Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tears in the Desert

My knee twisted, crackled, and I crumpled onto the iron rock. The pain shot into my joint.

“Are you going to be ok?” Thomosina asked. The half dozen people around me stared in sympathy. None of them had spotted. It was my second day of a planned four week climbing trip in Hueco Tanks, Texas. It would be my last day climbing. I should have asked for a spot on See Spot Run (V6).

I was unsure how I should respond to Thomasina’s question. What was my long time friend looking for? Did she want an actual answer or was she looking for reassurance? In the future sense- yes- I would be ok. It’s not like I fell a hundred feet climbing without a rope, and even if I had, I would be “ok.” But did my knee hurt? Did I just drive 1200 miles to tear a ligament? Did I need surgery, insurance, or the money to afford both? Did I think I was ok?

“I’ll be ok.” I tried to reassure her but I didn’t know myself. I stood up gingerly, testing the uncertain strength of my knee. I could walk but it hurt. I wished I had something to support me. I hobbled around grabbing my climbing shoes. I walked slowly and painfully to the parking lot and Max’s van. I laid on his foam and plywood bed, propped my leg on a duffle bag of his camera gear, and swallowed some Vicodin. I would be ok- in the future sense. At the moment, there was no future sense; there was just pain in my knee. Max and Thomasina, my climbing partners, would be out bouldering the rest of the day. I wanted to fester in the desert.

I’m not sure why he came up to me. Perhaps, he saw a man unable to move, someone who couldn’t leave when he talked. He stood next to the open door of the Toyota Previa while I shifted, trying to find a comfortable place to rest my rapidly swelling knee. Chris would be 18 and “a real man” the next day. He wore a ribbed white tank top, a wife-beater, and a pair of jean shorts that barely hung above his crotch. That’s what real men wear in El Paso. I told him I hurt my knee and wasn’t climbing. Then he talked to my blank face.

“I don’t feel like climbing either,” he chained smoked three cigarettes. Smoking is a socially acceptable form of suicide and Chris wanted to speed up the process. Wrought with the clichés of an angst ridden 17 year old, the sterotype of the bad kid in the after school special, Chris talked about the three different juvenile detention centers he’d been to, about the bruises he got from foster care homes, and about how horrible his life was.

“I met a man with cancer the other day.” His cheeks ballooned like he was going to exhale more Marlboro Light smoke. Nothing significant escaped his lips. It was like he was faking a burp. “I told him I would trade lives with him in a moment. I don’t care if I die in two months. The only thing I live for is mi hermana.” All he wanted was to buy her a guitar and a pony. Growing up, his family didn’t love him. They never said, “Mijo we love you,” or “Chris, you are special.” There wasn’t much love in the Texas desert. He couldn’t let his little princess live the same way.

That’s when he started crying. That’s when I started texting. I asked a friend in town if she would grab me a knee brace on her way back from El Paso. I punched the keys into my phone and stared over the Verizon wireless “sending” signal. A tear drop flowed from his right eye and down his chin. He didn’t wipe it. Another stream of water fell down the left side of his face. He didn’t wipe that off either. The reception was poor; I couldn’t receive any signals. The tears reminded me that I needed ice for my knee. I texted my friend again. Sitting around crying about my problems wouldn’t fix them. I needed to be active about my healing, get some help, and get things going. The messages were starting to go through.

At 4pm, an hour and a half after he began talking, he said, “Now, I am going to go climbing.” He faked burped again. He seemed to feel better. I was jealous- I wanted to go climbing. My knee hurt worse than when he had shown up. It would be awhile before I could climb. I did what I could to help the healing- I let go of the feelings I had, I relaxed my mind, and I waited. Healing is a slow process.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Handsome Cover Model

I baked a vegan apple pie, a regular apple pie, a sweet potato pie, a ham, and then helped with the turkey, the food prep, and the cleanup of a meal for 17-20 rock climbers in Bishop. Well, Kim did half the work. I can't take credit for all of it.

Between the truffles and the pie, Eric said, "So, you're on the cover of the new Rock & Ice and you haven't even sent the route that you were on."

"Nope," I replied. I tried Bob Jensen's Easter Island 5.12c/d on Phobos Deimos Cliff in Toulumne three times but quit when I tore a huge flapper in my finger. "But I can always go back to the route and send it. And if I don't," I looked at Eric, "I'll still be on the cover."

I figured Eric was a little jealous. Everyone wants to be on the cover of a magazine. The reality is that your friends will give you shit and the only people in your fan club will be 30 year old dudes. Climbers are an insecure lot. Yesterday, Kim and I went to Rio's Crack to try the v6 boulder problem. I thought it would climb like a crack with finger locks. I thought I would crush it. I thought wrong. Whatever. An Asian girl from the bay, started spraying as soon as we got there.

"Well, I've been working on 9s and 10s for the past few months but haven't done this one because it's really hard," she tossed her hair back. "I've done Flyboy sit (I was supposed to know that was V8), and High Plains Drifter (I was supposed to know that was V7) and this thing is really hard. I'm just trying to wrap up the lower grade problems that I haven't done."

She reeked of insecurity. I had an immediate desire, not to offer encouragement or support, to start posturing. "These moves are totally harder than the ones on Big Baby (a 5.11 offwidth in Inidian Creek Utah), and the Westie Face of Leaning Tower (a 5.13 bigwall in Yosemite)." I didn't say that though because she wouldn't understand whatI was talking about. A more appropriate response would have been, "I've been on the cover of Martha Stewart's Home living, and I totally won the chess tournament the US government sponsored in Russia last year, I don't know why I can't do this problem!" Instead I didn't say anything.

Let people deal with their own insecurities and I'll deal with my own.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tales from the Lodge

"Sit here, ok?" The younger woman took her mother and sat her down next to Fidelman, who was twirling his ankle and tapping on his computer at the Yosemite Lodge. "I'm gonna go look for Charles mom. I don't know where him and the kids went. You're gonna stay here okay?"

"Ok Kelsey," the old woman croaked.

"So just stay here mom." Kelsey looked around the room. "I'll find them and then be back in just a minute. Don't go anywhere ok?"

"Ok," the old woman shifted in her seat.

"I'll be right back. Stay here. Do not leave. You might get lost in the woods." Kelsey headed out the back door of the Lodge.

"There you are mom!" A man walked in through the front door of the Lodge. "We've been looking all over for you. Where's Kelsey?"

"Charles, she told me to stay here," she whispered. "She'll be right back. She's looking for you."

"Well, come out and get in the car." Charles helped the old woman out of her seat. "We'll find Kelsey."

"But she said to stay here.” The old woman shuffled as Charles ushered her towards the door. “She said she'd be right back."

Fidelman, a long time Yosemite local, twirled his ankle and tapped at his computer. He paid enough attention to note the tourist antics and that they were leaving out the front door.

Two minutes later, Kelsey walked in to the Lodge from the back door. "Mom?" She spun around the room. "Mom? Where are you?" She ran to the back door, turned around, then headed to the front. “Oh my god!”

Kelsey ran up to Fidelman. “Did you see an old woman leave? Do you know which way she went?”

Fidelman looked up from his computer. He nodded his head. “She left.”

“Oh my god!” Kelsey cried. “She's probably lost. She probably got eaten by a bear. Which way did she go? Where did she go?”

Fidelman twirled his ankle and pointed to the back door. “Oh, she went that way.”
Kelsey ran out the back door and Fidelman burst into laughter. “I’m going to hell for that,”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scott Frye: Behind the Paddle

I thought this was a pretty funny interview that I did with Scott Frye for the Touchstone Gym blog.

Eying his opponent from across the nine foot long table, Scott crouched and spun his paddle. The small white ball volleyed towards him. Scott blasted sideways. His paddle smashed the ball. The hit gave the ball topspin and accelerated it towards his opponent in a finalizing blow.

Frye's Coach Xin, 9 year old national champion and Frye's sparring partner Kevin Lee, and Scott Frye

Scott Frye is no ordinary ping pong player. The 53 year old Berkeley native and Touchstone Climbing Gym stock boy is also a father in the era of modern sport climbing. With the same obsession that he now plays ping pong with, he once climbed with.

In 1973, a fifteen year old Frye headed to Yosemite with Nat Smale. The pair had a carpenter’s hammer, a handful of pins, serious desire, and a lack of know-how. Using Steve Roper’s Green Guide to Yosemite they made an ascent of Church Bowl’s Aunt Fanny’s Pantry (5.6) and then attempted Black is Brown, a 5.9 and one of the hardest routes in Yosemite at the time. By trading off their one pair of climbing shoes, Frye made it to a ledge halfway up the two pitch route. Nat followed and arriving at the anchor turned white as a ghost. “Don’t move!” Nat said. He then pulled out every pin that Frye had placed with his hands. Smale quickly rebuilt the anchor. On the drive home from their near death experience, they ran off the Priest Grade road. “We went from one near death experience to another,” Frye said of the trip. Frye went back to Yosemite though and began climbing more. In 1976 with 1” tubular webbing tied around his waist, the hard old school EB shoes, and a few hexentrics, Scott lead the hands and fingers splitter Lunatic Fringe (5.10c). The climb was the hardest lead of his life. “I wouldn’t give that up for anything,” Frye said of his traditional beginnings.

At the same time that he was learning to climb the difficult cracks of Yosemite, Frye was also bouldering at Berkeley’s Indian Rock. Looking to establish something different than the sandbagged problems of Indian Rock, Frye, along with John Sherman, Harrison Dekker, and Nat Smale, ventured to the steeper stone of Mortar Rock. The overhanging rhyolite hadn’t been touched and the posse of boulderers found a series of small crimps that traversed the wall in an obvious but imposing line. “No one thought it was possible, “said Frye. They tried it anyway. Smale, the strongest of the group fought through the difficulties and established Nat’s Traverse (V8). The second ascent eluded the other climbers for a year, until Frye finally got strong enough. “All of us trained to keep up with Nat. “Frye said. Though he did a significant amount of bouldering in the bay area including the 1978 first ascent of Mortar Rock’s Jungle Fever (V8), Frye’s love for trad climbing kept him heading to Yosemite.

