Have you ever wanted to put up a first ascent, or even free an old aid line to establish a first free ascent? It can be intimidating – where do you even begin?
For me, finding the line itself is easy. As a giant climbing nerd, I love pouring through old guidebooks, reading descriptions, looking at photos, and generally trying to get inspired for the next big adventure. However, I also have a distinct advantage over most – I’m a good friend with the person most likely to know about new routes and old aid lines that could go free – the guidebook author.
When working on laying out Richard Rossiter’s new guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park, I had read all the previously published guidebooks and spent hours scouring photos from Richard, drawing in topo lines etc. Repeatedly I would ask him if he thought a certain aid line could go free or if an unknown line or feature was climbable. Again and again the overwhelming “yes” responses has surprised me. Last year I freed a route on Longs Peak ground up and onsight at only 5.8! There were a few giveaways that it would go free and it would be moderate. First – it was first put up in the 1960s, before the free climbing revolution. It was a time when climbers were simply looking to get up a route using any means necessary and “style” meant little to them. Second – it was obscure so it probably had been overlooked this whole time. Third – the aid rating. A1 or A2 in the 1960s looks very different than those aid ratings today – and typically they were clean cracks that took bomber pitons etc, which meant climbable cracks rather than today’s A1 bolt ladders over blank faces.
With my eye on those three criteria, I had yet another route on the list, this time on the Ship’s Prow. But once you find the line, then what? The trick is to find a partner, and more importantly, the right partner. Tony Bubb was the first person I seriously climbed with when I moved to Colorado and he’s been a trusted, beloved partner for more than 10 years. He’s got all the right makings of a great FA and FFA partner – he’s reliable (you’d be surprised how many climbers aren’t), I trust him implicitly, whether that means holding the rope or anything else, he’s got a cool, analytical head on him, he has zero ego, is an all-around nice guy, and I thoroughly enjoy his company. Plus, he agreed to go check out this route with absolutely no information about it… because I had none. I told him what the guidebook said and that was good enough for him.
We got to the base just after sunrise and Tony cast off on the first pitch, linking into the second as well. With so little information on big alpine routes sometimes, it’s funny how you can still follow the original route. Sometimes there’s clues, like in our case the plethora of fixed pins running up in a row, or that the line of weakness seen by climbers in 1962 is the same as what we see in 2015, all reaffirmed by finding all the vague landmark references in the original description, such as dihedrals, ledges, etc.
I climbed the third pitch to the old piton belay and thought about pushing on and linking the next pitch too, but the idyllic side of me took over as it was too hard to pass up the dining room sized belay ledge, complete with bomber gear anchor and a flat, debris-less ledge I could lay down on. Tony on the other hand loves to stretch a rope out and linked the next two pitches to the summit, which involved about 40 feet of simul-climbing. All in all the route was sort of disappointingly easy as far as that sort of thing goes, but you never know unless you go! The route name, Half Day’s Work, lived up to its name and we topped out just after 10am. We had a great time, scoped out more new route potential, and got a good look at a few other aid routes (one won’t go free so that at least saves me some sleepless dreaming).
Think this was a fluke? I don’t think so and experience supports it. Just look at the FFA on Longs Peak at 5.8 by way of example. The surface has barely been scratched in RMNP – lifetimes of routes are waiting to be done. Have you picked up a copy of the new book yet? Tons and tons of clues are in there about existing aid routes that will go free and beautiful color photos of cliffs showing you what features are still waiting for your imagination to grab hold and go explore. I already have my FFA picked out for next summer. Want to join me?
– Jason Haas