Category Archives: Flashback Series

Flashback Series #4: Freerider – The Forgotten First Flash of El Cap

By Mark Anderson

Every so often somebody asks me for beta on Freerider. Freerider is a ~35-pitch ~5.12d free route up the Southwest Face of the world’s premier granite wall: El Capitan in Yosemite. Mike and I climbed Freerider in Team Redpoint* style in May 2004, making the 9th ascent of the route and becoming the 24th & 25th people to free El Cap. Many of the details of that ascent have faded from my memory, but I do remember a few key events and specks of beta, which I will try to capture here for those who are interested. This is not an exhaustive trip report or accounting of every aspect of the climb, but a summary of my general recollections, followed by whatever random details of beta I was able to extract from various emails sent between 2009 and 2016.

*Team Redpoint style means both climbers free every pitch, taking turns in the lead, with the leader onsighting, flashing or redpointing and the second following free.


El Capitan. Freerider more or less climbs the clean pillar of right just right of the vertical shadow on the left end of the cliff.

We climbed the route “ground up”, meaning we climbed all the pitches in order, and we didn’t rappel in from the top to inspect any of the climbing or stash equipment. We did return to the ground twice, once after climbing up to the start of the Hollow Flake traverse (~pitch 14?), and again after climbing up to the big broken ledge below El Cap Tower (~pitch 19?), so that Mike could fly home to Salt Lake City to take final exams for his Master’s degree in Robotics. Once Mike returned to the Valley, we jugged to our highpoint, and then climbed the rest of the wall in a single 3-day push.

Easily the most notable aspect of our ascent was that Mike accomplished it WITHOUT FALLS! Mike climbed from the ground, to the summit, without a single fall, without rehearsal. This fact has been largely forgotten (or ignored?) due to the fact that in 2002 we aid-climbed the Salathe Wall, so “technically”, Mike’s ascent “doesn’t count” as a proper Flash*. I’ve always found that rather tragic. I was with Mike for every pitch of both ascents, and although I can’t deny my biases, I can attest that our Salathe aid climb in no way benefited what was for all practical purposes the first Flash of El Capitan. At the very least, it was unquestionably the first “Unrehearsed No Falls Ascent” of El Cap, which admittedly, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but was certainly a major milestone in the history of free climbing.

[*Perhaps to a lesser extent Mike’s accomplishment has been overlooked because we were climbing in Team Redpoint style, so Mike wasn’t leading every pitch—however, this was the common, accepted style at the time, as it is today, and the most natural way to climb a long free route—the tactic of dragging a full-time belayer along is far more contrived. Furthermore, Mike led all the crux pitches in my opinion—the Monster OW, the Huber Variation to the Teflon Corner, and the second pitch of the Dihedral.]


Mike traversing out to the start of the Monster Offwidth on Freerider, May 2004.

For my own part, I fell in two spots (the .11c slab pitch above Heart Ledge, and the crux Huber-detour-around-the-Teflon Corner), onsighting or flashing every other pitch. I’m confident I deserved to fall on the Huber detour pitch, but the other fall has always gnawed at me, since it only happened because I foolishly decided to break in a brand-new, out-of-the box pair of climbing shoes on this pitch. I sagged on one of the bolts because my feet were screaming. Had I known I was only going to fall in one other spot I never would have risked climbing in new shoes!

All told, freeing El Cap was one of my proudest moments as climber, and it still makes me smile almost 15 years later. For me it was a graduation. I never really enjoyed climbing in Yosemite but I felt obligated to master it. Virtually all of my big Yosemite climbs to that point had been suffer-fests, for which I was under-prepared and over-matched.

Our Freerider climb was not like that. It was tough for sure, but we obsessed over it, spent months in preparation, and arrived well-equipped for the challenge. The climb itself was joyous, with nearly everything unfolding better than expected and a wave of momentum pushing us towards the summit. Once I stood on the summit of El Cap, having freed 3000+ feet of the world’s premier granite crucible, there was nothing left for me to prove, either in that particular arena or in that style. It “freed” me mentally to focus on my true love—sport climbing.

And now, the grizzly details…

General Thoughts:

  • If your goal is to send the route, you should be a pretty solid 5.13 sport climber, a solid 5.12- granite slab climber, and experienced with off-widths. At the time I did it, my hardest sport send was 5.13b, so its not like you need a huge margin of power like Alex Huber (who had climbed 5.15a when he freed El Cap). It helps if you can send “hard” pitches quickly; I was sending 13b in 3-4 days, or 13a in 2 days or less. Same for Mike.
  • It’s not a crack climb; all the really hard stuff is face climbing (and all the miserable stuff is OW!).
  • Good footwork is paramount, probably more important than good jamming skills. IME, good footwork gets you up big walls. In Mike’s words: “On granite, footwork trumps everything. If you have good footwork, there are footholds everywhere on granite. If you don’t, you’re f-d.”
  • Most of the route is not too bad grade-wise, but there are a ton of 5.10 & 5.11 off widths that sneak up on you. If you’re not solid on OW, they will wear you down really fast. Furthermore, efficiency with trad skills in general and granite cracks in particular will help a lot. The more time, skin & strength you can save on the 5.10/11 pitches, the more effort you’ll be able to expend on the cruxes.
  • It helps to have some experience on El Cap, so you are somewhat used to the idea of being up there, the exposure, and the commitment. If you’ve never done a grade VI route, it’s probably a good idea to spend a few nights on a wall to get a feel for it.
  • You have to maintain a positive attitude. I think that’s why we were successful despite the tremendous odds against us. Our Freerider ascent was easily the most fun I’ve ever had on a wall, not that it was super fun, but we had a great attitude the whole time, and generally things went better than we expected, which made it easy to stay positive.
  • The key to the entire route is to have a solid plan for logistics: how much water/food to bring, etc. It helps to pace yourself, figure out how much effort you need for each day and plan accordingly. I once said “Freerider is 90% logistics, if you have a good plan the climbing is not too bad.” Decide for yourself if that’s true J

Specific Logistics:

  • As I mentioned before, we didn’t rappel in from the top to rehearse or stash anything; we hauled one modest-sized haulbag and a poop tube. We didn’t bring a portaledge; instead we planned our climb to sleep on ledges. We did fix a few ropes though.
  • We really hate climbing in heat, so we planned our days so we could climb all the hard stuff in the shade. That meant a lot of sitting around and some pretty short climbing days. The route has tons of great bivies so its pretty easy to take your time and enjoy it.
  • I have no idea how much water or food we brought, what our rack was, or whether we shared a toothbrush (pretty sure we didn’t bring any toothbrushes).
  • Retreat: We never bailed, so take with a grain of salt, but we did aid the Salathe, so I have some idea of what would be involved if you wanted to aid your way off the route. Aiding the Salathe is a piece of cake if you have to bail before the traverse to Excalibur. I hear Excalibur is a fairly straightforward aid route, but you would want some #3.5 and #4 Camalots (and you’ll probably want them even more if you free it, haha). The crux of aiding Freerider would probably be the traverse from the Salathe to Excalibur, which would not be a trivial aid pitch in my opinion. But, it would probably make more sense to just finish up Salathe if you had to bail prior to the traverse.


  • Pre-Push Day 1 we climbed Free Blast then continued up to the last good stance before the slab traverse to Hollow Flake. We rapped and slept on the ground. (There were somebody else’s fixed lines all the way up to the top of Hollow Flake.)
  • Pre-Push Day 2 we climbed to the alcove below El Cap Spire and fixed our own lines from there back to the top of Hollow Flake, then rapped to the ground again. We took a few days off at this point (Mike had to fly home to take a final exam). We may have hauled a bag and stashed it at the alcove on this day; I don’t remember.
  • Push Day 1 we committed to the wall, jugged and hauled(?) all the way to the alcove. Our plan was to just bivy and start climbing the next day but we were pretty fired up when we got there and had plenty of daylight. Long story short we sent through the Huber variation to the Teflon Corner (we didn’t do the Teflon corner) then rapped back to the alcove very psyched.
  • Push Day 2 on the wall, we sent to the end of the “5.12a” traverse over to Round Table Ledge, then fixed ropes back to The Block and bivied there (thinking we had climbed all the hard stuff and the last day would be a cruise, haha).
  • Push Day 3 we climbed to the summit. That was by far the hardest day. Shit-tons of OW climbing. Pretty much every move, and we were quite tired by that point.

