The Ultimate Linkup in Washington's Stuart Range

Posted on: August 1, 2014


As Jens Holsten belays, Blake Herrington leads Pitch 4 of Let it Burn on Colchuck Balanced Rock, the first route of three 5.12a climbs that the duo connected during their sub 24-hour Stuart Range linkup. [Photo] Max Hasson

On July 27 of this year, Herrington and Holsten each free climbed 5.12 routes to the summits of Colchuck Balanced Rock (8,200'), Dragontail (8,840') and Prusik Peak (8,000'), covering 4,000-plus vertical feet of technical climbing terrain and 20 miles of hiking in 23 hours, 40 minutes. Read on for their story.—Ed.

Holsten: July 27, 2:55 a.m. Go time. In the pre-dawn black, Blake and I stepped onto the Mountaineers Creek trail. The dark path slithered ahead of the light from our lamps with hulking Douglas firs and blueberry bushes lying in the shadows. Our pace was mellow because the day would be long. We would need to finish stronger than we started if we were to have a shot at finishing this marathon we had dubbed the Ultimate (Stuart Range) Linkup.

Herrington: For several years, Jens and I have been planning, imagining and dreaming about the Ultimate Linkup. It would include an ascent of a 5.12 route on three different mountains, each of which are located across major drainages from one another, miles from the nearest road: 8,200-foot Colchuck Balanced Rock, 8,840-foot Dragontail and 8,000-foot Prusik Peak. We wouldn't deem the Linkup complete unless both of us climbed free to every summit.

There would likely be nobody on these routes, many of which still remain largely unknown, even to local climbers. The first route, Let it Burn, was established by Jens and Max Hesson, and it climbs multiple overhanging pitches with just two protection bolts. Its second pitch, a 50-meter 5.12-, would be our dawn warm-up.

advertisement

From there, we would move on to Dragons of Eden, a route whose 1988 aid ascent went underreported in guidebooks and the American Alpine Journal. A hand-drawn topo of the climb surfaced several years ago, describing the route as grade V+/VI and 5.11+ A2. The topo listed 11 pitches before its author ran out of room. An arrow points upwards at the top of the page, and amid the scrawl there is a note: "5.9, 2000' to summit." Jens freed the line in 2009 and has likely climbed it as many times as all other humans combined.

Our last route would be on Prusik Peak, arguably the range's most beautiful and remote peak. We would follow the clean arete on Prusik's south face via a route known as Der Sportsman. The climb, established by a crew of strong visiting climbers, including legendary valley and Oregon-based Brooke Sandahl, is perhaps a tad soft at the original 5.12a grade. But it may be the best of all three climbs.

Holsten: After a three-hour approach, we pulled into the basin under Colchuck Balanced Rock. The familiar hike had given me plenty of time to reflect on my nearly 10 years of Stuart Range climbing. I mused on the hundreds of trips that had led to this dream, the years of developing both the routes and my own climbing skills.

In the early-morning grey light, Let it Burn loomed above us. As Blake racked up to lead, I prepared for a chilly morning of following. Even though Blake moved very well, the first fiddly crux pitch on LIB took time as he moved up steep crack systems and then through a wild sequence of knobs to the belay. I followed with numb fingers and toes—the plight of any second making an early morning ascent on a west-facing wall.

As Blake cruised through 5.11 terrain, leading us to a golden flake that traversed into a leaning corner, we both grew nervous. Although we knew the other parts of the route well, having climbed them into a variation finish, I hadn't been on this pitch since the first ascent in 2010, and Blake hadn't seen it since his 2011 second ascent. But Blake hit the sequence right on and mantled onto a ledge, a yelp of relief escaping his lips. I too followed cleanly. Besides a 5.10 slab and some easy scrambling, LIB was in the bag.

Jens Holsten leads Pitch 2 of Dragons of Eden. [Photo] Blake Herrington

Herrington: After my reluctant solo and down climb of LIB's famous summit boulder, we bolted down to eat a second breakfast at the base of the wall. After some hiking and a couple thousand feet of knee-pounding scree, we gulped water, passing a few hikers who cast concerned looks in our direction. At noon, we reached the north face of Dragontail and the base of Dragons of Eden just ahead of schedule.

With loose rock on the approach pitch and a long, convoluted upper section, Dragons of Eden is certainly the most serious route of the Linkup. On our practice climb the week before, I had failed to onsight the intimidating crux, which takes a committing boulder problem off the top of a spiky pillar before gaining a steeply-tilted finger crack. Knowing Jens had sent the route many times before, I knew something was wrong when he came to a shaky stop 10 feet above a yellow Alien.

He shouted, "I'm off," and flew to a stop just above the pillar. As we regrouped, not only was our confidence shaken, but we both knew the clock was ticking. A delay could be impossible to recover from. Unable to get Jens' knot untied, I forced him to drink some of my water and down a bar as I continued to work on the stubborn rope. At one point, I resorted to prying the knot apart with my teeth, bent over with my face inches from Jens' crotch.

