The Newfoundland Method

Disclaimers, contraindications, and warnings: the following is an argument, a loose collection of attempts at reasoning, an expression of my thoughts and, yes, opinions, about mixed climbing. The following is in no way, shape or manner intended to be unequivocal, inflammatory, dogmatic or closed-ended, nor is this intended as a model, archetype or rulebook. The following is not intended to be relevant to anyone but my friends that have asked what we’re doing out there in Newfoundland and what’s going on in my wee mixed climbing mind. These are just my thoughts about mixed climbing and my attempt at explaining our methods for those who might be interested. To construe otherwise is a gross misappropriation of my intentions, and, as we like to say in the North country, “That’s your problem.” This is not a statement of what other people should or should not do. I feel strongly that each individual should do or not do whatever he or she desires, as long as it does not hurt intentionally anyone else. The following are just my opinions and thoughts and explanations of why we have adopted our particular and somewhat unusual style of mixed climbing. Several people have wondered what we’re doing, and this is written for their benefit. Please, if you’re not interested in the aforementioned, you most certainly have my blessing. Just press two fingers to the mousepad, and slide upward (downward for PC users), and, please, have a pleasant day.

I have been ice climbing for 27 years. And over the past nineteen years, I have established dozens of traditional mixed climbs (i.e., mixed climbs completed from the ground up, without the use of bolts) and I also have established more than a few sport mixed climbs (that is, bolted mixed climbs which may or may not be established on rappel). These are not significant accomplishments, and merely are cited to provide a reference of my experience in the ice and mixed climbing games.

Mixed climbing is aid (just follow me here, please). Perhaps it would be described more accurately as sport-aid or free-aid. The use of metal hooks to scale a rock is aid climbing, yet the athleticism required to hang on to the hooks employs elements of free climbing.

Aid climbing bolt ladders is not compelling (warning: this is an opinion). Sure, one can remove every other bolt so one must execute dynamic Vertical Limit style jumps between the bolts. And, yes, one may French-free these bolts, grasping the quick-draws. Even, one may grasp metal hooks with handles on them in between the bolts. But, it’s still French-freeing a bolt ladder, one could argue. This can be fun and exciting for a time. But I have found that it gets old after a while, and this is not my idea of a compelling end-sport (again, an opinion).

Most recently established sport mixed climbs are largely manufactured, with drilled holds. When Cesare Maestri bolted the living bejesus out of Cerro Torre, and when Warren Harding bat-hooked his way up El Cap, these men were heralded for their audacity. Nowadays, such tactics are frowned upon, to say the least. Why is it that sport mixed and sport dry-tooling climbers in the present day feel exempt from what is the basest common sense of the rest of the climbing world (rhetorical)?

When ice and mixed climbers first delved headlong into the development of the sport-mixed game, generally, they were linking compelling features of ice. Often, these climbs involved rock which was not conducive to protection with anything other than with bolts. The ice was wild, compelling. These routes made sense. The rock was climbed in its natural state, the holds were not drilled. Today, “mixed” climbs (often with scant ice) and dry-tooling routes (completely bereft of ice) are largely manufactured. In fact, the French go so far as to physically remove holds, to “make the routes hard.” Moreover, the French have taken to removing the secondary points on their crampons (because rakes are restful and thus make the climbs too easy). The need to artificially make the routes harder, the gradual progression of reducing gear: no leashes, no spurs, no rakes, is clearly leading toward one thing—you wanna make it hard? Lose the hooks and go rock climbing. They are called ice tools for a reason.

Basically, the use of ice tools should make sense, I think. When mixed climbing, generally there needs to be compelling ice. However, in Scotland, for instance, the traditional mixed climbing is world-renowned even though it typically involves mainly rime covered rock with little ice. But it makes sense—the Scots only climb when the conditions are winter-like, when climbing the rock with bare hands would be ridiculous or impossible. Essentially, it’s training for the mountains (perhaps), but, above all, using ice tools makes sense.

The traditional mixed climbs my friends and I have established in Newfoundland have not been completed in light-and-fast alpine-style. Due to our inadequacies of ability and courage, we have established these routes in siege-style: we fix ropes to our high point each day, and ascend the lines when we return and set to work again. We on-sight what we can, but the difficult mixed pitches are first aid climbed and then “free-climbed” with the gear in place. We have found that the difficulty of the climbing on these pitches coupled with the use of only removable protection has demanded this approach in order for us to complete these pitches safely. As with sport mixed climbing, the type of style employed on these routes create a relatively safe environment in which to push our standards. In this case, it’s the environment in which to learn the limitations of removable protection in addition to the skills of hard dry-tooling and hard ice climbing, which are gathered in a manner which is more relevant to the mountains than within the framework of sport climbing. But, most of all, speaking of the enterprises themselves and not simply of the utility of the skills garnered as benefits for other purposes, climbing these routes with only removable protection and without manufacturing holds makes for an exciting, engaging and ultimately, a massively satisfying experience. This is the core motive for me: it’s experiential. And the experience of the Newfoundland method is far richer, to me and my partners, than it would be if we were guaranteeing our success and safety with bolts.

Caveat: Sport-mixed climbing is fun! There is no doubt (in my mind). Sport-mixed climbing is excellent training (I think); it’s a fine way to get strong on one’s tools safely; it’s a fine way to learn how ice tools respond on rock, their limitations, etc. in a controlled environment. Sport-mixed climbing is also a great way to learn how to climb icicles in a relatively safe environment. I love sport-mixed climbing, personally. Again, I simply am expressing my thoughts and predilections about mixed climbing after having played this game for a quarter century, in our current time, and trying to share where my thoughts have arrived, at this point, at this time, and why I feel compelled to focus my mixed climbing efforts along more traditional lines, at present, when possible, and when it makes sense. This is not an indictment of sport-mixed climbing or a celebration of any other type of climbing.

Highlights of the Past Seven Months in Seven Photos

The crux pitch of Deprivation, North Buttress of Mount Hunter, Alaska.

The crux pitch of Deprivation, North Buttress of Mount Hunter, Alaska.

I made the second ascent of "Question Your Progression" (5.13d) in August.

I made the second ascent of “Question Your Progression” (5.13d).

I climbed "The Bishop Crack" (5.12b) in September.

I climbed “The Bishop Crack” (5.12b).

Kurt Ross and I climbed "Andromeda Strain" (Grade V, M6, AI4) at the end of September.

Kurt Ross and I climbed “Andromeda Strain” (Grade V, M6, AI4).

I climbed Optimator (5.13-) in September.

I climbed Optimator (5.13-).

I climbed "Hidden Gem" (5.13) in October.

I climbed “Hidden Gem” (5.13).

Whit Magro and I put up a new alpine mixed route in the southern Wind River Range at the beginning of November.

Whit Magro and I put up a new alpine mixed route in the southern Wind River Range.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Epilogue

Typical frozen shells and parkas from the constant spray. This shot, taken from the first belay, after aiding the third pitch (M10) on Ben's and my third day on the route (02/29/16).

Typical frozen shell and parka from the constant spray. This shot was taken from the first belay, after aiding the third pitch (M10) on Ben’s and my third day on the route (02/29/16).

The iced up stuck rappel ropes stacked at the fifth belay after dropping them and rappelling on my tag line.

The iced up stuck rappel ropes, stacked at the fifth belay, after dropping them and rappelling on my tag line. This photo shows the amount of ice that formed during my fight to ascend these ropes to free them from the seventh pitch. The ropes were dry, hanging out of the waterfall, clipped through a directional, beforehand.

“Is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse asked.

“I’m sorry. Excuse me?” I replied.

“The mass in your scrotum, is it about the size of a pea?” the nurse responded. She stood above me at the end of the emergency room bed. “Just to give the doctor an idea of what to look for.”

“No, it’s bigger than that.” I said.

“A walnut?” she asked.

“What?” I was confused.

“Is it about the size of a walnut?” She asked, holding her up her fingers, curled like an “okay” gesture.

“Oh, no. It’s not that big.” I said, shaking my head.

The nurse stood with her left arm folded across her stomach, her fist supporting the elbow of her right arm which angled up toward her face. Her outstretched index finger tapping her her chin lightly, as she glanced toward the ceiling in thought.

“I’m trying to think of another food item,” she said with her faint eastern European accent.

I furrowed my brow, cocked my head to the side, and my gaze joined hers upon the ceiling. I played along, but I wasn’t puzzling over like-sized food items. I didn’t have much of an appetite.

“A grape!” She exclaimed triumphantly. Swooping her index finger toward me with a smile.

I looked at her with a faint smile and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Yep. It’s about the size of a grape. That’s about right.”

“Okay, I’ll let the doctor know and he’ll be in shortly to examine you.” She turned and walked out of the cubicle, and gently slid the curtain closed behind her.

I had pain in my private parts after a long bike ride the day before. I had examined myself later that night and found a mass between my testicles. I felt horrified and nauseated. Was I ruptured? Was it cancer? I went to the emergency room first thing the next morning. My mind raced with worst-case scenarios. I thought of losing my fertility due to testicular cancer. I tried to think positively, as I often do. I thought maybe it was God’s, or Zoroaster’s, or Odin’s, or Zeus’s (or whomever or whatever it is that decides these types of things) way of cutting me a break. I imagined some almighty power standing arms crossed in admonishment, looking down at me, stating sternly, “Dude. You’re an idiot. That was your ninth life, sonny boy. But, in spite of myself, I kind of like you. Or, maybe I just really feel sorry for you. But, regardless, your world does not need any more of your hay-wired genes, for obvious reasons. I let you live last week, but I’m going to have to sterilize you. Consider yourself lucky.”

It seemed fair to me.

————————–

One week before I stood alone on the shattered snow-ice pedestal of the fifth belay. Ben had left twelve days before. Chelsea had left before dawn that morning. I had planned to aid the sixth pitch while simultaneously jumaring the stuck rappel ropes. I was concerned about the anchor, a single v-thread which had been baking in the sun all morning. It was well below freezing, but the sun was intense. I knew the thread had been bomber two days before, but I am extremely conservative with respect to anchors, and so the thought was prominent in my mind. Also, I was concerned about ascending two ropes, threaded through an anchor (through two opposite-and-opposed carabiners that I had left—not directly through the v-thread cord). I could have fixed one end at the anchor of the fifth belay and jugged the opposite single strand. But, the ropes were iced in where they crossed the lip of the roof to such a degree that I couldn’t pull either side. I was afraid if I started jugging a single strand in this way, the ropes might suddenly slip through the ice encasement, shock-loading the system, the suspect anchor, and perhaps shredding the sheath of the skinny-dynamic rope, which are not well-suited for this application.

