More New Routes and the Paradox of the First Ascent

by Mark Anderson

After I finished Born on the 4th of July there were two more unclimbed lines remaining at The Bunker. The first, dubbed “Charlie Don’t Surf” by Rock Climbing Clear Creek Canyon author Kevin Capps, was one of the five lines bolted by the crag’s original clandestine developer. It was presumed to be un-sent. The other was a line I bolted at the end of last summer, the last obvious line at the crag—a directissima climbing straight up the center of the cave between Valkyrie and Full Metal Jacket.

Charlie Don’t Surf

Charlie Don’t Surf

With Born finished, my next priority was Charlie. I attempted Charlie many times over several days in June 2014. It was the route that first lured me up to The Bunker, rumored to be 5.14, and with the best rock of the legacy lines. The route is fairly short, beginning with big jugs on gradually steepening rock. There’s a steep bulge at mid-height, where a finger-tip seam emerges, running vertically, eventually flaring into a big right-facing corner. The left face of the corner is composed of brilliant quartzite, laced with incut dinner plate jugs (this is where Apoca-Lips Now! joins Charlie).

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

The climbing is probably in the 5.11 or low 5.12-range, except for the steep bulge in the middle. The rock is starkly unfeatured over this steep, 6-foot section. The obvious feature is the seam, which is flaring and slick, with rounded edges. It offers few useful fingerlocks, all of which are incredibly painful due to a sharp-edged layer of patina coating the crack walls precisely at cuticle depth. There are a few face features, but they are well-spaced.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

I was never even close to doing the route last summer, but I felt there were just enough features that the route should go. I was no longer in top shape by that point, and conditions were on the warm side, so I decided to leave the route for a later time, when I was fit and the rock was cool. As I suspected, when I tried the route this spring, with a fresh perspective, better fitness, and crisp conditions I was able to suss a new sequence and put it together over the course of three days.  Situations like this always leave me scratching my head over the grade. I typically grade things based on the time it takes me to send, which I believe is the typical method. However, if some portion of that time is spent on a dead end, how should those days be counted?

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

The current trend seems to favor only considering the physical difficulty in the grade, ignoring any technical skill or creativity required to solve the movement puzzle (especially now that beta for everything under the sun is easily found on Youtube). First Ascensionists aside, there is no way to know who has made the effort to deduce a sequence, and who has scammed it from someone else, so how can such effort be rewarded in the grade? Yet once you pare away the skill element, all that remains to consider is the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves (with perfect beta, which required no effort to attain). Free climbers have been struggling with this conundrum for decades. It explains why uber-beta-dependent crags like Smith Rock seem sandbagged, and mindless jug-hauling crags (pick one) seem soft. Regardless, it strikes me as a sad state of affairs, and I can’t help but feel like we are failing to capture an essential element of climbing difficulty. I long for the simpler, pre-internet days of John Gill, John Bachar and Jerry Moffatt:

I was trying a Bachar problem at Cap Rock one day and getting nowhere. The man shows up.

‘This is hard, John, how do you do it?’

He wouldn’t tell me.

‘What? What do you mean you won’t tell me?’

He wouldn’t tell me. Bachar reckoned he had got this trait from John Gill; never tell anyone how to do a problem. Let them figure it out, because it’s part of the problem. I kept trying different methods and getting nowhere. All the time Bachar stood there in silence, watching me flail. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later I was there again with a friend of Bachar’s, Mike Lechlinski.

‘Oh yeah,’ Mike said. ‘Bachar hooked a heel around the corner there.’

I tried it. With the heel hooked, supporting some of my weight, the holds all worked, and I soon did the problem. Later that week, I went up there again. Chris was there. He had heard me talk about the problem and had fancied a go.

‘Hi Jerry. How do you do this, I can’t quite work it out?’

‘Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, Chris.’

‘What!’

I wouldn’t tell him. What an idiot. Sorry Chris. It was the only time we fell out in six and a half months.