Finally, we pulled the rope, but the end became stuck. Jens tied in on a bight of rope, leading to try and free our single cord and send the crux. Despite freeing the rope, he was again unable to free the crux, stalling out at the same spot amid the overhanging corner. A second whip ensued, followed by a second fight to untie. I volunteered to lead, secretly hoping I wouldn't have to. Jens wouldn't hear of turning over the sharp end.

We had no more time to waste and no extra energy to expend, so I relieved Jens of his extra weight and lingering self doubt, impressing upon him that I had no question the third time would give us new results. He re-repeated the boulder problem and fought past his high point as I screamed encouragement. After scrapping his way onto the ledge, I screamed again and followed free, hauling the extra gear and shamelessly asking for an "up rope!" Above us, the headwall awaited.

On a practice run of Dragons of Eden, Holsten pulls through the route's difficult headwall. On the day of the duo's successful linkup, Holsten took two falls onto a yellow Alien before pulling through the crux on the third try. [Photo] Blake Herrington

Dragons' headwall was originally climbed and first freed in three pitches. On our practice run of the route, with fresh muscles and less stress, Jens had linked all three into a 64-meter overhanging marathon. This time, there would be no margin for error and no time to re-lead such a long pitch. After shaking and screaming his way pulling through a roof and just avoiding another big fall, Jens took advantage of the original belay stance to bring me up while he de-pumped. He slowly and methodically dispatched the final pitch, knowing another fall might be the end of our day.

Instead of roping up for the 2,000 feet of remaining climbing along the Northeast Buttress, we soloed the rest of the climb in about 45 minutes, keeping close together and minding rock fall and off-route dead ends. We reached Dragontail a few minutes before 5 p.m. By that point we'd hoped to be climbing Prusik Peak, which lay across miles of snow and talus to our east. We split up the rack and began to run.

Holsten: The run over to Prusik Peak was heady. Recent life events had left me drained of confidence, and adding to the struggle was the memory of thundering rock fall below Dragontail that had almost killed us the week prior. Leading Dragons was not as mentally easy for me as it had been a few years ago. At least I got through it, I reasoned as we ran. I hoped I hadn't expended too much energy on Dragontail, but pushed away visions of whipping through the air on the final hard pitch of Prusik. I focused on the powerful and positive energy of my brother, Chad Kellogg, who had died at my side while we descended Fitz Roy five months earlier. This was for him. For us. Blake and I had to succeed.

We gasped for air as we climbed the final steep rise to the base of Prusik's iconic south face. "It's starting to hurt!" I yelled to a friend taking photos as we ran by. I flaked the rope and swatted bugs while Blake strapped on his shoes. He quickly stemmed and liebacked up the amazing tube of granite on Pitch 1 of Der Sportsman. A few fiery grunts helped him manage the pumpy and in-your-face climbing. We both breathed a sigh of relief when I joined him at the belay. The fatigue had set in, but the next few pitches were less steep. If we stayed on our tired feet we would accomplish our goal.

Holsten on the final crack of Prusik Peak's Der Sportsman. [Photo] Max Hasson

Herrington: After I led the first two pitches of Der Sportsman, a cloud of mosquitoes caught up to me. Jens haltingly and painfully jammed up soaring 5.10 corners that would usually have had him grinning. With only 30 minutes of daylight left one pitch below the summit, we knew that the knee-pounding run from Dragontail to Prusik had saved us crucial time. Jens led the off-hands splitter, shouting, "Watch me," as I whooped and hollered from the out-of-view belay.

Perfect evening light and the day's last rays caught him on the top. The advancing shadow chased me up the pitch to the summit where we hugged and met up with good friends who had climbed the West Ridge and cheered us on. Prusik is 10 or 11 miles from our car, and I told Jens that he should speed ahead and go for the 24-hour mark if I wasn't going to make it. But he immediately dismissed the idea of splitting up, and we set a painful but sustainable pace, our headlamps searching out cairns and footprints in the snow. We gained several hundred feet to Aasgard Pass, descending the dark talus and woods and reaching the car and more waiting friends at 2:30 a.m., after 23 hours and 40 minutes, just over 4,000 feet of technical climbing and 20 miles of hiking.

Atop Prusik Peak, the third and final summit of the Ultimate Linkup, Holsten looks across the expanse of the Stuart Range. "To me, not only is each climb incredible in itself, but the journey across this disarming landscape is an elegant line that is fluid and aesthetic. It's all about the movement," he writes. [Photo] Max Hasson

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.


Comments
Schooner

That was a lot of an article.

2014-08-02 11:46:27
Post a Comment

Login with your username and password below.
New User? Here's what to do.



Forgot your username or password?