I figured, perhaps wrongly, that the best way to ascend the ropes would be to put both strands through the jumars. This method works, but can cause the ropes to bind a bit. Jumars are designed to ascend single strands of rope. The problem with my plan to aid and jug simultaneously lay in the fact that the sixth pitch begins with a wide leftward traverse out ledges with no protection. This would have been essentially a quasi-solo, because the stuck ropes I would have been attached to from above hung from the right side of the ice roof. Though unlikely, if I had botched the traverse, I would have swung far out beyond the pedestal in a giant pendulum, which would have left me hanging in space, likely necessitating simply ascending the stuck ropes without the protection of aiding the pitch anyway. Also, the rope management logistics of dealing with aiding on the tag-line while keeping the long coils of the unused portions of the stuck ropes untangled would have been time consuming and exhausting. Furthermore, aiding the sixth pitch was difficult even with a belay. It had taken me and Chelsea two days of effort to get it done.

I was exhausted. The preceding three weeks had taken its toll. The efforts me and Ben and Chelsea had put into this route had tapped my reserves, frazzled my nerves and left me with a case of the thousand yard stare. I didn’t want to deal with the ropes. I was over it, I needed a break from this wall. The Cholesterol Wall is one of my favorite places on the planet, but I had already had my fill for now. However, I could not accept the idea of leaving ropes hanging from this wall, which had become sacred to me. I knew that if I left these ropes, they would likely hang from the directional, after the v-thread melted out, all year. We would have left a giant dangling mass of trash hanging from one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness areas I have ever beheld. I just couldn’t deal with the idea of being responsible for such a violation of this beloved place.

I was scared. Being alone up there amidst all of the overhead hazard, dealing with an ad hoc mission to sort out this seemingly unique SNAFU in my physical and psychological state was daunting. There was no instruction manual. I was improvising, and I was anything but certain of what to do.

I stood there in the direct sun, with the waterfall coming off the lip of the roof beside where the stuck rappel lines hung encased in freshly formed ice. Below the lip of the ice roof, the ropes draped inward, clipped through the directional rock gear cluster, out of the line of the falling water. I felt like the clock was ticking. The sun was too bright, the prospects of the ridiculous seat-of-the-pants aid-jumaring seemed like it would take too much time, and too much effort, and perhaps itself cause another hazardous stuck rope situation from the lines below. I left the unused portions of the stuck ropes coiled and short-fixed at the fifth belay, and started jumaring the double strands. I tried to ascend smoothly to minimize the inherent bounce of dynamic ropes, and thus, in my mind at least, the strain on the v-thread anchor. I held my breath at first, praying that the anchor was solid.

I reached the directional, clipped in directly to it with a runner, and moved my jumars, one at a time, above the draw clipped through the ropes and above the knot connecting the two ropes, which I had pulled down to this point two days before when I had realized my mistake in clipping both ropes, joined at the anchor with a knot, through the directional, thus making it impossible to pull the ropes. I looked over to my left at the torrential waterfall that poured down through the air.

“Ugh.” I thought. “This is going to suck.”

Ben, Chelsea and I had dealt with lots of spray over the preceding three weeks. This rig was a high-water-volume formation. We had grown accustomed to being doused with freezing water, our soft-shell jackets becoming encased in ice, rigid, like shells of armor. I figured I would just deal with it, get up the ropes quickly, chop them out of their encasements of ice, and be up to the anchor in no time. After all of the peril we had contended with, I felt a certain cavalier invulnerability. I thought dismissively: How bad could it possibly be?

But, just seconds later, as I pulled myself toward the anchor to take the tension off the runner clipped between it and my harness, unclipped the carabiner attaching it to the anchor, and was about to let go of my hold on the slings of the directional anchor, and swing away from the wall directly into the center of the waterfall of freezing water, I had a sudden sinking feeling that I was making a grave mistake. I paused for a few moments, looking over my left shoulder at the waterfall, and thought, “Fuck it. I’ll deal.”

The water poured over me and I immediately started jugging the ropes as fast as I could. Within seconds I started panting as the ice water soaked through my clothes, taking my breath away. Shockingly, the ropes started to ice up within seconds. My jumars started to ice up. I have long had a sense, as an ice climber, that there were certain conditions under which water would make ice more readily, but I never really understood it, and I still don’t. It’s as if it were some strange Mpemba effect, the phenomenon whereby hot water freezes faster than cold. It was as if the sun had heated the ropes and my metal jumars to such a degree that the water instantly accreted layers of ice before my eyes, like a deadly rendering of Aristotle’s antiperistasis: “the supposed increase in the intensity of a quality as a result of being surrounded by its contrary quality.”

The freezing water poured off the lip of the ice roof fifteen feet above my head and pounded upon the hood of my soft-shell jacket which covered my helmeted head. The ropes were icing up, my jumars were icing up, my insulated gloves were like saturated sponges. Each time I grasped a jumar, I wrung gushes of water from my gloves which increased its frigid flow down the undersides of my arms. The numbing water streamed across my armpits, down my chest, stomach, through my groin, and puddled in the seat of my pants when my stirrups were high. The water sloshed down the inside of my pant legs and into my boots when I stood up in the slings, trying ferociously to push the upper of the two seized jumars up the pair of ropes which were icing up like dipping candles in wax. I gasped for air with every breath, shivering uncontrollably now.

The frozen jumars were bound up on the frozen double ropes. In horror, I stood up in my aiders and screamed and roared and pushed upward on the upper jug with all of my might, feeling the strength in my arms waning, the dexterity draining out with the cold water running down them. I became light-headed from the effort. I bounced down into my harness, wrapped the icy ropes below my lower jumar around my left wrist and clasping them with my left hand. I grabbed the lower jumar with my right hand and pushed upward on the frozen jug while pulling down on the slick ropes with my left, screaming, guttural roaring, to recruit all of my power. My neck muscles quivered violently as I pushed and pulled in opposition, trying to force the frozen jug up the ropes.

This was a shit fight. I lost most of my capacities for fine motor movements. I knew I lacked the dexterity to stuff the frozen ropes into my rappel device, unweight the frozen jumars and remove them from the ropes, let alone pass the knot. I hung twenty feet from the wall. I was trapped. The only way out was up. With absolute rage I thrashed, screaming, standing up in my aiders, pulling down hard on my left jumar, I pushed upward on the upper right jumar with my right arm belting out power screams like I had learned breaking boards in Tae Kwon Do training in Korea. I fought with everything I had. As with close combat, gross motor skills are the only reliable tool. Close combat, a type of melee combat abandoned ostensibly by the US Army decades ago due to its excessive brutality, is utterly basic and lethal. My Great Uncle taught me about it, and I trained this way later in life. Drive forward, use basic movements, know how to strike and where to strike, do not hesitate, attack relentlessly, ruthlessly. DRIVE FORWARD. Smash the adversary backward and into the ground.

I dropped down hard into my harness, attached by a sling to the upper jumar. Jumping up and down in my aiders, I slammed myself down into my harness as hard as I could, trying to jar the ice from the ropes and free the frozen clog of my upper jumar. My body was convulsing uncontrollably in violent shivers from the cold. My energy was ebbing and flowing, every minute or so I would start to feel like I was drifting toward unconsciousness. But, then I would surge again, violently screaming and thrashing my way up the frozen ropes inch by inch. I was screaming crazy utterances, recruiting all of my rage, all of my power. I was going to chin-jab this motherfucker into oblivion, or I was going to die trying.

This experience was a unique one. It was not like having an avalanche sweep over one, or cutting a cornice with one’s axe when unroped, leaving a precipitous edge dropping thousands of feet merely inches from one’s crampons, or many other experiences in my life that I perceived immediately to have been “near-death.” In all of my previous close-calls, there has been this immediate self-conscious reflection. As if I said immediately to myself, “Holy shit, that was fucking close!” This experience was the process, it was on-going. I was experiencing the process of my body shutting down. I was experiencing dying. I was drifting from the most entirely, completely conscious fight mode I have ever known into vague grey vision and awareness. My arms would surge with adrenalin-laced ferocity and then fade into impotent, flaccid appendages.

Finally, miraculously, the bottom of the ice roof was within reach. I unclipped my axe from my caritool on my hip, breaking the encasement of ice over the tool’s head. I grasped the icy handle, squeezing as hard as I could with my numb arms, I knew my grip was faint. I swung at the ice overhead, barely within reach. I swung like a novice, mainly with my shoulder. After many desperate erratic swings, my tool found purchase. I knew it was a bad stick, but I pulled on it anyway, feeling a glimmer of hope as the waterfall pounded only on my left side as I pulled myself to the right. I hooked the biner from the runner that still hung from my belay loop to the lower pommel of the axe. I tried to unclip a draw from the gear slings on my harness but the carabiner was too iced up. I reached behind me and struggled to remove my third tool from its holster. I wrestled it free and smacked the biners on my harness, knocking off the accumulations of ice. I smacked my third tool’s head into the gate of a lower biner of a draw and let it hang. With both hands I squeezed the upper biner of another draw with numb, nearly impotent hands, finally snapping it open, freeing its bounds of ice. I clipped it to my belay loop and grabbed the placed axe again, hooking my right elbow around the upper pommel, I pulled my body toward it as hard as I could, trying to get close enough to hook the biner of the draw onto the lower pommel. The tool ripped out and I swung back into the center of the waterfall of frozen water, screaming and gasping for air, still violently shuddering uncontrollably.

Again, I swung the axe ineffectively with my shoulder, into the bottom of the ice roof, this time I felt the tool sink properly, the head making the distinctive quiver of solid purchase. I repeated the process of hooking the runner, then fighting to hook the draw. After digging as deep as I ever had, with brief pauses as my consciousness greyed, I pulled, screaming at my numb weakened arms. Kill! Kill! Kill! Or be killed! I hooked the pommel with the draw and found myself out of the waterfall, dripping, numb, shivering and shuddering so hard the axe bounced and flexed slightly along to the erratic rhythm of my quaking body.

I was out of the waterfall, but now in the shade of the underbelly of the ice roof. A slight wisp of a breeze wafted over me and my shuddering became incapacitating. I hung there unable to move, in a state of complete convulsion, seizure, every muscle in my body involuntarily tense. After a few moments, I broke myself free of this paralysis and managed to unclip a screw from the caritool where my axe had been. It was encased in an inch of ice, covering the head and the shaft, threads and teeth. My screws are always razor-sharp, and I have never been so grateful for my obsessive compulsiveness. Utilizing the last vestiges of my dexterity I managed, after several desperate failures, to get the screw started. I spun it in slowly, taking breaks to regain my last remaining strength. I freed another frozen draw from my harness, clipped it to the screw. I freed another draw and clipped it to my belay loop. I pulled hard, repeatedly, trying to hoist myself up to clip the two draws together. I failed. I grabbed the lower jumar and lifted it, heavy with the weight of the ice covered ropes, hooking the rope below it with my left elbow. I clamped my chattering teeth over the ice covered screw gate of the locking carabiner that housed my aiders. The ice thawed and eventually I was able to open the gate, which was thankfully unlocked, and remove my aiders from their attachment to the jumar. I clipped my aiders to the draw on the screw, pulled hard on the draw, stood up on my front points hooked on the slings, and managed to clip the draw on my harness to the screw.

