Alex Honnold who free soloed El Capitan describes how he prepared and did it.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin produced, directed, and shot the movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s free solo of the Freerider route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. This behind the scenes piece for The New York Times is incredible and the movie will no doubt be incredible as well.
Zoom it out. Wow!
Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds setting a speed record for climbing the Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. They climbed it in 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 44 seconds.
To me, speed records seem insane but hey, I’m an old fart who climbed in traditional ways. But, this video is well worth watching because it’s a great piece of work in itself, documenting an amazing achievement.
This was originally posted in 2005 on my old site which is no longer public but given my recent posts on climbing, I thought I’d give a bit of context to how climbing leaked out into other parts of my life.
I made these containers 30 years ago during my undergrad days at the University of Oregon Art and Architecture school. They are salt-fired stoneware with a temoku (dark iron) glaze that interacted with the salt.
The experiment was mixing media. I was an art student but also a serious rock climber and loved climbing gear so tried to work my love of perlon rope, knots, and Japanese printed fabric into my pieces as well.
These two were two of hundreds of experiments I did mixing other media into my work and the result was both visually interesting and also functional and useful.
This photo was scanned by Kodak years ago from a slide I took even more years ago so it’s not the best, but it’s all I’ve got because of this pair, only the piece on the left remains.
This was originally posted in 2004 but given my recent posts on climbing, I thought I’d give a bit of context to how climbing leaked out into other parts of my life.
In the old days, a long time ago (1970-1980) I was a potter and made a living selling wares and teaching ceramics. Most of the photos of my work are in slide form and I have not gotten around to scanning them. Here are a few that I have.
This is a small stoneware “jug” that had a “temoku” glaze on it and was then fired in a wood-fired kiln with salt tossed in (salt fired). At the time I was doing this work I was also getting seriously into rock climbing and I loved all the perlon rope and knots and such. So, I experimented with combining old and new.
This is a top view of a similar piece, different way of securing the cork. The knot on the underside of the lug slides so that the loop on top loosens and tightens to hold the cork in.
This piece is raku fired: quickly at low temperature. Being the outdoor type I was eating a lot of dried fruit at the time and had built a fruit dryer to make my own. This new material came out called Gortex and so, I bought a piece and put it on a pot, with some fruit inside, thinking that the way it dealt with water would allow the fruit to dry without spoiling (water vapor would go out, but no air would come in). It didn’t’ quite work that way but I liked the colors. This piece also uses a slider knot to tighten and loosen the perlon cord.
A few interesting things I forgot to put in my post on Climbing the Lost Arrow Spire. If you hunt around on the internet in various nooks and crannies you’re bound to find a lot more.
Mark and Janelle Smiley doing the Lost Arrow tip and Tyrollean traverse back. The Smiley’s are an adventurous couple and worth following: Blue Square Productions.
Here is a collection of their excellent videos.
Here’s a blog post by ? And Shirley Choss that documents this couple’s climb of the Lost Arrow Spire and Tyrollean traverse to get off. It’s 2004 so not super up to date but a lot more up to date than my 1976 climb: Lost Arrow Tip.
They’ve done a lot of climbing all over the world over many years: Choss climbing images.
This post is part three of a three part story: Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire (1977), Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face (May, 1979, and this post which takes place in July, 1979. If you missed the first or second, I recommend reading them first before reading this one. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for lost arrow spire Yosemite or a Google image search or a youTube search will give you many more modern and clearer images and videos although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.
I wish I had more pictures of this climb but in fact, when looking at the slides on a light table only about half of them were scannable, the rest had faded terribly or were so damaged as to not be useable.
The other interesting piece about all of this is that at this point in my life, over forty years after doing this climb I didn’t remember many details until I looked at the images. Having the images, even less than wonderful images, helps bring back the memories. In fact, these images warp time and allow travel through a wormhole to an experience that happened a long time ago. In all seriousness, I get a bit creeped out (scared) thinking about various parts of this climb when I look at the images and think back. That’s powerful.
