Have you ever wanted to put up a first ascent, or even free an old aid line to establish a first free ascent? It can be intimidating – where do you even begin?
For me, finding the line itself is easy. As a giant climbing nerd, I love pouring through old guidebooks, reading descriptions, looking at photos, and generally trying to get inspired for the next big adventure. However, I also have a distinct advantage over most – I’m a good friend with the person most likely to know about new routes and old aid lines that could go free – the guidebook author.
When working on laying out Richard Rossiter’s new guidebook to Rocky Mountain National Park, I had read all the previously published guidebooks and spent hours scouring photos from Richard, drawing in topo lines etc. Repeatedly I would ask him if he thought a certain aid line could go free or if an unknown line or feature was climbable. Again and again the overwhelming “yes” responses has surprised me. Last year I freed a route on Longs Peak ground up and onsight at only 5.8! There were a few giveaways that it would go free and it would be moderate. First – it was first put up in the 1960s, before the free climbing revolution. It was a time when climbers were simply looking to get up a route using any means necessary and “style” meant little to them. Second – it was obscure so it probably had been overlooked this whole time. Third – the aid rating. A1 or A2 in the 1960s looks very different than those aid ratings today – and typically they were clean cracks that took bomber pitons etc, which meant climbable cracks rather than today’s A1 bolt ladders over blank faces.
With my eye on those three criteria, I had yet another route on the list, this time on the Ship’s Prow. But once you find the line, then what? The trick is to find a partner, and more importantly, the right partner. Tony Bubb was the first person I seriously climbed with when I moved to Colorado and he’s been a trusted, beloved partner for more than 10 years. He’s got all the right makings of a great FA and FFA partner – he’s reliable (you’d be surprised how many climbers aren’t), I trust him implicitly, whether that means holding the rope or anything else, he’s got a cool, analytical head on him, he has zero ego, is an all-around nice guy, and I thoroughly enjoy his company. Plus, he agreed to go check out this route with absolutely no information about it… because I had none. I told him what the guidebook said and that was good enough for him.
We got to the base just after sunrise and Tony cast off on the first pitch, linking into the second as well. With so little information on big alpine routes sometimes, it’s funny how you can still follow the original route. Sometimes there’s clues, like in our case the plethora of fixed pins running up in a row, or that the line of weakness seen by climbers in 1962 is the same as what we see in 2015, all reaffirmed by finding all the vague landmark references in the original description, such as dihedrals, ledges, etc.
I climbed the third pitch to the old piton belay and thought about pushing on and linking the next pitch too, but the idyllic side of me took over as it was too hard to pass up the dining room sized belay ledge, complete with bomber gear anchor and a flat, debris-less ledge I could lay down on. Tony on the other hand loves to stretch a rope out and linked the next two pitches to the summit, which involved about 40 feet of simul-climbing. All in all the route was sort of disappointingly easy as far as that sort of thing goes, but you never know unless you go! The route name, Half Day's Work, lived up to its name and we topped out just after 10am. We had a great time, scoped out more new route potential, and got a good look at a few other aid routes (one won’t go free so that at least saves me some sleepless dreaming).
Think this was a fluke? I don’t think so and experience supports it. Just look at the FFA on Longs Peak at 5.8 by way of example. The surface has barely been scratched in RMNP – lifetimes of routes are waiting to be done. Have you picked up a copy of the new book yet? Tons and tons of clues are in there about existing aid routes that will go free and beautiful color photos of cliffs showing you what features are still waiting for your imagination to grab hold and go explore. I already have my FFA picked out for next summer. Want to join me?
- Jason Haas
In the last twenty years, only two things have really reduced the danger in R or X rated routes: wide cams and BallNutz. Truly. Every time I have placed a BallNut on a free pitch, it has reduced it’s danger rating by at least one, if not more.
We’ve all heard about Trango BallNutz, but few of us have used them let alone own them. But they aren’t just for gear heads. For the experienced trad climber that journeys away from the standard trade routes, or the aid climber looking to do more clean climbing and less nailing, BallNutz can be extremely useful in certain situations. In fact, if I had to only pick one specialty piece to supplement my rack of nuts and cams, I’d choose these before anything else, including tricams. I have used them in the Red River Gorge to protect an otherwise unprotectable trad climb and have placed them on aid routes I was trying to free there where I otherwise would have had to hammer in a pin, substantially scarring the soft sandstone there. I have used them in Eldorado Canyon in Colorado, most notably on Perilous Journey at Mickey Mouse Wall, which turned an infamous death route into an R or even PG-13 climb. I can even think of a handful of routes in Indian Creek I’ve used them for (and safely fallen on) when simply nothing else would do. They are the best substitute for a knifeblade or lost arrow piton in thin, parallel cracks where a cam just won’t fit and are the best and strongest protection available in those small, hard to fill sizes. They look strange at first and people fear strange, unknown things, but they have the potential to open up a lot of doors for people leading on gear.