I repeated this process three times, placing four screws in total, each about two feet above the last. I was completely out of the spray of the waterfall, but entirely in the shade, and my convulsions remained as violent, periodically rendering me unable to move, leaving me hanging from the screw quivering like an epileptic. As I got higher into the right-facing corner of ice, the same ground Chelsea and I had covered three days before on the send, I started to reach out left with my axe and chop wildly at the ice encasement of the ropes. I swung with reckless abandon, hitting the ropes themselves squarely with my pick on several occasions.  I whacked the rope with the side of the head of my axe, freeing it from ice. I fought the jumars up the ropes, inch by inch. Finally, I abandoned trying to get the jugs higher, I placed my tool in the ice out left, above the lip, and eventually managed to free my second axe from the caritool on my left hip. My swings into the supple, crumbly fresh ice were pathetic chopping motions. My sticks were shallow, out of square, and I didn’t care. I pulled on their handles, swinging myself to the left. I hooked a draw to the pommel of the left tool and placed the right tool again, higher above the lip. I hooked my aiders to the lower pommel of this tool and stood up on my front points hooked to the slings. I managed to disconnect the two draws attaching my harness to the top screw and climbed up the aiders, placing my left tool higher, knowing that if I fell I would slam down onto the jumars that were now below my feet.

I hooked myself to the upper tool with a draw to its pommel and placed my last screw. I clipped directly to the screw and hung from it, slumped over forward in the sun, shuddering in a taut ball, feeling like the tendons in my neck were going to snap. Eventually, I returned to violent consciousness, and chopped out the remainder of the ropes, pulled the rope up from below till all of the slack that the short-fixed bottoms of the ropes at the fifth belay below allowed, and frantically smacked the frozen jugs and ropes with the side of the head of my axe and worked the jumars up the ropes. From shortly above the lip to the v-thread, the ropes were off the surface of the ice, and were dry and supple. I slid the jumars up the ropes and slumped on the sloping snowy ice ledge exactly where I had stood extended below the anchor, belaying Chelsea three days before.

Over the next period of time I slowly recovered, the convulsions still came in waves, but to my utter relief and joy I started to slowly regain my composure. Eventually, I shook off my backpack, the straps frozen to the fabric of my soft-shell. I sucked on its zipper to free its encasement in ice. Finally, I removed my soggy insulated gloves and was able to unzip it and don my parka. I found my dry dry-tooling gloves, each roasting with a hand warmer inside, tucked inside my shell in my armpit, where I always keep them when wearing my belay gloves. Eventually, when I was pretty sure I would survive, I removed my phone from the inside pocket of my parka and filmed myself, trying to speak to my daughters, just in case I did perish up there. I faded in and out and couldn’t speak. I stopped filming and returned to the erratic shivering and hyperventilating. Over time, I freed the stuck ropes and dropped them, hauled up my tag line and set up a rappel after tying double fisherman’s stopper knots to each end. I made it down the wall, slowly, cautiously, regaining control of my body gradually as I went. I made it down, and ran, staggering and tumbling down the talus water sloshing in my boots. I reached the snowmobile, grabbed my extra warm clothes from under the seat, removed my boots to put on my puff pants, poured out the water and put them back on, put my second smaller parka over my big belay parka, and fired up the sled. I rode full-throttle back to my rental car parked along the highway four clicks from town. I threw my pack in the trunk and drove back to the cabin at about 150 km/hour. I rushed into the cabin, stripped, and emptied the hot water tank with one long shower.

——————————–

The doctor swept open the curtain and walked into the emergency room cubicle smiling, followed by two young women bearing stern expressions, one holding a clipboard. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and explained that his accompaniment was his PA and a medical student. I was mortified. They examined me while I wrapped my head in my arms to bear the embarrassment and the pain.

“See!” said the doctor to the young women, grasping the mass in my scrotum, “It’s free from the testicles! It’s not attached to anything.”

He asked me if I had had any recent accidents or injuries. Uncoiling my arms from around my head, I briefly explained my experiences nearly dying from hypothermia a week before, explaining the violent, repeated bouncing in my harness.

“Um-hum,” he said. “I think it’s just epididymitis or hydroseal. Not a big deal.”

“Okay,” I replied, without a clue what he was talking about.

The doctor and his entourage left after explaining that I would have an ultrasound.

Shortly, an old man wheeled the ultrasound machine in, and set to work. He told me all about his twelve grandchildren while I stared at the ceiling.

He wrapped up his exam and confided smiling, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to take your testicles. But, I have to show these images to radiology and the doctor will be in soon with an official diagnosis.”

I thanked him and wished him luck with his grandkids.

Soon, the doctor returned with one of the young women entering behind him.

“You’ve got a scrotal hematoma.” he said.

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“No, not a big deal. It’s just a mass of blood, sort of like a huge blood blister. Your body will likely just reabsorb it. It was likely caused by your harness from your, ah, sport.” he said grinning. “You’re free to go! No restrictions! Just come back if it starts hurting more or you get a fever.”

He shook my hand, and walked out of the cubicle. His PA followed him, her face bore a glowing smile as her gaze became fixed on mine. I felt like dying for a moment from embarrassment. I dressed quickly, put the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, pulling it down over my eyes, and darted out of the cubicle, thanking the nurse as I passed, and b-lined it for the door.

I walked briskly to my truck, fired it up, sped out of the parking lot, rolling through the stop sign, thinking how wondrous and strange my ninth life had been. I said a quick thanks to God, Zoroaster, Odin and Zeus as I felt the surge of the supercharger launching me at full throttle down the road and into the rest of my tenth life.

—————————

Back at the cabin in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, after the world’s longest hot shower, I recovered with massive quantities of hot Skratch Labs Apples and Cinnamon and several pots of coffee. I returned that evening to the Cholesterol Wall, hiked up the talus to retrieve the coiled ropes from the base of the wall that I had pitched off the fifth belay and again at the fourth belay on my way down earlier. The next morning, I returned to finish cleaning the remainder of the fixed lines from the lower portions of the wall, and caught a flight home from Deer Lake at five o’clock that afternoon.

It has been somewhat difficult to write this story, but I have been compelled to share it nonetheless. It is embarrassing. It was intensely personal. But, it’s a part of the tale of this year’s Newfoundand traditional mixed adventure. I don’t really have much desire to enter into a forensic analysis of what when wrong when and how it could have been avoided, but others are more than welcome to Monday-morning-quarterback these events. And, though certainly possible, it’s somewhat hard to imagine someone finding themselves in a similar situation. But, generally, I suppose, there may be some instructive value in the mistakes I made.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter Four

Profile view of the crux sixth pitch of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" showing the double-Dutch-door flake as viewed from "Apocalypse Now" from a photo taken last year.

Profile view of the crux sixth pitch of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” showing the partly obscured orange arch crux, the corner-perch rest, the double-Dutch-door flake and the ice roof as viewed from “Apocalypse Now” from a photo taken last year (the column in the lower right of this photo did not form this year).

I slotted my entire pick upward into the horizontal crack, the blue-alien-sized gap beneath the overhanging base of the giant flake and the clean grey granite wall. The flake jutted out to the right from the corner-perch rest halfway up the crux sixth pitch of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I was sending, the technical crux, a grossly overhanging arch of stone split with a pick-tip crack was below me. Leaving the security of the rest, I leaned outward, feeling the flex of the precious Charlet steel pick, toed-down with my right front point on the final decent foothold before committing to the featureless overhanging black water-streaked granite wall that rose behind the flake. I released the pressure of my left tool torqued in the vertical crack of the corner, inserted my left tool into my mouth horizontally and bit down on it pirate-style. I matched my left hand above my right hand on the horizontally torqued tool, grabbed the lower pommel of the tool in my mouth with my right hand and leaned far to the right to hook a shallow edge in a horizontal seam. I extended my left arm slowly, lowering my body out to the right beneath my right tool. Releasing the torqued pressure, I extracted my left tool from the horizontal crack beneath the overhang, suspending myself from my right tool hooked on the small edge, I again inserted the shaft of my left tool horizontally into my mouth and chomped its wrapping of rubber splicing tape with my teeth, matched hands on my right tool, and held my breath momentarily, imagining the tip of my honed three millimeter pick deforming, as it had the day before, from the full weight of my body. I raked my crampons at waist height, pressing all points against the featureless wall, and clipped the equalized pair of pitons pre-placed in the horizontal crack to my right with my second lead rope.

The upper section of the giant flake reared up above me. The right edge of the flake rose from the tapered end of the horizontal overhang which comprised the flake’s base. The vertical crack formed between the flake and the wall was wider, increasing in width from orange FCU size through tipped-out .5 Camalot size to a horizontal fracture in the flake. The second portion of the flake, above the horizontal fracture, was offset slightly from the first overhanging slab. The offset of the upper flake made the crack between itself and the wall wider still, it widened as it rose upward from #1 Camalot size to #2 Camalot size.  The entire feature resembled a giant split double-Dutch-door from my Grandfather’s barn that I recollected from my childhood, with the top portion slightly ajar, tipped outward.

—————-

The double-Dutch flake was the door of our wardrobe, the passageway to the seeming other-world, the portal to the most surreal ice roof I could imagine, and it was terrifying. The lower section was hollow sounding. When I first struck it with the hammer of my third tool, to test its mettle, when I had aided this portion of this pitch four days before, a deep kettle drum sound resounded. I had paused at length here on aid the first day working out the pitch. It had taken most of the day to aid the first fifty feet of the pitch, including the overhanging arch, which demanded committing aid on #2 and #3 Pecker pitons as well as much other iron mongering, use of small wires and micro cams. After pondering the unpleasant reality of the flake for what might have been an hour, I equalized the two pitons I placed in the horizontal seam right of the base of the huge suspect flake, clipped in, and lowered off. Psychologically shattered, Chelsea lowered me to her perch on the pedestal of the fifth belay as the light started to glow late-afternoon orange. We started our descent, rappelling into the dusk and stumbling down the icy talus to return to the snowmobile by headlamp well after dark. The route seemed too dangerous. We were silent over dinner after discussing the situation completely over hot chocolate back at the cabin.

But, the next morning we resolved to try again. After the arduous re-ascent of the lower wall, I jugged up the rope we had left through the gear to our high point after fixing the bottom end of the rope at the belay. I made careful calculations in my mind regarding the trajectory of the several ton flake should it collapse, using my tag line as an ersatz plumb bob. It would fall well clear of Chelsea, who was anchored from the front and from the back, tucked securely into the safe haven of the nook of the fifth belay inside the fall line of all overhead hazards, including this one. If it ripped and cut my lines, and I bought the farm, Chelsea would be fine. We had another rope for her to get down on her own. Believing that there has never been a recorded incident of both double ropes being cut in a climbing accident, I asked Chelsea to put me on belay with the tag line, a 7.7mm twin cord, not OSHA approved, but I figured it was better than merely a single lead line. Chelsea put me on belay and I resolved to test the flake or find a way around it. I aided the flake with cams tentatively above the two equalized pins in the horizontal crack. My second rope was clipped to this protection, which would have kept this rope free of the would-be fall line of the flake.

