Wired

Posted on: September 1, 2008


IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A GRAND ADVENTURE: a new big-wall free route, ground up, on wild features that few had ever experienced. And, as the participants tell the story, it started out that way. They set up camp in a secluded forest of Jeffrey pine, ecstatic with their dreams, far from the crowds that pound the Yosemite Valley floor.

Among them was an older member of the Golden Age who had written about climbing as a pathway to visions. The anxiety, deprivation and intense focus, he argued, allows climbers the possibility of seeing the ordinary world transformed. On the other side of the same dome, in 1972, he'd made a clean ascent that displayed his stylistic beliefs, secretly removing the pitons and hammer from the haulbag so he and his partners wouldn't be tempted to use them.

The leader of the modern group was a sponsored climber in his late thirties, who had put up ninety new routes in Yosemite and hundreds all over California, in a variety of styles, some ground up, some rap-bolted. Like the older man, he hoped this route would be a chance to make an artistic statement. He'd been in a "dark and dreary mode" for a while, and he felt a need "to pour his life out across the walls" and leave behind "the most amazing and climbable route on the face."

From their base camp, he tried out various features, eventually finding a line of difficult, splitter cracks that curved and narrowed as it soared for a thousand feet toward the top of a giant archway. When they'd looked at the face from a distance, however, the top half, the headwall above the arch, had appeared smooth in places. All along the potential of the route blanking out had haunted them.

Then out from the arch, they found themselves, as the older climber would later write, in "the land of runouts where you can't stop, of sloping dishes and no stances, and not even a hook placement in sight." Within these thousand feet of slab, discontinuous dikes and hidden features, their original plans began to falter. Worried that their line could end in a "bolt ladder to nowhere," the leader decided at last to preinspect the route. They descended, climbed the formation by the cable route, and dropped a 900-foot single rappel line from the summit. Upon inspecting the upper half of the wall, they realized their original route would have indeed blanked out, so the leader and another climber moved the rope over and found a new one.

They'd already given up on the idea of the unknown; thus, perhaps, their next decision seemed like an obvious step. The leader decided to rap bolt the line. The older man supported his choice. And the ensuing top-down route, on a wall that had once epitomized the boldest, purest ground-up adventures in Yosemite, soon sparked one of the most resounding controversies of our postmodern climbing age.

AT FIRST IT SEEMED IMPOSSIBLE TO BELIEVE: sixty-five-year-old writer and traditional climber Doug Robinson involved in rap-bolting the south face of Half Dome? The initial post that appeared on Supertopo (March 29, 2008) asked just that. "I've been in Mexico working for four months... can anyone tell me if this is true? I cannot believe it myself. I just read in Rock and Ice a story call[ed], The Better Half. Please tell me, I read it all wrong." During the next two months the posts about Robinson's article, "The Better Half," and Sean Jones' new route, Growing Up, would range from eloquent philosophical manifestos to physical threats. As we go to press, they have multiplied to more than 2,200.

Among Yosemite's walls, Half Dome has always had an iconic, almost hallowed status. And of its aspects, the south face exudes a particularly inviolable ambiance. Blazing like a great convex mirror thousands of feet above the valley floor, the face features a darkly curving arch that begins at the ground before ending about halfway up. The accounts of the relatively few climbers who have explored the terrain above this arch portray a looking-glass world of thousand-foot slabs, shining with glacial burnish and concealing surreal and unexpected features. On the epic first ascent of the face in 1970, Warren Harding and Galen Rowell found strange, shadowy potholes that looked like gateways into the underworld. "We half expected," wrote Rowell, "to be greeted... by a two-headed Janus who would calmly say, 'Come in, Warren, we have been expecting you.'" When they became trapped by a snowstorm during one attempt, it would be Royal Robbins instead—the man whom Harding mockingly called "God"—who would rap in deus ex machina to save them on Yosemite's first big-wall rescue.