The Valley ethic ran strong through Frye but the bouldering at Mortar Rock pushed him towards climbing on sandstone, basalt, and limestone. “The transition from trad climbing to sport was huge, huge, huge.” Frye said. The genesis for bay area sport climbing began at Mickey’s beach, where the technical nature of the rock left the climbers wondering what to do. “Weighting the rope, even top roping was considered cheating. I didn’t want to hangdog and I brow beat people who did,” said Frye. Harrison Dekker, a bay area hard man, helped Frye break through the psychological crux of the movement. While the pair worked on Dreams of White Porsches at Mickey’s Beach, Decker noted that to send the climb they would need to break it down into little boulder problems and hang on the rope in between. The pair discovered that what the French climbers were saying at the time was true, “You could climb harder, longer sequences if you worked it out.” With these tactics, Frye traveled across the US and established new difficult sport climbs.

Scott Frye during his heyday as the Indian Rock Lowball Master photo courtesy of Harrison Dekker

Many of the hardest rock climbs of the day were put up by Frye including Rifle Colorado’s Living in Fear (5.13d/5.14a), Donner Summit’s Steep Climb Named Desire (5.13d), the Virgin River Gorge’s Dude (5.13c), and the Marin Coast’s Surf Safari (5.14a). His traditional ethics never left him while he sport climbed and he remains an advocate of minimal impact. One of the things he laments is all the fixed draws at places like Donner Summit’s Star Wall, where Steep Climb resides. Talking about his first ascent ethics he noted that back in the day, “If a route was 60 % bolts we’d just make it 100%.” Unfortunately one of the natural digressions in climbing is a conversion from bolts to fixed chains. At the Star Wall, the six foot long metal chains can be seen from the nearby Pacific Crest Trail. “As a non climber walking up and seeing that I would be offended,” Frye said. “If I had known it would go that way, I would have put less bolts and more gear in.”

At 44, Frye finally returned to the home of his traditional beginning but this time he went to Yosemite to boulder. Though he had been around for the first ascent of Thriller, he had always stayed away from the smalls rocks. “When people started to just boulder in Yosemite I thought they were crazy. It was a strange concept- to drive all that way just to boulder,” said Frye. Ironworks hardmen, Paul Barraza and Tim Medina finally convinced Frye to explore the smaller stones. From the next 7 years, until Frye was 51, he bouldered constantly and rediscovered his love for climbing. Frye made an ascent of Thriller (V10) and the next year sent Midnight Lightning (V8) at the ages of 44 and 45 respectively. “I guess I just waited for the pad technology,” he said.

Frye climbing at Grizzly Peak in Berkeley

Frye has supported his endeavors through work in the climbing industry. He briefly experienced the “luxurious life” of a sponsored athlete but he found stability in the climbing gym industry. He has worked for Touchstone for over a decade as the retail assistant/shipping and receiving clerk. Frye works the morning shifts at the Touchstone retail warehouse at the Ironworks gym. “Working with Patti (Phillips the retail manager) and the Melvins (the Touchstone Founders) is a great job,” Frye said. Frye, who has worked with Touchstone for 10 years, credited the Melvins with helping a number of climbers and the climbing community on a grand scale. “There are not enough good things you can say about the Melvins,” Frye said. The Touchstone stock boy ships guidebooks, harnesses, a lot of chalk, and a ton of climbing shoes to the five different Touchstone gyms. Occasionally, Frye escapes the retail warehouse at Ironworks to mentor the older crew of climbers at the gym. “I teach them to flag and climb more dynamically- so it’s not like they’re climbing on the Eiger on frozen ice.”

Frye’s newest obsession is ping pong or more accurately known as table tennis. Though he has played for his whole life, he has focused on the sport in the past few years. Frye plays 5 to 6 days a week, runs topspin, underspin, and curve drills every other day, pays for a Chinese coach, has a mentor, and teaches a youth team. Frye also practices and trains with the kids. When they do fitness runs, he ignores his bum knee and follows them around on his scooter. “I’m having so much fun with it, trying to realize the skill set of an Olympic event,” Frye said.

These days, the little he climbs is in the gym, where he cross trains for ping pong. “It’s a funny thing, “Frye said. “After climbing for 30 years and looking back at it all, there’s one thing I wish I had done- climb more.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Squamish Days

If they knew how many black berries I would be stealing I doubt that they would have let me into their country. Canadians are a friendly bunch, especially those in Squamish, B.C. but no one likes to have all their fruit stolen. Kim and I kept a mindul eye out for the mountie filled two large tupperware containers with the fruit from behind the downtown grocery store. It was pleasant work- pick one, eat one, pick one, eat one, eat one, pick one, eat one, pick one, and repeat. Somehow, my container seemed to fill much slower than Kim's.

Thomasina spends most of her free time sewing these days. She sewed a black bag with a picture of Snoopy on it and the phrase "I'm kind of a big deal." I carry all of my bouldering supplies in it when we have climbed in the forest. That night, Tim, Kim, Dirty Bird, and I, went over to where Thomasina and Cedar are staying, she sewed a new patch on my ripped pants for me, while I baked a black berry pie.

Over pie and ice cream, I picked a cowboy patch for my pants to cover the enormous tear, that I got from bouldering at Way Lake. Climbing near Mammoth over two months ago, had been the last time that I wrestled little pebbles, and when I got to Squamish, I felt rather weak. I would like to say that the weakness left. I would also like to say that I am a billionaire. Unfortunately, I can say both but saying them does not make them come true. My cowboy patch made me feel tough though and I managed to make a decent attack on the native rocks.

The arete bulges high above the granite on the Squaw. Just to the right, is the notorious ffwidth Pipeline- a testpiece that I had taken an enormous lob off of my first summer in Squamish. A series of piches, sidepulls, and balancey climbing goes through a V4 boulder problem and into a difficult mantle towards the summit. Dave Morales belayed me when I dogged the pitch, then again when I almost sent the pitch on toprope. We rappeled from the top of the Squaw, leaving the Frayed Ends of Sanity (5.12c) for another trip. After two apple fritters, a blue berry muffin, and enough water to drown an elephant, we started up Freeway (5.11c). The climb went well, though I fell on toprope twice. I blame a lack of skin and feeling tired for my falls. Dave hiked the route and we managed to top out just as it was getting dark. We ran down the trail. The fifteen pitches of climbing that day, tired me a little (this is me spraying about how much of a hardman I am). The cowboy patch inspired me to kick myself with some spurs and get down in time for dinner.

Kim and I ate tortellini with bad pasta sauce for dinner. The weak American dollar, and the offensive amount of money I had to spend getting a pass port just before the trip(the pass port agency suspected me of being a berry thief), kept me on a budget. I am always on a budget though this one was titled Foreign Expenditures and the debits were written neatly in the checkbook of my mind. We had been eating better meals. The night before, Mary-Kate, Kim and I ate half off pizzas at the Howe Sound Brewery. They were moderately good for half off pizzas. The price was half off- which was good because if the sauce or cheese had been half off I would have demanded a refund. When we ordered, I wondered if they would fuck up my order. A few nights prior, we had eaten with Will Wolcott and Courtney Miyamato for their last evening in town. The brewery put mayonaisse on my chicken sandwhich.

"He hates mayonaise," Kim stared at Will's order of poutinne- french fries soaked in gravy and cheese curd. "It reminds him too much of semen. This morning at the bakery, he made the most disgusted face I'd ever seen. He never show his emotion but he looked absolutely devastated."

Will shared his poutinne while we waited for my sandwhich. The first one came with mayo, despite telling the waitress, "I'm allergic to mayo. Please don't put in on or my throat may swell shut." The staff at the brewery probably wanted to poison me. The second sandwhich came without the disgusting white goo and I made it through the meal without my throat swelling shut. This was one of my fears when going to the brewery for pizza with Mary-Kate. The pizza turned out ok though. They kept both halves of the cheese and the sauce on the dough and they didn't put any mayo on it.

Kim has had an impressive trip. She followed me up the Grand Wall 5.11 A0, pulling off her first wall ascent ever. She led her first trad route on a multi-pitch climb, she's doubled the number of trad leas she's made, and she had her best bouldering day ever here. Lately, her hips started bothering her. She fell off of Heartbreak Hotel and badly bruised/hit her hip bone. Pretty proud despite her injury!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Interview with Myself

I recently interviewed myself for the Touchstone Climbing Gym blog that I write. Check it out:

Touchstone Blogger and Bay area rock climber, James Lucas has been climbing for more than a decade. Beginning his climbing career as a self proclaimed "punter", James quickly progressed to a dirtbag rock jock when he moved from New England to Yosemite Valley. He's constantly on the road rock climbing and recently made an ascent of his first big wall free climb- the Westie Face of the Leaning Tower (5.13 A0). Oakland Manager Lyn Verinsky made a poignant observation, stating, "James would have sent his route months earlier if he had taken my advice about apple fritters being the best pre-send food. Instead he had to use hard work and tenacity." He took a moment from his "hard work" shamelessly self promoting and being a rock climbing "Spray lord" to talk to the Touchstone Blog.

What was your recent ascent of the Wesite Face, the free variation to Yosemite Valley's Leaning West Face of the Leaning Tower like?

Well, first of all- I'd like to say that I'm kind of a big deal. If you don't know who I am then you should. I recently wrote one of the Dirtbag Diaries about being Yosemite's Next Top Idol. I'm pretty much the greatest thing to ever happen to climbing. But enough about me let's talk about you. What do you think about me?