I aided the flake on cams tentatively, and it seemed solid enough to climb. But, the upper portion of the double-Dutch flake was more hollow. When I had struck it repeatedly with the hammer of my third tool with my dominant my left arm, I had pressed my right hand on the face of it, and the repercussions of my blows reverberated really strongly through the gloved palm of my hand. This section of the door hung solely from its hinges. I again paused for a long time. I questioned continuing. I questioned my motivations. I questioned my judgment. I questioned my sanity. It is difficult in such moments to know how to proceed. We had put so much into this route, accepted so much risk already. Was it really as dangerous as I thought it might be? Was I just paranoid from too many days in the maelstrom that was the Cholesterol Wall, too many days of these types of battles, too many days of this self-inflicted war without an adversary. Was this fun? I wondered.

After what may have been another hour of doubt and searching my mind and the wall for alternatives, I managed to place a tight #1 knifeblade piton in a horizontal seam two-thirds of the way in, just barely within arm’s and hammer’s reach from the top step of my aiders, far to the left in the extension of the break in the door, the crack of its offset division. It was the same fissure but was in solid rock. I tentatively committed my body weight to the shallow flexing piton easing myself to swing way out to the left. Above the piton, I found a #5 Rock placement in the crack of the hinge of the door, where the rock also seemed solid. This nut placement felt like a miracle.

The top of the flake was the second rest on the pitch. The remainder of the overhanging corner consisted on straightforward nailing in a good crack which led to the ice. The ice was wild, upside-down, three-dimensional stuff which was featured enough for inverted heal hooks and good tool placements inside ice huecos. To my delight, at the right side of the underbelly of the ice roof, there was a foot ledge beside a truncated vertical column of ice which took solid screws for the sixth belay. I lowered off in triumph, tramming in to re-join a shivering Chelsea at the fifth belay.

“Jesus, Chelsea, I am so sorry! That took forever. Thank you so much. You are so patient and generous.”

“Geez, don’t apologize. Good job. You don’t have to thank me . . . I didn’t know there was any other way to be.” she replied.

———————–

Still holding my breath, I locked the handle of my tool down hard, pulling it into my right armpit. My face inches from the pick which bore into the tiny hook in the horizontal seam beside the two equalized pitons. I grasped the tool clenched in my teeth with my left hand upside down, and reached upward, handle up, to insert the pick facing upward into the inch and a half wide crack. There wasn’t enough clearance for a straight-forward stein-pull, so the pick went in at an eleven o’clock orientation but the handle was flared to the right, at about one o’clock. I pulled down and walked my rakes higher, as high as I could. My feet skated, both together, I tightened my core and caught myself by jerking my arms taut.

“Good Will. I’m with you. Deep breaths.” Chelsea’s calm voice rose from below.

Thus, the moves were repeated, a sequence of insecure, flexing stein-torque maneuvers. Higher up, in constrictions in the wider area of the crack, the placements switched to the more reliable head-shaft prying varieties, till I could hook the horizontal seam that comprised the division of the double-Dutch door. Above this point, the crack became wide enough for strange flared hand jams.

————————-

The day before, at this same point on the upper section of the double-Dutch-door flake, I had holstered my right tool and taken a flared thumbs-down gloved hand jam, lie-backed off my left tool in the horizontal break inside the flake in conjunction with the strange torqued jam. I had walked my rakes up high on the smooth wall on the right and quickly had released my left tool and thrust up hard to hook the top of the flake, which made a sickening hollow knocking sound. But my right hand inexplicably had become stuck in the jam. I had thrust above to hook my tool so aggressively, that I somehow had locked myself into a strange half-nelson type of grappling maneuver. My right arm was twisted so hard that my hand had become stuck completely. I was pumped out of my mind, but I couldn’t shake out either arm because there were no foot placements whatsoever on the overhanging sheer wall, and I knew the strange lie-back jam was useless for a downward pull, yet to my horror my hand had become stuck with my body thrust so high, suspended from my tool hooked at my body’s full extension from the top of the flake. After minutes of wrestling with myself and my grip strength on my left tool waning and my right arm losing strength in the twisted trap of a jam, I had tried in vain to abandon the hooked tool and down-climb into a second, lower jam with my left hand, my right tool was out of reach clipped to my right holster. My arms were so pumped I had little dexterity left. Panic stricken, to my horror, I had peeled off.

“I’m off!” I had yelled.

I had fallen through the air about thirty feet. The one cam I had placed in the base of the flake had ripped out of the crack with little resistance when the rope came tight on it and came spinning down the rope into my lap after the rope caught me from the carabiner at the end of the runner that was clipped to the equalized double runner clipped to the two pitons in the horizontal seam right of the base of the flake. I had looked down at Chelsea, suspended in the air from the rear anchor.

“Are you okay?” I had asked.

“Yeah! I’m fine. Are you okay?” She’d replied.

“Yeah. Holy fuck! Nice catch!” I’d replied.

—————————–

But today I was sending. I reached the lie-back hook of the horizontal break in the double-Dutch flake and took it with my right tool with my right hand on the upper pommel. I holstered my left tool and walked my rakes high, really high. My upper body rocked upward and downward, in rowing motions I flexed and extended my legs horizontally, gaining momentum to thrust upward to grab my tool which still hung from the top of the flake from the day before. After several false starts, broken with brief shakes, matching hands on the lie-backed tool, I made a determined dead-point thrust upward and latched my awaiting tool without shifting it, committed my body weight to it, and immediately, steadily swung my left leg up onto the ledge atop the flake and saddled up, hooking the crack above. I recovered my breath and rested for an extended period of time, allowing my heart rate to return to near resting pace. I knew I was going to take this beast down.

I climbed up the arcing crack in the corner, literally swinging my tools into the pick crack to ensure solid placements. I kept telling myself to go slowly, do not make a mistake. I swung into the ice and found my hooks from three days before, swinging around the fins of ice inverted, hooking the heals of my boots inside the ice huecos, and clipped the anchor without hesitation.

“TAKE!” I screamed.

“WOOHOO!” Chelsea screamed.

We shouted unintelligible victory utterances for a period and then I asked, after a moment to collect myself, “So, what do you want to do?”

“Well, if you want to take it to the top, that’d be cool!” She said. “I want to work on this pitch, but this route is your dream! I can work on this pitch on Sunday.”

“Okay!” I said. “So, you can either belay me from there and I can just rappel back to here and lower off, or you can come up here and climb the next pitch too.” I said.

After a pause, Chelsea said, “Well . . . ah . . . I’m going to the top!” in a tone of voice that made it sound like I had just said the most ridiculously stupid thing of all time, which was entirely possibly the case.

Chelsea made some good links, and aided the rest of the sixth pitch. She joined me under the surreal awning of the giant ice roof. She hyperventilated a bit from the overwhelming power of our location, but remained resolute. I stacked both lead lines carefully, an absurd amount of rope, some 147 meters total. But, the wind and my shivering body made me want to just keep moving without trying to sort out what now had become an overkill of double ropes. I stepped out right along the foot ledge and swung up into the underside of the roof. After a few severely overhanging moves, I copped a wide stem back to the ice awning, a stem so wide it burned my hip flexors. The ice roof was a surreal situation, and unbelievable culmination of this epic line, yet it was surprisingly easy compared with the ice of the fifth pitch, not to mention the hard dry tooling of the sixth and third pitches. It was a strange, yet somehow fitting denouement.

——————————-

A week and a half later, I sit here writing this story. I am struck with a certain sense of well-being, but also a numb disconnection, I don’t answer my phone, I don’t spend time in public, I spend a lot of time thinking about what happened this year in Newfoundland. I’m pretty sure we just climbed, all told, one of the most difficult and committing traditional mixed routes in the world. But, I don’t think that really means a whole lot. It’s a new route; we climbed it; that’s all. But, writing about it has helped me make sense of it somehow. It seems somewhat disturbing to some of my family and friends that we would voluntarily pit ourselves against such a treacherous and difficult objective, especially considering my near fatal battle with hypothermia when cleaning the route alone three days after Chelsea and I sent it (the story of which I will complete soon in a brief epilogue). My father, my brother, my employees, my friends say things like: “Why don’t you take up golf?” “Sport climbing in the sun must sound good right now!”, etc. And, I don’t know how to respond. I can’t really explain it to them. And, I don’t even try. But, for me, routes like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” are a metaphor for the essence of life. All of our days are numbered, we are all terminally ill. We may die tomorrow, what are we going to do today? This does not mean I live my life like a kamikaze. This does not mean I have a death wish. I want to live a long and full life. I love my family and friends as much as my own life. And, after Ben’s and Chelsea’s and my experiences alone, remote, isolated on this magnificent other-worldly wall of ice and stone, I feel so completely satisfied, I feel so completely purified of the toxicities, the natural waste products, of day-to-day life, all of the static negativity that we humans seem to accrete upon ourselves and each other over time despite our best intentions. Perhaps it’s a dysfunction to need to go to such great lengths to find this catharsis, perhaps it’s enviable to be able to achieve satisfaction and a feeling of complete well-being from a good round of golf, or from watching one’s favorite team win a sports game, or from watching the weekly re-run of one’s favorite reality television show, I don’t know. But, for some reason, I am driven to climb routes such as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I don’t know why, but experiences such as these are how I make sense of my life and my place in the cosmos. I just feel like it was what I was meant to do. I know it’s selfish, it doesn’t benefit anyone but myself and my partners, and those benefits are purely subjective fleeting experiential wisps of being in time. No one but us will ever completely understand what it was like, just like I will never completely understand others’ experiences; we are all islands unto ourselves in the end, and that’s okay with me. I don’t expect other people to truly understand me, just as I don’t expect to truly understand others. But, I endeavor to try, and I am grateful that others do the same of me. But, I will say, for me, after these weeks in Newfoundland, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I have lived my life fully, in my own mind, forever. And that feels good.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter Three

Screen Grab of the Cholesterol Wall from a different angle early on Monday, March 14, after the faun's leg collapsed.

Screen Grab of the Cholesterol Wall from a different angle early on Monday, March 14, after the faun’s leg collapsed. Note the diminished size of the giant artichoke in the center of the wall.

Before and after. Left: approximately 11 am on Sunday, March 13. Right: 8:42 am on Monday, March 14.

Before and after. Left: approximately 11 am on Sunday, March 13. Right: 8:42 am on Monday, March 14.

The Faun's leg icicle hanging from the right side of the ice roof on Sunday, March 13.

The Faun’s leg icicle hanging from the right side of the ice roof on Sunday, March 13.

Preparing to clean the stuck rappel ropes, I stood there alone in the sun on the maimed pedestal of the fifth belay, the outer icicles, the leaves of the artichoke, had been cleaved, the top shell of snow-ice had been shattered, pulverized from the giant icicle that had collapsed over the night. I thought of the previous day, Sunday, March 13, when Chelsea Rude and I parked the sled on the edge of Ten Mile Pond, at the base of the talus slope that led up to our route: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I parked it precisely on the spot where I had parked it exactly eleven times before, over the preceding two and a half weeks. I killed the ignition. We turned and stared up at the Cholesterol Wall without dismounting the snowmobile. My eye twitched as I looked up at a giant free-hanging icicle that had formed at the right edge of the ice roof, exactly where the stuck rappel lines hung. The enormous dagger loomed down nearly halfway from the ice roof to the pedestal of the fifth belay atop the giant artichoke of ice that adorned the center of the wall. It must have been fifty feet long.

