Posted on: March 1, 2006
One night in 1979, as we hung out at Paul Muehl's house eating hot dogs and hamburgers and enjoying Loretta's chokecherry wine, Vertigo came up. We all wondered whether anyone would ever climb it according to The Needles' standards of the time: ground up with no aid. Renn Fenton, an older Needles legend, had spent many hours looking at the potential route with binoculars. "Sure it'll get climbed," he said from the other room. "And I know how." He sketched a likeness of the climb for us on some notebook paper and proceeded to draw in the route he'd figured out. We decided we'd start our quest the next morning.
Renn had told us first how to get up the first block, at 5.7 or 5.8; then we were to climb an overhang into a small pod, where we'd place our first bolt. Only Paul and myself in our little band had ever drilled any bolts. Paul made the first attempt on this second pitch. He placed a piece just under the overhang, then stretched his tall, lanky body as he tried to find a sequence of small holds that would get him over the lip. Suddenly he was flying through the air. After falling thirty-plus feet, he stopped beside us, looked at me and said, "Your turn."
I can't remember how many times I went up and down trying to work out the moves for the overhang. Once I had the sequence, I was too tired to pull it, so I lowered off. Jim Mullin then took the end of the rope. I described the moves to Jim as much as I could, and after the second try, he pulled the overhang and was in the pod. As Paul and I shouted up instructions, Jim swung the hammer like a madman. After we determined the hole was deep enough, he placed the quarter-inch buttonhead bolt exactly where Renn told us it should go, and he came down.
In Renn's drawing, the route had gone to the left of the first bolt, along a small seam with a couple of little finger pockets and some thin protection. Renn predicted this section would be the first crux. He was right. After Mike Goetze worked his way around the small rib to the thin horizontal crack, a small slip sent him penduluming back under the overhang. "Who's next?" he said.
Paul announced that he knew how to protect it. When he reached the small seam, he brought out two RURPs that he had modified. (I'd never actually seen a RURP before.) Paul banged in the first one, then, about eight inches more to the left, he bashed in the second: "That one should be able slow you down enough for the other one to catch you. Now whose turn is it?"
Kevin Bein claimed the next go. He fell on the first RURP, which popped out of the rock. Just as Paul foresaw, the second one kept him from falling under the overhang. Kevin replaced the first RURP, completed the traverse and added two pitons, beating them so much he welded them into the rock. The first crux had been surmounted.
Kevin then followed a sequence of crystals higher and higher, until finally a drilling stance appeared. He lowered down from the new bolt to the ledge, and we all called it a day.
Paul and I had never knowingly climbed a 5.11, and we had no idea what that grade felt like. The next day we would learn. Once again, it was my turn to lead. After two falls, I made it across the traverse, the hardest series of moves I'd ever done in my life, and reached the bolt. "Oh shit—this bolt is trash!" I hollered when I got there. Kevin had drilled straight into a large quartz crystal, which had shattered around the radius of the hole. I didn't want to put any more weight on the bolt, and I didn't have the bolt kit with me. The only choice was to keep climbing to the crack above and find a place to get some protection. When I reached the crack, I scanned it desperately. Just before my arm muscles burned to exhaustion, I got a number three wired hexcentric into the crack, and I once more lowered to the ledge.
Barbara Devine, the only woman among us, insisted it was her turn. She meticulously climbed to the hex and pushed upward, adding more gear. Mike then passed Barbara's high point and continued up the overhanging diagonal crack, where he placed the key piece to protect the last and hardest crux. His strength spent, he lowered to our little nest. All of us now had tired muscles and tender fingers; it was time to return to Paul's house for some chokecherry wine.
The following day our merry band climbed up to our base-camp ledge for what we hoped would be the last time. After three days, we were beginning to feel as though we'd been showing up for a real job.
Jim took off to look for the second traverse that Renn had indicated on his map. Although he eventually found it, he couldn't send it.
Kevin began a series of one-arm pull-ups along the traverse. Without warning, he was off the rock, falling thirty-five feet. He climbed right back up to his high point, and past the one-arm pull-ups, found a place to rest. The second and final crux behind him, he floated through the summit crack and reached the top. Sounds of celebration erupted from our ledge. One by one we climbed up to join Kevin.
All this took place before the '80s sport-climbing rage. We didn't know anything about redpoints, pinkpoints or whatever points. But we knew we were in the company of good friends, and we all shared each other's passion.