Short Pitches

Posted on: June 1, 2007

Chopping errant bolts atop New Hampshire's Cathedral Ledge. In 2006, when a bolt chopper was penalized by the local court, the climbing community rallied to pay his fine. [Photo] Anne Skidmore

The Politics of Chopping

North Conway's climbing community has always enjoyed a feisty ethical discourse. Bolts are periodically added and removed from Cathedral Ledge. When the action gets too hot, disputes are settled, in true New England tradition, with a town meeting. The glue that holds our communities together derives from a single guiding principle: don't tell other people what to do. But say what you will about chopping bolts, there seems to be little rationale for doing a bad job of it.

One day last spring it was discovered that several anchor stations at Cathedral Ledge's popular North End practice slabs had been removed. Furthermore, the party responsible had left behind an unsightly mess of bent studs and battered hangers. Hammer blows had chipped the rock surrounding this carnage. Most alarmingly, a two-word warning had been scraped into the rock at the base of the crag: "NO BOLTS." Past choppers have been good enough neighbors to remove offending hangers and studs fully, taking care not to damage the area around it:+#8200;a few pebbles and a speck of glue later, and the holes were never there. But this was different. This was a crime of passion, by someone who didn't seem to care that his act had taken the rock further from its natural state than the original bolting had.

Several local guides mounted an immediate reprisal, reinstalling the bolts within twenty-four hours. These new fixtures were promptly bludgeoned as well. A likely perpetrator, well known on the local coffee-shop circuit, was identified. Indeed, the individual implicated himself in a series of baffling posts on an area Internet site.

Regretfully, there was no attempt this time to hold a local forum or to open a dialogue with the perpetrator. Tensions mounted. A few firebrands suggested a second wave of retaliatory bolting; several conservatives called for the start of a general cliffwide cleansing of retrobolts. Most sensible-minded folk merely rolled their eyes and waited for cooler heads to prevail.

A small group of offended locals discretely brought the incident to the attention of state authorities. A case was built, and by summer's end, misdemeanor charges were filed against the perp for committing acts of "vandalism" within a state park. The majority of climbers in the Mt. Washington Valley never knew that a county judge down in Ossipee was about to decide their local climbing ethic. The defendant waited for his date with justice, and when it came, the judge delivered a $360 fine.

The vandal then enjoyed a stunning change of fortune. Word of the verdict got out almost overnight. The vandal's status in the local community went from amateur hack to celebrated martyr. A collection was taken up. Those who had been against the bolts contributed. Those who had been in favor of replacing the bolts contributed. All sides were suddenly united by their belief in the right to self-govern. Seventeen individuals committed twenty dollars each, reducing the vandal's loss to an equal twenty-dollar share. Local consensus may tolerate the odd bolt chopping, but it certainly does not abide the tattletale.

It's early January as I write this, and I'm still not sure exactly what kind of statement the vandal was trying to make by chopping those bolts, nor do I know if anyone's bothered to replace them. Frankly, I don't really care. It's ice-climbing season, and our license plate still reads: "Live free or die."

—Freddie Wilkinson, Upper Refuse, New Hampshire

Audrey Gariepy drytooling her way to the "Diving Board," an overhanging plywood panel sparsely equipped with climbing holds, on the Finals Route at the 12th Annual Ouray Ice Festival. Gariepy snagged second overall in the competition. One month earlier, she had nearly been pulled down by a collapsing pillar in the Canadian Rockies. [Photo] John Irvine

Max Headspace

In the past decade or so M-climbing has transformed itself with astonishing rapidity. The first M8 was done in 1994; eight winters later, M14 has been sent. Mixed climbing at today's crags is a norm for beginner ice climbers as well as for the sage alpinist. Leashless tools, introduced to competitions by mandate, are now taken to alpine settings with regularity (along with "umbilical cords," mostly homemade—not to hang from, but to prevent dropped tools). Heal spurs, adopted to make horizontal roofs possible, have come to be considered passe—or worse, aid climbing. Today, for many, these choices are less a quality of style than a matter of personal preference. However, events in the Canadian Rockies this winter beg a simpler question: Does the headspace possessed by a seasoned alpinist create a recipe for complacency in less-committing M-climbing arenas?

Close Call Number 1: French Canadian Fumbles. Shortly before he left to compete at the Ouray Ice Fest, Maxime Turgeon started up an M8 at the training ground of Haffner Creek. The first bolt was "a bit higher than normal," and just as Max was getting ready to clip it, both his tools popped off a big, sloping ledge. He fell—straight onto a rock, butt first, from three meters up. Friends were left wondering whether Max, badly bruised and walking with difficulty, would be able to compete, let alone climb in Alaska in the spring as he had planned. By the time he got to Ouray, he hadn't led a route in six days because he was afraid of what falling in a harness would do to his injury. In the event, he tied for fifth with Manuel Cordova (Spain) and Paul Stein (USA).