“Look at it! It looks like a faun’s leg! Hey, it’s Mr. Tumnus from Narnia!” Chelsea exclaimed from the back seat.

Indeed it did, crooked like a mythical unguligrade leg, with a triangular hoof at the end, a kink of a heel half way down, and where it hung from the massive ice roof it resembled the fleshy knee and upper leg. When we had sent the route merely two days before, on Friday, March 11, we had surmounted the ice roof at the very spot where the giant faun’s leg now hung. There had been a small hanging icicle there of freshly forming succulent single-throw-placement type of ice. But, now it had become an entirely different and hazardous suspended time bomb.

It had been a slow morning. Even after an entire day of rest, neither of us could get out of bed. I could hear Chelsea’s alarm sound, only to be silenced, from her room on the other side of the cabin, and I’m sure she could hear mine. Both of us were completely fried, physically and psychologically, from our efforts on the wall. Over the preceding eight days, Chelsea and I had spent five on the wall; and over the preceding fourteen days, I had spent ten of them on the route.

Since Ben Collett had left, each of the final four of Chelsea and my days working the upper wall began with jumaring the first three pitches, then climbing the fourth, then jumaring the fifth before we set to work on the crux sixth pitch. Such efforts would be relatively tiresome even in a normal climbing environment, but doing so amidst the ravages of the capricious Newfoundland weather, dealing with the daily ritual of shedding the ropes of ice as we ascended them, and compounded by the constant stress of managing the ever-changing overhead hazards of the route made our days grueling on our bodies and minds, grinding down our capacities in both resources.

Finally, I got out of bed and peered into Chelsea’s room through her open door. She was fast asleep. I went outside and filmed the surf again, though I had too much footage of this already. The steady gentle rumble and splash of the rising tide, and the hypnotizing visual rising, rolling, and falling of the waves was soothing. I went back inside and made a noisy breakfast. We lived large at breakfast. This morning it was a giant cast iron skillet filled with massive quantities of sautéed red onions, mushrooms, chorizo, tomatoes and spinach with cheddar cheese and six eggs. Chelsea woke up and we chowed down and packed our bags as fast as we could, which took some time. Eventually, we were out the door and at the sled. We rode in to the wall like automatons, I knew every twist and every turn of the track exactly by now, I automatically dodged every bump and every stump along the way.

We looked up at the giant faun’s leg icicle late on Sunday morning. The air was still and relatively warm, the temperature was just below freezing. The forecast called for a cold front to blow in later in the day bringing high winds and temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit by dark. I had learned over the preceding weeks, from observing the caprices of the icicles that routinely formed and collapsed from the ice roof at the top of the wall, they always seemed to fall during cold snaps. This is generally common knowledge among ice climbers: the cold renders ice brittle and it contracts, this seems to cause free-hanging icicles to collapse at what we call “the fracture line,” typically at about the elevation of the point where the mass of the root of the icicle attaches to the rock wall. Of course, icicles may collapse—root and all—if there is mass freezing of water running behind the root of the icicle (water is a strange compound in that it expands when it freezes, but ice itself contracts as it gets colder, which is typical of solids being cooled). Also, of course, an icicle can collapse if the temperature rises above freezing simply from thawing. And, yet, ice is massively heavy, and remains somewhat unpredictable in general.

In the case of the ice roof of our route, the temperatures were below freezing, there was no water running behind the massive root of the ice roof, and so, the continual cause of the collapses of the icicles clearly was the former: cold snap with high winds. As such, we avoided the wall when cold fronts arrived. On at least three occasions over the course of my three weeks watching the wall, I would return to the wall the day following a cold front and the icicle that had formed (always on the left side of the roof, except this final time when the waterfall that streamed off the roof had moved to the right side, forming the faun’s leg that we now witnessed) would lie in thousands of football sized pieces strewn about and below a crater in the snow about the size of a trampoline downslope and right of the base of the route. Pieces of ice would often be found halfway down the talus slope.

We were late. Chelsea was driven to send the crux pitch cleanly on top rope. But, she was exhausted and so was I. And, more importantly, I explained that I didn’t like the new position of the icicle, nor it’s massive scale. I figured it hung directly above the rabbit hole, the secret passageway through the top right side of the giant artichoke of ice, the hole through which we passed each time we re-climbed the lower wall to reach the crux pitch. I remembered Friday how the waterfall rained down upon the outer edge of the massive top of the artichoke, casting spray back toward the sheltered belay close to the wall. Previously, when the water poured off the thicker left side of the ice roof, it fell outside of the pedestal, thus completely ensuring our safety. But, the water poured off the shallower right side on Friday, and so I worried that the faun’s leg may have been an unacceptable hazard as we popped out from the rabbit hole directly beneath it, directly beneath about six tons of suspended frozen water.

Chelsea Rude is driven. Her girlish demeanor belies a warrior’s spirit. She has been a standout competition climber since she was a young girl, she has climbed 5.14 and she has bouldered V11. Yet, she was born in the mountains of Colorado, climbed the Grand Teton at age twelve and climbed the Nose on El Capitan when she was fifteen. She is a gifted athlete, has a VO2 Max of 98. She is also extremely intelligent, has a 4.0 GPA, and is preparing to return to school to become a physician’s assistant. She understood the hazards of this route clearly, despite her inexperience with this type of climbing. After all, it’s not rocket science, but contending with it requires a certain disposition. Chelsea dealt with the overhead hazards and the dangers of large hollow flakes with a calculated head that would shame many seasoned alpinists. We met the hazards with logistical solutions that always fell this side of the line of acceptable risk. This woman is not a dilettante, she means business and is one of the best winter partners with whom I have ever had the pleasure to climb.

It was late, the cold front would have arrived by the time we would be descending making the ridiculously precarious icicle even more unstable. We were exhausted, and the faun’s leg was looming large. I voted to bail on climbing that day. Chelsea agreed when I explained the potential hazard, but she made me promise to return next year so she could send the sixth pitch, on lead, and to red-point the lower pitches that she’d missed as well. I laughed at her indefatigable spirit and agreed, “I promise!”

We hung around lazily along the frozen shore of Ten Mile Pond, still feeling the victorious disbelief that we had taken this monster down. Chelsea made snow angels and did cartwheels, we threw snowballs, and Chelsea sampled some of the granite boulders along the frozen shore in mountain boots while I took photos. Then, we lay on our backs in the snow and stared at length at the faun’s leg in the relative warmth of midday. Silently, I imagined how I would contend with it alone on the following day, Chelsea’s flight home to Colorado was before dawn the next morning.

 

 

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12), Chapter 2

Route map of the first three pitches of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - M8, M8, M10.

Route map of the first three pitches of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” – M8, M8, M10.

Route map of the first four pitches of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" M8, M8, M10, WI4

Route map of the first four pitches of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” M8, M8, M10, WI4

Leading the second pitch (M8).

Leading the second pitch (M8).

Leading the third pitch (M10) of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"

Leading the third pitch (M10) of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

I had stood alone on the broad pedestal of the fifth belay atop the giant artichoke of ice that perches precariously in the center of the Cholesterol Wall on the day I was cleaning the route. I looked up at the two lead lines which I had stuck two days before in an embarrassing mental lapse. I vividly recalled the moment Chelsea Rude, my second partner for this route, came into view around the lip of the roof, struggling to surmount the final hard move of our giant new route. I recalled the joy I felt, the victorious disbelief that washed over me, sending warm tingles down my spine. This route was certainly my magnum opus, this was the route of my career. This line is the hardest and most dangerous traditional mixed climb I had ever attempted, let alone sent. After a brief celebration, I built a v-thread, tied the two lead lines together carefully, perfectly, with a left-handed figure-8 follow-through, the knot that both Chelsea and I happen to tie in with, though she is right-handed. I rappelled first, asking her to remove the backup screw before she came down. I explained that I would clip the rappel lines through the directional, the cluster of solid rock gear that I had left from last year’s reconnaissance when the ice roof had hung down lower, which turned out to be below and right of the line we had just climbed. Yet, this gear happened to be positioned perfectly to keep our rappel away from the hazard of the large, free-hanging icicle that was directly beneath us (and thus, without a directional, would be directly above us as we rappelled) growing by the instant, pouring with a waterfall of icy water.

Chelsea and I had rappelled dozens of times over the preceding ten days. Often, on this route, directionals were necessary to keep our rappels on track due to the occasional traverses of the line, or to keep our path clear of looming overhead hazard. Dozens of rappels had been made, unclipping dozens of directionals and then clipping them back in above the device once passed. We did it by rote. I didn’t explain it anymore, except by saying that there would be a directional. It’s just what we did. We had rappelled this way dozens of times, and each and every single time we did so, it was with only one rope, either down the static lines, if they were not too iced up, or with one of the 9.2mm lead lines or the 7.7mm tag line with two locking carabiners through the device for extra resistance (sometimes also wrapping the brake side of the rope around my leg when it had become icy). Of the countless rappels we had made, there was never once a rappel made with two ropes joined with a knot.

I had rappelled first from our victorious perch atop the route two days before. I clipped into the gear as I went past, ensuring a safe rappel for us both. Chelsea followed after I was secure at the fifth belay (we bypassed the sixth belay underneath the awning of the ice roof). She unclipped the directional from below her device as I held a fireman’s belay, as I always do. And, she clipped the directional in above her device, just like we always do. She rappelled safely to the shelter of the fifth belay. I started to pull the ropes, and suddenly I felt nauseated. “We’re fucked.” I said. “What?” Chelsea asked. “The fucking knot.” I said, “I’m a fucking idiot.”

After a moment’s anguish I said, “Well, we’re coming back the day after tomorrow so you can send the crux cleanly. I can deal with it then, or I can jug up there now and get it.” Chelsea slowly shook her head, and I was relieved. We were both completely wasted physically and psychologically. We had almost bailed on the day at every turn, beginning when we struggled to rise from our beds. Yet, we had rallied, we had persevered, and we had sent! We were going down. I rigged the tag line for a rappel, as usual. We rappelled down through the rabbit hole, a secret passage through the top of the giant artichoke of ice, as we always did, clipping a directional along the way. We continued down several more rappels to the base of the route, forgetting about my ridiculous mishap and returning to that incomparable elation of having completed what seemed only recently to be likely impossible.

Nearly two weeks before, Ben Collett and I had returned to the route for our second day of climbing. After jugging the fixed first pitch, I set to work puzzling out a line left of the belay, up into a shattered rock corner, protected with #2 and #3 Pecker pitons and arrows, blades and angles and one large cam. After some struggle, a core shot rope on a sharp edge, and half dozen over-driven pitons, we top-roped the pitch, sending it cleanly. Much to our relief, we could avoid the off-width flare. We pulled the rope and I led it. Boom! Pitch two was in the bag. It is a short pitch, involving a tenuous traverse left into a rock corner, a dance around some hollow flakes among a solid pick-crack, and a crux sequence of long pulls through the overhanging lip of the corner to get into the thin smear of ice which led up to the base of the overhanging arcing roof crack. I fixed the pitch with a static line and we called it a day, both of us frozen, shivering even while climbing. We went back to the cabin to thaw out and sharpen our picks and crampons to do battle with the roof crack on the following day.