– Jerry Moffat, Revelations p. 62-3

I happily accept that a more difficult climbing experience is part of the first ascent process, but it doesn’t solve my practical desire to select a grade that will capture the effort required, and yet stand the test of time. So with this massive, spineless caveat, I estimate the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves is typical of that required by many a short, bouldery 5.14a. Don’t expect it to feel so “easy” if the periodic seepage washes away my chalk marks and you have to suss the sequence yourself 🙂

Next I moved on to the final un-finished route in the cave. When I put in the bolts I knew it would be good. The rock is great, and I expected it would yield a hard, continuous line, perhaps in the 14a-range. After a brief slab approach, the route stems up an overhanging corner to a good ledge rest. The business begins just above, with big reaches, kneebars, a few dynos and even a handjam to clear a series of steep overlaps. After this section you get another great rest below a 12-foot, curved ceiling. The ceiling is the kinda thing I used to abhor, but now quite enjoy, requiring huge, committing moves, funky footwork and a fair bit of inverted crawling. It seems that just about every move on this route is hard enough to be interesting, and yet there are no stopper moves. Despite a number of great rests along the route, the pump builds and builds throughout, culminating in an exciting finish on slopey jugs, in a stratospheric position.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

On my first attempt I sussed all the sequences fairly quickly, which left me a bit disappointed. This is the grand paradox of the first ascensionist. When attempting to climb an existing route, the grade is essentially a fixed quantity. When you begin the project, you typically have an idea of how long the campaign should take, based on your past experience with routes of the same grade. If you send more quickly than you expected, you feel like a rock star, with the satisfying feeling that you must have improved recently, and are now a better climber than you realized. If the send takes more time than expected, you wallow in self-pity over your pathetic skill and fitness 🙂 Most grade-chasers (myself included) are constantly developing and re-enforcing this ego-gratifying mindset, which encourages us to pull out all the stops to send things as quickly as possible.

The first ascent situation is completely reversed. You have no (legitimate) preconception of the grade when you begin the campaign. It is totally undefined, and as discussed earlier, will be determined largely based on the amount of time required to send. The longer it takes to send, the better justification you have for proposing a high grade. So if you want the route to be hard, the longer it takes, the better.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

This is a major advantage of new-routing. If your underlying desire is to constantly improve, then you should seek challenges, and revel in encountering them, but the standard route-repeating mindset is at odds with this attitude. When trying to repeat routes as quickly as possible, if you encounter a route that is more challenging than anticipated, you are often disappointed when you realize the route will take more time and effort than expected (possibly impacting other plans for the season). That mild disappointment is harmful enough, but it gets worse. Occasionally we go way out of our way to select routes we expect to be less challenging because we want to increase the odds of an ego-pleasing quick send. So while we should be seeking challenges, we sometimes make it a point to avoid them.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Conversely, when I’m doing a new route, with no grade attached or pre-conceived notion of how long the effort should take, I’m genuinely happy to find the route is more challenging than expected. “A hard route is good to find”, I frequently remind myself. It’s a much more constructive approach to the redpoint process, but it has the potential to inspire less than optimal effort towards completing the first ascent, assuming you want your first ascents to have relatively “hard” grades, which I certainly do (for example, one might drag their feet during the redpoint process so they can later say, “this took X days, therefore it must be at least Y grade”).

The Zen-Climber would not care what the grade ends up being. He would make an honest effort throughout the process, and let the grade take care of itself. But we all know certain grades are just plain better than others. The local 12a gets way more traffic than the 11d next door. And so it goes for 12d/13a and 13d/14a. All first ascensionists want their routes to be popular, and it’s a simple fact that the d’s don’t get the same attention as the a’s. I surely make too much of this distinction, but once you’ve put up enough 13d’s it becomes hard to ignore.

Groping for better holds near the top of the cave.

Groping for better holds near the top of Fury.

I can’t claim to be a Zen climber, but I will say that the ego-gratifying, send-as-fast-as-possible mentality has been so firmly pounded into my skull that I couldn’t “throw” a redpoint attempt if I wanted to. Once I’m on the sharp end, a different Hulk-Mark takes over and my conscious self is just along for the spectacular view. So for better or worse, I sent Fury on my second go (over two days), resulting in what could not be fairly called any harder than 13d (and may end up at ‘c’), no matter how badly I wanted it to be 5.14a.

Despite this mild (and undeniably shallow) disappointment over the grade, I was completely stoked on Fury’s quality. It’s a mega line, long and sustained, with heaps of interesting movement, great rock, and a peerless position. It’s a great addition to the canyon—easily one of the best 5.13+’s—and one of the best lines I’ve discovered.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.

 

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