Close Call Number 2: Red Man Plummets. In 1993 Barry Blanchard made the cutting-edge first ascent of Red Man Soars (IV WI4+ 5.10, 55m) in Opal Creek. Blanchard has climbed the route numerous times since, and on January 1 he began up it again. "Crux was good with ice for tools and a couple of airy moves of feet on small rock edges," he wrote the next day. "I led past the retro-fit two-bolt anchor (not placed on the first ascent), placed a 16cm screw in the pillar above, climbed a bodylength higher and started to pull the bulge. Tried to high-step right over it, blew that crampon and pulled outward too much from the higher grip (bump-up position) of my new tools.... POP, and to prove Larry Stanier right, 'Even Grade I ice is going to seem really steep if you fall on it.'" It was the second time Barry had fallen onto a screw in thirty years. Fortunately, he only sprained his ankle.

Close Call Number 3: Ice Queen Hangeth On. Quebecoise Audrey Gariepy redpoints 5.13, hikes WI6+ Rs while smiling and started ice climbing after a head-on, midair collision with a snowmobile ruined her psyche for snowboarding. In early December she and Mathieu Audibert went to climb Shooting Star (V WI6, 350m), a route on Mt. Wilson in the Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park. The climb's first tier consists of two narrow pitches, one technical WI5 and one classic WI4 to a snow bowl. A 150-meter section of steep snow gains the last eighty-meter tier, which starts as a pillar and finishes on easier WI5 ice. As Audrey, all 120 pounds of her, finished her lead, well above the pillar and onto the easier part of the pitch, she heard a loud crack. Immediately she thought of an avalanche, but as she held tight to her leashless tools, she realized that it was in fact the pillar below, with two of her screws in it. It had spontaneously collapsed, and the rope attached to it was dragging her down.

"Belayer of the Year" Mathieu fed her tons of slack while trying to save himself from the numerous fridge-sized pieces of ice exploding all around him. Guy Lacelle, who was climbing the route with Valeriy Babanov below, looked up to see ice chunks projecting over his partner's head just as Valeriy finished the last bottom-tier pitch.

Audrey held on, put in a V-thread and retreated. Guy and Valeriy climbed up to make sure everything was OK and then, of course, proceeded to climb the "body-sized" pillar that was left standing, Audrey in tow, to complete the route. Mathieu, the reasonable one, had had enough for the day and waited for them to finish.

Unlike the snowboarding incident, this near miss left Audrey's headspace intact: one month after her experience on Shooting Star, she took second overall in the Ouray Ice Festival. But the point was made:+#8200;stay aware out there. It can happen to anyone.

—Rob Owens, Canmore, Alberta, Canada

Joanne Urioste on Pitch 6 of Hot Flash, a ten-pitch 5.8 in Red Rock's First Creek Canyon that she and her husband, George, established in November 2006 with Bill Hotz and Larry DeAngelo. Two of Red Rocks' founding—and most prolific—activists, the Uriostes have been putting up routes in Red Rocks for more than thirty years. [Photo] Larry DeAngelo


When Red Rocks pioneers George and Joanne Urioste arrived in Las Vegas in the 1970s, climbing was a wilderness experience, and routes were adventurous: bold runouts, offwidth cracks, shaky belays and brushy crack systems. George and Joanne introduced a new paradigm. Their willingness to place a large number of bolts allowed them to open such modern-day face-climbing classics as Epinephrine, Dream of Wild Turkeys and Levitation 29 on the varnished sandstone walls. This vision for routes that were "couth" (elegant, safe and fun to climb) brought them into conflict with the prevailing perspective that climbs should entail a prescribed degree of risk. In a sense, the Uriostes foreshadowed the sport-climbing revolution that overtook the climbing world in the following decade.

Ironically, as proof of how much that revolution has progressed, when many contemporary climbers look at Urioste routes today, they see long, multipitch climbs, drilled by hand, on lead, and perceive the Uriostes to be the embodiment of old-time tradition—an impression that has become, in recent years, quite true.

A side effect of the post-2000 Red Rocks bolting prohibition has been the renaissance of trad climbing and adventure ethics. In Autumn 2006 Karsten Duncan and Andrew Gomoll climbed a new crack system on the cliff tier above the First Creek Slabs, to the right of the huge dihedral generally credited to Jay Smith in the 1980s. The two topped out Tiers of the Setting Sun (5.11 A0 [the second was able to free climb past the solitary aid point]) just as the sun disappeared beyond the western horizon. They then underwent a complex, all-night descent, enduring an old-school epic that seems incongruous in an area that for many is an agreeable day crag.