Uhh...I think you avoided the question. How did you prepare for the route?

I am not naturally gifted in the least. My tenacity makes up for my lack of talent. I spent a couple months bouldering in Bishop, sport climbed in Sonora, and then tried the route a bunch. When I couldn't send, I took a short break, hung out in Berkeley and tried really really hard to redpoint the green 12c at Ironworks. One of the banes of my existence is my inability to climb well in the gym. I went back to Toulmne Meadows, did some hard sport climbing, then headed to the Leaning Tower. The crux for me was having enough power endurance on the 5.13 pitch. The lead cave at Ironworks really helped. I'm hoping to free El Capitan soon.

How did you get your Valley nicknames?

I have two. The first one, "Peaches" was given to me by my friend Brian "Coiler" Kay. It's after James and the Giant Peach. The second one, "Big Fall James", was due to taking a 100 foot fall in Joshua Tree while free soloing on Intersection Rock. I fall a lot. I prefer "Peaches"- makes for better pies.

Tuna Town whipper from James Lucas on Vimeo.

You spend most of your time traveling and rock climbing. Do you have some sort of dream career along those lines?

Absolutely! I want to be on the cover of Martha Stewart's Home Living. I spend a lot of time baking pies. I just made a cherry pie for the staff over at Ironworks and I'm planning on making a pie for Lyn Verinsky, the manager at Oakland. On rest days, I really really like making pie. Either the Martha Stewart thing or I would be really into winning the lottery. Then I could buy a really nice RV and park it below some rocks for a little bit and move it when I wanted. It'd be way more baller than my station wagon.

Check out more of James' writing, published and unpublished work, on his blog- Life of A Walking Monkey

Monday, July 19, 2010

Westie Face

May 2010- A long streak of white crap runs from above the door frame down towards the handle. I used the sleeve of my dirty hoodie to open the car door, letting out a short string of obscenities. Some may say it was Karma- I'd been parked at the fifteen minute registration parking for the Yosemite Lodge for the better part of an hour. I would say it was shit. Long white shit on my car. Yosemite was just a ditch and I was over it.

I had already given up. I lowered myself out to jumar the rope on the first overhanging pitch. I didn't really think I would send the West Face of the Leaning Tower. The free climbing begins at a small stance 600 feet off the ground at a small stance and above a 200 foot bolt ladder. I had tried the crux pitch four times a few days prior and wanted to go on this mission with Alex to retrieve my fixed line. I didn't want the pressure of sending. I would try once more since I was up here.

My feet pasted against the wall and I ratcheted up to a small pin scar. A thousand feet swam below me. I moved up the vertical granite wall. The 12b warm up felt nothing like a warm up. Soon, the outside edge of my foot pressed onto a small foothold, I climbed the crux above a copperhead. I climbed smoothly to the belay and set up the top rope for Alex.

The West Face of the Leaning Tower

I racked up, and fired up the pumpy beginning. I hung the draw at the crux, grabbed the bad pinch, crimped the hold, and dead pointed- throwing my body to hit a flat edge. I stuck it. I made a few more moves. Two feet away from me was the no-hands rest. I hung off my right hand unable to move any farther. I had completed the hardest move on the route. Then I fell. Total disappointment. Alex finished the pitch to Awhanee, then coercing me to follow him up the much more difficult Wet Lycra Nightmare, Todd Skinner’s 5.13d free variation to Wet Denim Daydream. Alex assured me this was the type of thing that built character and would make me a better climber. I didn’t believe him.

That night, I stopped by the lodge to sedate myself with a philly cheese steak and onion rings. I felt fat and disgusting as I sopped up the last bit of Sysco cheese with a greasy onion ring. When I came out, there was the bird shit on my car. I was over the valley. The last straw. I wanted to puke. I wanted to leave. I wanted to puke then leave. Yosemite was just a big cavern. Who wanted to be in that ditch?

May 2009- Stanley climbed behind a white curtain. He clipped a fixed copperhead, a swaged piece of bubble gum attached to the rock, and threw his heel on the rock as he traverse out. The white sheet of snow fell ten feet away from the rock, leaving Stanley dry. Snows falls all around the Leaning Tower but it’s steep nature kept the rock dry, and allowed us to keep climbing. The site is inspiring.
A week later, the snow dried, and Stanley screamed. “Why can’t I do this?” He had just fallen off the crux move on the second pitch of the Leaning Tower. I waited until he calmed down. The effort of our previous weeks of work pressed him. It’s just a pitch. It’s just a rock climb. It’s just another huge formation in the Valley. That’s what we should believe, but it easily becomes more- it becomes a part of our fragile egos as men. The need to succeed, to have the swagger that comes with success, is part of the climb.

A year later, that would be me. I related to Stanley’s frustration, to put so much effort, to fall in the middle of a wall, to know something was possible for you but still fail. I wanted to slam my head against the wall. I felt worn down by the falling, the toiling on the wall, and the pressing desire to finish the project.

May- 2009 I am dogging the pitches in a two day ascent with John Schmid. My foot pastes on the wall. I stare at the anchors, smear my foot, and start to move. Then I’m falling. The tiny brass nut fifteen feet below rips out of the wall. It swings down the rope as my fall is arrested by a cluster of small cams. Mikey had warned me not fall on the top of the 12a R pitch. I was going for it and flew forty-five feet across the wall. This experience is unrivaled excitement. I hate the failure but it solidifies my desire to succeed. I want to return.

Summer 2001- My stomache cramps into a tight ball. I heave twice, then puke a thin fluid. I wipe my mouth and continue climbing. I was not sure if Thane had put his head through the neck of his shirt or if he’d stuck his moppy head through one of the other enormous holes in the thin cotton. From behind the counter of the Yosemite climbing shop, I talked a mean game. Wall climbing? No problem. I grabbed a cam off the wall and pulled the trigger. Easy stuff.

My first wall route- just before I started puking.

A few days later, a party of three rappeled past us, bailing off the West Face of the Leaning Tower. They tell us there is a ton of water at the ledge. Thane decides we should dump our water so we don’t have to haul it to the midway ledge. When we arrive, we realize the party had vastly overestimated the amount of water. I lead the next two pitches. It is hot. I am dehydrated. I puke leading the boulder ladder pitch. Thane yells at me for not clipping enough bolts on the ladder or maybe clippin too many. We spend the night on Awhanee This is my first real wall route. I pour a little water into my mouth and swallow too fast. I puke again.. “Stop throwing up, you’re wasting water,” Thane says. In the morning, we summit. I never climb with Thane again. Wall climbing is suffering. I need to find something better. Wall climbing is not where it’s at.

May 2008- Mikey and I let our feet hang a thousand feet off the ground. We kick our heels off the ledge a pitch from the summit of Leaning Tower. Mikey just dispatched the strenuous and steep roof pitch and wanted to rest before tackling the final 5.12. We talk about nothing in particular. We just kick our heels. This is where it's at.

Fall 2002- I am a fat 21 year old working for the North Face store in San Francisco. I cooerce Rob Miller into taking me on one of his free climbing adventures. I just want to be in the Valley, to see what big wall free climbing is like.

We hike up the Gunsight gully, the steep trail between Lower and Middle Cathedral, heading towards the top of Bridalveil falls, and the summit of Leaning Twer. A hundred feet away from the top of the waterfall, we cross the raging river. The rock is slick. The water is running fast. Horrified, I step into the cold and try not to think about falling in, heading down the falls, and drowning- being pummeled into the talus below and sprayed with 10,000 psi of Sierra run-off. This is one of the scariest moments in my life.

Rob traverses out the last pitch to the belay, where I sit and marvel at the thought of him free climbing so high off the ground. Watching him climb breaks a mental barrier for me. Big wall free climbing can be done. The rappelling into the top, the river crossing, these things are part of the process- part of the colossal amount of work involved in big wall free climbing. The granite softens under Rob’s touch, allowing him to move smoothily along the golden rock of the tower. Someday I tell myself. Someday that will be me.

Jumaring the first 200 foot bolt ladder

June 2010. Lucho told me how nervous he was before he sent the Teflon Corner- the crux pitch to freeing El Capitan. He offered solid advice about breathing, relaxing, and performing. We arrived in the parking lot at 6 am. No one is on the route. We enjoy the solitude of the wall, simul-climbing up the bolt ladder, and then free climbing the route from the stance. I fell on the second pitch, and lower back to the belay to try again. I was nervous. A few minutes later, after hanging with Lucho, I am poised at the crux, this time I send. I continue up the route, climbing without falling again. I stop for a moment on the summit. I want to revel, to rest on my laurels. To recall the experiences, the beauty of the climbing and the spot, the toiling and the friendship, all of it. Then I look at El Cap. My feelings of success and nostalgia are quickly washed away by my desire for more.

El Cap

Below are a couple notes from Leo Houlding who made the first free ascent of the Westie Face.

The West Face of the Leaning Tower
by Leo Houlding

The West face of the Leaning Tower was first climbed by Warren Harding, Glen Denny and Al Macdonald in 1961.

In characteristic style he drilled over 50 bolts through the initial ridiculously steep, “impossible” wall to where an obvious discontinuous line of grooves leads to another 30 bolt ladder, through a large roof to the top.

Leo on the 5.12b pitch off Guano Ledge

Royal Robbins made the second ascent and first ever solo ascent of a big wall dubbing the Tower “ The most overhanging face in North America”. Comparable in angle to Kilnsey North buttress but a thousand feet high and flanked by the mighty Bridalveil Falls the tower is an incredible feature.