Notes on Individual Pitches (note, I haven’t kept up with all the pitch nicknames or numbers):

  • Hollow Flake Traverse: one of the harder pitches is the slab leading to Hollow Flake. That was the hardest technical climbing we had to do; the rest of the route is relatively steep with bigger holds. Fortunately, you are down-climbing most of the way so you have a toprope. I don’t recall any specific beta, except be prepared to smear a lot. It’s pretty tenuous. The topos at the time were kinda misleading on this pitch. My recollection is you climb pretty far up a ramp to the pendulum point, then you basically traverse (with a small bit of downclimbing) around the arete to a corner with a bomber crack. Then you cruise really far down the crack to an easy traverse into Hollow Flake. The crux is getting to and around the arete to reach the crack. The way Stephen Glowacz originally tried to work it out is not the best way (basically you want to down climb farther than that).
  • Monster Offwidth: At the time Rob Miller gave us a key tip, which I assume is common knowledge now–to skip the Ear Pitch (and the left-wards traverse from the Ear) by heading left earlier, directly into the very base of the Monster OW Crack. The Monster OW itself is just plain suffering, it’s not really hard technically. It’s more of a mental struggle than physical, because it just goes on forever without much to look forward to and progress is very slow. It only has one move, you just have to do that move 200 times, gaining about 3 ” each time you do it. If I ever do that again I would wrap tons of tape around my ankle knuckles. I still have scars on both ankles from that. Of note, according to Rock & Ice editor Dougald MacDonald, Alex Huber apparently quipped that this pitch would never be on-sighted. Well, at least not until Mike showed up, haha. Make sure you have a #6 Friend or equivalent for the Monster Offwidth. Perhaps multiples would be best–we had one that Mike dragged along as he climbed, with lots of are between that and the belay.
  • Teflon Corner/Variation (aka Boulder Problem?): I’ve heard the Teflon Corner isn’t too terrible if you have good footwork, but we didn’t try it. Instead, we avoided the Teflon Corner by climbing the ‘Huber tufa variation.’ Basically its pretty easy climbing to a hard Right-to-Left traverse. Back in the day you could do a huge span to reach a protruding tufa thing, but we weren’t long enough for that, so we had to match on a really small crimp on the face and then bump out to the tufa. I understand the tufa feature broke sometime after our ascent, so since then everybody has had to use what used to be the “short person” beta (the beta Mike and I used). Matching on the crimp was definitely the crux for me. I guess for a while the grade of Freerider was upped to 5.13a because of the tufa break on this pitch (perhaps it still is 13a?). I don’t know if that’s true or if people still climb this pitch (I’ve heard the Teflon Corner has become more popular).
  • Sous le Toit: The pitch to Sous le Toit was really cool, kinda heady but not really hard; perhaps my favorite pitch, I really like that kind of climbing. I recall dealing with some seapage and silverfish in this section above the block, but nothing too bad.
  • Dihedral aka Picture Book Corner: The dihedral pitches weren’t super bad. There was tons of fixed tat, especially in the 2nd pitch, so it was almost a sport climb. For me it was just a frantic sprint against the pump. If you have decent power endurance and can just keep moving you’ll be fine. We did these pitches in the late evening, so it was shady, which I’m sure helped. I led the first dihedral pitch and Mike led the 2nd. I recall a lot of fixed pins, since its kindof flared and bottoming. Considering the length of the pitch he didn’t place much gear (Mike clipped a lot of fixed pieces). I basically lie-backed it. I suppose you could stem, though it was pretty casual for me to just lieback as quickly as possible, then swing around to place gear. Of course the fixed stuff can be clipped from a lieback. Mike notes that he stemmed the 2nd pitch, and felt like there were footholds “everywhere.” He also said he placed a few micro cams on this pitch. For me, it was just a race against the pump, and the first pitch of the corner was the perfect warm up. In retrospect I feel like our desert climbing, especially doing Moonlight Buttress, paid off on this feature more than any other.
  • Traverse to Round Table Ledge: The traverse pitch was really memorable. It’s crazy exposed, because you start in a dihedral where you’re somewhat walled in, then you come around the corner, you can’t see or hear your belayer anymore, and you’re pretty much isolated from the entire SW Face of El Cap; suddenly you’re in a new world, with new views and unfamiliar features. Very spooky! This is another spot where different topos provided wildly different grades (from 12a to 12d), so we didn’t know what to expect. I was pretty intimidated by it since it was my lead, but I actually found it to be pretty easy (physically). It’s just a traverse along a pretty juggy rail. There’s some weaving involved but I’m pretty good at that kind of thing. The gear can be tricky but I remember quite a few fixed pegs. No hard moves, just pumpy and there are lots of rests along the way, so you can take your time and think about things. The rope drag was heinous, so bring lots of slings, though I don’t know if it would really help. We were able to fix from the Round Table Ledge to Sous le Toit with one 60m rope, which was key. That was really committing because we weren’t totally sure we would be able to get back to our bivy without having to “down” climb. This was one of the hardest pitches mentally, so have a plan for reversing this pitch if you get stuck midway through it (like trailing a tag line and/or bringing tiblocs or prusiks). It would be hard to get back on the rock on that pitch if you were to fall.
  • Round Table to the Top: Expect a lot of shitty offwidth (OW). I reckon from Round Table Ledge to the summit is about 500 feet of OW, no joke. To be fair, the climbing is pretty good, the rock is great, the features and geometry are cool, but by that point we were totally over OW climbing, and furthermore we didn’t know it was coming, so it was a pretty big shock. We were just looking at the topo thinking ‘ oh ya, 5.11, 5.10, no problem’. I’ve always been able to thrash my way up stuff so I didn’t think too much about it. We got up everything just fine, but with hindsight I’m sure the route would have been much more fun had I spent the time to work on my OW technique. Specifically, bring at least 2 #4 Camalots for the pitch above Round Table, you won’t regret it! I recall it starting with a thin hand crack that slowly widens to #4. It’s not flaring or weird, just long and enduro.

Flashback Series Ep 3: The First Free Ascent of the Lowe Route in Zion, UT

In December 2004, I (Mike) made the First Free Ascent (FFA) of the historic North Face of Angels Landing (aka Lowe Route). This amazing feature (the N Face of Angel’s Landing) was the premier climbing feature in one of America’s most beautiful National Parks, and yet it had never been free climbed. The route went free at 5.13, Grade V. Here is the story I wrote shortly after the ascent. It first appeared in a forum thread on on Zion Climbing History in April 2005. The photos are all courtesy of Mr. Andrew Burr who worked very hard to take these amazing shots!

The dramatic North Face of Angel's Landing

The dramatic North Face of Angel’s Landing

LoweRTopoClick here to view larger topo.

“How is it going up there?” Is the rhetorical question I get from Ben, my skeptical belayer. His precise inflection indicates that he knows the answer. A long pause results as I face facts: This pitch, these 10 measly feet, simply will not go.

“Uh, it’s not looking good. It’s too steep, and the holds are just too far apart.” I’m severely disappointed, but I don’t have time to dwell on it now. We’re about 1000’ off the deck with another 500’ to go to top out on the Lowe Route, on the N Face of Angel’s Landing, and the hour is getting late. We punch it for the top, freeing what we can, and aiding the rest, and top out just as it’s getting dark. On the summit, Ben consoles me:

“You know, Mike, I wasn’t too psyched for more belay duty on this thing anyway…so to be honest, I’m not too disappointed that it won’t go”.

“Thanks…thanks a lot.” It’s just the tact-less type of consolation that I would expect from my longtime friend. Ben and I have known each other since we were about 12 years old. We learned to climb together, so we’re past the point of polite conversation. Nevertheless, his assessment is too frank for me right now, as I try to hang on to a sliver of hope that I will find a way to make it go. My years of reading mountaineering literature have turned me into a hopeless optimist. In all the classic tales, the brave protagonists always find a way to make it go. Of course, the unsuccessful protagonists don’t get their stories published, so we rarely read about failures.

As we scurry down the trail in the dark I propose possible solutions while Ben kindly shoots them down.

121204.02Hauling gear up “Walter’s Wiggles” – the trail to the summit of Angel’s Landing

“The Hubers used a man-powered rappel, how about a man-powered pendulum?”
“Pendulum to where? There’s nowhere to go.”
“OK, how about a shoulder stand?”
“That would be aid climbing, and besides, who are you going to get to dangle 1000’ off the deck off of those crappy holds belayed by those rusty quarter-inchers? You can count me out.” I decided it would be better to keep my ideas to myself.

My goal, or should I say, my pipe-dream is to free the North Face of Angels Landing in Zion, UT. Despite being the most obvious climbing feature in the Canyon, it had so far remained as the exclusive territory of the aid climber. This was my third recon trip, and it was going well until I hit the bolt ladder on pitch 8. A few weeks before I had rapped down to inspect the upper half of the route, and although I knew the bolt ladder would be hard, I thought it would go, at least there were holds. I was wrong. I was certain that I could free everything but the 10 feet of that bolt ladder; I was instantly enlightened about the frustration of big wall free climbing. You can free 1490’, but if you don’t get those last 10’, you have failed.

I first started thinking about this project last spring. I was driving home solo to Utah after a long trip to the Valley which allowed a lot of time for personal reflection. I had a great trip, met some cool people and reunited with old friends. My twin brother, Mark, and I had just made an all free ascent of El Cap and I had managed to avoid falling on any of the pitches. I didn’t think of myself as an elite climber, but after my unexpected success on Freerider, I decided that maybe I do have an aptitude for this type of climbing. For some reason, the further I am from the ground, the more easily the moves seem to come to me…at least that explains my complete ineptitude at bouldering.

