Transcendental Linkup: Five routes up to 5.12a totaling 2,400' on Pikes Peak in 21 hours

Posted on: September 18, 2020


Noah McKelvin and Luke Negley after pounding a birthday-cake flavored protein shake with Finger Fanger (5.10a, 500') looming behind them on the north face of Pikes Peak, Colorado. [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collectionNoah McKelvin and Luke Negley after pounding a birthday-cake flavored protein shake with Finger Fanger (5.10a, 500') looming behind them on the north face of Pikes Peak, Colorado. [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collection

On August 22, Noah McKelvin (28) and Luke Negley (20) climbed five major formations on Colorado's Pikes Peak in a single push. On the way they racked up five routes with difficulties up to 5.12a totaling 2,400 feet of technical terrain, most of which is around 12,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation. Their car-to-car time was 21 hours, with 16 hours spent climbing. They called it the Transcendental Linkup.

A virtually undocumented area, the north face of Pikes Peak holds arguably the best alpine granite in Colorado, with routes on solid pink granite up to 800 feet in length. Since the 1950s it hosted climbing luminaries like Brian Becker, Harvey Carter, Steve Cheyney, Jimmy Dunn, Stewart Green, Mark Hesse, Dan McClure, Kevin Mclaughlin, and Billy Westbay.

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McKelvin is a longtime Pikes Peak activist and alpinist—in 2014 he completed the East Ridge (VI, 12,000') with a traverse and descent of the King's Trench on Mt. Logan in 15 days.

"Though I've done new rock climbs (including the FA of Friction Loss (5.13b) Pikes' hardest) and plenty of ice and mixed routes," he said, "the ultimate Pikes challenge seemed to be linking the five biggest formations via the five best routes. When I was young, just climbing one of them was a fulfilling day."

Negley on the first pitch of The Flame (5.11, 300'). [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collectionNegley on the first pitch of The Flame (5.11, 300'). "At this point we were both feeling pretty rough," Negley said. "I think I was suffering a little bit more than Noah, having only slept for an hour the night before. When I topped out the pitch...I was losing the vision in my right eye and gagging uncontrollably from the birthday-cake flavored protein shake we pounded at the base. Last thing I wanted to do was go up." [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collection

Though only 6 miles total, the biggest hurdle was in the hiking.

"It doesn't sound bad on paper," McKelvin said. "It's just like hiking up to the Diamond right? Wrong. Much of the terrain is like scrambling around the Maroon Bells [two notoriously rugged 14,000-foot peaks near Aspen, Colorado] but with no trail. The talus hopping, bushwhacking and side-hilling is one-step-up and two-steps-down type of terrain. And the altitude. I have never felt a huge difference on any other fourteener in Colorado. But for some reason, you REALLY feel the altitude on this linkup."

Phil Wortmann, author of an upcoming guidebook to the mountain, has linked up Pikes classics like Arching Jams (III, 5.10+, 500') to Total Abandon (III, WI4+, M4+ 400').

"I've done linkups in Rocky Mountain National Park like Diagonal Direct [V- 5.11+] to Yellow Wall [V- 5.11-] on Long's Peak, and this is more hideous by an order of magnitude," he said.

McKelvin and Negley approaching the base of The Flame after the soul crushing hike from Arching Jams (5.10+, 500'). [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collectionMcKelvin and Negley approaching the base of The Flame after the soul crushing hike from Arching Jams (5.10+, 500'). "I can't speak for Noah but I had hit my limit of what I thought I was physically capable of and I knew...it was going to be a serious mental battle," Negley said. [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collection

The routes in order of ascent were:

The Razor (5.12-, 400') on Corinthian Column
The Gift (5.11, 700') on Big Buttress
Arching Jams (5.10+, 500') on The Pericle
The Flame (5.11, 300') on The Sphinx
Finger Fanger (5.9+, 500') on Bigger Bagger Buttress

Most of the climbing with the exception of The Razor (an exposed arete with a similar style to Eldorado Canyon in terms of the climbing and protection) was demanding old-school jamming.

In 2016 Wortmann linked up Finger Fanger, the Flame, and Arching Jams "gate to gate." This term refers to the restricted access on the Pikes Peak Highway. The gated toll road that traverses the mountain, providing tourist access to the 14,115-foot summit, opens in the morning and closes in the evening. While placing an annoying time limit on any given climbing day, it enables the fast access that has led locals to refer to the area as a "Redneck Chamonix."

In preparation for their linkup, McKelvin and Negley climbed extensively on the mountain for fitness. They also stashed water and food at each formation and fixed 1,000 feet of rope on the final two formations to facilitate the transition between summit and base.

"Every week, I would hike the whole loop and micro-traction the last two for fitness," McKelvin said. "It never got easier. I dreaded the day we'd go for it."

On linkup day, their extensive preparations were somewhat negated by the dense smoke from the four major wildfires plaguing Colorado. The pair employed a Yosemite speed tactic by having the follower jug the steep pitches, especially the sections climbed in the dark. Choking in the smoke, the pair started at 2:30 a.m., climbing the Razor and the Gift, linking pitches, simul-climbing, and free-soloing easier sections. When they reached the base of the Pericle (their third route), the sun began to beat down. To make matters worse, marmots had devoured their food stash.

The summit of the Pericle was the low point. Negley was losing vision in his right eye because of the heavy smoke and was feeling ill from the protein shake mix McKelvin had scraped together from his kitchen the day prior.

"We were both hurting pretty bad," Negley said. "I myself was dreading the terrible hike up loose gravel to the notch and the miles of side-hilling to the Flame.... I was suffering more than I ever had before."

It was the decisive point of the day.

"We were probably only half-way done," McKelvin said. "But I knew this from a prior attempt. You had to REALLY want it and push past wall after wall. The first time I tried it, Aaron Ramras and I failed when we hit a massive wall after the third formation. I can remember thinking that I would probably need a rescue if we continued."

Negley at the top of Arching Jams (5.10+, 500'). [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collectionNegley at the top of Arching Jams (5.10+, 500'): "Trying to catch a quick snooze and not think about how bad my harness had been bruising my hips." [Photo] McKelvin/Negley collection

The duo pushed on up, climbing the Flame, which McKelvin described as "probably the finest 5.11 crack in Colorado, featuring endless overhanging and physical 5.10+/11a moves for its entire length." This was followed by Finger Fanger, 400 feet of strenuous hand and fist jamming: "very...unrelenting," according to McKelvin.

McKelvin summited at 9 p.m., followed shortly by Negley.

"Topping out was such a relief," Negley said. "I wanted to cry but nothing would come out. I just had pushed my body and mind past what I thought was capable. We still had to rappel down and hike for several miles through talus and choss to get to the car.... We got back...and fell asleep in dirt."

Wortmann, who established a new 5.13 trad route on Pikes Peak a month prior, noted the bump in activity on Pikes Peak: "There's a lot of new activity this year, but this linkup really ties the room together."

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