The next day, we jugged the first pitch, and I continued to jumar to the ice belay atop the second pitch. Ben belayed me patiently from the first belay while I aided the perplexing roof pitch. The crack was more discontinuous than it appeared from below, and the lower portion of it was comprised of a large hollow flake, so hollow sounding that I was unwilling to use the crack for protection or for tool placements. The aid was full-on A3, it seemed. I was challenged to the degree that I was not even considering how the pitch would be free-climbed, I was just trying to get up it. I managed to cobble together protection that avoided the dangerous block/flake, and found myself at the lip of the roof eventually stuffing in a belay-quality orange FCU in a solid crack yelling in euphoric rage, “This thing is going DOWN!!!!!!!” I hung there for a moment beside myself, wondering, “Who is this madman?” I was so driven, it kind of scared me a bit. I spent the entire day aiding one 20 meter pitch, and I was so utterly ecstatic that it went to the ice; I was so intensely excited because I knew I would be able to free-climb it simply because I had been able to aid it, but, honestly, the level of my intensity was somewhat alarming to me.

This type of climbing in this type of environment is utterly grueling. But, Ben is not the type of person to take rest days, especially not after the weather had deprived him of half of his would-have-been climbing days for the trip. So, on the fourth climbing day, which would be Ben’s last day, we returned to the route and worked out the moves on the third pitch, finding a miraculous single-tooth hook below the hazardous hollow section of the crack which enabled a long pull into the more solid crack to the right, the release demanded a figure-4, a move I had never before used on a traditional mixed climb. This sequence led to the good crack in the lip. The pull over the lip was actually the crux, with full inversions and powerful long pulls between good holds. I reached the belay on the send, hauled up a few ice screws and a small rock rack from Ben, and took the fourth pitch of WI4 up to the ledge that bisects the middle of the wall. There I found a protected alcove with a solid, podded granite crack that ate up three bomber nuts and three bomber angle pitons. For the first time in my life, I threaded the cable of a nut down through a miraculous pod, realizing that literally the entire cliff would have to collapse for this piece to fail. I equalized it all together, and lowered off what was certainly the most solid traditional anchor I have ever built. We were in business. Half of the route had gone down, we had just sent what I assumed would be the crux of the route. I suddenly felt like there just might be a chance to take this beast of a route down.

Ben left the following evening. I was and am so grateful for his patience and companionship. The arduous puzzle of the lower reaches of the wall were time consuming and became a task often more closely resembling manual labor than any type of sport. I regret that he put so much effort into the line but was unable to join in the wild glory of the upper ice and mixed climbing. The next day I went to the wall alone, chopped out the lead line from the ice on the fourth pitch, and fixed it properly with a static line. At midnight, I picked up my second partner for the route, Chelsea Rude, from the airport in Deer Lake, and we returned to Rocky Harbour and prepared to get amongst with the upper Cholesterol Wall the next day.

The video complement to Chapter Two is on www.vimeo.com/willmayoclimber

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12 traditional), Chapter 1

The freezing water poured off the lip of the ice roof fifteen feet above my head and pounded upon the hood of my soft-shell jacket which covered my helmeted head. The ropes were icing up, my jumars were icing up, my insulated gloves were like saturated sponges. Each time I grasped a jumar, I wrung gushes of water from my gloves which increased its frigid flow down the undersides of my arms. The numbing water streamed across my armpits, down my chest, stomach, through my groin, and puddled in the seat of my pants when my stirrups were high. The water sloshed down the inside of my pant legs and into my boots when I stood up in the slings, trying ferociously to push the upper of the two seized jumars up the pair of ropes which were icing up like dipping candles in wax. I gasped for air with every breath, shivering uncontrollably. It was 24 degrees fahrenheit, the sunshine was unlimited, and the wind was calm. I dangled in space alone 700′ up the Cholesterol Wall above the remote Ten Mile Pond in the heart of Gros Morne National Park near the coast of northwest Newfoundland, cleaning the stuck lead ropes from the top of Ben Collett’s, Chelsea Rude’s and my new traditional mixed test piece: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (WI7+, M12), which we had completed two days previously after nearly three weeks of effort. My partners had gone home to Colorado. I realized that I was suddenly in an irreversible and dire situation. The dexterity in my arms was diminishing with each second. I did not have the fine motor skills to put myself on rappel, let alone pass the knot, which I had just jugged above, right before I had lowered myself from the directional anchor plumb into the center of the waterfall of freezing water in which I now dangled, twenty feet from the wall, from rapidly seized jumars to rapidly freezing ropes. Suddenly, unbelievably, purely due to my own stupidity, I found myself instantly fighting for my life.

This year’s Newfoundland traditional mixed adventure had begun twenty days before when I landed in Deer Lake on an airliner along with three checked bags and two carry-on items, which weighed-in, collectively, at 170 lbs., just five pounds more than my body weight. I was armed for bear. Last year, I had run out of pitons, picks, rock gear, draws and slings and didn’t have any static lines. This year, I was equipped for a protracted battle against the monster that I knew awaited, hanging in tiers of three-dimensional icicles connected by overhanging granite walls split with cracks and seams, soaring up the center of the Cholesterol Wall high above the east end of Ten Mile Pond in the center of the natural beauty that encompasses Gros Morne National Park. Last year’s route, “Apocalypse Now” (WI7, M9), which itself is an unrepeated monstrosity of a traditional mixed climb, ascended to the right of the king line, and my forays to reconnoiter the central direct route after completing Apocalypse Now taught me that the central dike was a death trap of overhanging loose blocks of shale, but I also gleaned that the cracks to the left appeared good, and there was solid rock gear just below the awning of the ice roof. Over the course of the past year, obsessively poring over the thousands of photos I had from last year, and continually puzzling out logistical plans a, b and c in my mind, I convinced myself that this route would go, and I was driven to climb it.

Ben Collett, my first partner of the trip, arrived in Deer Lake the next day. We drove together to Rocky Harbour, the village just outside Gros Morne National Park, where we stayed in a cabin along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The forecast looked awful, warm temperatures and rain were the outlook for the next three days. We woke the next morning and went in to the wall to have a look. The balmy coastal air had thawed all of the snow overnight, the snowmobile ride was made over an icy track and across ponds of bare ice covered with puddles and pools. It was too warm to climb, but we wanted to see the wall, and carried a couple ropes, a dozen ice screws and sixty pitons to stash at the base of the route, our first load of the mass of gear required to climb such a route, in hopes of speeding up the process once cold temperatures returned. The route looked good enough, the main ice portions of the route were formed and the upper ice roof appeared to have formed in a favorable manner this year. We became optimistic.

The following two days were extremely warm, in the 50s fahrenheit, with periods of heavy rain. We festered in the cabin, stressing about the condition of the route, worried the giant artichoke of ice that perched precariously in the center of the wall would come crashing down, making the route either impossible or massively more arduous, necessitating an additional 40 meters of overhanging dry-tooling. We tried to snowmobile in to Ten Mile Pond, but the rim of the pond had thawed, our guide and friend, Walt Nicolle, the Mayor of Rocky Harbour, advised that it would take a couple days to refreeze once the promised cold front arrived, and that Ten Mile Pond was notorious for unpredictable ice due to its depth and strong currents. We were instructed not to push it, “The water’s cold this time of the year, b’ys.”

The cold front arrived with a furious wind, which is customary in Newfoundland, bearing the typical 80 km/hour gusts. The next day, Uncle Walt took us in, and bushwhacked a sled track up the shore about twenty paces to where the ice would be thicker. He told us to stack some spruce boughs on the slushy rim, and said with a grin that it would be frozen solid in the morning. Ben and I went back to the cabin and tried to sleep, my mind raced as I lay awake in bed, imagining rounding the corner on the sled in the morning to see the Cholesterol Wall bare of ice.

Yet, the next morning, when we rounded the corner toward the eastern edge of Ten Mile Pond and peered up at the Cholesterol Wall, we were relieved to see that the three main sections of ice had remained intact. The ice was anemic, the wall was covered with verglas, and the upper sections were flowing with water. But, the route had held fast. Our spirits rose, and we hurried up the icy talus slope, undeterred by the buffets of the 80 km/hour gusts of wind.

On this, our first climbing day, we sent the first pitch, which is the same as the first pitch of Apocalypse Now, and is one of the most classic traditional mixed pitches I have ever done. It rings in at around M8, is sustained and technical, following corners and perfect pick-cracks for 35 meters. The gear is good where it is available, yet one must climb well above it in places, making for an exciting bit of climbing, especially this year, as the dearth of ice made the crux overhang much more committing, demanding insecure dry-tooling well above solid hand-sized cams in the crack beneath the overlap.

Also on the first day, we began working out the second pitch, which became a bit of a puzzle. Last year, on Apocalypse Now, we diverted rightward from the first belay, climbing a series of M8 seams to reach a ledge below the shield of ice that drapes down the center of the lower section of the wall. This year, I hoped to climb an off-width flare and continue along an arcing roof crack up to the left edge of the shield of ice. The off-width turned out to be extremely challenging with crampons and mountain boots. I aided it and yet was stymied by a friable fissure-less section between the flare and the roof crack. Ben and I were frozen stiff, but I lowered from my high piece a few meters, and ran back and forth along the wall, skating sparks with my crampons. After gaining momentum, I dove left with an outstretched tool, latched a flake, pulled up, high-stepped onto it, and tapped into the thin smear of ice to the left. I climbed the smear with no gear till the ice was thick enough to place a short screw. I built an anchor of four equalized short screws in the mushy, crumbly, freshly-forming ice and lowered back to Ben at the first belay. We left a top rope on the second pitch, and rappelled with the tag line, which we also left as a top rope, and hurried down the icy talus still wearing our parkas.

Upon reaching the pond, we zipped our parkas all the way up, and blasted through the gusty winds, numbing our noses, snowmobiling the 10 km back to town. That night we thawed out, happy to be finally climbing on our project. But, in my mind I was ill-at-ease, the route seemed insurmountable, the soaring wall was just a huge stack of question marks . . . we had so far to go, and the weather had taken so much of our time. It seemed too hard, too big, and we seemed far too small.