With that said, there is a con to them. While I have used them on aid routes in Yosemite Valley to avoid placing a piton, I will say that you have to be careful doing so. The copper ball does its job almost too well, and can really set itself between the rock and the aluminum wedge. They can be difficult to remove when body-weighted and especially when bounce tested, but on sketchy free climbs, there’s nothing better. They aren’t impossible to remove if you take a lead fall on them, but even if they were, I’d rather weld a BallNut on a route than hit the ground, wouldn’t you? They come in five sizes but I personally really only use the three smallest ones, of which I have multiples of each. I don’t place them, or even take them to the crag very often, but when I do place them, it’s because nothing else would work. Check them out for yourself and I bet you’ll be impressed.
- Jason Haas
As almost all of the climbing community has heard by now, a massive chunk of the most popular route on Half Dome, the Regular Northwest Face, fell down. Nearly two pitches worth of rock cleaved off. Now here's the sketchy part. I was there two weeks earlier. But here's the real kicker, we got a "heads up" that it was going to happen. No, seriously, listen to this. At the base of the chimney that broke away was a huge chockstone - the size of a refrigerator. I flopped onto the thing, as did my partner, no problem. Dan actually sat on it to belay and get out of the way of a party we had just passed. I uneventfully led the next pitch and then started to pull Dan up. Only a few moments after Dan began chimneying above the colossal block, one of the guys from the party below us belly-flopped onto the block. As that guy stood up, the block dropped straight down, deeper into the chimney! He surfed the thing for about two feet before it re-wedged into the cavernous expanse. I heard the commotion but didn't know what happened until Dan arrived at the belay. He told me the story and all I thought was "crazy" and then forgot about it.
The thing is - that chimney was so huge it truly was a chimney. What I mean is that you didn't chimney behind a flake or something - it was huge! I now wonder if anyone else surfed that block deeper into the chimney before the whole feature finally cut loose. I'll probably never know but fortunately no one was on the route when the rock fall occured. But scary still, there was more massive rock fall on Half Dome again today - over by the top out to Tis-sa-ack. Third big event out there this season. Words of advice? Hmm... Should I say what your mom would say, "be careful"? Nah, Layton Kor was more my style and I'm sure he would say "better climb it while you still can" ;)
Dan Hickstein and I atop Half Dome two weeks before the rock fall.
- Jason Haas
I had an opportunity to really run the Trango Double Rack through the wringer in Yosemite recently and both me and my partner were extremely impressed with it. As a minimalist, even when aid climbing, I was skeptical I needed a gear sling on my chest, but after just a few pitches, I’ll never aid climb again without it. I found the gear loops to be just where I needed them to be and had plenty of loop options to choose from, giving me choices on how to prioritize my racking. Plus, the comfy padding and full-strength chest harness only adds to the versatility.
We found ourselves nearly racking entirely on the Double Rack rather than our harnesses as it had a great distribution of weight, was really comfy, and kept energy levels higher overall. Also, with its variety of loops and easy accessibility, we found our efficiency greatly improved and our time per pitch greatly reduced. Could you do a big wall without it? Sure, but the real question is why would you? It just makes the ride that much smoother!
- Jason Haas
It finally happened. After six months of dedicated training for three specific goals, I kissed the wife and kids goodbye and headed for California. We had two weeks to do three things: Romantic Warrior in the Needles, Half Dome, and El Cap. On paper, it seemed reasonable but in reality we knew things were going to be tight.
Despite all the lead-time on our trip, we overlooked one key detail – accommodations. Dan and I both forgot to make camping reservations so we were forced to fight for a spot in Camp 4. We both had stayed there before, and if you never have, it’s worth experiencing. But my memories of the place were more about agro rangers with a police state mentality, waking me up in the middle of the night to verify I wasn’t “hiding” unpaid people in my tent. Fortunately that has changed and the rangers were much more professional and unobtrusive. What hasn’t changed is the wait. We got inline for a first-come-first-serve spot just before six in the morning with only 11 people in front of us. It took until 10:30 to finally make camp and by 11am it was time to climb. But here’s the thing about Yosemite – it’s big. All the formations and iconic routes are huge. So what do you do when you start at 11am? Super mellow climbing at the Manure Pile? Classic cragging at the Cookie Cliff? No, Dan was too excited and pretty set on something much bigger. “How about Astro Man?” So away we went.
