toward the big prow. The road ended at a place on the map called Los Remotos, which consisted of a red windmill and a cistern of brackish water. After a little wandering we discovered a cave dug out of the dirt wall of a nearby arroyo. A short, slumped, weather-beaten man in dirty black slacks and a filthy tan dress shirt emerged from the cave and mumbled something in a guttural language that might have been Spanish. Using a mixture of Spanglish and charades, we learned his name, Luciano Espinoza, and found out that he had access to a mule named Macho. He told us that Macho could, indeed, carry our six gallons of water up the steep talus heaped for a thousand feet to the base of the wall. Luciano disappeared around a bend of the arroyo and reappeared an hour later, leading a yellow mule. We tied our water and a pack of gear to a wooden saddle that looked like the roof of a doghouse and then set out toward the wall. Luciano’s breath was ragged and

GREG EPPERSON

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, WE FOUND THE ALLURE OF A FIRST ASCENT TO BE STRONGER THAN OUR FEAR OF THE GREEN MEN, MUMMIES AND NAGUALES.


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he cursed Macho in the odd, glottal tongue that resembled Spanish, throwing his blown-out huaraches forward like a child trying to toss heavy horseshoes. The sun beat down like a tin hammer and the hill went on and on, ever steepening. Roughly two hours into the hike, Macho backed his hooves to the edge of a 15-foot drop and refused to budge. Luciano cursed and tugged on the reins, and Benji stood behind the mule banging the yellow hindquarters with a sotol stalk. Macho’s eyes rolled white as cue balls, and he reared up, pawing the air with his front feet, then tipped over backwards, plunging into a brace of dagger-tipped agave cactus. We all scrambled down and cut away the saddle. Luciano was moaning, “Es de mi tio! It’s my uncle’s burro!” Amazingly, Macho struggled up and wandered off to crop at some prickly pears. He appeared to be unscathed. “We’ll carry from here,” Benji said. Luciano helped us porter our gear to a little cave made from two boulders just a few minutes from the base of the wall, and as the sun set he took Macho’s reins and prepared to start down the hill. The weather had changed and a thick fog the locals call nieble was swirling like blowing wool. We gave Luciano a headlamp and five dollars (which he tried to refuse), wished him luck and watched until his light disappeared into the fog. Then we busied ourselves setting up camp. About an hour later I was boiling water for Ramen when Benji said, “Dude, turn off your headlamp.”

11 0 | ASCENT 2015

I cut my light. Benji pointed down the hill. I looked and caught my breath in terror. The entire hillside was checked with eerie gold lights. At that time, Mexico was a magical place to us. It had only been five years since we’d stumbled on the massive walls of Potrero Chico, mysteriously rising like a manifestation just a couple of hours across the Texas border, and the country still seemed foreign and strange and not altogether friendly. My buddy Duane Raleigh had made one trip to La Huasteca, a crag near Monterrey, in the 1980s, and the police had robbed him at gunpoint three times in one night. More recently, on an exploratory mission to a big 800-foot plug-shaped massif called Cerro Gordo, Benji and I had found an orange stone with these words scraped into the patina: A Todos Los Gringos Que Pasan Aqui, Matanlos. ¡Ver! which, roughly translated, means: To all those gringos that pass here, they kill them. Pay attention! And now here we were in Los Remotos, Mexico, looking down at a troop of lights marching toward us to … what? We debated urgently in coarse whispers. “What the fuck?” “I don’t know.” “What do we do?” “Are they coming to kill us?” “Maybe they just want to say hi.” “Or rob us?” “Or … what?” “Did we eat that peyote?” “No!” “Are you sure?” “Yes!” “What the fuck?!” Benji dug out the binoculars and we took turns scanning the slope. What we saw through the binos was even more

COREY RICH

In 1995 Luciano Espinoza, above and right, lived in a dirt cave he’d dug out of the wall of a dry arroyo.


PICKETS - SNOW ANCHORS - PULLEYS - DESCENDERS - EDGE PROTECTION - CARABINERS - RIGGING PLATES - RINGS Photo by Dean Fleming

COREY RICH

IT WAS DIFFICULT TO DISCERN EXACTLY BECAUSE THE SOUPY FOG OBSCURED THE WALKERS, BUT IT LOOKED LIKE A GROUP OF ABOUT 40 PEOPLE, WITH HUGE ANVIL-SHAPED HEADS AND SPINDLY LEGS, HOLDING LANTERNS AND LURCHING UPHILL TOWARD US. horrifying. It was difficult to discern exactly because the soupy fog obscured the walkers, but it looked like a group of about 40 people, with huge anvilshaped heads and spindly legs, holding lanterns and lurching uphill toward us. We were completely gripped. The wind picked up and the nieble thickened as the walkers approached. Benji and I scurried uphill, leaving our camp strewn and disorganized, and we jammed ourselves into a tight hole in the talus and spent a cramped and uncomfortable night shivering with cold, too terrified to utter a word. The next morning dawned sunny and cool, perfect for climbing. We crawled out of our hole and Benji scanned the slope with his binoculars, handing them to me after a few moments. I took a look and shuddered. No people, but the slope below us was covered in shaggy ponies. “Naguales,” I said. Down at camp we munched on PowerBars and discussed what to do. The wall above looked incredible, impossibly steep, tall and featured with tufas that stood off the rock like Cadillac fins and surfboards. It looked like the kind of climb flatlanders like Ben and I dreamed about during long, hot, sticky, unclimbable Texas summers. And yet, there were those

troubling supernatural shape shifters that might or might not return to murder us in our sleep. To go or stay? Such a conundrum. Benji broke my reverie by shouldering his pack. “Let’s do it,” he said. Of all my memories of Ben, this moment is my favorite because it points to his great attribute: Benjamin Matthew Fink was far from complacent. In fact, he was the gamest man I’ve ever known. I’m sure most people would have turned tail and descended that day. I certainly wanted to. But because Benji wanted to go for it, we ended up establishing perhaps the best— certainly the steepest—big wall free route in Mexico. Last year, 20 years later, Alex Honnold and Josh McCoy made the first repeat of our route, El Gavilan (5.13a, 900 feet) and confirmed its quality. Benji called me and we relived that adventure, and talked about adventures to come. I’m saddened that these plans won’t come to pass, but I’m so grateful for the time we had together. I can only imagine that Benji is enjoying himself somewhere on the other side, hunting and fishing and climbing and skiing and biking and napping. Jeff Jackson is editor of Ascent and Rock and Ice.

ASCENT 2015 | 1 1 1

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PHOTO / Proving that hard climbing doesn’t have to be so serious, Pete “The Banana” Whittaker climbs the feared Master’s Edge (E7 6c/5.12d), Millstone, England. PHOTO BY / Joe Mallia


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Rock and ice may 2015  
Rock and ice may 2015  
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