Lowe_routelineThe North Face (Lowe) Route on Angel’s Landging

While in the Valley, I was impressed by the amount of energy there is for free climbing. Prior to this trip I had formed the opinion that the Valley scene stifles progress by ostracizing people with a different vision of the future. This latest trip really opened my eyes to the feverish pace of progress in the Valley. There are a lot of very strong climbers, locals and visitors pushing the limits on climbs all over the valley. Nearly every day I could walk through El Cap meadow and hear about people making progress on various projects throughout the park. I wanted to be a part of that. Because I couldn’t bring myself to the Valley every weekend, I decided to try to bring that atmosphere to Zion.

Zion is ripe for a free climbing revolution. Guys like Doug Heinrich have been trying to motivate people towards that end for some time now, but it’s just now starting to catch on. When my brother Mark and I freed Moonlight a few years ago, there wasn’t a lick of chalk on it, now the crux pitch is perma-chalked. Nevertheless, the route still gets more aid traffic than anything.

Immediately upon my return from Yosemite, I started researching possible routes in Zion. I contacted Brian Smoot, whom I had previously sparred with on the internet. I knew he was a long-time Zion climber and he would have some great ideas. He sent me a great list of potential routes, but I was instantly drawn to the Lowe Route on Angel’s Landing, and have been obsessed with the line ever since….

They say “time heals all wounds”…I don’t have much experience with that, but one thing I do know is that time downrates all cruxes. The further you are from your project, the easier you remember those moves being, and it didn’t take long after that initial recon before I had convinced myself the Lowe Route was worth another shot. Convincing a belayer?…now that’s another thing.

Within two weeks I was back in the Park, hoping to give it another try. I had made plans to meet up with Brian Smoot, and hopefully meet the prolific Dave Jones, but it didn’t come to pass. The first day we were there it was raining. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was heavey-handed foreshadowing of things to come. We were unable to get on the wall, but that wasn’t the point, I just needed to have a look. From the covered bus stop at Big Bend, I scoured the face with my high powered spotting scope and identified enough features to motivate me to rap in from the summit a second time.

121404.28Scouring the face for options…this is how I discovered my 3-pitch variation around the bolt ladder.

The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the solitude of Zion in the rain. At one point we decided it would be fun to try to hike to the south side of the Great White Thrown cross-country from the Mt. Carmel highway. We got cliffed out and didn’t make it to the Thrown, but we did stumble upon a group of desert bighorn sheep that made the weekend worthwhile. Spotting these creatures in the wild is a rare treat because of their keen eye sight. They usually see you well before you see them. In this case, I think they did see us first, but when they continued up the ridge to evade us, they got cliffed out before we did and were forced to face their pursuers.

The next weekend I was back, and forced to sit out yet another day in the rain. Fortunately the excellent sports climbing in nearby St. George had been spared the moisture, and I was able to climb something. That Sunday, my wife, Janelle, and I hiked up Angel’s Landing with several hundred feet of rope. We rapped down about 700 feet to the ledge at the base of the bolt ladder. I had conceived of some other options for climbing the bolted arête, and I wanted to try them with a belayer, if it didn’t work out, I would check out those features I had spotted through my scope. Once again, the arête didn’t work out. It was steeper than I had remembered, and the nearby pinscars were unusable. I gave up on the original route, and decided to focus on those features that dotted the smooth face left of the aid route.

Inspecting a face on rappel for free climbing is a risky proposition. I had done it countless times for the sport routes I had put up, and I knew that there was a very fine line between climbable and impossible. Nevertheless, I thought I saw enough there to warrant putting in the bolts to protect the moves. I put in 9 bolts that day to protect the first pitch of the variation. After two more separate trips spread out over 3 weeks due to the non-stop rain, I finally had all 15 protection bolts in, and 5 belay bolts. The route was finally ready for an attempt….

On the 21st of November, Janelle and I crossed the frigid Virgin River and approached Angel’s Landing. OK, I have to be honest…it wasn’t that frigid. The day before, while killing time in Hurricane (pronounced “herkin” by the local intelligentsia) I stumbled upon some cheap hip waders in the Ace Hardware store. For under $30 you too can cross the Virgin in winter in total comfort! We were at the base of the wall by about 8:00am, and started climbing despite the frigid temps. The predicted high for that day was in the low 50’s – barely warm enough for the hard climbing that lay ahead on this north facing wall. At this hour, however, the mercury was hovering in the low 30’s, and the grass on the approach was still frosty. Fortunately the first four pitches are mellow, and climbing them in this cold weather was manageable.

121404.20Crossing the Virgin River

The first pitch (5.9) climbs a low-angle groove formed by terrible rock and covered in moss…pretty much par for the course in Zion. The protection is seldom and sandy, but I had climbed it twice before and knew what to expect. Pitch two, also 5.9, starts off in an intimidating flaring groove reminiscent of the Poseidon adventure on the Lighthouse tower in Moab. Fortunately, the walls are more featured and the pitch can be climbed with no groveling whatsoever by stemming against the walls of the tight corner. If it is done this way, it is actually quite enjoyable climbing. The next real challenge is pitch 4 which wanders in and out of corners and arêtes to gain the bivy ledge. At one point, a horrible looking off-width is encountered, but it too can be bypassed by face climbing and stemming over it.

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Once on the bivy ledge, the business begins. Pitch 5 is the first 5.12 pitch, and I had hoped to reach it right about the time the temperature was rising. No dice. When we arrived there at about 10:00, my thermometer showed 40 degrees. We hung out for about 45 minutes and then I started up the steep corner. Pitch 5 is a spectacular pitch. It starts out with delicate stemming up a loose chimney feature. Your left leg is stemming against a huge detached flake, while your right leg and hands are carefully picking their way through an overhanging jungle of loose blocks. Fortunately the climbing in this section is only about 5.10+, but the blocky ledge below you keeps your attention. This section is probably the most dangerous portion of the route to aid, where a serious ledge fall is quite possible

121104.17Hauling gear on Pitch 5

121104.40Pitch 6, fun 5.10 Chimneying

About 30’ up, the rock improves dramatically at a good rest. Just above is the crux move which involves entering a steep, right facing corner. An old knifeblade piton is wedged in the crack at the start of the corner. It sticks out 2 inches, and is bent over 90 degrees such that the eye, which should be level with the horizon, is pointing straight down. I clipped this piece for effect, and backed it up with a tcu lower down. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before, so I was nervous about it, but on my recon almost two months before, I had worked out the moves. Entering the corner is the crux of the pitch, and it is made possible by some “thank god” edges on the face. I cranked out the bouldery moves, paused to place a tcu in the crack and pressed on to a good rest. The rest of the pitch involves enjoyable stemming and crack climbing up an Indian Creek-esque corner. I arrived at the belay well pumped and happy to make the redpoint. The temperature turned out to not be a factor.

The 5.10c climbing on pitch 6 went by quickly. It climbs an enormous dihedral through the best rock on the route and the climbing is varied enough that you don’t get bored. For free climbers, this pitch ends at the “Flake Belay”. It’s a detached pancake flake, about a foot wide and 10 feet long that hovers about a foot out from the right side of the dihedral. It’s quite a comfortable belay if you straddle the flake, cowboy–style. Above the flake, the crack is very narrow. Still in the aforementioned massive dihedral, now the crack has pinched to about the size of a #0 Tcu, or about 3/8”. There are a few pin scar pods that will accept more of my fingertips, but the laybacking is still very strenuous. This section is only about 35’ long but it packs a punch.

121104.51The first crux…finger-tip liebacking on Pitch 7, 5.12+

121104.68The crux of Pitch 7

I stood high off the flake and placed a ratty old 0 tcu with a period-piece bit of spectra cord tied in for a sling. I had borrowed this piece from my friend Brian Cabe, and was glad to get it off of my rack as soon as possible. I don’t know when he acquired it, but by the looks of the thing, it must have been a prototype at one time. A few stem moves are possible right off the belay which gave me a chance to place another piece before launching into the do-or-fly lieback. About 10’ above the belay is the crux where the crack pinches down and the smearing wall is as unblemished as a Boulder Trustafarian’s # 4 Camalot. I powered through this section and reached a good tips finger lock right at the point where my foot reached a small divot. The hardest moves were done, but the corner stays steep and strenuous, so I took a deep breath and continued on. At this point, the left wall of the dihedral bulges out creating another crux, amazingly, this bulge happens right at the point where the crack widens enough to stuff all of your fingers in and a bomber # 0.5 camalot. Another rest was had above the bulge, then the last hard moves, protected by a # 00 tcu allow access to the sloping ledge that marks the standard end of pitch 6. I made the memorable 5.7 traverse along the ledge out to the left edge of the dihedral at the base of the “triple roofs” pitch. The first hard pitch was in the bag!

121104.78Getting ready for the crux Pitch 8

The next pitch, the standard “pitch 7” (Pitch 8 on my topo), is the physical and psychological crux of the route. The pitch starts under an inverted staircase feature known as the “triple overhangs”. The pitch was originally climbed via a knifeblade crack where the roofs meet the main wall. These scars have since grown to wide pods from the relentless piton-ing and the extremely soft rock. Above the roof, the crack widens to a seam large enough to accept tiny nuts. This pitch, with its marginal protection, is the aid crux of the route.