In 1986 Dave Schultz ventured to the right of the original South Face route with Ken Yager and Jim Campbell. There, on lead, he found sharp crystal dikes that threatened to cut the rope if he fell. Slick patina made the runouts on Karma and on his other south face line, Southern Belle (1987), so bold they continue to terrify the imaginations of the best climbers today. Yet Schultz and his partner, Walt Shipley, drilled each bolt on the smooth sections of Southern Belle from stances, without using hooks.

Shipley returned to the Valley in awe. He told Cosgrove that Schultz had accomplished something "in another realm." Cosgrove's curiosity aroused, he approached Schultz about the idea of freeing Southern Belle. Schultz agreed, as long as he never had to lead the crux pitches again.

Finding himself high on the face, contemplating a 5.12 dyno, with the possibility of a forty-foot fall onto slabs and dikes, Cosgrove remembers feeling "in tune as never before." As he pulled over the lip of the arch on the first free ascent, he felt a surge of gratitude toward Schultz and Shipley for having left that adventure for him. Standing up in the potholes and leaping for an overhanging dike, he wondered at the miraculous nature of the line and the brilliance of its first ascensionists: improbable holds just kept appearing whenever he needed them. Between the beauty and the terror of the climbing, the peregrines that flew around him and the solitary granite, it was a "dreamlike" experience, unlike any other in his life, "so hard, we thought we had no prayer, but we pulled it off by a whisper." It was, he thought then and now, "the best we could ever do." Yet after he and Schultz topped out, Cosgrove couldn't help wondering, "it was only 1987; surely someone in the future will do something even better than what we did."

As it turned out, the future would not be at all what he imagined.

EVEN AT THE TIME Jones and Robinson created it, they knew the fallout to their route—which included a sixty-foot aid ladder, also placed on rappel—could be huge. In his 1969 essay, "Climber as Visionary," Robinson had welcomed critiques: once a first ascent is made, he wrote, it remains like a work of art, open to the "admiration or criticism of other climbers," for "just as a line of a route determines its aesthetics, the manner in which it was climbed constitutes its style." But in response to some Supertopians' complaints about the poor style of Growing Up and its clash with the historical ethics of the south face, Jones posted, "In the past people left their bold statements on the back side of 1/2 dome [sic]. This was my bold statement.... A route that will actually get climbed by more than just a handful of only the best climbers."

Is accessibility more relevant to climbers than adventure? Ethical debates all too often are described in an overly simplified manner, between an "elite" who supposedly create bold lines to keep out the masses, and a "non-elite" who supposedly want to enjoy every piece of rock in a way that has been lowered to their level. Such arbitrary divisions, however, ignore the heart of climbing: that "elusive, essential feeling," that Robinson once described with such passion in his book, A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open. It is a feeling that has nothing to do with abilities or grades, but that seizes us all, each time we rise to whatever level of rock we can climb.

Our climbs are living human experiences as well as ascents. A route is not some separate entity, disconnected from the history and traditions around it and from the methods used to complete it. For the repeat ascensionist, all routes remain suffused with the lore that surrounds them. The process of creation is in and of itself not only valuable, but inextricable from the result.

Style is not an elitist value: it's a recognition that the holistic experience of an ascent is paramount. And as Tom Higgins pointed out on Supertopo, style choices aren't entirely personal matters anymore, but ones that need to be made in connection with our greater community. As climbers expand more and more into a decreasing amount of pristine vertical wilderness, the remaining chances for first ascents will become far more laden with significance. Rap-bolting is a faster way to establish new routes than ground-up techniques, and if historic places like the south face of Half Dome aren't set aside for traditional first ascents, such opportunities for adventure will eventually be lost.

Let's hope they're not. And let's ensure, with our own choices, that the one made on Growing Up remains an anomaly, not a precedent on big walls. For if "growing up" means giving up our chance to belong within the wild mysteries of our world, it's better to remain a child—even if it means saving the coveted new lines for the children who follow.

Katie Ives

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