Escape Route

Posted on: June 1, 2008

Vera Schulte-Pelkum, the author’s wife, on Jules Verne (III 5.11a, 6 pitches), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. When it was first climbed, the route entailed one of the most notorious runouts in American rock climbing. Even with today’s sticky rubber, detailed topos and bomber cams, the legend persists. [Photo] Topher Donahue

THERE ARE RUNOUTS that are simply not worth the risk. There are runouts that are worth the risk, but the odds of disaster are too high to justify taking that chance. Then there are the worst kind of runouts: those that are worth the risk and where the chances of the way-whipper are low enough to tempt you into the game.

My problem with the route Jules Verne, in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon, was that I wasn’t sure which kind of runout it was—and that uncertainty had an unnerving enticement of its own. Roger Briggs, one of the state’s most visionary climbers, had written, “The [free] climb waits for someone with stainless steel testicles.” When Steve Wunsch finally did free it, my well-worn copy of Climb! The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado made it out to be a horror show. On the crux pitch, Wunsch “eventually [found] a place for two number one Stoppers.” A pitch with no protection except two number one Stoppers? What was I thinking?

In fact, I was thinking of attempting it. Harder and wilder climbs had at last given me the confidence to try—or maybe youthful enthusiasm was simply blocking common sense. On a cool October day—my nineteenth birthday—I decided to test my metal.

As my partner, a fellow Estes climber named Tim Hansen, and I approached, the dark red stone of Eldorado Canyon’s Redgarden Wall seemed to swallow the sunlight. Jagged pockets of night-black shadows stood out on the angular walls. The rock was cool, the air crisp. Conditions were not ideal for excuses.

We racked up below the imposing roof band at the base. Tim was one of the most powerful pebblers I’d ever chalked up with, but he had little use for long runouts on small holds. The sharp end of the rope would be mine.

The first few pitches went by in a mega-Eldorado blur: edges and fingerlocks with enough gear to keep it sane but not so much that I could toprope all the interesting bits. I tried to focus on the huecos, the comfortable jams, the positive edges... but my mind was distracted.

If the legendary fifth pitch was as bad as Climb! made it sound, my only possible retreat would be to down climb or lower off a piece of gear—if I could find one. My ratty Stopper collection clipped to the back of my harness gave me some confidence: I always climbed with it in case I needed a fast and easy bail anchor. But aluminum nuts made a meager substitute for steel resolve, and if the entire pitch of 5.11 had only two number one Stoppers for pro, I didn’t stand a chance.

When at last the pitch rose before me, the rope went in the direction the smarter part of me wanted to go: down. I felt as if I were soloing. Tim faded from my mind; he could do nothing for me if I fell. When I tried to place a piece right above the belay, my whole rack jingled from full-body shakes. As for stainless-steel testicles, considering the way mine seemed to have crawled up into my stomach, I was beginning to doubt whether there was anything down there at all.

My feet tap-danced on big holds. I pulled too much on my arms. After making a mess of easy moves, I thrutched into a corner—and lo and behold, there was a crack. It was not even the flared seam of my imagination, but a real crack that promised real protection for as far as I could see.

When I placed a couple of RPs (protection I normally would have considered minimal) they looked like a belay anchor, and with the fear of death momentarily at bay, I enjoyed the tricky stem movements that followed. More good protection appeared. My feet felt suctioned to the smooth rock. Next to a couple of bomber cams, the thin fingerlocks felt like handjams. I no longer questioned my sanity.

As I moved higher, it became clear that in a few body lengths the crack would disappear. From the photos in Climb! I recognized the start of the crux. Fear snuck back into my bones; my masculinity, which had begun to assert itself a little, retreated back into its sanctuary.

I pulled over a small roof, the famous runout now at my fingertips, and began looking for the Stoppers, but found instead a spot for a perfect number one... Friend?!? Somewhere below my chalkbag a certain swinging tentatively recommenced. At last I saw where Wunsch had fiddled in the two tiny nuts, but with my perfect cam, I didn’t even bother.

Instead, I started working out the moves. Small pebbles protruded from a steep plaque of red rock. I proceeded cautiously, feeling each one as I moved above my cam. Two body lengths higher the crux appeared: a highstep onto a sloping bump with handholds I could feel but couldn’t even see. My mind focused pleasantly; now only the next moment mattered.

History had portrayed the climb as a veritable free solo, and perhaps with the equipment Wunsch possessed in 1975 it had been, but my experience wasn’t proving as bad as I had imagined it would be. The move passed without a hitch. As big handholds and more solid gear appeared, I realized I was having the time of my life. Even if I fell, I wouldn’t die. The rest of the climb, though, was still no giveaway; in fact the last pitch, not even mentioned in the book, felt like the physical crux. Cryptic sequences with just barely enough gear saw me through an overhang and demonstrated why real 5.10 will always be hard.

As we moved through the riddles of the upper reaches of Eldorado, each move unlike the one before, the river falling farther below and the hawks circling closer, I thought about climbing legends. Storytelling focuses on the most thrilling part of an event, and this dramatization is often passed down as gospel. But everything in climbing is relative. While the new generation absorbs the old tales, when they venture out with better technology and a different perspective, they may find an entirely different experience.

Over the years I have often gone back to Jules Verne to relearn this lesson and clear my preconceptions. I’ve even found several new, naturally protected pitches that avoid the original line’s traverse onto easier terrain. The climb has never become simple, and there is always a moment where my fortitude retreats; but now, though I may be afraid at times, weak at times, strong at times, bold at times, I am always free from the fear of legend.

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