On my recon, I had toproped this pitch, and done all the moves, but I hadn’t yet attempted to place the gear on the lead which is an entirely different prospect. Two days before, when I rapped in to place the last few bolts, I had scrutinized the crack and worked out an intricate system of protection. This pitch would make or break the climb, and I feared it would make or break me. I started up the overhang, and encountered the first placement, a #00 tcu in a flaring pod of white, sandy rock. Soon after, I reached a thin vertical crack that accepted a small offset nut. From this shoddy protection, I had to power out some desperate moves to reach the first of 3 fixed bugaboo pitons I had placed previously. As I moved above the offset, it popped out, and fell back down the rope. I immediately lost my nerve and down-climbed to the belay. I made a few more half-hearted attempts, but I was completely psyched out. I decided that the first 7 pitches I had climbed would be adequate for today. We would rap down to the ground, spend the night in the comfort of the motel, and come back tomorrow to finish the route.

121104.83Pitch 8, the technical crux of the route…5.13- liebacking in rounded pin scars over a roof. Oh yeah, the gear sucks too!

The slightly overhanging rappels to the bivy ledge atop pitch 4 went smoothly. From here, it is possible to diverge from the route and rappel straight down the face. Dusk was upon as we cast off down the blank face at about 5:00pm. The second rappel off the ledge is a 50m straight shot down a smooth wall. I was rapping on a 100m static line that I had stashed on the bivy ledge for just such an occasion. I had done this rappel before, so I knew when to expect the next anchor, but I hadn’t used this rope. As I approached the end of the rope, I still couldn’t see the anchor. By now, it was completely dark. By the time I realized my rope was short, I was dangling below a roof. The next anchor was 10 feet below on a sloping ledge. Apparently the 50m rap included the stretch from a dynamic rope.

I dangled in space for a while, completely exhausted and at the end of my rope – literally and figuratively. I thought about trying to prusik back up to the anchor 50m above, and thinking of nothing better to do, I started the process. I had done this a few times before to retrieve stuck ropes, so I knew what to do. Take a shoulder sling, wrap it around the rope a few times and try to keep it from sliding down the slippery sheath. Eventually, I was able to get above the overhang which greatly improved my predicament. About that point, I spotted a tiny ledge about 20’ to my right, and just above me, and I made a beeline for that.

Once established on the ledge, I was able to calm down enough to think of a solution. I tried to yell to my wife up above to reposition the rope so that I could rappel down to the belay on a single line, but she couldn’t hear me. I realized I had a 30’ piece of webbing in my pack, and I figured I could use the webbing to extend the rope. I tied the webbing to each end of the 100m rope, then pulled the rope through so that the webbing section would be above me. At this point, Janelle really started freaking out, as she saw our only rope being pulled through the anchor she was hanging at. Fortunately for her, I knew what I was doing. With the extra 30’ in the rope, I was barely able to reach the lower anchor, and proceeded down to the ground without a hitch.

We just about missed dinner in springdale, but fortunately there was a small Chinese restaurant still open. We gorged ourselves on orange chicken and white rice, then settled into the Bumbleberry Motel anticipating the rest of the climb the next day. We woke up early on the 22nd, and found six inches of new snow….

Things were getting desperate. I had family commitments for the Thanksgiving weekend, and I knew that the next opportunity I would have to try the route would be in December. I was losing hope. With each week, the temperatures lowered as the days got shorter. I couldn’t find partners, and at one point I even resorted to posting an ad on the internet. That resulted in one person who was willing to belay me for one day. We rapped in from the top so that I could work on the crux sections, but the temps were in the 40’s so I wasn’t able to even attempt a redpoint. In between every trip, the constant storms would leave moss and sand on all of the holds, and the hard pitches needed to be re-cleaned. I seriously considered abandoning the project, and waiting until spring, but I was moving to Colorado at the end of December, and I didn’t know if my new job would afford me enough time to complete the route. Word of my attempts was starting to spread, and I worried that another climber might be able to sneak and climb the route before me.

Just as I was about to give up, a high pressure system appeared on the forecast. It coincided with finals week for my graduate program at the U of Utah, but I worked it out so that I could finish my work early, then escape to southern Utah. This was it, my last chance to climb the route this year.

Janelle and I started at 8:30am on December 11th, highs were expected to be in the upper 50’s. For this last-ditch effort, I recruited my friend, and renowned photographer Andrew Burr to join us to photograph the attempt. His presence added some much needed levity to the serious mood of the climb, and gave Janelle someone to talk to. I moved quickly up through the first 6 pitches. The hard pitches of my previous attempt went down with ease, and I felt a surge of confidence as I arrived below the crux triple roof pitch.

I wasted no time in getting started on the menacing pitch. I wanted to keep the momentum going and be well committed on the pitch before I had time to think about it. I skipped the poor nut placement that had popped out and rattled my nerves on the previous attempt. I pulled around the first roof and clipped a #1 bugaboo piton placed in a vertical crack. Hopefully it would hold a fall, if needed. The crux soon followed which requires throwing a foot high onto a slopey foot bump in the midst of a powerful lieback, then trusting your weight to the smear and reaching up for a good pinscar. I clipped another pin, this placed horizontally, which inspired more confidence. The next few moves put me out on the face. The last fixed pin was at eye level, but I had to execute another crux move before I could clip it. With only two fingers crammed in a shallow pin scar, a powerful lieback move is required to reach a square-cut edge that marks the end of the crux section.

121104.88Clearing the roof on Pitch 8

I clipped the last pin, then tried to shakeout on the vertical wall. The hardest moves were below, but I still had 50 feet of runout climbing above me. I paused for about five minutes at the awkward stance. The handholds are good enough to allow alternating shakes, but the footholds are not. I decided to move on when my calves began to pump out. The next 30’ entails delicate face climbing on either side of the thin seam. The seam is typically in one hand or another, but I never have the benefit of seeing straight in to place the gear. The serious nature of this pitch could be easily reduced by pre-placing the gear. I’m sure many future suitors will take this option, but for me it was out of the question, as a matter of principle. I gingerly stuff a nut into a flaring pin scar, then give it a gentle tug to test its worth. My only choice is to clip in, keep moving, and don’t fall.

121104.97Climbing the splitter on Pitch 8, protected by small wires…always exciting in Zion’s Navajo Sandstone. I rated this section 5.12- “R”.

About 15 feet above the last pin, the crack narrows down and gear becomes more difficult to place. At the last opportunity, I placed a blind #3 “Peenut.” With the holds above well etched in my mind, I made the decision to trust my strength and balance, rather than these dubious nuts. I commit to climbing the last hard sequences with the protection that is already in place. Near the top of the seam, 15 feet above the peanut, I am poised to make the last move. My right hand is in an incut finger-tip bucket, and my left foot on a low edge. The object of my desire is a handjam a few feet above, and just out of reach. On my previous attempts, I did this move many different ways, and was unsure of how to proceed. I could high-step my right foot on a sandy, fragile flake and execute the move statically…assuming the sandy foothold remained in place. On the other hand, my right hand was solid, and I was going to a good hold, so why not just…dyno!

121104.109More of the Pitch 8 finger crack.

I latched the hand jam, and let out a scream of relief. In the excitement, I struggled to place a cam in the widening crack, but eventually got it in there. I quickly scampered up the remaining 20 or so feet to the ledge, relieved to finally slay this pitch. It was the most challenging lead of my life.

By this time, it was getting late. Per our plan, we rapped to the ground, and left the remainder of the route to the next day. This time the rappelling went smoothly, even with three of us. We reached the ground at 5pm, just enough time to cross the river in the dusk light, and get some grub.

Having crossed the Virgin several times by now, I had developed an effective procedure. Andy, who has a rebellious disposition in the first place, was new to the operation, and didn’t take kindly to me barking out orders. He decided to cross the river his way, which I must admit, was much more entertaining. My procedure consisted of a few simple steps which should be carried out in a certain order, at certain locations on the river. The issue was that we only had one pair of wading boots, and three people. The first person (me) would wade across, carrying his shoes. The wading location was carefully selected on a previous trip to ensure that water didn’t overtake the boots. Once across the river, I would hike down to another carefully selected location to toss the boots (one at a time) back across the river to the next person.

Andy didn’t like any of this. Just as I was starting into the river I heard the sound of a flying shoe. Andy had decided that he didn’t want to carry his shoes, so he took them off and tried to throw them across, right where I was wading. The problem with this, is that the “wading spot” is shallow, and therefore, wide. The shoe missed the bank by about 5 feet, and began to float down the river, at which point, Andy panicked and chucked his other shoe. This shoe did better, still getting wet, but I was able to grab it before it floated down river to the “throwing spot”. By this time, Andy’s first shoe had floated down to the aforementioned “throwing spot”. Now a good “throwing spot” should be narrow, so that your shoes, or boots make it across the river. The problem with narrow, is that it is also deep. So when Andy jumped into the river, right about where the “throwing spot” is, he was up to his chest in the Virgin. At this point, he was already halfway across, so he continued to ford the river at the “throwing spot”. As I said earlier, his way was much more entertaining….

