Enhancing the experience: bigger, bolder, scarier

Published in The Climber 95, April 2016

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by Derek Cheng

The fixed, static line was staring me in the face, so close I could have brushed it with my nose. Teasing me. Tempting me.

I was on the third pitch of The Power of Lard on the east face of Snowpatch Spire in the Bugaboos, Canada – one of the most impressive alpine playgrounds in the world. But I was too busy trembling in fear to rejoice in the beauty of these impeccable granite spires.

The pitch follows three bolts up a steep face before joining an arching corner crack that swallows cams. Directly above the pitch hung a portaledge, courtesy of team Stanhope-Segal, who were in the process of freeing the Tom Egan Memorial Route: a blank 5.14 traverse into a miniscule crack line that shares its first pitches with Lard.

Static lines hung from the portaledge to the bergschrund – and proved most helpful on the second pitch, when my climbing partner Yuki used one to overcome the left-leaning seam and overhanging face of the second pitch – a sandbagged 5.12a.

Now on the third pitch, I could sense the static line beckoning me, mocking me.

I stared at the bolt well below my feet, and the sloper of inadequate proportions above. High foot on a granite pebble. High hand to the sloper. Commence uncontrollable shaking. Down-climb.

I traversed to good holds on the right, only to be stifled by even worse slopers, forcing me back to the “rest” – one flat hold and a small crimp. Each down climb left me more and more flamed. The static line tickling my nostrils looked increasingly appealing.

After a half dozen tries in three different directions, I didn’t have any more juice to down-climb.

“Ok Yuki, I’m going for it.”

I moved up to the sloper, gripped again by involuntary shaking. Above me was a tenuous-looking rail that looked like it had been hand-slapped. I glanced right and saw a distant pod, lunged my right foot to it, and then hucked for the rail. My eyes popped in disbelief as I latched it, and I quickly moved my feet up to a less-than-vertical stance.

Holy shitballs. That was exciting. I didn’t realise exactly how exciting until I was safely back at the Applebee campsite that night. When I mentioned the pitch to one of the local climbers, he replied: “Oh, yeah. That’s a terribly bolted pitch. I should have warned you about that. You’re looking at a horrible ledge fall trying to pull that crux. I just figured you’d climb the 5.8 alternative to the left.”

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The lightning bolt corner is one of the most striking features I’ve ever seen, a beautiful scar on a steep, clean face. Ever since I ventured into the alpine, I’ve been in awe of such features, regardless of the difficulty of the climbing. But to get to this corner – the fourth and fifth pitches of Power of Lard – you first need to overcome 5.12 climbing.

I’d never even considered trying a trad pitch that hard, let alone in the mountains. Climbing for me started on benign top-ropes on basalt columns at Mt Eden Quarry, then easy trad routes that were not much more than severe hiking, and eventually to lead climbing on bolts. It was about trying to free climb something clean, within my known ability – onsighting many lines of the same grade before attempting something a grade harder. Red-pointing was rare. Projecting not even considered.

But all that changed when I met Anna Smith, a Canuck who I had briefly crossed paths with in Paynes Ford in 2007, and who met me in the States on a whim for a two and a half month-long road trip in the spring of 2015. Every crag we hit up, Anna immediately suggested the boldest, baddest, most blockbuster line.

“Let’s hit Astroman,” she said within minutes of us deciding to head to Yosemite. I hadn’t climbed for two months and Astroman would’ve beaten, disemboweled, and defeated me. It was bold enough for me to be on the regular north-west route of Half Dome on my third day, despite my complete absence of experience with aiding, hauling, or overnighting on a wall.

“You wanna do Cloud Tower? Rainbow Wall?” she asked as we rolled into Red Rock Canyon. And within days of arriving in Zion, we were on Moonlight Buttress, the surreally aesthetic crack line we had no business being on, with six consecutive pitches of 5.12.

And it’s not that she was the fastest, strongest, fittest climber to grace the planet. She wasn’t after the send. She was after the most bad-ass experience she could have, without unduly endangering her life.

We weren’t strong enough to free Moonlight Buttress, but it’s an easy aid climb, so we knew we could French-free if we had to. When we topped out after an exhausting 14 hours on the wall – having fallen and pulled on gear countless times – we were beaming. What a magnificent experience, on one of the most unforgettable lines ever to grace a wall of rock.

Anna had another strong influence when she asked me what my most memorable climbs were. After much deliberation, they all turned out to be trad multi-pitches. Being high up and moving fast, with so many elements against you, was a more enriching experience for me. I was far more envious of strong, alpine adventurers, pushing up an epic wall in a sublime location, than mega-strong boulderers or sport climbers.

