There are a lot of climbers out there I respect, but all fall short in comparison to Tommy Caldwell. Not because when I told him he should warm up before a photoshoot we were doing he campused a V10 and said “ok, I’m ready”, and not because he’s the most talented, humble, down-to-earth, genuinely nice guy out there (which he is by the way). It’s because time and again Tommy meets the rock on its own terms and through the means of those that came before him. Someone else climbed through this section (via aid) without a bolt? Fine, then I don’t need a bolt either, even if I’m using my fingers instead of aiders. How amazing is that attitude!? It shows respect for the past generations, leads by example for the new generations, and inspires others to take a minimalist and environmentally-conscious approach. Even if you don’t agree with it and want to bolt everything in sight, you have to respect his approach. At least I do. And I try and follow his example in my own way.
Now I do think that aid climbing should give way to free climbing and I am not ethically opposed to adding a bolt to an existing aid line in order to keep the free climbing within a reasonably “safe” range (although let me clarify that I do not agree with a unilateral “let’s bolt this to make it a clip up” – you know the difference I’m talking about). But Tommy just goes up El Cap and clips bashies and manky beaks and peckers and takes monster whippers a thousand feet off the deck and I am floored. First off most climbers nearly wet themselves even rappelling a fixed line or aiding a splitter one-inch crack on El Cap, let alone taking a lead fall onto aging fixed hardware that was never intended for anything beyond body-weight placements. Some people are inspired and think “I can do that!” and others think “that’s crazy!” but it’s hard to really know until you try it for yourself.
OK so I’m not trying to free the Dawn Wall or any other new route on El Cap, but I do enjoy freeing other aid lines, from longer, more involved projects on the Diamond to single-pitch cragging routes around Boulder. I enjoy trying to think like an aid climber (because I’m not one – I’m terrible at aid climbing. Just ask Andrew Burr.) and trying to see the line as they see it. I enjoy taking that vision and then trying to translate it into free climbing – taking an old problem and re-examining it with new eyes, new tools, and a different approach. I like the work that goes into it because hard work strengthens who a person is fundamentally and I value things I worked hard for more than things that came easily to me. I enjoy becoming a part of that route’s history, yes somewhat egotistically, but it’s much more than that. I enjoy becoming a part of the narrative – feeling like I belong to a larger community that spans generations and includes people I’ve never met. I am in some respects tied to those individuals for the rest of time.
That’s the romantic part. But the blog title is not “Why Freeing Aid Lines is Amazing”. Because like any truly good homeric saga, there must be a dark side. Yes it’s hard work, but it’s often alone. You tirelessly hump multiple racks of cams and several ropes up the hill to rig anchors and mini-traxion the line by yourself so that way you only need a partner for “the send” because otherwise no one is willing to belay you on it, especially multi-pitch projects. Ever slog 80 pounds eight miles through the dark at 2am by yourself to then peer over a 1,000-foot cliff at sunrise by yourself? It’s breathtaking – but frickin’ scary. But not as terrifying as rigging the fixed line and then committing to leaning over the edge for the first time all by yourself. I don’t know why it’s different. But it’s different. And if it’s your first time inspecting the route and you’re dangling 40 feet out from the wall, while a gentle breeze twirls you around on your thin spindle of nylon, you can’t help but get a little lump in your throat and grip the rope just a little tighter. But that dark side is just in your head. Build a solid anchor and there’s nothing to worry about. The real battle is when you tie into the sharp end, whether it’s a ground-up attempt or a rehearsed, headpoint-style ascent, there’s generally a reason why an old line hasn’t been freed yet. It’s hard and more often than not, the gear is not always straightforward or even good, if present at all.
For the past few months, I’ve been working two aid lines out at the Turkey Rock area, but abandoned one to really focus on the other – the king line on Turkey Rock itself: Turkey Challenge. At 330 feet tall, it tackles the proud upper headwall of the south face, sitting front-row-center on the tallest part of the cliff. A mellow pitch follows the start of the iconic and well-protected Turkey Shoot to a big roof, then branches left into a different crack system. When the crack dies out I’ve been building a gear anchor where I believe the FA party originally did. But I combine the next two pitches into one since I couldn’t find anyone willing to do a hanging belay from the two fixed pins in the horizontal – especially since one is only halfway driven in.
But above and below this hanging belay is an incipient seam sporadically protected by archaic bolts with homemade hangers – the best combination. Buttonheads and star drives, quarter inchers and rusted out wedge bolts. And it’s not the crux that really gets to you, which boils down to a 15-foot V7 to V8 vert slab problem kind of thing above RPs, offset Aliens, and an old bolt. No, what really gets you is the unprotected 40-plus feet between the last bolt and the belay ledge. Yes the climbing eases, but not until you’re fully committed to a 5.11 slab with the last bolt well out of sight and your belayer out of ear shot, so that extra slack they gave you to make sure they don’t pull you off ensures you go whizzing by them before coming to a hault (if the bolt holds of course).
When my leg quakes on those “easier” moves to the point that I feel like I’m going to shake myself off the route entirely, making the worst case scenario that plays through my head come true, I really wish for a bolt. And on an obscure line like this, with a poorly-drawn printed topo to boot, I know no one will know I added one. But I think of Tommy taking bigger falls than I’m even risking taking and doing it hundreds of feet higher off the ground than I am, and I find the fortitude to climb onward and to do so by the means of those that came before me. It can be debated whether or not this has the community in mind as not many people will climb a route with such a long runout, but for now, I’m content to meet the rock on its terms and honor the ascents of the past. Is it right? I don’t know. Is it better to add bolts and make the route more “accessable”? Depends who you ask I suppose. Today I’m just thrilled to have made it through unscathed.
So what’s next? Not totally sure, but first thing’s first. I gotta track down the first ascent party and invite them out for a beer to share our experiences and continue the route’s narrative. After all – they saw the king line long before me and they had the balls to establish it ground up (with some really committing and mandatory 5.11 climbing between pieces). I hope they get as much of a kick out of hearing about my ascent as I do hearing about theirs. And I hope that continues as someday others also get inspired enough to try and climb the line and want to tell me about their experience. Let’s keep the story going.