The next day, we all hiked up to the top of Angel’s Landing. The hike was enjoyable because I was sure this was my last day on the route. The remaining hard pitches were mostly bolted, and although I hadn’t redpointed any of them yet, I felt confident that I could do them. We started later than usual because rapping off the 1500’ high summit onto the shady North Face, is quite a bit colder than starting from the ground.

121204.10Pitch 9, the first of 3 short variation pitches to avoid the bolt ladder. This pitch is awesove 5.12 face and slab climbing.

121204.20Climbing really cool features on Pitch 9.

When we reached the ledge, I started up the 9th pitch, which was the first pitch of the bolted variation. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before either, but I had a chance to climb it bolt-to-bolt the previous week when my friend Josh rapped in with me. It starts off of the left end of the ledge, about 30 feet to the left of the original bolt ladder. The climbing is absolutely amazing, and improbable. Subtle features, which do not at all seem climbable can be linked together with a serpentine series of moves. Right at the beginning, the pitch is most devious, requiring probably more than 30 moves to gain 10 feet, as I climbed back and forth across the bolt line.

The wall eventually rears back to just past vertical, but amazingly the holds improve as well. Above this section, a steep slab with miniscule patina holds allows passage to a small left-facing dihedral, 20 feet to the right. The dihedral contains the crux moves of the pitch. The moves are awkward including a high hand foot match, an arête move or two, and finally a long rock-over to get established in the dihedral. Once in the dihedral, the climbing is straight forward, but sandy, and I was soon perched on a 2’x2’ ledge with a new bolted anchor.

121204.47Slabbing up the top of Pitch 9 – spectacular!!!

121204.62Pertched at the belay below Pitch 10, this is the only photo I have of Andy Burr from this climb.

Pitch 10 is the sports climbing pitch. I had taken to referring to it as the “TA” or “Tom Adams” pitch when I was talking to myself about it. For example, I might say: “Self, what do you think about the TA pitch?” and I would reply: “oh yeah, the TA pitch, that’s pretty sick, Tom would love it, I hope you can do it, self.” I called it the TA pitch for a number of reasons, but mostly because Tom is the best sports climber I know, and he is known for his ability to climb desperately steep routes in places like ‘mercan Fork and Maple.

The TA pitch is unlike anything I have ever seen in Zion, and seems more suited to the steep walls of Red Rocks. From the tiny ledge that forms the belay, the left-facing dihedral continues straight up for about 10’ before rearing back to the left, eventually becoming horizontal about 30’ above the belay. The corner juts out about 2’ feet so that when it becomes horizontal it forms a 2’ roof. The lip of the roof, and the arête formed by the dihedral are studded with incut patina jugs while the main wall of the undercut face is as blank as a Camp 4 denizens’ employment record. This geometry forces the climber onto the overhanging arête for some exciting moves.

This pitch also hadn’t been redpointed, but I had worked out the moves a little bit with Josh. I started up the arête, tried to milk a rest at the second bolt, then clipped the third and committed to the crux. At this point, I was at the roof, and the holds dictated traversing the lip until some holds formed by a vertical crack could be reached. The hardest move requires grabbing a tiny right-hand crimp at just the right angle, placing my right foot high and pressing off in order to reach out to a finger jug at the crack. I made the reach on my first try, and was excited to complete the pitch. I placed my left foot on a block that protrudes out at the lip of the overhang, and pressed my weight onto it. Just as I began the rock-over, I heard a crack, and I was airborne.

121204.77Clearing the steep roof on Pitch 10

During the fall, I didn’t have time to think about my rope sliding across the jagged patina that forms the lip of the overhang, or whether I would be able to get back to the belay. I saw some debris out of the corner of my eye while I made an arcing trajectory under the lip of the roof. When I hit the end of the rope, I pieced together what had happened. That protruding block that my left foot was on had been replaced by a fresh scar, and my optimistic confidence had been replaced by the fear of another wild pendulum-ing fall over the jagged-edged roof. It took me two more tries to redpoint the pitch. Another 13a, I had guessed, but who really knows up here, with nobody to offer a second opinion, and so many other factors to throw you off your game.

Above the lip of the roof, the route follows an intermittent seam that provides just enough clean gear while climbing mostly patina face holds. About 30’ over the roof a small sandy ledge is reached which is about 30’ to the left, and 10’ below the original belay at the end of the original pitch 9, above the large dihedral overhang.

From this stance, we were in no-mans land: A small ledge on a big face, a stone’s throw from the original route, but no obvious means of getting there. This is where the madness of Mike Anderson comes in. This 30’ stretch would make or break the climb, I had known it from the first bolt I placed in this crazy 3 pitch variation. To pioneer crack-less face climbing on the steep walls of Zion is a bit daft in its own right, but to push it for three pitches and hope to regain the original route? Well, that bordered on insanity. The previous two pitches formed a relatively straightforward passage compared to this stretch. The problem is it dead-ends at a stance with seemingly nowhere to go. From this position, it was easy to see why nobody else had made any concerted attempts to free this wall.

But I’m crazy, remember? About 10’ below the stance, a finger tip sized (is that a 0.4 Friend?) horizontal crack shoots out to the right. It reaches for 20’ or so, where it disappears into a series of loose blocks and flakes that are strangely plastered to the wall. Anticipating this escape route, I had placed one bolt along this seam to protect the moves I hoped I could do. When I reached that sandy belay ledge that Sunday afternoon in December I had never even tried this pitch. I thought it would be easier than the previous pitches, so I wasn’t so worried about it, until that day. With the long pitch 9 and 3 tries to redpoint pitch 10 under my belt, I was tired. As Andy said later that day…I had been crimping like a mutha fucka all day long.

121204.126The spectacular Pitch 11, a 5.12 traverse that got me back to the original route.

I left the belay optimistic. If I could send this pitch, I would be done with the hard climbing and the wall would be in the bag. From the belay, I placed a tcu in a flake as far to the right as possible to provide a good toprope for the traversing moves below me. I began by down climbing the last 10’ of pitch 10, to reach the horizontal seam. The seam is decent, providing half-pad crimps on a varying quality of holds. Some are positive some are not. The footholds are virtually non existent. There are a few bumps here and there, but half of them turn out to be just clumps of lichen, and the other half provide only psychological benefit. My first try, I traversed out the seam, practically campussing between moves, not caring to place my feet on the terrible holds. I reached the bolt, about 15’ out, clipped it, and reached over for one of the aforementioned loose blocks when the pump hit me hard and I peeled off, pendulum-ing back onto the bolt.

121204.133Pitch 11 would not go down easy. I took multiple falls and had to dig deep to send.

I worked out some moves and tried again, and again, and again. One other time I made it to the bolt, but the cumulative fatigue of the past few days was piling up, and I couldn’t progress much beyond it. Andy had stopped shooting a while ago as it was getting late and the light had disappeared. I lost track of how many tries I gave that short little section, but eventually I reached a point where I was making less progress with each try and Andy convinced me to pack it in.

121204.134Contemplating my motivations and getting psyched for “one more try”.

I decided to let it go for the night. Andy helped us get back over to the main route and we jugged to the summit, disappointed to have to come back for yet another day.

Monday, December 13th: The third day on the route, and certainly the last. Either I would finish the route today, or give it up. Again we, hiked up Angel’s Landing. This would be the 9th time I had hiked to the summit of Angel’s Landing since I started working on the project in September. By this time I knew there were 29 switchbacks up Walter’s Wiggles and 27 lengths of chain railing on the final stretch above Scout lookout. This would also be my 12th day working on the route, which really under-represents the time I had spent on it. I had come down to Zion on 10 separate weekends, at one point, I came down from Salt Lake 3 weekends in a row and was rained out on every one. I had spent a lot of time in Zion Canyon, and not enough time on the route. This day, the 13th of December, would determine whether or not it had all been worth it.

So far the weather had been amazing. The high pressure system that seemed to be severely lacking in the previous 3 months was hanging around with a vengeance. Andy decided not to come down the fixed ropes with us this time, but to stay on the approach trail and shoot photos from there. He stopped at Scout Lookout, and it was just Janelle and I. We moved quickly down the ropes, hoping to “get it over with”. I was tired from the two long days in a row. My fingers were stiff, and my legs were racked. The steep slab pitches and two treks up the trail had destroyed my calves and jellified my quads. As luck would have it, the last hard pitch didn’t have any footholds, so my tired calves wouldn’t be tested.

We soon gained our perch from the previous night, on top of the new pitch 10, the second of the variation pitches. We were on a small ledge, just a short 40’ pitch away from the original aid route. I desperately wanted to avoid the futile repeated efforts of the night before. My first try would be my best hope for redpointing the pitch. On this, my third day of hard climbing, I knew that each subsequent attempt would be more difficult as fatique set in. I still wasn’t certain how hard this pitch was, as I had never redpointed it, but I felt like it was probably 12c. It was hard to judge from the previous day’s efforts because I was so exhausted. Was I just tired, or was the pitch really hard?