The route starts three hundred feet up at the end of a narrow ledge traverse. Halfway up is the Ahwahnee ledge, a luxurious 4/5 person en-suit bivi equipped with in-situ fixed lines (named after the five star hotel in the valley).
Harding’s rusty, old bolts where replaced in 1997 by the American safe climbing association, good work boys. This, combined with it’s tactical ease and comparatively short length make the West Face one of the most popular beginner walls in the valley although the extreme initial exposure overwhelms many would be ascensionists.

The usual style is a two or three day ascent with a night at the base and a night on Ahwahnee.

I first climbed the route in a five and a half hour push with Jason Pickles and Ammon Mcneely in October 2000.

The initial bolt ladder would clearly never go (so prove me wrong!) but the rest of the route appeared to be climbable, including a variation avoiding the upper bolt ladder. It looked outstanding, each pitch completely different to the last but at a fairly consistent standard and all incredibly steep.

From the top of the first pitch bolt ladder, a long, steep, shallow groove offered technical pumpy climbing for a hundred and fifty feet to a nasty boulder problem finish on to the Ahwahnee.

Then a unique ramp feature splits the bulging blank face out right to the start of the next bolt ladder. A vegetated seam runs parallel to the bolt ladder and joins it at its end where crack systems continue.

Perhaps Harding drilled past this obvious line to avoid the large concerningly hollow blocks it is necessary to negotiate on the low traverse to the vegetated seam? From the artificial belay (no hands-off rest) at the top of the bolt ladder a fun pitch teasingly graded 5.10+ on the aid topo goes at around 5.11+!

The deceptive roof comes next. A slab below disguises the scale of the ceiling but when one pulls the crux into the back of the cave its size is blatant. Beyond it’s distant lip yet more juggy steepness terminates on a comfortable recovery ledge, a wild pitch.

A final typically overhung corner followed by a traverse top out makes this yet pitch another exciting jummar for the third man!

The traverse top out marks the end of the climbing but is not the true ‘top out’. From the lovely ‘chill out’ finish ledge a scramble above the abyss heads to the knife-edge ridge summit of the tower. Huge slabs of rock overhang the face, guarding the summit except for one small gap. Upon mantling through this window one is confronted with a breath taking view of El Cap in it’s entirety. The spell binding hanging valley above Bridalveil falls and the cluster of domes that is the Cathedrals makes this perhaps the most spectacular top out in the world.

At the beginning of May 2001 Jason and I found ourselves back on the Leaning Tower with a friend Javier Sepulveda. He is a competent climber but not an experienced wall rat. Jas and I have spent a while hanging around on ledges in high places and, as with anything, one can become complacent. Jav’s intermittent sighs of contentment or yells of

“This is BRILLIANT” reminded us of the majesty of our playground. His terrified cries as he repeatedly ‘took the ride’ on free hanging jummars caused Jas and I endless amusement.

We were in no rush so we set up a comfortable Camp on the Ahwahnee from which to prepare the route for a one day free ascent. I spent an afternoon working the pitch leading to the ledge on abseil, carefully chalking the holds and deciphering the sequences. That evening, to my great annoyance, I fell off the last move of the ramp pitch on my onsight attempt.

The next day Jas aided the upper bolt ladder and linked it into the next pitch. I spent a while on top rope cleaning the seam parallel to the bolt ladder and checking out the gear. The climbing was hard E5 but two ropes would be necessary for protection. At 59.5m a truly long pitch.

To spice things up a bit we got Jav to lead the roof pitch. Not being an aid climber, it took him ages. As his frustration grew our entertainment improved. Darkness was fast engulfing and with one pitch to go along with the harrowing descent there was no time to work the final pitches. We stepped up the pace a little. Jav seemed quite startled by the gear change. We topped out convinced we could free it in a day.

Jav had to leave for work so it was just Jas and I who returned. We jugged to the Ahwahnee and spent the rest of the day wiring the pitch below and the ramp above. Next morning after providing our guests with fresh coffee and breakfast we went up to prepare the next pitch. With the intention of returning for lunch we hauled up the line fixed down from the ledge and fixed it to the top of the ramp, leaving the camp in a ‘lived in state’ complete with unpacked sleeping bags and our trainers.
In no time at all we were below the roof with all the climbing to that point thoroughly dialled. It seamed pointless to descend so early so we continued to the top. The roof went at E6 and the final pitch a stern E5.

Topping out again we knew the descent was going to be tough. To save our precious climbing boots we descended the wall, hiked to the road (a considerable walk) and hitched back to camp 4… barefoot!
Now we were ready for the push.

On Wednesday 16th May we set off from camp 4. I led every pitch with no falls. Jas followed everything with a couple of rests.

Once again we topped out. This time the elusive Peregrines that we had heard calling but had not seen swooped by to congratulate us.

Intent on returning for photographs we left our gear on the ledge and our fixed ropes in place.

A week slipped by on the valley floor with all our sleeping and cooking gear conveniently stashed halfway up the tower.

Eventually we returned with Corey Rich to make some glamour shots. In the burnt out light of the midday we retired to Ahwahnee to kill sometime before the enchanting light of evening.

Stove and cigarettes dying to be ignited we despaired at our stupidity. Little irritates me more than having no light (except perhaps no skins). We killed the time trying to create fire using various Boy Scout methods. I was absolutely convinced that Corey’s big lens was going to work but alas success was not ours.

By the final red rays of the setting sun I began to pull the ropes on the last abseil and so end our affair with the Leaning Tower. Or so I thought, the ropes jammed. Unwilling to jummar off a kink we ditched the rope and halved our descent loads intent on returning the next day.

Jas’s trip was almost over so we put off rescuing the gear in favour of bagging some more classics. Finally the day of Jason’s bus we went up to get the gear.

Originally a 'throw away' comment the idea we might be able to aid climb the route in under two hours grew on me. Jas was keen so instead of simply freeing the stuck rope from the top of the first pitch we decided to do the whole route.

One hour fifty nine minutes latter we enjoyed the stunning top out once again. Hurriedly we descended and hitched back to camp in time for Jas to pack and catch his bus at Four O’clock.

The next day was my second to last in Yosemite. Hanging in the parking lot, the Pickles gone, the forecast said tomorrow would be 97 degrees and humid. I was not going to get to climb the Captain this trip, was I?

Singer had talked of an ascent of the Nose leaving the parking lot at noon, without taking head torches.

I raised this point, it was 10.15. His eyes sparkled and he put on a pink, sleeveless Lycra top. I could tell he was excited. We began guzzling Red Bull. We started climbing at 12.40.

On the third pitch (of 33) I pulled up all the rope (over 100 feet) fixed it to the belay and set off soloing up a slight ramp. Confronted by a difficult move 10’ higher I stuffed in a piece and pulled on it to reach up.
PING! It rang.

I let out the kind of cry one is only capable of making when one is genuinely convinced that one has really blown it. My visions of a 100’ factor 2 fall were narrowly avoided by my feline falling instinct. Clawing down the slab I managed to grind down the ramp and stick the four inch wide belay ledge. Hair raising. In our fifth hour we passed a party who were on their fifth day!

Using the speed techniques of short fixing, back cleaning and simo-climbing we topped out at 7.42 and made it down just before dark. A brilliant day to end a brilliant Spring in the Valley.

The Westie Face (W. Face of the Leaning Tower)
E7 A0, 6c, 6b, 6b, 6c, 6b - 800 feet
V – A0, 5.13b, 12b, 12c, 12d, 13a, 12c
FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Al Macdonald 1961
FFA: Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 16th May 2001
Speed record: 1.59 Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 21st May 2001


The first free ascent of the West face of the Leaning tower by Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles

On Wednesday 16th May 2001 Jason Pickles and I made the first free ascent of the West Face of the Leaning tower. First climbed by Warren Harding in 1953 with a heavy use of bolts, Royal Robbins called the Tower "the steepest wall in North America".
Comparable in angle to Kilnsey North Buttress but a thousand feet high … you get the picture!

Harding’s rusty bolts were replaced by the American safe climbing association in 1997, good work boys.

The initial insanely steep bolt ladder remains an aid pitch and will never go free (so prove me wrong). The free climbing begins where the bolt ladder ends at a small ledge in a shallow, steep groove. The crux pitch a 160 foot, 5.13b (E7 6c) leads one on to the Ahwahnee ledge. A five star perch named after the exclusive Hotel in the Valley.

An unusual hanging ramp pitch then a full sixty metre stamina fest, both around 5.12c bring you to the big roof. It’s size is deceptive but whenyou pull into the back of it it’s scale is clear. About twenty feet of horizontal laybacking then another twenty feet of bridging up a forty five degree overhanging groove. Every hold a jug, the it’s a wild pitch. Extremly exposed E6 6c(5.13a).

A final typically steep corner completes the outstanding, sustained route. The increadible view of El Cap from obtained the summit makes the final mantle perhaps the most spectacular topout in the world.

Achievable in a day and of a semi-sport nature this route is set to become a classic of its grade.

Several days later we made the fastest aid ascent of the same route whilst retrieving a jammed rope. 1 hour 59 minutes sheds a considerable 1.20 off the previous speed record. The same afternoon Jason caught his bus out of the Valley.
The next afternoon Jason Singer and I climbed the Nose of El Capitan. Leaving the café at 12 noon, without head torches we began climbing at 12.40. On the third pitch I narrowly avoided a monster fall by catching a tiny ledge 10 feet into the 120 foot screamer! Not the best way to start a speed ascent. In our fifth hour we passed a party who was on their fifth day. Topping out at 7.42 we made it down just before dark.

Westie Face Beta
The majority of this route stays dry in a snowstorm. All of the free moves to the beginning of the free climbing have gone free but the pitch itself has not gone yet.