I will probably be shunned by all my trad climbing friends, but I didn’t like the route that much. OK, let’s be fair – I just didn’t like the Harding Slot. The climbing up to it was phenomenal, but once you pull into the slot, it all changes. It took us under two hours to get up to the sixth pitch squeeze and then that’s where I stayed for about the next hour and a half. Imagine trying to wiggle up a household chimney. Now squish it so it’s deformed and a bit tighter in one spot. It’s tighter than heel-toes and you cannot turn your head or inflate your chest at all. At a certain point, with anchors in view, I could not move. Literally. It was a vertical coffin and I was going to die a slow, boring, embarrassing death. It became an all-out primal fight to move in any direction – I couldn’t inch up, I couldn’t fall down, and I couldn’t slither to the side. Three weeks later, that’s all I remember. The classic jamming pitches will fade but that memory will stay. Ugh.
The next day we packed for Half Dome and hiked up to the base. The plan was to bivy at the base and then start climbing around sunrise. But when we got out to the route, five other parties were queued up, with another three midway up the wall. One major annoyance of climbing in the Valley is that everyone sizes you up. Are you faster than me? Slower? Stronger? More experienced? Team epic? I get it. There’s a lot of people jockeying for position and pretty much everyone is here on vacation, so they want to make the most of their trip and don’t want to have to bail off a route because of some other climbers. As polite as possible, everyone started talking about start times and experience levels. One team was leaving at midnight. Another at 3am, then 3:45, then 4:30, and on and on until we’d be screwed.
We could hear other parties on the wall late into the night, which is probably why the first group decided to start at 11 instead of midnight. They had fixed the first three pitches the day before but were now trying to figure out how to jug (and it wasn’t going well). Then one of the parties from the day before finally topped out, hiked down, and nearly kicked me around 1am when they returned to the base. People were talking and moving on the wall and on the ground; I looked at Dan and it was clear we both had the same thought, “sleep isn’t happening so we might as well climb.” We ate some food, racked up, and set off by 2am. We were three pitches up by the time the next party started and six pitches up before the sun hit us and we passed the first party. The climbing was good but had a surprising “mountain” feel to it – big loose blocks and vegetation in quite a few places.
Dan chose the 5.10 finger crack finish that began above an exit hole in a chimney rather than a 5.11 corner off to the right. As the second, I was carrying the pack, which got stuck in the exit hole. Legs pressed, arms straining as if trying to lift a car off a baby, I leaned out into space, 1,000 feet of air below me. It gave me a good view of the cluster of the other parties below us, all smushed together on the same ledge. The pack popped like a cork, I reeled in off balance, and continued up to the belay. For inadvertent payback, I linked the three chimney pitches higher up into one, forcing Dan to deal with the pack for one rope-stretching, 70meter pitch. Hey, I just climbed to the next comfy ledge; how was I to know it was three pitches higher? We caught another party at the Zigzags and ate some food, then pressed on to the top, getting hit with several sandbags along the way. We topped out, enjoyed the view, and hiked down, encountering a bear cub with a broken leg along the way.
The next day Dan, being the aid ninja that he is, wanted to go pull on some gear, and me, being the painfully slow, inept aid climber that I am, wanted to go get better under the mentorship of the master. We headed up a route called Ten Years After on Washington’s Column. I was determined to improve my aid game so I C1-ed the 5.10 start and linked a couple pitches in the aiders. Eventually I was forced to short fix and continued up sketchy, skeetery offset Alien placements in blown out pin scars. Fortunately Dan quickly caught me and put me back on “normal” belay. The pitch traversed 15 feet to the side and then headed up, creating a bit of an “L” in the rope. I shifted my weight to a blue/green offset with only two lobes engaged and as I bent over, head down to clip the rope into the piece I was leaving, the piece I was on blew, along with several pieces below me. I fell 20+ feet to a ledge, my arms shooting straight up as my armpit caught the horizontal rope. Dan said it looked like a perfectly executed gymnastic dismount. I looked at him, expressionless, for about two seconds, all the while him expecting me to start screaming “my ankles!” The ankles were fine thanks to the approach shoes but unfortunately I got a nasty rope burn and tweaked my shoulder pretty bad. Since I was basically standing back at the belay, I hung out there for a minute, assessing how bad the damage was. I couldn’t really use my left arm but I knew if I didn’t get back up there, I’d be scared the next time I had to do some A3 pitch. I climbed halfway up the pitch, got a solid piece in, and lowered back to the belay, satisfied but in a lot of pain. Dan finished the pitch and we rappelled off in search of medical attention. Good thing we did too as it thunder stormed shortly after we reached the ground.