Those thoughts played in my mind as I set off from the belay. I placed the tcu out right under the flake, then began the down climbing…this was my warmup. The moves felt good, and I held deep breaths to relax my mind and body. When I reached the horizontal seam 10’ below the belay, I didn’t hesitate. I set out across the rail deliberately, with urgency, but not panic. This time I placed my feet carefully, but avoided weighting them to the point that they would pop off the shy holds. I could feel the pump building, but as I reached the bolt at 15’ out along the rail I still felt strong. A couple more desperate moves on half-pad crimps, and I reached a loose block with a good incut edge on it.

When I placed the bolt almost a month earlier, I had noticed this block was loose, and marked it with a chalk “X”, that I now ignored. I grabbed the block, and felt it flex, but it held. A couple easier moves and I was perched in an awkward rest, able to alternate handholds to shakeout. I was about 25’ across “no-man’s-land” with 15’ more to go to reach the wide crack of the main aid route, just a few feet over the lip of the large overhanging dihedral. In my intense efforts to free climb the thin horizontal crack, I had been too focused to notice the exposure which now overwhelmed me. I was clinging to a flake that is plastered to a perfectly smooth wall. The smooth wall extends about 15 feet below me, before it falls away into the massive overhang that forms the large cleft in Angel’s Landing.

121304.31Climbing the upper pitches ~ Pitch 12. Andy shot this from the lookout at the top of “Walter’s Wiggles”. The top of the “Large Overhang” is visible near the bottom of the photo.

After a good rest, I continued on. The climbing was much easier, but more delicate, as I navigated through a series of stacked blocks and hollow flakes. A few small tcu’s are available for gear, and at one point I pulled off a brick-sized rock which fell straight down to the ground without touching the wall. Shortly, I gained the main aid line at a hand sized crack, and cruised the 20’ or so, to the belay ledge at the top of the original pitch 9 (my Pitch 11). I let out a modern day yodel (“woohoo!”) and soon heard a response from Andy who had been watching through his telephoto lense from Scout Lookout. Janelle skillfully executed the lower-out from the small ledge, and soon joined me at the original belay.

121304.55Reuniting with Andy near the summit.

I had climbed pitch 10 (my pitch 12) before, way back in October when I first tried the route. I had used a few points of aid that time to speed things up, but wasn’t too worried. The first few moves off the ledge are exciting as a smorgasbord of loose blocks and incipient cracks must be overcome. The best gear is an old bugaboo that sticks out about 2”. I climbed through the blocks carefully, and soon was on better rock about 20’ up. I felt these exciting moves warranted a 5.10+,R rating. The remainder of the pitch is really beautiful. A thin crack that wavers in and out of finger-size splits a smooth wall peppered with incut patina edges. The crux comes at a small roof, just before the anchor. I was surprised by the accumulated fatigue of the last few days, and the 11a pitch felt harder than expected.

121304.46Easier climbing near the top.

The next pitch is an airy 5.8 traverse left, past some fixed mank and a rusty ¼” star-drive bolt from the FA. After 30’ or so, a horizontal crack grows to a sizable ledge that leads into the summit gully. The next two pitches climb un-inspiring rock up the sandy gully where the cruxes seem to be avoiding or surmounting hostile foliage. To make matters worse, Andy had come down the fixed ropes to rejoin us by this time and was nocking down rocks while insisting we slow down so he can snap photos…what are friends for?

121304.68The gorgeous Zion Canyon from near the summit of AL. Little did I know, I would spend a LOT of time here over the next several years!

Before long we were on the summit. For the first time since October, I had topped out before the sun was down, and I was able to soak up some rays for a few minutes before it fell behind the Watchman and the other formations of the East Temple. We had a jovial hike down, the last time I would get to count the chains, and then the switchbacks this year. Arriving at the car earlier than usual, we had our pick of dining establishments, and chose to sample the lifestyle of the “other-half” by treating ourselves to the Zion Lodge Restaurant. This turned out to be a bad idea. They were remodeling the kitchen, and being a weekday during the off-season, they had a buffet going. Cold tuna steak that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for several hours does not make for a good celebratory feast.

121304.79Taking it all in on the summit.

121304.82Celebratign at the Zion Lodge…the first and only time I’ve ever eaten there.

The next day we returned to the Big Bend parking lot, where this journey had started 6 months before when I first scoped the line during a busy Memorial Day weekend in May. We took some documentary photos to help with drawing a topo, and basically stared in awe at the massive wall, genuinely feeling fortunate to live near such a spectacular and fulfilling landscape. Andy headed south, on his way to his next photography job in Hueco Tanks, Texas. I lingered a few more hours, enjoying the freedom of having completed my journey by looking here and there throughout the canyon for that next great challenge. I found myself in the Court of the Patriarchs, in a beautiful meadow that is thankfully off the beaten path. As I gazed up on the three giant walls surrounding me, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a free route or two up there…somewhere.


Flashback Series Ep. 2: The Totem Pole

125 miles off the southern coast of Australia, pummeled on all flanks by the Tasman Sea, lies an otherworldly landscape of temperate rain forest perched upon a mountain of granite and dolerite.  This untamed and rarely visited corner of the world is known as Tasmania, and Tasmania is known to climbers for its fantastic sea cliffs.

The Acropolis, one of many fantastic dolerite peaks in central Tasmania.

The Acropolis, one of many fantastic dolerite peaks in central Tasmania.

The rock upon which the island sits is totally unique within the context of climbing.  Dolerite bears a striking resemblance to the prolific basalt columns of North America, but its plentiful features and gritty texture allow climbing on the sheerest surfaces.  Furthermore, the dolerite exists in towering cliffs of unbroken rock, allowing routes many hundreds of feet in length.  Most noteworthy is the dolerite’s unparalleled ability to withstand the forces of gravity and erosion, resulting in the most formidable and gob-smacking sea stacks on the planet.

The stunning sea cliffs along the Tasman Peninsula.

The stunning sea cliffs along the Tasman Peninsula.

I spent several months in the fall of 2004 traveling and climbing around Australia, and I made a point to visit this amazing land, and try my luck on a few of its infamous towers.  No tower in the world inspires as much awe among climbers as the notorious Totem Pole.   It burst more than 200 vertical feet out of the shark-infested Tasman Sea, supported by a base of stone no more than 10-feet wide.  The angular arêtes of the column corkscrew counter-clockwise as they rise, tilting the upper half of the needle into a precarious overhang.  Any climbers who dare to stand on the tiny ledge beside its base will be engulfed by bone chilling waves from the heaving sea.  The fact that this precarious sliver of stone has withstood the chronic force of the tides, the thundering gales of Cape Hauy–even the pull of the moon’s gravity–completely defies comprehension. shit!  The first pitch starts up the left side of the central arete, traverses the dark gray rock (crux) to reach the right arete, then climbs around the arete to the hidden face, ending on the obvious ledge on the left arete.  The second pitch climbs the left arete and the hidden face to its left.

Ya…no shit! The first pitch starts up the left side of the central arete, traverses the dark gray rock (crux) to reach the right arete, then climbs around the arete to the hidden face, ending on the obvious ledge on the left arete. The second pitch climbs the left arete and the hidden face to its left.

And so, it had to be climbed!  The first ascent was magnificently accomplished with aid in 1968 by the legendary Australian climber John Ewbank.  British hard man Paul Pritchard visited the Cape in the ‘90’s hoping to free climb ‘the Tote’.  After aiding to the summit, Pritchard rapped down the tower to scout for free climbing possibilities but dislodged a micro-wave-sized boulder that struck his head and nearly ended his life (his rescue and painstaking recovery are documented in his book The Totem Pole). In 1999, the great free-climbing protagonist of Australia Steve Monks finally established a free solution to the summit, creatively named “The Free Route” (with two pitches of 5.12b), and eventually an alternative 5.11d first pitch dubbed “Deep Play” (the title of Pritchard’s Boardman-Tasker Award-winning first book).

In 2003, Australian sport-climbing ace Monique Forestier made the first on sight free ascent of the tower via Deep Play.  An on sight of The Free Route had thus far repelled all comers, including Lynn Hill (whose attempt was stymied by a broken hold).  Realistically, I doubt very many people had tried the route since the first ascent.  The Totem Pole is about as far from the beaten path as a climber can get.  It’s located on the extreme end of Cape Hauy, itself isolated from the main population centers at the southeastern tip of the Tasman Peninsula.  Just to lay eyes on the Tote requires a 90 minute trudge (each way) and a fair bit of scrambling.  Few climbers have beheld this magnificent structure, and fewer still have known the feeling of roping up below its base.

Kate, Andrew (Kate’s brother), and I arrived in Tasmania just before Christmas of 2004.  The Totem Pole was our sole reason for visiting, so we headed straight for Fortescue Bay to establish a damp and uninspiring basecamp near our objective.  Our first day on the island was cold and blustery, so we made the long hike to Cape Hauy to get a look at our prey.  Perhaps that was a mistake, because the astonishing view was more than a little intimidating.  We swallowed deep and didn’t talk much on the hike back to camp.  I had climbed in a lot of places–I’d covered a lot of loose ground in the Canadian Rockies and the decomposing volcanoes of the Cascade Range.  I’d summited more than 30 towers on the Colorado Plateau.  But I’d never seen anything like the Totem Pole.  The situation gives the term “remote” a whole new meaning.  We were hours of walking and several more hours of driving from the nearest town, before the age of ubiquitous cell phones.  If a rescue were required, was there even anyone on the island capable of executing one?

