The Last Unicorn

Posted on: March 1, 2006


In our Lexington, Massachusetts, high school, of course Jeff "the Phez" Pheasant had a girlfriend. Jeff, with his sandy locks and positive energy, emitted that cool, likeable, come-on-let's-do-something-fun look that girls see as self-confidence. He'd even slept with his girlfriend—more than once! I'd never even been kissed. But on afternoons and weekends Jeff and I climbed together like brothers, inseparable, fiercely motivated, testosterone-fueled, always pushing each other to excel.

Jeff graduated early from high school and in 1974 moved to North Conway, New Hampshire, to the White Mountains' granite, where he immediately partnered with big names like Barber, Bouchard and Bragg. I grabbed my diploma a few months later and although my parents raised eyebrows at how I would support myself, I also headed north. By this time, Jeff had already snagged half a dozen notable first ascents. He had new friends, and our climbing partnership had ended.

Putting up first ascents became our mutual, if separate, obsession. Not only was establishing climbs challenging and often downright dangerous, there was also a chance you'd see your name in a magazine. I was enraged with jealousy when I saw Jeff's name engraved in the biblical columns of Mountain, the British magazine of world climbing—even if the new route he'd done was called 6,000 Salad Bowls, a wretched name if ever there were one.

In February 1976 Jeff hung himself out to freeze, spending days pioneering a major new line, solo, on Whitehorse Ledge that he named South Buttress Direct. After an A3 thin-blades crux up a vertical seam, Jeff tenaciously hooked all the way up an expansive, near-vertical headwall. His effort remains one of the only major first ascents in the White Mountains to have been soloed in winter. Then, immediately afterward, Jeff vanished—moved to California, went surfing, got a job with a defense firm and began, according to rumor, pulling down big money.

I stayed in New Hampshire exploring my native crags, pursuing what I'd grown to love—spotting and climbing first ascents—but I always dreamed of larger goals. Later, I moved out West, studied at Colorado College and handjammed my way up new routes like Super Crack, Primrose Dihedrals and Scenic Cruise. I gained a degree in anthropology—but what was I going to do with my life? After graduating, I moved back East to guide in North Conway, first on rock and eventually on ice.

New routes and first free ascents fell quickly in the mid- to late 1970s on Cathedral and Whitehorse. Dunn, Ross, Madera: mention of any of these towering rivals could send us lower-laddered lads into a frenzy. Competition was fierce, and if word leaked out about an unclimbed line, it could be filched in less than a day.

One of the largest, most impressive granite swathes in the White Mountains is the massive Wonder Wall on the South Buttress of Whitehorse Ledge. There are no easy routes; unrelentingly steep face climbs on small, sharp edges with long runouts can test even the most venturesome. Hard as it is to believe today, prior to 1972, no one had ever climbed on this cliff. The first time I hiked to it, there was no sign any humans had ever been there.

In the summer of 1978, Jeff returned East, hopped out of a battered pickup loaded with cord wood and chain saws, and shook my hand. Something had fallen through—a relationship, a job, Jeff never said. Though we hadn't climbed together since high school, we soon roped up, and on June 27 we pulled off the first free ascent of his infamous South Buttress Direct at 5.11a. We meshed like long-lost brothers. I was thrilled when Jeff declared, "Webby, you're climbing well. You lead this next pitch," and my Colorado-honed skills carried us to the top.

The region's arch conspirator also happened to be my employer, Briton Paul Ross, director of the International Mountain Climbing School. Paul had eyed up the unclimbed headwall between Wonder Wall (a route he'd established with Jeff in 1976, generating the wall's name in the process) and South Buttress Direct. When Ross had to possess a piece of rock, he did. On July 11 he installed New Hampshire's longest bolt ladder as he aided up a black water streak to create Science Friction Wall. But Jeff and I, sleuthing about, saw the handholds Paul missed. We certainly didn't tell anyone about our plans.

On August 10 Jeff led Pitch 1, overcoming a contortionist's crux (5.10b) to gain a belay stance. The next day I led out and hurriedly placed two protection bolts to gain a flake that deposited me at the base of a blank, vertical headwall. Aiding it, I drilled three more bolts, lowered, then pulled the rope. Henry Barber was our ethical inspiration then, and Barber-style our ideal: all bolts had to be drilled on lead, and all moves led free in one push from the belay. When I re-led the pitch, I freed the troublesome headwall (also 5.10b), then underclung wildly out an overlap to a hanging belay above the void.

Nothing could have surpassed dangling high up on the Wonder Wall with Jeff. Our climbing skills and temperaments had matured during our years apart, and youthful competition had finally given way to a shared appreciation of our friendship and of the vertical experience itself. Jeff aided the final open groove, placing four more solid bolts before we pulled the rope again, so I could savor free climbing the route's last pitch. I liebacked the 5.10b groove and bridged up strenuously to grab the finishing jug, hidden just over the lip.

In a full test of our climbing ability, we had sought, found and mastered a route that would become a classic, the most popular 5.10 in New Hampshire. It was a special time, this romantic, youthful questing for The Last Unicorn. But who knows? Perhaps we weren't chasing unicorns after all. Maybe we were just pursuing the justification for our lives. z

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