With a nice rope burn, a tweaked tendon, and a sprained rotator cuff, we looked for an easier “rest day” activity the next day so we decided to run up Nutcracker and was surprised at all the piton scars (not to mention fixed pin) found on the route. I pictured the old timers patting Royal Robbins on the back, saying “great job, you climbed it all on nuts. I mean, we’re not going to do it that way, but good job silly boy.” We topped out with thunder clapping all around. We raced down the descent and then tried to sprint up another route, only to get caught in a torrential downpour 250 feet up, forcing us to downclimb a full pitch to a tree rappel. The weather looked terrible - .66 inches of rain or worse for the foreseeable future, so we decided to head to the Needles and return for The Captain later if the rain ever stopped and my shoulder healed properly. We did end up climbing Ron Kauk’s traverse on Middle Cathedral listed in 50 Favorite Climbs of North America, which turned out to be quite enjoyable and memorable despite first appearances/impressions.
The Needles are a photographer’s dream – beautiful streaks of brilliant green lichen, laser-cut cracks, and formations right next to each other to allow easy yet beautiful action shots from across the way without a lot of rigging. The guidebook was a touch difficult to use (that’s even if you can find the out of print guide), and without stars or descriptions to point us towards the classics, we chose whatever looked good, and honestly, we couldn’t have picked better. Every pitch was better than the last and we literally laughed with glee as we ran up route after route. Some standout routes from the first day included Airy Interlude, Thin Ice, Trade Winds, Sorrocco, and Ankles Away (although the latter is quite scary on lead – I recommend toproping it).
The next day we set off for the main objective – Romantic Warrior, which climbed perhaps even better than it looked in photographs – which is breathtaking. However, with all the sustained, technical, and insecure 5.12 climbing on it, all we could think about was Michael Reardon up there onsight free soloing the thing. It’s mindboggling to think about. You get three warm up pitches, 5.10a, 5.7, 5.10d, and then you make two or three moves above the anchor on the next pitch and you’re committed. Seriously. I don’t think you could downclimb those insecure stemming sequences through 5.12 terrain. While the climbing lived up to its reputation and is bucket list worthy, I was surprised by how there was some crumbly rock on it (especially since Reardon soloed it) and how technical and difficult the gear was to place. In this day and age, most trad climbers prefer to slam a cam into the crack over a nut and I am no exception, but on this route, we probably used three or four nuts to every one cam we placed on the harder pitches. Small offsets were crucial.
The next few days we did a bunch of other routes and kept a watchful eye on the weather in Yosemite. It rained for nine straight days in the Valley and we were running out of time. Plus my shoulder didn’t feel great for free climbing on The Captain honestly. We debated doing a NIAD (Nose In A Day) ascent of the Nose but figured with nine days of rain, that thing would be crazy busy. We looked at a few other things, briefly contemplated trying the Salathe anyway and just seeing how it went, but in the end, we were too in love with the climbing in the Needles to leave. We decided to focus on the true goal of the trip which was to have a phenomenal time and come back with some really legendary memories. Plus we ticked two of the three “other” goals.
On our last climbing day we decided to go for a big enchainment of the main formations that run north-south - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Wizard, The Sorcerer, and The Charlton. And it may have been the best day of the trip (ignoring the fact that I got off route on the first pitch of the day and was essentially soloing 5.10/5.11 terrain that I then had to reverse to get back on route). After that small detour, the day was phenomenal, including the best 5.7 pitch I’ve ever done – a knifeblade ridge/arête to a small summit, several hundred feet off the ground. Seventy feet out from Dan with no gear (but super secure), a fighter jet from the nearby air force base rocketed right towards us, then pulled straight up into a barrel roll at the very last second and turned on the afterburners. I will admit it was a little scary with the whole rock shaking and me so far runout, but it was also so cool! We had seen the jets all week and they had spotted us on the south face – directly facing them as they flew through the tight canyon – and apparently decided to give us a little extra show on one of the passes. The day continued to grow in fun – pitch after varied pitch of jamming, offwidthing, face climbing, delicate stemming, and so on over four unique and beautiful summits. There was no better way to end the trip. As we topped out and looked over to the metal skeleton remains of the burned-down fire watch tower, our eyes continued to roll down the ridgeline, following the rock to its base. Like any climber, I said to Dan, “It’d be cool if there was a route going all the way up that thing.”