Lynn Hill and Katie Brown on their free ascent

Westie Face Beta

The first 200 are a bolt ladder than comes the free climbing

1st pitch rack- 5.12b- pitons were removed by Dean Potter, making this pitch easier than initially thought.
#1 Camalot
Yellow Alien in undercling
Stopper in finger lock
Copper head
Small stopper or green alien
Fixed heads- anchor

2nd pitch 5.12d/5.13a
Green alien
Orange alien
Bolts x 7 or 8 there are two possible finishes to this pitch. A scrunchy V4 boulder problem can be made following the bolt ladder or the third bolt on the belay can be clipped and then a few down climbing moves to a 5.11a variations to the far left- this will take you to Awhanee ledge, where the boulder problem takes you to Guano ledge

3rd pitch 5.12b
Bolt with runner
Green alien with runner place in arching crac kdown climb to an edge far out left/jump or span.
.5 camalot with runner make delicate moves straight up face to traverse ramp
Yellow alien
Draws x 4 or 5
.75 camalot

4th pitch 5.12a R
Bolts x 6
Traverse left below the third bolt. Thin gear, pin, fixed tag line….many ascents either fix their tag line and clip that or pre=place a stopper. I’ve fallen going to the anchor- it is a long albeit clean fall.

5th pitch 5.11d
Single set to two camalots, doubles to .5, lots of draws, maybe stoppers. After this pitch climb a short pitch to the base of the roof, climbing across the keystoned blocks.

6th- 11b pitch
Thin gear/ stoppers to bolts, yellow alien
this pitch can be linked into the roof or a belay can be made at two bolts, below the boulder problem that goes into the rood. This belay reduces rope drag

7th pitch 5.12c
10 draws red camalot optional

8th pitch- 5.12a
Gold camalot, draws, small cams, .75 camalot.

The last pitch is 30m and can be rappelled. The roof pitch needs either the tag line to be fixed to the bottom anchor or directionals to be placed on rappel, then the second pulled into the anchor. The next pitch is straight down one or two pieces should be used as a directional. The next rappel from chains takes you to guano ledge. A tension traverse needs to be done to swing to the belay. The next rappel is 60 m to the top of the bolt ladder. The bolt ladder can be rappelled- one person must place around 10 quickdraws, clipping the bolts to stay into the wall.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dirtbag Diaries: Yosemite's Next Top Idol

Yosemite’s Next Top Idol- is on The Dirtbag Diaries- Listen to the recorded version.

Every year, hundreds enter the contest to become Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. Only a few earn the honor. Hopeful climbers gather around the cafeteria table in the Yosemite Lodge during the spring season, and again in the fall, to talk about their glorious achievements, to make outlandish exaggerations, and to flex. It’s a seasonal ritual. To move beyond just being another face at the table, to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol-one of the great Valley climbers, one has to be a true character.

I wanted flashing lights. I wanted to live forever. I wanted real fame. I wanted a Facebook fan club page. The reality though was that I was a just a humble dirtbag rock climber. I fought to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. Status as an A-list celebrity, a Yosemite Idol, was way better than being a D list dirtbag.

Everyone moved seats when the heavy hitters came to the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria table. Mouths dropped when Surfer Bob pointed at his wide back and proclaim, “You don’t get a back like that by towing into the little waves. I surf the monsters.” Emaciated trad climbers watched Platinum Rob nibble certified organic high protein whey supplements. They marveled at his dedication. Platinum once brought a scale with him while free climbing El Cap to weigh out perfect proportions of food. He worked out constantly and was also known as “The Dictionary”; he had definition. Magoo, the mouth of this vicious social climbing ladder, wore horn rimmed glasses with coke bottle for lenses. He had hustled his way into a full time career as a sponsored rock climber, and voiced the path to being a Yosemite Idol. He said that to gain true recognition you needed an incredible story- escape captivity from Krygakistani rebels, climb enormous Arctic walls in single pushes, or huck laps on down canyon testpieces then swim back up to Camp 4- feet first. My climbing ability was mediocre at best. I just wasn’t cut out of granite like those guys. For years I’d had a soft spot for donuts. Now, I had a lot of soft spots because of donuts. Still, I wanted to join the elite.

I wanted to train like Surfer Bob. I wanted to Platinumize my body into an extreme fitness machine like Rob. I wanted to be a fully sponsored rock jock like Magoo. I was desperate for the glory that these men had achieved. I wanted to be Yosemite’s Next Top Idol. I wanted it bad so I transitioned from my life as a college student and into one of a dirtbag climber.
My first step was to move into a tent in the woods behind University of Califirnia Santa Cruz campus. I had to toughen up mentally so I did.

I hate the rain. I don’t melt in it- I’m not made of sugar but the whole cold and wet thing is not for me. The first season living in my tent, it rained for forty days. The Santa Cruz redwoods became lush and red, the banana slugs emerged from the forest in full force, and I -- I went crazy. I thought about how the flooding water would float my little tent out into the Pacific. I wondered how long it would take me to sail to Australia, or Europe, or somewhere warm with good rock. I festered through the rain, contemplating if suffering through storms was really part of being a rock climber.

One day I found a banana slug on my pillow. I brushed it off to living outdoors in the Monterey Bay. A few mornings later, I woke to the tickle of a tick on my testicles. Alliteration aside, it was not a pleasant sensation. I swore that if I found another critter in my “home” I would go savage. The next morning, I found a worm in my sleeping bag. I showed him no mercy; I buried the bastard alive.

The grim living conditions, the nightly wet bivies, they forced me to escape-to go climbing on the weekends, and ditch school for short trips during the week. I had little to do but climb. I didn’t go to college with high academic dreams. I majored in Economics and Business Management with the intention of getting a job where all I had to do was staple things. My motto was “C’s” get degrees. I dreamed of meeting a nice, young, rich girl and then marrying her mom. I could be a “sponsored athlete,” a rock climber supported by someone’s mom. But my constant trips to Yosemite kept the ladies away. I saw few. Plus, if I mentioned that I lived in a tent in the woods behind campus, they would think I was either an Ewok or Ted Kazynski. This was the kind of thing a true Yosemite Idol needed though- a monastic lifestyle, where there would be no fear of women ever distracting me in my goal from being Yosemite’s Next Top Idol.

Every weekend I was in Yosemite, or at the sport crag, or in the boulders. I commuted to the climbing with Platinum Rob, who gave me training goals, and reminded me to stay thin. At the top of Tuoulumne Meadow’s Private Property cliff, after a hard day of sport climbing, I watched Rob pour a handful of macadamia nuts into his hands. He counted them, plucked three out, and put them back into the bag.

“How many macadamias do you eat Rob?” I asked, stuffing Cheetos into my mouth.

“Well, James,” Rob chewed slowly, relishing his nuts. “I eat 10. But you, since you’re a little- you know” He ballooned his cheeks. “You’d only want to eat seven.”

The Yosemite Idol contestants were all so thin they’d disappear if they turned sideways. I had become mentally tough in my woodland hovel, but if I was to be a contender, I’d need to go on a strict diet. Over the years I had contracted Dunlop disease- my stomach dun lop over my belt. Rob agreed to train me at his Santa Cruz gym. I biked down from my tent on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school. After class, I hit the climbing gym, and then on the weekends I headed back out to the crag. The wafer thin Supermodel Kate Moss gave me a mantra. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. My muffin top, the spare tire around my stomach, slowly started to fade. I was lean and I was mean. When I showed up at the Cafeteria table, all skinny and fit with pine needles from the Santa Cruz redwoods sticking out of my hair, I looked like the best of the contestants. I had the mental toughness, and the lean physique. But I lacked talent on the rock. I needed to step up my game.

The climbing came along slowly. I have never been adept at moving my body. My only redemption is that my tenacity makes up for my lack of talent. I shook up the most mediocre of routes. A half inch above my last placement, I would be wrought with jazz hands and Elvis leg at the same time. I was an autumn leaf about to blow off the rock. I went to the Cookie Cliff, where Surfer Bob trained. He lapped the same cracks a million times, fueling his body off a tablespoon of olive oil. He trained for the ultimate training day. I tried to do the same, running countless laps up routes that I had dialed. “It’s just like paddling into Jaws,” he said while he cruised his 139th lap up the Red Zinger, a difficult 5.11+ crack. “You got to start off strong and ride into the wave. Let the motion take you there.” I tried to follow his advice instead I thrashed. I’d never been surfing in Hawaii break and, frankly, the water scared me. I had no idea what he was talking about.

In the boulders behind Camp 4 Magoo, showed me his circuit- a series of heinous offwidths and horrendous grovel problems he had wired over the years. Every “easy” problem felt impossible. He sandbagged me at every opportunity. Magoo explained his secret to success, “You don’t really have to climb anything. Just try real hard, talk a mean game, and shamelessly self promote.” He sniffled and shoved his glasses up his face alot, “That’ll work way better than climbing harder,” he added in a conspiratorial manner. I followed his advice. When I established a first ascent, I called it the Muir Trail, telling people that I hiked it. I related half truths- I claimed to have climbed up to 5.14 on El Capitan. Which was true- I had climbed up to it and then I aided through it. I worked my mouth like Magoo suggested.

Soon, I had the big talk down. Everyone in Yosemite knew that I was kind of a big deal.
I kept working on Magoo’s impossible boulder problem circuit. But I kept flailing. I had leaned up on Platinum Rob’s diet but I was still a Man of Girth. I trained like Surfer Bob but then I would fail on anything off the circuit. That was how they earned their Yosemite titles but none of it would work for me. Each of them had sandbagged me into believing I could do it. I couldn’t keep up. I could only try and fail. So that’s what I did. I tried and I failed. I made small craters from wildly falling off the center stage routes in Joshua Tree, in Yosemite, anywhere there was a crowd. I was covered in cuts, and bruises from falling all the time. Soon I earned a moniker. Big Fall James. Long scars ran across my elbow, ankle, and back. I became a highly recognizable walking disaster. When I hobbled through Camp 4 with huge rope burns across my arms, watermelon sized ankles, and enormous bruise- people knew who I was. Big Fall James. The man who could survive the most enormous whippers around.