Last summer in the Darran Mountains, in the south-west corner of New Zealand’s south island, was the first time I chanced my luck on harder multi-pitch trad routes such as Finders Keepers (5.11d) and Shot in the Dark (5.12a) on Moir’s Mate. I didn’t know until on the routes, but cruxes on both are bolt-protected. Still, I fell on the thin, chalk-less faces, eventually solving the riddle and freeing the rest of the routes.

The routes would have been more fulfilling had I onsighted them, but they were plenty rewarding – high above the line of tourist cars bound for Milford Sound, the evening sun on our faces, pushing limits on gorgeous granite.

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Perfect week-long sunshine and blue skies accompanied my first time in the Bugaboos, and we spent everyday on a classic line, bagging a peak. The place was breath-taking. Mind-blowingly beautiful. Every night at Applebee, I gazed at the east face of Snowpatch and the lightning corner of Lard.

This year in the Bugs I wanted to try harder lines, and met Yuki – a diminutive girl barely breaching five feet tall – in the campsite. She lived in Squamish, and had an impressive list of hard crack climbs under her belt. Our first climb together: the classic Sunshine Crack: a 10-pitch 5.11a that includes off-width, delicate hand traverses, a roof-crack, and a sensationally exposed final fist-crack.

On the walk back to the campsite, I pointed out the lightning corner on Power of Lard. There were two 5.12a pitches (one is a slash grade of 11d/12a), and we could each try one. The final pitch was 5.12d, but we could aid through it if it was too hard, or simply bail.

She eventually succumbed to my constant badgering and, the next day, decided to lead the first 5.12a pitch.

“I should warn you – I grunt,” she said as she was about to lead.

“That’s fine. I do too. Everyone does when they try hard.”

“No, no. You don’t understand. People get quite alarmed if I don’t warn them first.”

She pulled into the thin seam and immediately started pulling strenuous moves. The grunts erupted viscerally from somewhere deep within her. They sounded like violent dry-retching.

Soon she was off, and after being stymied at more than one crux move, she prussiked up the Stanhope-Segal fixed line. The pitch squeezed me as soon as I started seconding, batting me away more than once. Tiny fingers in tiny breaks in the seam. After a few metres, the line moved through an overhang to a face with razor crimps, and then to a 5.10 hand-crack.

“That was not 5.12a,” I said as I arrived at a luxurious belay ledge. I took a few moments to de-pump, looked at the 5.8 alternative, and then at the steep face above.

“Well, I may as well try the face. It’s bolted.”

The pitch required a committing move before the first bolt, and then some technical, moderate climbing to the crux, well above the third bolt. Involuntary shaking can take hold at this point, all while trying to ignore a salvation-delivering static line tickling your nostrils.

When I finally made the move, my reserves were low for the easy section to the comfortable ledge at the base of the lightning bolt corner.

Yuki led the next pitch – 5.11a – stemming up the base of the beautiful corner. She moved gracefully, confidently, using palm offs to move her feet higher, and finally moving right to an anchor on the arete. No grunting.

The corner continued steeply above, with beautiful finger locks. After 20m or so, the crack becomes a horizontal rail, and then moves back into a wider hands/fist corner. I climbed higher, wary of how many large cams I had left.

On the face to the right of the corner, I spied a feature that was scarred by the familiar black rubber of climbing shoes. Gingerly, curiously, I placed a foot into the feature, and reached blindly with my hand into … a perfect hand jam. I pulled over and looked up – a magnificent hand crack ran up the face before meeting the corner again towards the top.

This time, with more moderate 5.10d climbing, I could inhale the exposure and the glorious setting, chopping my hands into the crack all the way to the top of the fabulous 55m-long pitch, relishing every move. These are the climbing moments that linger long after we’ve untied and are unwinding by a campfire.

Two further pitches remained, including the overhanging splitter crack for which we had dragged up six yellow camelots. But evening was approaching, and Yuki had plans to do a classic big wall climb the following day. We rappelled down.

Despite not topping out, a quiet euphoria settled as we hiked over the glacier and back to camp. I had free-climbed harder than I ever had in the mountains, and had climbed a striking feature that had been lingering in my memory for years. It had been some of the best pitches of climbing I’ve ever had the privilege of gracing.

As I walked out of the Bugaboos the following day, the sun warming my stride as I turned my back on those divine spires, I contemplated the previous months of harder, longer lines in the Darrans, Yosemite, Zion and the Bugaboos. I still have great fun pushing myself on sport climbs, but The Power of Lard reinforced my love of multi-pitches and alpine walls.

But striving for the send had also taught me another lesson, one that alpinists allude to when they talk about coming face to face with their true selves when pushed to the point of breaking.

You never truly know what you’re capable of until you try something that you think is beyond you.

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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