(5- 10 minute read)
I’d made a mistake and set myself up to hit the ground 20 meters below.
If this set of cam clusters rip it is going to hurt… a lot.
The sweeping red walls of Escalante Canyon, on the western slope of Colorado between Grand Junction and Montrose, spanned the horizon but I could only focus on the half-meter of soft sandstone in front of me. My nails split as I torqued into the locks, trying to place the final nest of three small pieces in the fingertip crack. I started to shake as I struggled to slot the first cam. I’d already broken two pieces on previous attempts when I’d pitched from the top of the final runout to the chains. Luckily, each time I fell one of the three cams always stayed put.
After getting the first gear, a .2/.1 offset TCU from Black Diamond, I reached for the second piece of gear and realized I’d made a major mistake. I’d broken my second camming unit, a .1 X4, in a burst of wires and frayed rock on an earlier attempt and instead borrowed the only small piece of gear available, a 0 green C3 fromMayan Smith-Gobat, one of my partners at the crag. It seemed comparable on the ground, but I might as well have brought up a Yosemite Giant for all the good it was doing me. I dropped it to the ground 17 meters below.
A surge of adrenaline hit as I realized that my three poor placements now dwindled to only two. Desperate now, I attempted to cram the tiny nut into place, realizing that if I fell I’d likely rip the top half of the pitch and crater 20 meters into a red dirt nap. The nut refused to lodge more than halfway into the rock and I was too pumped out to make it work. Apparently; there really can be only one– that’s a Highlander reference for those who don’t know. I pushed the one cam deeper into the crack and tried to clear my head. The final sequence loomed—the most technical and scariest section. My eyes shifted to the right of the crack.
Three weeks before I began working this open project, bright and shiny bolts had been added. I glanced again at my shitty nut and cam placement then back at the bolt.
What to do? Was the route really worth a helicopter ride to the hospital or death?
“You got this!” Mayan Smith-Gobat yelled from below. Mayan, a renowned sport and trad climber has ticked 5.14 and holds the women’s speed record for the Nose on El Capitan. If I decked it wouldn’t be because of my belayer.
“Get it Ben!” Chris Righter encouraged. A local to the area– Chris is one of the most unsung hero’s from Western Colorado. A silent crusher based out of Montrose, his mental game forged in the Black Canyon has gained him countless first ascents and repeats of some of the most scary shit I’ve ever seen.
I turned my eyes back to the cam, took a deep breath and entered the final sequence. The edge of the crack crumbled as I set my next jam, but I was committed– no bolts.
Over 600 million years a small river carved the ruby red canyon system into the Wingate sandstone of the Southern Colorado Plateau. With dedication and time the stone became sculpted into ruby-red cliff lines that seem endless. During the 1970’sdesert legends such as Jimmy Dunn, Jim Newberry, Chuck Grossman, John Hulett and Eric Bjornstad discovered the beauty and difficulty of the 70 meter walls; only using stacked hexes and slings they gained the rim of some of the most terrifying stone. Pitons were rarely used—even chalk was shunned. So staunch were their early standards that they ignored most single pitch routes because they didn’t top out. This set the tone of the canyon’s new routes.
Decades after those early outings the invention cams, single-pitch climbing became an acceptable focus. Climbing and Escalante evolved. Cams made many of the old routes safe and fun, and anchors began to spring up on splitters that had previously been finished to the rim.
However; the older conservative approach to the canyon refused to change. As a result anchors disappeared and then reappeared. This constant flux and inability to agree started an unspoken bolt war between the die hard traditionalists and the more liberal approach. Sometimes while new routing it’s easier to hack off your leg with a rusty spoon than it is to keep both sides happy.
This is complex issue. And it’s dumb.
That’s right… DUMB!
The future of traditional climbing doesn’t have to include a death sentence to still be heady and scary. It also doesn’t need to be grid bolted to be safe. Take for example Sonnie Trotter and The Path 5.13+ R. A bolted project that he was able to get the first ascent of on gear– the very idea! So– after the bolts came out due to his different ability and vision.