A few mornings ago, I sat at the table of the Yosemite Lodge. I’d been living the dirtbag climbing lifestyle for four years. I stayed skinny even in the winter months. I climbed without looking like a jackhammer on the rock. I talked an enormous game. I was as close to being Yosemite’s Next Top Idol as ever. A kid, fresh out of his mom’s house, in a collared shirt buttoned to the neck, sat next to me. He glanced at me, then cast his eyes down, and mumbled, “Big Fall James, How do you become a Yosemite Idol?” I smiled. I had fought for years for this moment- this opportunity to be acknowledged as one of the great Yosemite Climbers. My mind raced through a library of sage advice. I had sat in the same spot, listening to Surfer Bob, Platinum Rob, and Magoo. I thought about what they had told me. I looked at the kid. I thought showing him Surfer Bob’s ultimate training day schedule, about telling him Platinum’s dieting advice, or describing how he needed Magoo’s confidence. I prepared to tell him how he should follow my lead and become a walking disaster. Then I paused. He would need a lot of help. I patted him on the hand, put my arm around his shoulder, and totally sandbagged him.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sonora Notes

For the past month and a half I worked in Sonora. I stayed in Chinese Camp sleeping on the futon of Coiler’s porch. There were a few climbers that passed through but I augured into the little farm. When bivy time came, I always got the futon. I was the head porch monkey. The status was nice to have. I needed as much beauty sleep as I could get to go to work.
The nearby crag is steep and chossy and blocky. It attracts a large number of elite sport climbers (read douche bags). I was no exception. I shouted beta across the crag, used an offensive number of kneebars, and sprayed when I belayed my first 8c (5.14b). I also failed to send any new climbs. This last bit is rather depressing for me. I went to the crag feeling stronger than I had in years past and with slightly less of my normal paunch. But strong and light doesn’t get you redpoints. This is me in desperation.

I tried everything. I read in a recent study that good looking quarterbacks perform 37% better than their less attractive peers. I translated that to look good climb good. I manicured my stubble to perfect Yosemite hardman length, I wore my favorite shorts to the crag, I swam in Axe body spray Chocolate temptation. While the ladies found me irrestible, my 8a proj resisted my advances. This is me getting rock blocked.

Finally, the crag got too hot. Thank god. Fuck that place. There were a few redeeming things about climbing there. One was the sports action. I watched a gym climbing stud whip with two armfuls of slack while clipping the anchor. He flew 30+ feet and yanked his tiny belayer up into the first bolt. Whoopsie daisy!

One night in Chinese Camp, a few sport climbers and I danced on the pole in Coiler’s shop. While there, I had taken it upon myself to learn the rudimentary pole dancing moves. I could flip upside down. I could slide seductively down the pole. I could spin and gyrate my hips. I deserve a spot in Brotastic’s Male revue. I showed the sport climbers the basics and everyone got into it, even Dan Urban. Natasha Barnes vigorously ground up against the pole. Her enthusiasm unlocked a few new moves. Kim Groebner took the pole dancing to an all time extreme, going upside down then taking her hands off. Then she implemented one of Natasha’s moves. She performed a split on the pole, and then spun approximately 270 degrees. We all wished we had singles.

A week or two ago, while fighting in a Muay Thai match in Santa Clara, my doppelganger took a knee to the head. It was an illegal move. A big dent caved the left side of his face. His nose shot sideways. A broken orbital lobe and nose. Five days later he received plastic surgery. The doctors made an incision into the middle of his skull and pulled his face down. They popped the dent of his skull and realigned his nose. The twin remained blaise, and even a bit of a dick about the surgery. He told me there was a 40% chance that his face would fall off and another 30% chance that he would bleed out of the open skin around his eyeballs and die. The surgery had me pretty worried. Turned out it was fairly routine. I thought he might die though. Bastard.

I am currently bouncing back and forth between the Bay and Yosemite. My friend’s have a place in Foresta. It’s quiet. I sleep on a bed. It’s only 20 minutes from the park. There’s no wireless and the phone service is slightly grim.

Yosemite Notes

The water rose above the logs on the El Cap bridge. The Merced raged where normally it flows gently along. Yesterday, I stemmed above two trees, hopped onto the larger of the two, and climbed out to its farthest branches. Then I jumped. Even after a fifteen foot fall, I still did not hit the bottom. The water’s high in Yosemite right now, higher than I’ve seen it in the past decade.

The constant rain and snow of the spring kept wet most of the rock. El Capitan
was wet. Washington Column was wet. Leaning Tower was wet. And Half Dome- that was buried in snow. Sonora had the driest rock around . After a month and a half of trying then a few weekly sessions at the overhanging cliff, I managed to pull off an ascent of Alcatraz, a steep route involving extreme power endurance. In 1991, sport climbing magazine proclaimed that this route was one of the hardest in California. If I had been born in the seventies, I’d be a hardman. The same day, I ticked off four other hard routes at the crag, completing my long sought after Jailhouse 5 circuit- five hard routes at the crag in a day. I almost sent the Fugitive extension the next day. I did send Spike, a 5.12 crack climb at Public Sanitation and I polished off my Gold Wall Project- Wicked Gold. I only have a few more routes left to send at the Gold Wall before I’ve ticked the entire crag.

Hayden Kennedy runs a binary system. “Girls are either a 1 or a 0,” he said. “You do or you don’t.” The system became quite popular, especially after Hayden was taken advantage of by an attractive investment banker ten years his senior. The monkeys adopted the system in the hopes of getting attacked by a cougar like the fresh high-school graduate Hayden. Dave Turner took it to the next step, making loud proclamations about his $500 budget for condoms on his next expedition. He will be taking up the tri-nary system. He’ll try nearly anything. Hayden went on to describe how one of his fantasies is to have sex with an older African American woman with a baby. “I just want some of that Chocolate Milf.”

A new park employee, a young man working for Yosemite Assosciation, scrambled out on the ledges by Lower Brother, a small formation below and to the right of El Capitan. He fell. His shoe was found on a ledge. A blood covered depression marked where his body hit the ground. A couple of climbers, including a Bay area climber named Jay Wood, came upon his body, took photos of the corpse, and then proceeded to go climbing. While they made a long ascent of a moderate climb, three bears dragged the body away from where it had fallen and began to eat it. The climbers finished their route, descended and called YOSAR. When the Yosemite Search and Rescue team showed up the bears had already devoured most of the body. The team members carried away a mere eighty pounds of the man. The climbers neglect caused the body to be eaten. It’s a shameful representation of climbers.

Alex Honnold is rad. He’s sponsored by the North Face, La Sportiva, Black Diamnond, and the best of the climbing companies. He’s become a staple in the media with his bold solos of the Regular Route on Half Dome, Zion’s Moonlight Buttress, and Las Vegas’ Rainbow Wall. He’s famous. Sender films wanted more footage of Alex for their next movie. Uli Steck also crushes. He’s a hard European climber with a near onsight of Golden Gate on El Capitan. Uli wanted to try and set the Nose speed climbing record- the Grand Prix of the Yosemite pissing contest. Though the two hadn’t climbed together, they were optimistic. The previous contenders, Dean Potter, Timmy O’Neil, the Huber brothers, Hans Florine, Yuji Hiryama, had all put in a significant amount of time on the Nose. Alex had climbed the route a few times, and Uli had climbed it once. Announcements were made on the internet. The pairs first attempt saw them top out in 4 hours 20 minutes- a decent time for a reconnaissance. They talked to Jimmy Chin and Mikey Schaefer on the summit, interviewing for a National Geographic article about Yosemite climbers. Their second attempt saw them whittle away more time. They were still far from breaking the 2 hour 30 minute record. Alex started watching Uli climbed, and realized how balls out Uli was going. Uli jumped between handjams, untied from the rope, mismanaged the gri gri while simul climbing, and generally went for it. Alex became concerned. He’d been leading the entire route to that point and decided to let Uli lead. While simulclimbing the stronger climber should be on the bottom. While Alex lowered off of Dolt, Uli lead up a 5.9 crack. He fell, lobbing seventy feet through the air and pulling Alex up. The two abandoned the mission. I wonder if media pressure encouraged Alex to pick a slightly asinine project and go for it more than was reasonable.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Job Hunt

My resume doesn't look so hot these days. For the past year, I've mostly worked for Touchstone writing their blog. I painted a house in Yosemite West, I wrote a few articles for climbing magazines, and I did some other odd jobs. Nowhere on my list of previous employment is anything using my Economics and Business Management degree. There's a significant lack of solid long-term employment. So I decided I need to pad out my resume to get my next job.

"So, James I see you a UC Santa Cruz alumni," the accounting manager of Deloitte's auditing department and my prospective employer will say to me. "Banana Slugs right?"

"No known predator, sir," I'll smile and wink, trying my best to be charming.

"Right right, let's see. Worked doing some freelance writing, a number of publications, oh and what's this? really!? No? Well, James. I don't know what to say....," he'll put my resume down and look at me. "Did you really walk on the moon while working for NASA?"

I'll nod. "Of course. It's part of the training for all the janitorial engineers that they go into space."

"Well, with an experience like that you could be doing space shuttle repair or building new rockets, or just about anything...what makes you want to work here?" the prospective employer will say.

"NASA wanted me to go on a dangerous mission to a remote aesteroid that was plummeting towards the Earth. I had to drill an enormous hole in it and then blow it up. It'd be me and Bruce Willis on the team. I decided I didn't want to go and figured if the world was gonna end in 3 weeks I might as well get a stable job working 50 hours a week."