Ben Collett following the first pitch (M8) of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"

Ben Collett following the first pitch (M8) of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

Video complement to Chapter One on www.vimeo.com/willmayoclimber

Will Mayo climbs Pretty Girls With Long Knives

Culmination of a Vedauwoo Summer: the First Ascent of “Aluminum Overcast” (5.13b/c), Old Easy, Vedauwoo, WY

 

IMG_0822-1

“Dancin’ All Night” (5.12c), Old Easy

"I'd Rather Be in Philadelphia" (5.12c), Reynolds Hill

“I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” (5.12c), Reynolds Hill

IMG_0905-1

“Pretty Girls with Long Knives” (5.12b), Blair III

IMG_1048-1

“The Lost Crack” (5.13a), The Lost Wall

IMG_1118-1

“Yasha Hai” (5.13a), Master Blaster Area

This summer, I earned “honorary local” status at Vedauwoo, WY. Focusing on finger cracks, I ticked several of the classics test-pieces in June and July, culminating with the historically significant roof crack “Yasha Hai” (5.13a). Yasha Hai is a finger-sized roof crack that was among the first rock climbs in the world to be rated 5.13a (circa 1979). The first ascent was recorded as having been done by an anonymous visiting Japanese climber. Many assume it was the crack climbing legend Hidetaka Suzuki, yet he became a Vedauwoo denizen during the 80s and is credited by name for many other first ascents. Strangely, this magnificent climb stood unrepeated for more than thirty years, until crack ace Mason Earle made the second ascent a couple of years ago. Lately, Yasha Hai has seen a few more repeats by local Laramie hard men and myself. This route is a must-do for crack climbing addicts!

The weather was unstable this summer. Each week brought daily severe thunderstorms. We hid beneath boulders from pelting hail. There was a tornado warning. But, the level black bases of the towering cumuli were often pushed southward by the Laramie uplift, and more storms missed the Voo than clobbered it. After I sent Yasha Hai, I was strangely sad. Like the denouement after a story’s climax, I was lost: “What now?” I considered heading back to Rifle, where most of my friends spent their summers, but then I recalled a roof crack I had noticed beside “Dancin’ All Night,” above the classic fist crack “Big Wednesday,” on the east side of Old Easy. Kelli had yet to pink-point Dancin’, so we resolved to return to that route for her continued efforts and so I could check out the free-climbing possibilities of the roof.

The roof crack was enchanting. There were a pair of good jams at the start and a long reach to a two-finger double-pad hold at the first lip. The gear seemed sketchy, but I managed to get some decent small TCUs in a narrow triangular flare. I pried off a hollow flake, about the size of a loaf of Italian bread and inspected the moves above. Past the first lip, there is a shallow flared hand jam, just above the fingertip bucket, that I could hold, and above this I found a tricky finger jam below the deep exit finger-to-hand-sized crack. I thought it might be possible for me to do it, but I knew it was going to take considerable effort.

For several days each week throughout August, I worked the roof. Sorting out the gear took time and patience. It took weeks for me to have the confidence in my gear to really try hard on this route. The sequence from the beginning all the way up to the lip was so demanding and insecure that I was unable to stop to place gear. This meant that I had to climb well out from my gear, knowing that if my placements failed, I would slam down onto the ledge below. Eventually, I found the right combination of gear to ensure safety and finally I started to try to red-point the route. The sequence I used for the roof seems dependent upon having a long reach. My ape index is 6’6″ and I was able to make several moves to reach a shallow finger jam before cutting my feet. This devious jam is really hard to get well, especially at the full extension of my reach, but it was critical for me to get before cutting my feet, as I was not able to hold the swing with the preceding jams. Over and over I would slip out of the finger jam as my feet cut or when I launched from it dynamically to the jam the exit crack. The aluminum lobes of the cams became deformed and needed to be replaced with fresh units.

The grey bottomed cumulonimbus clouds sped past to the south dragging ragged virga beneath them like the tentacles of jellyfish. Between storms, the thunderous turboprops of C-130s and C-144s from Warren Air Force Base roared overhead periodically casting fleeting shadows upon us on their low passes between the hoodoos, as if monitoring my progress. My fingers were shredded, blood seeped through the tape. I took ibuprofen and wrapped bandaids beneath the tape to mitigate the pain. My left forearm had a chronic ache, like a rotten tooth, from being twisted with all of my might to secure purchase in the flared hand jam that suspended me as I reached desperately over and over and over in vain to jam that tricky little bastard of a finger jam. I gave up. Just about every time I tried it now. But, I knew I hadn’t really given up. I was driven. I wanted this thing so bad, for some reason. Yet, I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. It was so hard for me. Projecting is hard for me, I have trouble dealing with failure. But, finally, it started to click. Then, one time, it happened: from a hang, after the customary fall, somehow, I stuck the sequence and lurched up dynamically from the sliding finger jam to thrust my fingers into the exit crack. I hung there in disbelief and promptly jumped off. It was then I knew it was only a matter of time before I put it together. And, several dozen tries and about a week later, I did just that. I sent.

Now, two days after I made the first ascent of Aluminum Overcast, I’m kind of lost. What now? But, I know, for sure, that there are more secrets to unlock in Vedauwoo, hidden or overlooked amidst the chaotic jumble of savage domes and hoodoos of Sherman Granite. The season is winding down, it’s almost time for the South Platte, the Valley, the sandstone splitters of the desert, and especially for alpine traditional mixed climbing. So, perhaps not this year, but surely sometime soon, I’ll scar my body and shred a bunch of aluminum, but just as surely I’ll rekindle the rigorous sensations of complete immersion in the moment, the place, the spirit of the Voo. I will be re-“Earthborn” (which is what Vedauwoo means). I’ll re-pique the senses dulled from the grinding machinations of life, and thus be better able to confront adversity with a smile and a glint in my eye, because, for me, the joys of experiences like these are essential to a happy life.

IMG_1200-1

“Aluminum Overcast,” the name of this B-17 Flying Fortress

2015-08-14 19.28.39

Slings get shredded and aluminum lobes get deformed, inside and out. Over the summer, I destroyed about five nuts and more than eight cams. The quartz and feldspar of Sherman Granite annihilate aluminum.

IMG_1307-1-2

Working “Aluminum Overcast.” The righthand finicky finger jam is frustratingly devious.

3Q7A1417-4

Sending “Aluminum Overcast.” Cutting the toe and holding the flared jams is challenging.

 

The following was published on ClimbBoulderSki.com on August 3rd:

Vedauwoo (pronounced: vi də vu:), an anglicized phonetic rendering of the Arapahoe word “biito’o’wu” (meaning earthborn), is a jumble of granite domes and hoodoos perched on a plateau beneath the gradual slopes of the Laramie uplift in southeast Wyoming. The stone, known as Sherman Granite, is estimated to have formed 1.4 billion years ago, is remarkably dense and coarse with huge crystals of quartz and feldspar. The unique nature of this granite is immediately evident by picking up a piece of it on the trail—it seems to weigh twice as much as a comparably-sized piece of ordinary granite. The smooth erosion of the formations of this rugged stone is a fine testament to the indefatigability of the incessant Wyoming wind.

As a young climber living on the east coast, I drove past Vedauwoo many times, heading west on climbing road trips. I never stopped. Vedauwoo is often maligned by climbers, and I had always been discouraged with remarks like: it’s all off-widths, the stone is so coarse and sharp you’ll need skin grafts, all the routes are short, etc. But, once I moved to Colorado, I began to visit the Voo (as Vedauwoo is known to the locals). At first, it was hard to get oriented. The formations are chaotic, defying description, rendering the guidebooks somewhat useless. The classics on the main formations were easy to find, but searching for other routes often became wild goose chases.

After a few frustrating trips, I resigned myself to the easy access of Rifle Mountain Park. After all, that’s where all of my friends went every weekend. But, over the years, after gaining invaluable fitness sport climbing and training on plastic, I longed to return to my traditional climbing roots. Vedauwoo became my go-to trad destination. Being an avid winter climber, I found that I essentially missed most of the Colorado Front Range trad climbing season—it’s too hot during the summer in most places around Denver. Vedauwoo is high, at approximately 8,000’ above sea level, so summer is the prime time to climb there. The chaotic configurations of the formations allow for seemingly limitless opportunities to choose aspects to find comfortable climbing conditions in virtually any weather. And, after paying my dues, I didn’t get lost any more.

My good friend and mentor, Jean-Pierre Ouellet, is one of the most accomplished crack climbers in the world. His crack climbing acumen is paralleled by his modesty. “Crack climbing is a weak person’s sport.” He says, “It’s all about angles.” While there is truth to this, jamming is far more complex than merely filling voids with appendages, PeeWee (as Jean-Pierre is known) trains like a comp climber, and is far from weak. I found, much to my surprise, that I was a much better traditional climber now, since I had delved into sport climbing and gym climbing. The contact strength and explosive power garnered payed huge dividends on the cracks, and I found myself able to project some of the finest cracks in the Voo, finally understanding how PeeWee became such an ace.

I love all types of climbing, but there is something more satisfying to me about climbing cracks. I can’t really define what it is that makes climbing cracks such a different experience for me, is it the natural line, the additional element of placing ones own protection. Perhaps it’s simply because when I first became captivated by climbing it was through traditional climbing. I don’t know. I can say, however, that this season of crack climbing in Vedauwoo has been some of the most rewarding and memorable rock climbing experiences of my life. Yes, the routes are short, but what they lack in stature they compensate for with intensity and quality. The rock is sharp and coarse, yes, but these crystals allow for remarkably effective rock shoes. And, yes, there are lots of off-widths, which is not a negative! And, there are scores of finger and hand cracks too, contrary to popular belief.

We are so fortunate to have easy access to this remarkable landscape by virtue of the Medicine Bow National Forest. Let’s keep the good relations that climbers have with the Rangers, pay our day passes, obey the rules, and help keep this wild place clean of trash. Enjoy!

will mayo climbs Glad to be Trad

Glad to Be Trad (5.13), Mineral Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

Looking down the Green River from the base of Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

Looking down the Green River from the base of Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

I loaded Google into my browser one night last week and searched “best cracks in the desert.” Up popped a link to a short film by 3 Strings Productions named “Forgotten Lines” about Steph Davis climbing “Glad to Be Trad.” The film depicts a stunning long splitter first climbed by Steve Hong and Steve Carruthers in 1986. The next day, I saw Steve Hong at Movement Climbing and Fitness in Boulder, CO. It was a Sunday, so I knew he and Stevie Damboise had been rained out in Rifle.

It has been a remarkably wet spring in Colorado. I had spent the past few weeks climbing through the sogginess in Rifle, where the cliffs are steep enough to permit climbing even when it’s raining. But, the ground above the walls had become completely saturated, even the routes that typically stay dry were soaked with runoff.

“Dude, it’s soaked.” Steve said.

I was ready for a break from climbing in the rain, and remembered the video I’d watched the night before. “What’s the deal with Trad is Rad?” I asked.

Steve looked puzzled. But, then his eyes lit up, and he asked “Do you mean Glad to Be Trad?”

He gave me directions, recollected from his and Carruthers’s first ascent almost 30 years ago, in the inimitable Steve Hong taciturn manner, “Just look up, it’s the long perfect dihedral.” He told me to lay the corner back, and said as I turned and hurried away to load up the van and the jeep, “Good luck!”

I sent Kelli a text message, “The weather forecast in Rifle looks awful. Do you want to go find a Steve Hong super-splitter outside of Moab instead?” She was finishing up her shift at the hospital; we had planned to leave that evening to go sport climbing for a few days.

“Sure!” she responded immediately. “Redneck safari?”

Gearing up with the route in the background. Photo: Kelli Rayburn.