Which raises the question: Does one rise to challenge of the route potentially having to abandon the first ascent for future generations or is it ok to create a safer climb to establish the route and push climbing?
December 2012. My head bumped gently against the window of Rob Pizem’s Chevy Silverado as it jolted from side to side on worn shocks—a motion I’d come to equate with crossing an imaginary border from civilized sport climbing to dirty nasty trad.
“You hung over today?” Rob laughed.
Rob was a school teacher from Ohio and father of two that moved to Grand Junction– also a sponsored climber that pushed hard and heady desert trad. He’d caught me in a weak moment in life and I’d typically show up reeking of whiskey in a self-medicated attempt to nurse a bad break-up. He took pity or he needed a body on the other end of the rope.
“Where are we?” I muttered still half asleep.
“Escalante Canyon.” Piz laughed in disbelief.
Escalante Canyon? Trad climbing. Sandstone? Dread washed over me like the dust settling over a nearby dilapidated cabin. Images from an old western movie flickered through my imagination—you know the one where John Wayne steps through the saloon door andblows the mouthy drunk off his feet. Guess which one I would be?
“Let’s go. I only have so many days off work for this,” Rob said.
“I’ll just be top roping,” I groaned. “I’ve never placed a cam.”
Escalante crack climbing is hard and there is nothing incredibly aesthetic to it at first—if ever. Just a bunch of groveling and frustration as jams slip, feet pop and rock breaks. Rob introduced me to a classic route called S-Crack aptly named after its arcing “s” shape. I’d never fought so hard for a 5.10. I sat on gear, moaned, whinged in pain as my feet went numb in jams from my downturned too tight sport shoes. I was scraped from elbows to finger tips trying to navigate the basic hand jams, fist jams and number-4 offwidth. This ass-kicking set the tone for the day and by the end of it I lashed out like a cornered stray-dog.
“What the fuck, Rob, why I am here?”
“You’re here to improve your climbing,” he said calmly. “You’re here to do something new. You’re here to work your weakness. You’re here to learn. If you want to quit just quit, simple.”
Well I didn’t quit. Instead I immersed myself with reckless abandon and accepted that I was just going to suck for a long time. Over the next few months my weekly punishment came in the form of gobies, cracked scabs, and blistered feet. That was when Rob introduced me to my first difficult project. The Cobra Roof.
An old aid line that climbed through the center of an arcing roof.
“How long have you been working on this?” I asked.
“For a little while; but I am getting close.” Rob smiled.
Rob navigated the sandstone line. Only 25 meters of climbing from the ground to the chains. The project broke down to two separate sections each marked by a difficult boulder problem; and Rob made it all look fairly simple. At this point I knew that I was stronger than Rob and I could potentially make quick work of this “project”.
Maybe even get the First Free Ascent.
Chalked and loaded I blasted through the first half of the route with relative ease. If I could do anything it was climb hard for small sections– I bouldered dammit! That was when the final roof loomed over me. With a few deep breathes I entered the final sequence.
I couldn’t do a single move! For over an hour I struggled and eventually made it one meter. Defeated and severely humbled I grabbed on cams and aided my way to the chains. Distraught I was lowered to the soft red earth.
“What the hell just happened?”
“Well, you’re about to learn what hard crack climbing is about.” Rob smiled.
We both fought hard for the Cobra Roof Project and Rob red pointed it an entire year ahead of me. He called it The Frank Zappa Appreciation Society (5.13+). We all called it Zappa.
The Zappa Project became a cutting-edge first free ascent on desert stone and a catalyst for the exploration of difficult previously un-freed climbs that were thought to be impossible. Which eventually led us to one thin seam that still needed attention—a gem that sat in plain sight, but was shrouded in mystery and folklore.