Not all photographs have to be works of art to help tell stories. Those of you reading this who consider yourself photographers need to remember that. Snapshots are useful and important as well as images that might be framed and put on a wall. This is one of the many reasons point and shoot and smartphone cameras are so important: you always have them with you and they’re easy to use to take a picture.
Both Faye Nakamura (my then girlfriend and climbing partner) and I were both potters (ceramic artists) at the time of this climb. Faye was to go on to become a well known and successful artist in the Pacific Northwest, I was to go on to other things.
Looking up at Yosemite Point (right prow) and the Lost Arrow Spire from Yosemite Village. Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in the valley) is just left of the left edge of this frame.
When we first decided to do this climb (1977) we’d hiked up to Yosemite Point with day packs, lunch and water. To actually do the climb, we’d need to do the same hike with both camping and climbing gear. Because we were going to fix ropes (leave them in place) from the rim to the notch (between the cliff and the spire) we needed four ropes: two to fix, and two to do the climb (a lead rope and an extra rope for the long rappels (two ropes tied together).
And, given that this climb had been done initially with pitons and the main crack was pretty messed up from larger and larger pitons being pounded in and removed, we’d need to bring a variety of protection, including some pitons and hammers (one to put pitons in, one to remove them).
Richard (me) sorting gear for the hike and climb: stove and white gas, some pitons on the ground beside me, knee pads (we didn’t use them), hooks (under knee pads) for extreme aiding, large chocks, two hammers, stoppers, ascenders and a lot more not shown. It was a load.
The hike up the Falls Trail is a real slog: 2000 feet of climb and many switchbacks. When the falls are running one can get a bit wet in places; the falls were dry when we did this. We left the valley mid morning and were up at the bridge across Yosemite Creek (which forms the falls) by about 2:00 pm.
Richard (me) resting and eating beside Yosemite Creek which isn’t running. Note the packs, they were extremely heavy.
The creek was inviting and there were other folks swimming there so we figured it was early enough and only a short walk east along the rim to Yosemite Point so we decided to cool off.
Richard (me) bouldering to the edge of the pool on Yosemite Creek.
The water was cold as I remember but we were hot.
Faye swimming in Yosemite Creek.
Yosemite Falls (not running). Our swimming hole is just beyond the notch.
After we were done swimming we packed up and hiked the rim trail toward Yosemite Point. It’s not far but as we approached the place we’d been at the year before it felt different: this time we were going to do the climb.
I can honestly say that during the hike up neither of us was dreading the climb but as we approached the area on the rim just above the Lost Arrow we both got the willies. There was no one there, no one on the climb, and it was getting cooler and a bit breezy.
We looked around and found a spot behind the rappel point (a lone tree) to set up camp.
Richard setting up camp on the rim above the Lost Arrow Spire. Note Sentinel across the valley. The rappel into the notch is directly behind me and that tree is the single anchor point for the rappel and the fixed rope for the return from the notch.
We’d come to Yosemite from Eugene, Oregon to spend two to three weeks climbing and this climb was one of many we’d do on this trip. Still, it was one we’d planned for a year and it had more exposure (it was higher off the ground) than anything we’d ever done. It was also probably (we didn’t know) the hardest aid climbing we’d ever done and this had me, in particular on edge.
Richard looking over the edge down at the top of the Lost Arrow Spire and the notch below. It was starting to get cold and windy (why I was wearing shorts I don’t know) and it creeped us out.
Honestly, I don’t remember if Faye and I slept much that night. I’d like to think we did being tired from the hike but we were both nervous about the climb.
The next day we got up although no doubt were in no rush to get started, had to let things warm up a bit. And, we had to sort out the gear and get the camping stuff stowed so animals wouldn’t get into it. I’m pretty sure there was no way to do that so it’s possible something ate whatever food we left behind but I don’t really remember. That was a common occurrence in Yosemite when a pack with food was left on a ledge for even a short time.