Kate's look of skepticism at this moment pretty well says it all.

Kate’s look of skepticism at this moment pretty well says it all.

I decided a few warmups were necessary.  We headed north the next day to try our luck on The Moai, Tasmania’s second most famous sea stack.  The situation on the Moai is far less intense, with a relatively mellow approach, a completely dry belay stance, and a comparatively inviting 5.10- free route to the summit.  That said, it was still an adventure, with a non-trivial approach and a complicated rappel to reach the base.  Andrew was not a climber at the time, but he came along to watch and snap some photos from the mainland.

The Moai sits at the opposite end of Fortescue Bay from Cape Hauy.

The Moai sits at the opposite end of Fortescue Bay from Cape Hauy.

Much to our relief, the climbing turned out to be excellent and within our abilities.  We made it up the regular route with ease, and after a brief rest back on the ground I fired the newly added 5.12a bolted face climb called “Ancient Astronaught” on the tower’s south face.  It was a beautiful day and the experience was perfect.  We could see the Totem Pole looming directly to the south, but with blue skies and a shimmering sea, it no longer seemed quite so foreboding.

Kate and I atop the Moai after climbing Sacred Site, 5.10-

Kate and I atop the Moai after climbing Sacred Site, 5.10-

Climbing Ancient Astronaught, 5.12a.

Climbing Ancient Astronaught, 5.12a.

Cape Hauy in the distance.  The slender tower is The Candlestick, which sits about 20 feet east of The Totem Pole.

Cape Hauy in the distance beyond The Moai. The slender tower is The Candlestick, which sits about 20 feet east of The Totem Pole.

The next day we went exploring.  The extreme southwest end of the Tasman Peninsula is capped by a stunning echelon of dolerite spires known as Cape Raoul.  At that time, there was very little beta about this formation, and only a few established routes.  Getting to them was complicated, involving lots of bushwhacking, rappelling and traversing.  I wanted to explore these spires, but with no time for a bivy our options were limited.  With a pre-dawn start we barely made it to the base of the Power Pole, the most impressive tower at the end of the cape.  We managed an ascent of the Wedding Cake along the way and it was an exciting adventure.  We barely made it back to camp before dark, and spent the next two days recuperating and exploring the surrounding landscape. We were becoming palpably more comfortable in this extreme environment, and the towering needles of dolerite no longer seemed quite so intimidating.

The many-spired Cape Raoul.  The furthest left spire is The Power Pole, and the widest tower (a bit left of center) is The Wedding Cake.

The many-spired Cape Raoul. The two-pronged spire at far left is The Power Pole, and the widest tower (a bit left of center) is The Wedding Cake.

The back towards the mainland from the summit of The Wedding Cake.

The view back towards the mainland from the summit of The Wedding Cake.

Finally it was time.  We woke up early from our soggy tent and began the trek to Cape Hauy.  We were nervous and quiet.  We would have been happy for the hike to take several hours, but before we knew it we reached land’s end.  We had three ropes with us: a 70m to fix for the rappel from the mainland to the base of the Tote, a lead line, and a 30m static line I would use to “tag up” the 70m rap line.  The Tote is almost exactly 65m tall, so getting down, up, and back to shore is no simple matter.  Furthermore, The Free Route spirals literally all the way around the tower, climbing every surface and every arête at one time or another, so it was important to have a rope management plan.  We had ascenders, and with the 70 fixed, we had a good escape route in case we chickened out, so long as none of our cords got inextricably tangled.

Feigning confidence as I begin the descent into the void.

Feigning confidence as I begin the descent into the void.

As I began to rappel down towards the sea, I was completely apprehensive, but my attitude was simply to put one foot in front of the other until I came across a good reason to retreat.  I stopped a few feet above the ocean and watched the water ebb and flow around the base of the tower.  After so many months of wondering, dreaming, I was finally here.  What a wild place to be!

The view to the southwest from the base of The Tote.

The view to the southwest from the base of The Tote.

There’s a nice flat boulder at the base of the tower, about 1 meter square, that provides the perfect belay stance.  Above is a nice bolted anchor, so I secured myself and our gear and told Kate to come on down.  I was fixated on the sea, determined to time the waves so that I wouldn’t get myself and all my equipment dowsed in cold sea water.  That didn’t work!  I made a solid effort, but just before I was prepared to start up a big swell came in and soaked me up to my belly button.  Kate would get much worse; I was only at the base for a few minutes, she was there for nearly an hour, and got nailed by several big swells.  One of the amazing things about Kate is here willingness to support me.  Honestly, I don’t understand it.  My fear sensors were red-lining the entire day, but she was calm and relaxed.  If she had even hinted at the slightest misgiving about our objective I would have gladly retreated, but she never flinched once.

Beginning up the first pitch of The Free Route.

Beginning up the first pitch of The Free Route.

The route starts by turning the arête on the left side of the belay, and then heading up the west face of the tower.  After a few moves, the route returns back to the south face, making a rising traverse to reach the right arête and then the east face.  The crux is this traverse.  Or perhaps, protecting this traverse.

Beginning the crux traverse.

Beginning the crux traverse.

One of the oddities of Australian climbing is the infamous “carrot bolt”.  This is a machine bolt without a hanger that is permanently placed into the rock.  Oz climbers carry around a quiver of removable bolt hangers that can be temporarily placed over these machine bolts, and then clipped with a biner.  The second then removes the biner and the hanger when cleaning the pitch.  It’s a point of ethics to limit the promulgation of bolt hangers, and so Carrots are seen as more bold.  They’re certainly more difficult to clip!  It takes practice to do well.  It’s easy to scrape the hanger off when trying to work the biner onto the hanger, and I routinely dropped one or more hangers on tenuous clips.  It seems an odd place to draw an ethical line, but for better or worse I found myself at the crux, fingers tiring, shoes soaked with water, desperately trying to insert a quivering quickdraw into my last remaining carrot hanger.

The Carrot Bolt: at left is the fixed machine bolt.  The Carrot hanger is in the center, and the entire assembly is shown on the right.

The Carrot Bolt: at left is the fixed machine bolt. The Carrot hanger is in the center, and the entire assembly is shown on the right.

With Kate looking on intently, hoping I’ll be done soon so she can leave the soaking stance, I finally get the bolt clipped.  A few thin crimping moves with small smears power up to a big flat edge.  With the arête in hand I mantle up.  Around the corner I can see a line of good holds leading to a finger crack that would take good gear, and then the belay ledge.  I’ve made it through the crux!

Past the first pitch crux!

Past the first pitch crux!

The pitch ends at one of the all-time great belay ledges.  10 feet wide, five feet deep and perfectly flat.  And perfectly dry!  Relative to the last stance this feels like paradise.  At a distance of 25 meters, suddenly the sea is beautiful again.  Soon I have the static line fixed and Kate is released from her watery prison.  I tow up the 70, which gets caught on the arête in a few places but comes free with a flick.

The final pitch is long, but supposedly easier.  It was almost entirely bolted, and the bolts had fixed hangers.  Somewhere along the line I got the impression the second pitch was significantly easier than the first.  This was incorrect, but I didn’t know that at the time, so I headed up confidently, figuring the send was in the bag.

Beginning the second pitch.

Beginning the second pitch.

The climbing went by smoothly as I danced along the amazing arête.  Nearing the top, I began to notice a creeping pump.  Not yet debilitating, but steadily growing.  I continued on, eyes widening, in search of any form of recovery.  Finally I reached a pair of decent holds and slowly worked the pooling blood out of my forearms.  After one more tenuous move, I mantled onto the summit ledge.  A small tower sits atop this ledge, so I belly flopped onto this block, to ensure I had reached the summit.  I fixed Kate’s line, began rigging the tyrolean back to the mainland, and exhaled a long, satisfying breath.  The Free Route was in the bag, and on sight to boot.

Kate arriving at the summit ledge.

Kate arriving at the summit ledge.

Looking back at the Tote from the Tyrolean Traverse.

Looking back at the Tote from the Tyrolean Traverse.

Kate on the summit ledge.

Kate on the summit ledge.

Kate making the Tyrolean Traverse back to the mainland.

Kate making the Tyrolean Traverse back to the mainland.

Flashback Series Episode 1: TNT!

Happy Cinco de Mayo friends!  Today is an important day for The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, the 37th anniversary of the authors’ birth.  To commemorate the occasion, here is the first in a new “Flashback Series” of tales of past adventures.   The below story was selected because it has a strong “twin” theme that we think is appropriate for our birthday.  The story is based upon actual events, but names have been changed to protect the innocent.  It was written almost 15 years ago and is essentially  unrevised.  We do not encourage or condone the activities described.  That said, we were all young and stupid once.  Fortunately through some miracle we managed to survive long enough to learn from our many foolish mistakes….

Once upon a time there were two boys, named Tommy and Timmy. Tommy and Timmy were brothers, in fact, they were twins. Tommy and Timmy’s parents thought it would be really hilarious if they gave their twin sons names that started with the same letter, and boy, they were right!!