The Uriostes have been in the midst of this return to a traditional approach. They were there in November 2006 to snap photos of Tom Moulin and Brian Bowman on the first ascent of The Crack Rock, an all-gear 5.12 about 100 yards left of Cat in the Hat on Mescalito Tower. But at age seventy and fifty-four respectively, George and Joanne have been more than spectators. While Joanne joined Karl Wilcox to open Purblind Pillar (III 5.8, 900'), George teamed up with John Wilder, Kevin Campbell and me on Masquerade (III 5.10c, 900'). He and I also put up Heliotrope (III 5.8 R, 750') with John Hegyes and Ryan McPhee, and Sunspot Ridge with Hegyes and Wilder. One of the very best new routes is Hot Flash, a ten-pitch 5.8 in First Creek Canyon, with clean rock and interesting climbing, that the Uriostes established in November in the company of Bill Hotz and myself.

The existing Wilderness Management Plan is now under examination by the Bureau of Land Management, and a new plan, which will probably take effect next year, is expected to relax the prohibition. Although it's unlikely the BLM will go for more comfortably bolted routes like Levitation 29, they may allow limited bolting to link features on natural lines.

These days the Uriostes' need to spend time with their children restricts their opportunities to climb together. But while the focus and style of climbing in Red Rocks may soon be shifting again, such changes will never have a big effect on George and Joanne. Whether on couth or uncouth lines, they still seek what they have always sought: beautiful climbs and enjoyable days in the mountains around Las Vegas.

—Larry DeAngelo, Las Vegas, Nevada

A forty-pound bale of marijuana from the 1977 Lockheed Lodestar crash into Yosemite's Lower Merced Lake. Book chapters, Internet posts and rumors about the crash and subsequent looting by Camp 4 denizens abound, but—Peter Mortimer, are you reading this?—the movie has yet to be made. [Photo] Rick Schloss collection

Stranger than Fiction

It seems as though everyone knows some form of the story. In 1977 a Lockheed Lodestar crashed into Yosemite's Lower Merced Lake, where it lay abandoned by the authorities until the spring thaw. Rumors that it was a drug-dealer's plane reached Camp 4, and a few intrepid climbers slogged up to discover, hidden beneath the surface of the ice, the corpses of the pilot and copilot—along with enough dope to make them "Airplane Millionaires." Soon after, signs of mysterious wealth sprung up amid the campsites. Jeff Long's cult novel, Angels of Light, describes a phantasmagoric transformation of the dirtbag life: "There were new ropes and shiny hardware.... Many [took] to dining at the exclusive Ahwahnee Hotel.... Thriftier folk could be found in Camp Four cooking up expensive freeze-dried gourmet entrees over brand-new superlight European gas stoves."

Many versions of the tale imply some vaguely metaphysical punishment for the looting: a fatal car crash, a Mafia murder. After three decades, the stories have continued to grow, spawning numerous book chapters and novels, not to mention countless barroom and campfire yarns and years of obsessive Internet speculation.

Enter Rick Schloss, the latest would-be chronicler, whose 2005 post on, announcing his plan to coauthor a nonfiction book on the incident with the pilot's widow, set off a maelstrom of replies. The ensuing two-year thread has become a novel in itself, with cyber-reunions of old Camp 4 friends, paranoid speculations about authorities monitoring the site and nostalgic paens to the wild summer of the Yosemite "Gold Rush." Behind it all the aspiring author has kept a shadowy, persistent presence, commenting on the various arguments, dropping hints about new facts to be revealed in his book, but refusing to give his proof before publication.

Over the telephone, Schloss tells us his own story: he's a fifty-seven-year-old salesman of German industrial equipment, who'd learned to climb in the military and done some soloing in Yosemite, in lug boots, without a guidebook. The pilot's widow, an old high-school friend, had asked him to help her contact the climbing community. Since Schloss had no background in writing or in journalism, his brother, a former detective, taught him the basics of conducting interviews and warned him to be scrupulous when corroborating witness' statements. He soon became intrigued with sifting through the decades of myths to find the "truth"—and equally fascinated by the endless self-perpetuation of the fictitious accounts. Having observed how talking about a far-fetched rumor long enough makes it seem true, he's aware that he's now considered on the forum to be a sort of authority and that he could easily start his own rumors.

As jittery sounding, in some ways, as his Internet correspondents, Schloss won't reveal the name of his agent, his publisher, the title of his book, or the date of publication, but assures us in a compassionate tone that many people want to know what he knows and that all will soon be revealed, perhaps not long after we go to press.

On the other hand, when asked about his motivations, Schloss is effusive. "The truth is important, period. You either write fiction or you don't. Do you write what's true or what someone told you is true—like how I'm telling you all this is true on the phone?"

—Katie Ives, Jackson, Wyoming

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