And then he'll give me the job.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nothing Tastes as Good as Sending Feels

"If you lost ten pounds," Cedar fidgeted on his basalt throne at the Gold Wall, "and did some yoga, you could climb 5.14 this year."

I try not to listen to Cedar often but he had a point. Rob told me the same thing a few times, so has Honnold, and Drew Rollins, and a number of other climbers. There's a pretty solid correlation between grip and weight ratio. Be strong, be light, and you will crush- being a Man of Girth won't get you up the cliff.

After my screws in my foot were removed, I sat around on the coach. Some would say that I was just a little big, some might say I just had broad shoulders. My mom would have said that I was, "Husky." I went to Indian Creek with a lot of weight above my belt, I weighed more than I ever have before.

The wafer thin super model Kate Moss gave me my mantra, "Nothing Tastes as good as skinny feels." I realized that I had been eating a lot. I decided that I needed to adjust my weight, and tighten my belt. Before I fell in Joshua Tree, I weighed about 157 pounds. I was thin, lean and mean. I ran around 14 miles a week, not much but combined with cycling up and down from UC Santa Cruz campus a couple times a day, I was fit. After I fell, I couldn't run anymore because of the fusion in my ankle. So, I started to get fat.

After punting from the top of most of the routes in Indian Creek, I decided I need to return to the lean mean climbing machine that James Lucas once was. I looked at myself in the mirror and screamed, "Get it together tubby! Stop day dreaming about pie and apple fritters. Start flexing and do some god damn rock climbing."

I tried to enlist some group support. Shannon Moore and I stepped on scales, weighed ourselves, and said we'd lose 10 pounds by June 15. That'd be like 160 for me. So far, I'm not sure how close I actually am to that goal. I don't have a scale and suspect that I haven't lost any actual weight. My diet has gotten significantly better- less pie and candy bars more apples and grapes. I've actually been climbing really well lately. Every week, I'm doing a little better than the week before.

The plan is send the sport project- at least one, maybe both. I managed to eek out a redpoint of my Gold Wall project yesterday. I sent it my fourth try of the day, after four previous attempts. I hoped it was 5.13- but after watching Stanley send it second try, Nik Berry and Hayden Kennedy flash it, the route was quickly down rated to 12d. Balls. Wicked Gold is still hard. Then after sending the sport proj, head back to a dry Yosemite and head up on the Leaning Tower. The Westie Face seeps through most of the spring and this has been a particularly wet year. Still, I think I can do it. I'm bouldering fairly well, and definitely stronger.

I'm not sure how it started, but I must have gotten poison oak on my clothes or my hands. It looks like I virtually swam in it. The Oak covers my forearms and torso, onto my upper thighs, and across my armpits. I have to swim in calamine lotion right now. It is making me slightly neurotic. When I say slightly, I mean totally insanely neurotic. If I could lose all my poison oak, I'd ditch a solid five pounds in water and oil retention. Might be times to put on more calamine.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Everyone loves to stand on a soap box. Mounting a six by 3 by 4 inch cardboard box makes a man feel like a real man. It happens a fair amount in climbing. Recently, there was a bunch of hub bub about some Swedish dude trying to send Chris Sharma's First Round First Minute project. Unfortunately, all that happened were a bunch of passive aggressive emails. What happened to climbers fighting?

Georgia Ice runs his mouth. He's not an altogether bad guy, some might say he's even okay. He climbs by himself- mostly making incredibly sketchy ascents of routes like the Steck Salathe (Grade IV 5.9) and Leanie Meanie (5.11b) at Arch Rock. He's probably gonna die jackhammering, cordless on the rock someday- but hey, to each their own. He does enjoy a good slander session, like every other Yosemite climber. He was engaging in such worthless spray one night in Chinese Camp. He picked a rather surly target though, who became quite angry. The wall pirate kept his cool down until the free-soloist fell asleep. That's when the pirate, and his brother, made a munter mule, and hauled Georgia Ice into the tree. He dangled by his ankles til somewhere around sunrise, when another hungover monkey cut him down.

That's the story. A pretty good one I think. Georgia Ice and the Pirate never came to fisticuffs, but at least something happened. I don't like violence. I love it. I personally think that more people should be fighting over climbing disputes. Back in the day, Mr. Way used to get bitch-slapped for stating his over arrogant positions. People got punched in the neck in the Camp 4 lot for chopping bolts. That sort of thing went down all the time. Now there's just people posting on their blogs about how someone should or shouldn't be trying someone else's proj. Snooze.

Give me blood, give me action, give me a fight! Why don't people stand by their climbing convictions anymore? I want to see someone punch a fool in the neck. KYEAH!

First Round First Minute- Climbing Narc Blog post

Mick Ryan spray

Deadpoint Spray

Thursday, April 1, 2010


I pulled my shoe onto my foot and stopped to examine a bump along the stitches of my foot. My fingers ran along the protusion. I felt a screw head. I iced my foot. The swelling did not go down. It was definitely a screw, sticking out of my foot.

Two days later, I dropped my sock next to the table at Dr. McKinley's office. "My foot was fused five years ago. I think I've got a screw sticking out." The Berkeley orthopedist examined my foot, took three X-Rays, charged me $300 and said, "I think you're right."

This morning, Lucho drove me across the bridge from his house in the Mission to Dr. McKinley's office. The good doctor swabbed my ankle in iodine, then opened a big metal case. The nurse looked inside and exclaimed, "You could do a lot of damage with that stuff!" I winced and pulled my hat over my eyes. He stuck a long needle inside my ankle, pushed anesthetic around my ankle, and then made an incision. Using a star drive screw driver, he pulled two screws out of my ankle. I could feel them being tugged out of my bone.

You probably don't think much about your body. What's your left big toe feel like right now? I imagine it's warm, and pressing against a piece of cotton- a sock picture of Obama on it. Maybe it's bare, sliding along the wood floor. Or maybe it's wiggling inside of your shoe. Regardless, you probably weren't thinking about how your big toe felt until I mentioned it. Well, just like your awareness of your big toe is incomplete, so was my feeling about my bones. Until the doctor pulled the metal out. I could feel my ankle. The bones, the hollow, the marrow. It hurt.

He placed a couple stitches in my ankle, handed me two screws- the kind that come out of the 99 cent bucket at home depot, and charged me another three hundred bucks. Thank you very much.

Hopefully, my ankle will heal quickly. Getting surgery, doing anything with the doctor- kind of sends me over the edge. I go a little nuts. I've done a lot of it in the past. I slip into a deep vortex of despair. I'm not gonna let my mind wander into the abyss though. It only hinders my healing. Which I need to do quickly, cause I want to send!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Natasha Barnes: Vegan Athlete

Natasha Barnes, a Mission Cliffs climber, and bona fide rock crusher has been climbing for the past 11 years. In between sending 5.13d sport routes, bouldering problems like Thriller and Midnight Lightning in Yosemite,and going full tilt on the Yosemite offwidth circuit, Natasha attends Palmer West Chiropractic, where she is obtaining a doctorate in Chiropractics and Physiotherapy.

For the past five years, Natasha has followed a strict vegan diet. "I only eat Vegans," she jokes. Natasha abstains from animal products, processed food, and operates her body on nutrient dense food. She took a moment to talk about her diet as an athlete and how being vegan helps her send.

what are the advantages of being an athlete on a vegan diet?
Being healthy, feeling healthy and recovering faster. Nutritional stress (stress to the body created by food that has unhealthy properties) is a major source of stress on our bodies as climbers. We put our bodies through the ringer all the time and if we are not eating the right foods (unprocessed foods rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, high-quality protein, fiber, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and good bacteria aka probiotics) than our bodies lack the components they need to to regenerate completely and effectively. Regular consumption of nutrient dense whole foods supports cellular regeneration which rebuilds muscle and other body tissue and is essential for recovery. Faster recovery = climb/train more often and harder = climb better.

VEGAN PIZZA. Spelt crust, ricotta, Sundried tomato pesto, basil, spinach, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and sundried tomato topping with a Malbec.

What do you eat to perform your best?

My best performance foods are whole veggies and fruits. The most nutrient dense and hydrating food. Bananas, oranges, apples, bell peppers, dates, grapes, leafy greens, nuts and seeds etc. I like to eat a big salad with lots of different veggies incorporated if I can. My favorite is one I call Guacamole salad. Mixed greens, cilantro (lots of it), garlic, tomato, avocado (2-3), agave nectar and salt and pepper to taste. It's only a few ingredients but its a winner.

Do you have any difficulties cooking on climbing trips?
No. I usually do burritos or veggie stir-fry because its pretty easy to put together no matter where you are. Plus I love black beans, avocado, tomato and cilantro...AND hot sauce!!

Sprouted corn tortilla, lime crema, shredded cabbage and carrot slaw, chile-beer marinated tempeh, cilatro, tomato, avocado.

How do you eat when you are bouldering? How about when you're sport climbing?
I try to eat pretty light while sport climbing. Bananas and other fruits for quick energy or hummus and veggies for lunch, sometimes I'll just snack on whole grain chips and salsa. I've been trying to remember to drink more water lately. While bouldering all bets are off and its cookies down the hatch. For some reason when I am bouldering I want to snack all day.

How do you add variety to your diet?
I try to experiment a lot and try different foods that I see or read about that I haven't tried before or try different recipes. A lot of the time I end up finding a new food that I totally love and I try and make it more. Its a also good way to make sure I am getting a good rotating variety of vitamins and minerals in my diet.

Will bacon ever grow on trees? How can someone switch their diet?

Haha!! Maybe they can genetically modify some plant to do that but that would be weird. It's easy to switch to a healthier diet. It doesn't have to be a vegan diet. Most of us could benefit even from a small change in diet. It's all about experimenting with new foods and finding what you like. Try to incorporate new veggies and fruits into your diet. You might be surprised. There are a plethora of web resources to help you with the transition to healthier living and recipes for vegetarian food.