Gearing up with the route in the background. Photo: Kelli Rayburn.

After driving through the night, miraculously we found a vacant site in the Horse Thief Campground just as dawn broke. We slept for a few hours, then hauled the jeep behind the van down the broiler plate Mineral Bottom Rd. to the top of the switchbacks. We parked the van, unloaded the jeep from the trailer, tossed our duffels in the back, fired it up, and idled down the dizzying switchbacks beginning crack-climbers’ safari. Before long, the line came into view overhead, just as Steve said it would: a stunning seemingly laser-cut fissure in the center of the buttress. We parked and frantically loaded our cams into our packs and hustled up to the base. The closer we came to the line the more compelling the line appeared. Honestly, it’s the most beautiful pitch of crack climbing I have ever seen. The gently overhanging corner-crack begins as a two inch splitter and gradually tapers down to one inch along the first 35 meters to where it ends and is capped with a bulge with a with a bolt. Above the bulge, the crack re-appears and continues though an overhang as a jagged 3/4 inch straight-in splitter for 10 meters to where the angle eases and the crack narrows to 1/2 inch for the last 5 meters to a two-bolt anchor.

Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

Over the next few days we cleaned the route, swept a thin film of pasty sand from the walls of the corner with a push-broom and cleaned the crack itself with a toilet-bowl brush, and worked the route on top-rope. The crux is the splitter at the top, just too tight for my fingers to fit in entirely, but there are just enough flares and tiny irregularities in the crack to allow me to climb it.

Leading the initial section of the corner. Photo: Will Mayo Collection

Leading the initial section of the corner. Photo: Will Mayo Collection

After a rest day, on my fourth day of effort, I sent the rig on my first go. The crux came together for me: I didn’t place too much protection, I didn’t hesitate, I just turned my mind off and climbed it. The moments were among those most treasured as a climber: when the fear, uncertainty and dread of the difficulties, the possibility of failure, and the pain are overcome by the joy, optimism and desire for the perfection of the dance, the will to succeed and the confidence to run it out like one’s life depends on it . . . and to pull it off, but only just. As I reached the last moves below the anchor, my arms were tingling with reduced dexterity from a terminal pump, I tried to stay calm as I rushed through the last moves, clipped the bolts and screamed in euphoria. This route satisfies.

The route is clean and the sweet spots in the splitter are ticked. If you like hard sandstone cracks, drop everything and GO CLIMB THIS ROUTE!

Gear: (5) #1 Camalots, (6) #.75 Camalots, (5) #.5 Camalots, (4) #.4 Camalots, (1) #.3 Camalot, (1) #1 TCU.

Close up of Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

Close up of Glad to Be Trad. Will Mayo Collection.

Getting there: 9 miles north of Moab on Highway 191, take Route 313 south toward the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. After 12 miles, immediately past the Horse Thief Campground, turn right onto Mineral Bottom Rd. Follow Mineral Bottom Rd. for 11.9 miles where the road follows a series of steep exposed switchbacks down into the canyon. Travel beyond this point without a high-clearance vehicle is not recommended. At the bottom of the switchbacks there is a left turn (going straight leads to a popular boat access to the Green River). The coordinates of the left turn are: 38.52N/110.01W. Continue along the road for approximately 2.9 miles (this distance was a time/speed calculation using an old speedometer, so must be taken with a grain of salt). The road follows the river along a nearly 180 degree meander, though it feels like one is going straight the entire time. The wall will come into view on the left. Park along the road a wide flat section just past the wall. The coordinates are: 38.50N/110.03W. If a cattle guard is reached with a wooden sign indicating the boundary of Canyonlands National Park, you have gone about a mile too far. Hike up the toward the gully below the right side of the route and then move left onto the shoulder directly below the route and make straight for it.

Afterwards, I found out that Karl Kelley just came out with a really well-done guide to the Moab area which includes this route called “High on Moab.” His directions concur pretty well with mine.

Also, technically, this route is just outside of Canyonlands National Park on US Bureau of Land Management property. As such, it is permissible to camp down in the canyon near the route. Regardless, let’s be respectful of this delicate natural area and minimize our impacts when we enjoy this magical wild place!

Thanks to Kelli Rayburn, the friendly rangers at Canyonlands National Park, Steve Hong, Petzl, La Sportiva, Julbo, and CiloGear.

Free Climbing the Moonlight Buttress

The Moonlight Buttress, Zion National Park, UT

The Moonlight Buttress, Zion National Park, UT

Spring arrived and the nerve damage from the savage Newfoundland winter subsided, gradually all of the feeling returned to my fingertips. I trained hard in the rock gym, trying to strengthen my fingers, weakened from a winter of clutching ice tools. I climbed in the familiar canyon of Rifle Mountain Park in Colorado, clipping bolts, always a good way to get into rock climbing shape. I love Rifle, but I longed for something new, a longer rock climb, something more adventurous, less familiar. I woke one morning and my first thought was of the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. For decades I have wanted to see this mythical one thousand foot pillar of Navaho sandstone and try to climb the famous singular crack that bisected it. I had only been to Zion in the winter to climb ice in remote box canyons, so I had never seen the big-walls around Angel’s Landing. It was all new to me.

My friend and crack-climbing phenomenon, Jean-Pierre Ouellet, was visiting Colorado from Quebec and needed a belay on Jason Haas’s new crack test-piece in the South Platte, so I made the drive to meet him early one Sunday morning and we made the hour’s walk into the back country to the site of the crack. Along the way, I asked PeeWee (as Jean-Pierre is widely known) about ring-lock jamming secrets, his training regimen, and his favorite routes. The Moonlight Buttress came up, and he encouraged me to try it, giving me pitch-by-pitch beta and a precise gear rack (which turned out to be absolutely accurate: two double runners, six locking carabiners, four draws, two runners, one #1 camalot, one #.75 camalot, eight #.5 camalots, six #.4 camalots, four #.3 camalots, four #1 TCUs, one #0 TCU and a few mid-sized nuts).

Gear for the crux pitch, from left to right.

Gear for the crux pitch, from left to right.

PeeWee nearly sent, and we hiked out in the heat of the day, continuing our conversation, catching up about all that has happened since I left the East coast five years ago. When we fell silent, I found myself reminiscing quietly about the late Guy Lacelle (who PeeWee and most Quebecois climbers, as well as myself, considered to be a surrogate father), remembering how kind he had been to me when I was the only Anglo at the Quebec Cup Mixed Climbing Competition. PeeWee has always treated me with this same Quebecois friendliness and magnanimity that helped me to consider myself an honorary ice climbing local of Quebec. I took his encouragement about the Moonlight Buttress as an auspicious sign, in light of my recent thoughts about it, and I decided that now was the time to try it.

Jean-Pierre and I parted, he was remaining out in the South Platte to continue to work the route alone with a Mini-Traxion. That afternoon, I drove home to Erie, took a nap, and woke up to Kelli arriving after a twelve hour shift at the hospital. She was packed up, expecting to drive to Moab for a few days of single-pitch crack climbing in Indian Creek. I told her we were going to Zion. She was perplexed. Neither she nor I had climbed sandstone cracks in more than a year. And Kelli was reluctant to jump on one of a big-wall-sized variety. “Listen.” I said, “If we always just go to the Creek, we’ll always just get obsessed with projects there and we’ll never go to Zion. It will be too hot soon. Let’s just go get on it, demystify it. We’ll get fit in the process.”

We drove to Rifle that night to break up the trip and climbed there the next day. That night we drove to Kolob Canyon in Northwestern Zion, slept, and climbed the amazing overhanging sandstone hueco sport routes set by Conrad Anker in the late 80s. That night, we completed the drive to the South entrance of Zion National Park and miraculously found a vacant campsite in the middle of the night.

We slept late and I woke up realizing my sore throat now felt like full-blown strep. I went to the doctor in Hurricane, and was told it was a virus. I took some ibuprofen and we took the shuttle bus to the Big Bend lot, shouldered our packs, waded the river, and made the twenty minute approach to the wall. We climbed the first three pitches: 5.10a, 5.10c, 5.11c and rappelled off before dark to catch the final shuttle bus back to camp.

The next morning, we returned to the base at around eleven to give the crux pitches above time to receive the afternoon shade. We re-climbed the first three pitches, and continued up the fourth (5.10a) and fifth (5.11d) pitches to a hanging belay beneath the crux lie-back corner that comprises the sixth pitch (5.12d). I failed to on-sight it, and we worked the pitch repeatedly on top rope for the remainder of the afternoon.

The belays are comfortable notwithstanding the fifth and sixth.

The belays are comfortable notwithstanding the fifth and sixth.

The next day, we returned, and though exhausted from our four previous days of climbing, we re-climbed the first five pitches, and I led the crux pitch second try. We rappelled, took the bus back to Canyon Junction, and drove straight through the night back to Erie, CO for ten hours, arriving at dawn. Kelli went to work and I flew back to Vermont that afternoon for a week in the office, spending time with my daughters and training in the gym on boulders, a hang board, with weights and treadmill.

I returned on Sunday and Kelli and I drove through the night, arriving in Zion at dawn. We slept a few hours and took the shuttle bus to the Grotto in order to hike around to the top of the Buttress. Since I had failed to do the route on-sight, I figured we might as well try to expedite the process of trying to free it in a day by working the upper pitches from the top down. After all, there were four more pitches of 5.12 cracks above the crux pitch. My friend and mentor, Rich Romano, happened to be in Zion for the week, and he joined us for the hike up to the top of the buttress that morning. Having Rich there as we rappelled down from the top felt like another good omen, Rich’s presence, like PeeWee’s encouragement, was a blessing.

We either flashed on lead or succeeded to top rope all of the upper pitches cleanly that day, sharing the wall with three gracious aid climbing parties, two of which were planning to bivouac on the wall. We resolved to give them a day to complete their climbs and also to give ourselves a day to rest before trying a free one-day ascent.

Wading the river before dawn.

Wading the river before dawn.

And, the day after next, we sent. We didn’t hurry, but we climbed with a steady tempo. We made the approach before dawn, began climbing at first light, and topped out ten hours later, having climbed ten pitches (we linked pitches ten and eleven into one). I fell once, on the first .12d section of the crux sixth pitch, lowered to the belay, pulled the rope, and sent second try. All of the other pitches went down first try. I agree with the SuperTopo ratings: .10a, .10c, .11c, .10a, .11d, .12d, .12a, .12a, .12b, .12a, and .10b.

Blazing saddles on the crux sixth pitch (5.12d).

Blazing saddles on the crux sixth pitch (5.12d).

The Moonlight Buttress is the best rock climb I have ever done.

Pitch 7 (5.12a).

Pitch 8 (5.12a).

Pitch 9 (5.12b).

Pitch 9 (5.12b).

Summit.

Summit.

Thanks to Jeff Lowe for having the vision to climb this route, both on the first ascent as well as on the nearly first free ascent, Kelli, Jean-Pierre, Rich, all of the new and old friends we met along the way, the accommodating people of the National Park Service, La Sportiva, Petzl, Julbo and CiloGear.