Twenty feet to left of one of the most popular routes in Escalante, Passion For Pumping (5.11+), lay a seemingly simple finger crack. From the ground it looked like perfect fingers. For years strong climbers had swung over from Passion to try and top rope the thin offset seam and quickly discovered that there was nothing simple about it. In fact there wasn’t a single finger lock. The crack was dirty and the majority of the climbing involved tips jams in .2 cam-sized crack, or smaller. I asked the local crowd for route information but got nothing but rumors.
“Chuck Grossman did it years ago. In tennis shoes.”
“Jim Neweberry climbed up, then down climbed it.”
Most people just said, “It’s a project.”
December 2015. The morning sun arced over the canyon rim and shone directly on the wall. Crisp winter air carried the smells of cattle and horses. Rob had been working the Cabin Wall project on and off for the last three years, and after some testing and difficult decisions decided that the route was unprotectable by traditional gear and bolted the line.
At first I agreed with the bolts. The route could be safely free climbed with them, but as I worked the route, a nagging doubt was present; and a piece of me felt wrong clipping the shiny bolts. I felt like I wasn’t rising to the challenge that the route was offering– instead I was taking the easy way out and dumbing it down. This became unacceptable.
So– I found and experimented with gear placements that, although marginal, seemed to hold.
I used the “screamer” method—three cams non-equalized. The top most piece was placed in what I thought would be a “bomb-proof” placement and then two other pieces underneath as back ups just in case.
If the first ripped, the second would receive less force and if that ripped then the third would catch. At least that’s what I hoped. I am sure there’s a technical name to this, but I liked the “screamer method” aptly named after me screaming like a little child as a piece ripped– besides it would be my broken back so I’ll call it whatever the hell I want.
Over the course of several days I placed marginal pieces into the rock looking for the perfect combination of stone and metal. The character of the route only allowed for three places to stop and place my little gear nests, and each one was 3 to 6 meters of climbing between them. The placements themselves weren’t even simple plug and chug– they were as technical as the route trying to slot them into the perfect position. If you missed the placement by a few centimeters they would just blow.
I took some test whippers backed up by Rob’s bolts—two long slings clipped beneath the gear clusters. I tested each nest of gear and advanced up the route to discover that the gear held—
Lucky me! I get to climb the project on scary and potentially deadly placements!
I wished that they didn’t so that I could go back to the bolts.
Which led to my moment of doubt as I sat pumped silly, contemplating the crux below the chains. What was I willing to risk? Were the old-school Escalante ethics relevant anymore? Was a bolt-less ascent in this day and age even important? Was it worth injury or worse? How bad did I want it?
I skipped the bolt. The crack crumbled as I brought my foot even with my hands and tried to shift onto the last foot smear. Four meters above my placement I launched into the last jam. My pinky slid into position but I choked as I felt it creep slowly out of the crack. I didn’t generate enough momentum to lock solidly and I was slipping.
I could count my heartbeats as my arms began to give up, that stupid .2/.1 off-set in rotten rock lurched into my thoughts. Frantic, I abandoned reason and jumped toward the final hand jam. Blood wetted my lower lock as it started to slide but I felt the grit of the stone bite my upper hand as it slid into the final lock and my left foot slipped. But I remained on the rock. Quickly, just before I flamed out, I clipped the chains and a wave of nausea coursed through my body.
I lowered and cleaned the route and saw that the piece I’d placed probably would have held.
I sat at the base for a long time thinking over the long process and spent months after in deep contemplation. I’d managed what was likely the first ascent of the route and it was on pure gear– no bolts. Should I remove them? I’d used them after all, even if I never weighted them during the trad process. And Piz, who has climbed in Escalante as much as anyone, taught me to crack climb and inspired my focus for the route. Besides he had placed the bolts only after much debate. I felt guilt. Does one rise to the challenge of the route? There is an ethical dilemma here as Pure Pressure 5.14- R was explored with bolts. Crack and bolts? To bolt or not to bolt? What is the right answer? Was there an answer? What would Sonnie Trotter do!?
Fuck it… I ripped the bolts.
Ben Rueck is a professional climber from Grand Junction, CO.