Dan nodded and gave out a soft “yeah” as if lost in his own thoughts. He thumbed the book for a second and then snapped out of his daze “There is! It’s 12 pitches and only 5.8! Oh man, we can do it really quick tomorrow before we leave! We can pack most of the car tonight, blitz up the route before tomorrow’s thunder storm, and then drive towards home.”
We toyed with the idea even though we hadn’t rested in what felt like forever and were pretty trashed, but then again, when would we be back? Maybe we should do another classic. We hiked back to camp, sorted gear and packed for the morning. As the sun came up the next day, we got an alpine start of a different sort – rain pitter-pattering on our tents and we knew it was time to head home. But we also knew we’d be back.
- Jason Haas
After five months of training for a trip to Yosemite, I have realized a few things due to experience, trial and error, and some reflection. First and foremost is that training takes time and to work it into an already over packed life, something’s got to give. One thing that went was my weekly blog updates. I appreciated all the people that followed it and positive comments I received, so hopefully this tidbit will re-inspire some. If you are thinking about starting a training program, the list below includes some useful things to keep in mind as you start your journey.
- Jason Haas
Seven weeks into the road to Yosemite, parts of the training regiment have become routine, others are harder to follow. For instance, one day on, two days off has become routine and easy to plan our lives around in advance. The supplemental exercises are also routine. Don't take that to mean they are extremely easy, they are still tough as I just increase reps or resistance or whatever to continue to make them challenging.
Each new phase is a learning process (at least until I go through a couple cycles) and throws off the routine a bit. With hangboarding, it was critical to keep a log of each grip, set, resistance, etc. to track progress. When moving into the power phase, it can be more difficult to track "limit boulder problems" especially when there are 9 commercial gyms (plus my own home wall) in under 30 minutes from my house. All have their own system of rating problems - V-grades, "intermediate, advanced, elite," even spots. There's also outside limit bouldering to throw in the mix, which should be the most stable grade to measure on, but there's about 12 inches of snow outside right now, so that's out.
What I can quantify is the campus board. Last blog talked all about how I learned how to use it. I went to a brand new gym in Denver. The board looked extremely steep, but I figured I didn't really know since I was new to campusing and since it was a brand new gym, the board must meet the standard angle. Wrong. Enter the nerd part: measuring each gym's campus board angle by hand. The Andersons would be proud. The gym I started at was 10 degrees steeper than the "standard" angle. This made a HUGE difference when I went to another gym this week to campus and their board was the "standard" angle. The rungs and rung spacing were the same - the Metolius wooden rungs, but the angle difference was crazy and shows why it's so important to mark and record what seems like even the most minute detail in a workout. One would assume I became obscenely strong from one workout to the next, almost overnight, if looking at just my logbook for each campus set. The first time I struggled with the technique, sure, but I hardly did the prescribed workout. The second time? I cruised the "beginner campus workout" in the Rock Climber's Training Manual and even added more sets of even greater difficulty at the end. It was familiarity with the board, learning the technique, and the different angle.
There's probably nothing wrong with the steep board; it's just more difficult than the standard one, which can be great for elite athletes needing an extra challenge. The real lesson is to realize I am training, not hanging out and just doing some boulder problems at the gym with friends. There's a different goal than that, one that requires some continuity between workouts (such as using the same campus board each time). So for the rest of the power phase, I'll stick to just one of the 9 gyms. I'll use the same campus board for each of the remaining campus workouts and will do my best to quantify my limit problems in relation to other problems like it in that gym, set by the same route setters each time. It's important to have fun training, but it's also important to track progress and be able to look back on it with fidelity between workouts, cycles, and even seasons. Next campus board session? Upping the whole program to the more difficult recommended program. I can see how you're only limited by your creativity with the board once you realize how to fully utilize it, but I'm not experienced enough to go rogue with the program. That's next cycle...
Most people reading this aren't fortunate to have the same problem of which of the nine gyms near them should they choose for each workout, but it's something to think about as you move forward in your own training program. Nerd out, record as much data as possible, and constantly reflect and analyze it to improve your program.