One beautiful winter morning TNT (as they were sometimes called for short—how cute!!) were out cross country skiing in the open wilderness of Northern Utah’s Wasatch Range. Their objective was the mighty, majestic Mount Timpanogos, the highest mountain in the range, and perhaps the most well-known peak in all of Utah.

Timmy was a boy whose mind was constantly filled with dreams of rock and ice. If Timmy wasn’t actually climbing something, he was thinking about it.  And Timmy’s real passion was accomplishing “first ascents”—climbing routes that nobody had ever climbed before. Whenever Timmy had a minute of free time he would scour the backcountry in search of unclimbed routes. Although the mighty Timpanogos had seen countless ascents over the years, no route had ever been established on the remote and domineering Northeast Face [Editor’s note: This is gratuitous unsubstantiated hyperbole, and likely incorrect].  This seemed to Timmy like a perfect objective for him. Unfortunately his usual Utah climbing partner, Tommie, was suffering from an intense case of elephantitous of the testicals, so he would have to find another partner…

A typical TNT First Ascent attempt c. 2000: Unappealing, already climbed, and ultimately aborted.

A typical TNT First Ascent attempt c. 2000: Unappealing, already climbed, and ultimately aborted.  This one was in the Cirque of the Unclimbables.

Tommy, on the other hand, was a boy who mostly didn’t want to die. However, Tommy had a weak spirit and was easily convinced to do things that any idiot could see were not very safe. When Tommy’s brother Timmy explained the unbelievably amazing and awesome new route potential on the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, Tommy had no choice but to whimper, whine, and feign enthusiasm. Tommy had been through this movie before: He knew that sooner or later, his brother would drag him up the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, so he might as well minimize the complaining and just get it over with.

Now although Tommy had traveled extensively in Utah, he didn’t actually live there. And Tommy had never actually seen the North Face of Mount Timpanogos. Some people may consider that a good excuse for Tommy’s decision to go ahead and attempt the route. Most people would think that was just plain stupid. But everyone would agree, that after actually  looking at the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, nobody would actually try to climb it, certainly not by the route Timmy had in mind, and certainly not on a warm winter day with such large quantities of snow accumulated high on the route.

You see, the route Timmy had in mind follows what laymen would call an “avalanche gully.” Well-educated alpinists with extensive experience would call it a “death trap.” Timmy called it an excellent opportunity to get famous really fast…

Tommy flew into the Salt Lake City Airport late Friday night, where he was picked up by his brother Timmy. Timmy’s reconnaissance of the potential route revealed, well, very little. However, it did reveal that an early start would be imperative if it were to be accomplished in a single day. So TNT awoke at some un-godly hour and proceeded towards American Fork Canyon, and the beginning of their adventure. Among the many things that Timmy’s reconnaissance did not reveal, was the exact starting point of the route’s approach. But after a few mis-starts the two youngsters were off.

After nearly three hours of skiing, the sun began to peak over the distant horizon, and trickles of light spilled on to the heavily corniced summit ridge of the great mountain. Throughout the morning’s journey Tommy had strained his imagination for some inkling of what lie ahead. But all his relentless conjuring had revealed was a vague silhouette of the rugged peak.  Finally, with dawn at his disposal, Tommy could see what his thoughtful twin had in store for him.

The northern aspect of Mt. Timpanogos

The northern aspect of Mt. Timpanogos

The first thing the observant climber noticed was that after three hours of skiing, the two were nowhere near the base of the route, and would be skiing for quite a while longer. But the route itself? The route Timmy had in mind was nothing short of magnificent. Actually, on second thought, it was about 1000 feet short of magnificent. You see, the route was basically one to two pitches of beautiful mixed rock and ice climbing followed by roughly 1000 feet of slogging up an enormous trough of snow to the summit.  Apparently Timmy’s extensive reconnaissance hadn’t uncovered much about the last part of the route.

With renewed motivation, Timmy and Tommy returned their attention to the task at hand: several more hours of difficult skiing…

Two hours later, the sun was fully up, and the two lads were nearly at the base of the massive face. The sun was so ‘up’ in fact, that Tommy was wishing he had brought his sunglasses and sunscreen. While packing, Tommy figured he would never need such things, it being wintertime, and since the route was on the North side of the mountain (and therefore not exposed to sunlight). However the approach was such that the last hour or so of skiing would be done on a 35-40 degree snow lope that faced almost directly East, and was warmed by the intense high-altitude sunlight all morning. While traversing the slope, Tommy remarked to himself (Tommy was the sort of nutcase who was always remarking to himself) that he and his brother Timmy were skiing through classic “slab avalanche” conditions. The steep slope, the warm day, and the hard crust of snow were notorious indicators. If not for the reassurance of the current Avalanche Report (which suggested low danger), Timmy and Tommy might have been concerned.

Tommy side-hilling towards the mountain.

Tommy side-hilling towards the mountain.

Tommy paused from the march for a moment to study the beauty of a distant peak (and to take a leak). He turned his attention back towards the destination just in time to watch Timmy begin his slide down the slope, along with the 2-3 thousand cubic feet of snow he was standing on.

“AVALANCHE!!!” Timmy yelled as he struggled for mercy.

Tommy pretty much stood there starring, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before!” He remarked to himself (that’s Tommy-always cool and calm in a crisis. Sidenote: When Tommy got his first car, his Dad bought him an “Emergency Kit” with road flares, jumper cables and all that good stuff. But when he gave it to Tommy he said he didn’t want to call it an ‘emergency kit,’ because he would hate to think of what sort of tragically horrible calamity would have to occur before Tommy deemed it an ‘emergency.’ Ha!). After sliding a mere 30 feet, Timmy was able to arrest his fall, and the two watched as heaps of snow continued for several hundred feet down the slope.

Any sane humans would have been worried at this point. But not Timmy and Tommy! By their bizarre logic, TNT had just proven that their only serious concern, avalanche danger, was nothing to worry about! Timmy had just survived a so-called avalanche, so therefore the two would certainly be able to survive all future avalanches, right? Once Timmy dusted off the
fresh coating of powder snow from his person, he continued steadfastly towards his objective.

Not more than 10 steps further along, Timmy felt a now familiar sensation.  Tommy could not believe his eyes. The entire hill side, a slab 100 feet wide, over 500 feet long and up to several feet thick began sliding down, with Timmy standing on top of it.

Avalanche Diagram

Tommy watched helplessly as his brother cart-wheeled his way down the slope, ski poles flailing uselessly. His first instinct was to toss his pack and ski madly towards his brother, and begin the inevitable excavation. But he realized it was far more important to keep his eyes locked on Timmy, so that he would know where to start digging.

The slide from Tommy's perspective...

The slide from Tommy’s perspective…

However, almost immediately after the slide started, Tommy lost sight of his brother as he tumbled behind a small grove of trees. Several seconds passed before Timmy popped up out of the churning river of snow, arms flailing, over a thousand feet below where he once stood. Timmy knew the textbook avalanche procedure.  He had to do everything in his power to stay above the snow. But his skis were dragging him down like two high tuned, top-of-the-line, carbon fiber anchors. Timmy felt like a mobster had tossed him off the pier with a block of cement around his ankles. As he bobbed helplessly in the current, Timmy felt the snow closing in around him. He realized that if he didn’t do something quick he would eventually be buried alive within seconds.  At long last, Timmy managed to kick off his useless skis. He began swimming madly in the snow. He could feel solid ground below, and dug in his heels to slow his descent. Eventually, Timmy was able to stop himself, and watched in disbelief as the snow continued plowing down the slope for another thousand feet.

...and Timmy's view looking back up the slope after arresting his slide.

…and Timmy’s view looking back up the slope after arresting his slide.

Tommy called anxiously to his bewildered brother. To both the boys’ amazement, Timmy was un-injured, aside from a few minor bruises (that Timmy would complain about relentlessly for days to come). The slide settled under a plume of powder snow (the best snow on earth!) as the two fools contemplated all the things in life they were thankful for.

A look at the slide from the boys' retreat.

A look at the slide from the boys’ retreat.

Timmy and Tommy decided that this would be a good time to abandon their proposed climb. After a few minutes of searching Timmy miraculously located his ditched skis (though only one ski pole) and shot a few photos for the scrap book.  The two skied calmly towards the parking lot, feeling lucky to have enjoyed such a beautiful day in the wilderness.

Timmy approximating the  beginning and end of his near-fatal journey.

Timmy approximating the beginning and end of his near-fatal journey.


[Editor’s note: The cavalier attitude displayed in the moment, and after the fact (when the story was written) was typical of our early adventures.  I can’t believe how many times we nearly killed ourselves, and then casually shrugged off the danger five minutes later.  This wasn’t the cool bravery of experienced climbers, electing to take a calculated risk—this was blissful ignorance unchecked.  I mention this in case some young gun is reading this–when that crotchety old has-been warns you to take it slow, consider just for a moment that they might actually know what they’re talking about—they might even have some first hand experience 🙂 .  Fortunately we eventually ran into a few of those guys and they talked some sense into us.]

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