These are some.

I also HIGHLY recommend this book by Brendan Brazier Canada's best (vegan) triathlete for athletes more serious about healthy living and eating.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Border Country

The ring of a hammer hitting a drill bit bounced down Gunsight Gully in Yosemite. Mad Dog’s mullet flapped in the breeze as he swore about having to sink another “bristler.” Balanced at a small stance with the help of two hooks, Mad Dog (née Dana Drummond) wailed on the drill bit. Jeremy Collins and Mikey Schaefer traded off belay duty on the ledge above a concave arc of granite.

The hard granite of Middle Cathedral Rock, with its sparse opportunities for stances—not to mention the team’s traditional ethos—kept the three climbers from placing many bolts. They moved slowly; connecting the short technical features of Middle Cathedral into a massive new free climb presented problems not only with protection but with route finding as well. Still, after six months of work in 2009, the trio had completed Border Country (V 5.12c).

Schaefer, a former Yosemite Mountaineering School guide, had scoped the line for a number of years before recruiting Mad Dog and Collins for a ground-up ascent of the route. One of the tallest short men to ever walk through Camp 4, Schaefer’s first ascents have included the first ascent of the 5.12+ Grade V face route Night Shift on Tuolumne’s Fairview Dome. A technician in the sacred art of slab climbing, Mikey walked confidently through his decade of Yosemite climbing, establishing significant first ascents in the Valley.

Mad Dog comes from Northeastern pedigree, but he spends his summers in California, working Yosemite Search and Rescue, hiding his crushing abilities beneath a Hulk Hogan mullet and a John Muir beard.

A couple of years ago, Schaefer and Drummond met Collins in Patagonia, where each had just completed separate first ascents. Collins took a few weeks off from illustrating in the Mid-west to take his horn-rimmed glasses, mild mannered, Clark Kent attitude to crushing altitudes in Yosemite.

In early June, around the time the climbers were halfway done with their route, an avalanche in China claimed the lives of Yosemite Valley monkey Micah Dash, budding filmmaker Wade Johnson, and Colorado alpinist Johnny Copp. The last entry in Copp’s journal, which was recovered in the remnants of the men’s basecamp, includes a poem entitled “Border Country,” which describes the perils of living on the edge of the unknown. Dash and Copp’s climbing goals had forced them to deal with a large increase in objective hazards- rock fall, crevasses, and ultimately avalanches. The mountains are dangerous.

Sean “Stanley” Leary, climbing with Mikey Schaefer, attempted the second ascent of Border Country. He made short work of the initial thousand feet, climbing 5.10 thirty feet between the bolts and sparse gear, and gaining a U-Shaped bowl mid route.

Stanley has nerves of steel. Four months earlier, Stanley packed the ashes of his recently departed girlfriend, Roberta Nunes, and jumped off of Patagonia’s El Mocho, tracking in his wing suit for 600 feet. The winds blew across Cerro Torre’s satellite peak spreading Roberta’s ashes blew across the glaciers. Then Stanley stopped descending. Panicked, he tore at the cord for his BASE rig. When his canopy opened, he propelled a thousand feet above the summit of El Mocho. He attempted to spiral and descend but the Patagonia winds kept him aloft for 13 endless minutes, until he was able to follow a few condors out of the thermal upwind and down to the glacier.

Four months later, Stanley returned to Border Country. He made it up to the head wall but fell pulling the hard face moves. Off the belay, Mikey and Dana had scrunched their bodies, stepping on a tiny edge, and mantling off a small dibit with their thumbs. Despite Stanley’s talent and tenacity, he couldn’t bend his long limbs into the mantle. He pulled on the bolt protecting the move and continued to the summit.

On the run-out fourth pitch of Border Country, 500 feet off the ground, I stopped. Katie Lambert, a Yosemite hard woman with an ascent of Tuolumne’s technical Peace (5.13c) to her name, belayed attentively below me. I pondered placing a tiny cam behind a small flake. I wanted to impress my attractive belayer with my climbing prowess. I shrugged. Running it out any more than I needed to wouldn’t impress anyone. I shoved the unit in, shot up another 20 feet to just below a bolt, and mantled onto a small edge.

I balanced precariously, crimping down on a wet hold as I stared at the bolt. Suddenly my hand popped. My body teetered on the brink. My hips pulled into the wall and then my back arched away from it.

I fell 20 feet before hitting a slab, flipping upside down, and rocketing down another 20 feet before the cam I had begrudingly placed caught me. Katie’s eyes went wide. The lobes of her half inch cam had bent. I groaned. My climbing prowess wasn’t impressing anyone. She met me at the belay, and we continued onto the headwall, where Katie danced up the difficult 5.12, hanging the rope for me. When the shadow of the Nose covered the entire Zodiac, we began descending, rappelling the route two pitches below the summit.

Luis “Lucho” Rivera slept in the back of his pick-up in Camp 4. Around midnight, the rangers knocked on the window, trying to wake him and alert him that he was camping illegally. He lay still, afraid of the heavy hand of the “Green Gestapo.”

The rangers shook the truck. Lucho remained motionless, with saucer eyes, hoping that they would leave. Instead, they straightened a coat hanger, twisted it through a chink in the car window and began to poke the dirtbag climber. He eventually fell out of his pickup and into the arms of the ticket-ready rangers. Despite years of establishing first ascents in the Valley, and a strong desire to climb new free wall routes, Lucho began hanging in the Valley less and less. He felt he had given enough to the Yosemite climbing scene with his countless first ascents, that a cold winter night in the back of his truck would go unnoticed by the rangers. The rangers poke and prod climbers because they often break laws. Out of bounds camping is illegal, so is power drilling, and leaving fixed lines- activities which make the logistics of climbing easier. The constant battle between climbers and the bureaucracy can be more epic than the climbing.

One of the largest bits of Yosemite climbing news in 2009 has been the definitive lack of any groundbreaking achievements. In the past decade, the Huber brothers, Tommy Caldwell, and others have established a dozen hard free routes on El Capitan with seasonal fervor. Last year, the young Alex Honnold free soloed the Regular Northwest face of Half Dome (5.12a), reviving a true sense of boldness within the ragtag crew that calls Yosemite Valley home. Thanks to a tireless crew of Bay Area boulderers, the Valley has exploded with double-digit problems and many newly developed blocks.

Compared to the tidal wave that was the last decade of activity, 2009 seemed flat: no new routes were established on El Cap, no bold solos were done, and the participants in what once was (and always will be) the center of the American climbing universe, diminished. Bachar died. Dash died. Copp died. In this hallow space, Border Country stands alone as the achievement of the year.

Unlike the free climbs on El Capitan, which had been worked and sussed on rappel, Border Country was an adventure up into the unknown. The three first ascentionists didn’t have what Bachar once called “the invisible toprope,” the mental assurance that better gear, or even holds, was coming. A dimming of the unknown.

Why the lull in the Valley climbing scene? A number of Yosemite denizens, like Stanley, have spent less time hanging in the Valley and more time BASE jumping off small bridges, planes, and remote Patagonian Towers. Many climbers, like Lucho, have avoided the Valley for fear of persecution. Not only are activities like BASE jumping illegal but camping, and generally being in the Valley presents enormous difficulties. Jesse McGahey, the current law enforcement officer with “climber ranger” status, doubled his staff in the past year.

“Climbing Rangers are a crucial piece of protecting the vertical Wilderness through outreach, education, hands-on maintenance, and coordinated clean-up volunteer work,” McGahey stated in an interview. Undoubtedly, the rangers have helped protect Yosemite, but they still chase climbers through the boulders at night. The ever-increasing bureaucracy involved in camping and staying in the park scared a number of the committed dirtbag rock climbers, the monkeys, out of the Valley.

Others have moved onto the alpine setting, trading the warm California climate for the blustery cliffs of Patagonia. Facebook updates from El Chalten, the town below Cerro Torre, were in vogue. For many aspiring alpinists, Yosemite has always been merely a training ground—not a proving ground—where they could learn to move fast, freeing and aiding, up a big wall. Once they have the skills, they move on.

Many climbers just appear to be over it. The energy involved in climbing hard new routes in Yosemite is daunting. Hand drilling on the sharp end brings more calluses than glory. The sheer adventure wears people down: the technical ground-up climbing, the offwidths, the rangers. The ditch is a meat factory that chews climbers up and spits them out. 2009 was a year with a noticeable shortage of fresh meat.

Lucho hung off the side of the Middle Cathedral, belaying and staring across the river at El Cap. Hayden Kennedy crimped his way up the wall, onsighting Border Country until the definitive mantle crux. Hayden, though only 18, has already proved himself as a true, young Yosemite force. Though lean, tall and talented, he has the flexibility of a flagpole. He tried to hike his foot up and scrunch into position for 15 minutes. Finally his teenage voice cracked, “Dude, I like c-an’t do this!”

Across the river, El Capitan loomed. Hayden’s big-wall free-climbing list had been slowly increasing and a send of Border Country would be a solid achievement. Routes like Border Country are establishing a solid foundation for the next generation, routes that will give them experience necessary to tackle the bigger and harder lines with a sense of the adventure.

Collins returned to Border Country in early November. He climbed through the tick marks that Hayden, Lucho, Stanley, Katie, and I had left for him. Below the summit, the sun dipped behind Lower Cathedral and the walls of Middle Cathedral became arctic. Collins returned to a ledge, and rappelled the route. Before he began his descent, he opened an urn and spread the ashes of Johnny Copp on the route. The scene in Yosemite changes, but the spirit of the climbers remains.

this article was published in Rock and Ice 185 and can be found online