We also had to run through the logistics of the climb: fixing the ropes down to the notch, doing the climb, rappelling back down to the notch (two rappels) and climbing back up to the rim. We re-read the Roper guide description of the climb just to make sure we were fully prepared.
Lost Arrow Tip
From the 1971 edition of Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley by Steve Roper
Grade III, 5.5, A3. First ascent in September 1946 by Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold, Anton Nelson and Robin Hansen. This party gained the summit after engineering a Tyrollean traverse. The first climbing ascent was masterminded by John Salathé who, with Nelson, climbed the pinnacle on the fifth day of their route from the base. From trees 300 feet west of the railing at Yosemite Point, rappel 130 feet to a large flake. Next, rappel 115 feet into the notch. Both these ropes must be left in place for the return; the lower end of the lower rope should be secured in the notch to prevent its swinging out of reach.
From the sinister notch walk out a narrow ledge on the east face. Nail and free climb 35 feet to a good belay ledge. Climb left around a rotten corner, then nail 20 feet to Salathé Ledge, an excellent, relaxing belay site. The 3rd pitch is the crux: traverse left a few feet, nail for about 20 feet, then move left and nail up to a sling belay at the base of the “ﬂint-hard and flawless Arrow tip.” On the last pitch, use bolts and 2 pitons for aid. Two rappels (125 feet and 70 feet) lead (back) to the notch.
The nailing on this magnificent route is continually changing and challenging. Nelson, speaking of his 1946 ascent, has written: “as we further diminish the crack’s possibilities, it becomes doubtful that many others will ever climb the Lost Arrow.” By 1970 the pinnacle had been climbed over 200 times and the cracks were still getting worse. What were horizontal piton cracks in 1960 are now inch-angle cracks. The rating remains the same, but the hardware changes. A 1971 selection should include about 15 pitons: one- third horizontals and the rest angles to 2″.
When we did this climb there were no published topographical (topo) maps/charts of climbs, just verbal descriptions in guidebooks like the Roper guide above (no internet). A few years later a great book called Yosemite Climbs by George Meyers came out and it had topo drawings of all the climbs in Yosemite. It was extremely useful.
Here is the topo of the Lost Arrow Spire climb minus the pitch ratings from a newer edition of the Meyers book (I don’t have my original copy of the book anymore):
Here’s a topo map I just drew, also minus ratings but with notes on pitches and belays:
We got everything sorted and we tied the first rappel rope around the tree (this rappel point has been replaced with bolts to save the tree) and tossed it over the edge. While we were both a bit creeped out, I loaded up the extra ropes and gear and started my rappel to the notch. I had Faye belay me on a second rope (not a normal way to do a rappel) although given that I wasn’t sure exactly where the ledge I was rappelling to was, it wasn’t a bad idea. One doesn’t want to rappel off the end of a rope!
Richard rappelling over the edge into the notch with the arrow tip behind.
Why I wore shorts on this climb I will never know. Idiot! Oh well, I lived. I found the little ledge at the bottom of the rappel with its anchor bolts for the second rappel into the notch. I clipped in so Faye could take me off belay. I then uncoiled a second rope, tied it into the anchor and tossed it out and it fell to the floor of the notch.
I waited for Faye to reach me before tying the lower end of the upper rope to the anchor point. It would have been a real drag had there been enough wind when we returned here so that the end of the rope was blown out of reach. Thankfully the Roper guide route description (above) recommends this for the bottom rope, I decided to do it to both. I’m not sure we’d have thought of it otherwise.
Then we each rappelled into the notch and fixed the bottom of the second rope to some rocks there.
So far so good and while the rappels were a bit scary we’d done them without problems and we felt a bit less nervous and a bit more energized for the climb in front of us.
Richard in the notch gearing up for pitch 1 of the Lost Arrow Spire. My late parents had this picture blown up and had it on their wall. My parents lived in Los Angeles and visited Yosemite often and had taken me there as a kid (we saw the fire fall off Glacier Point). They were both in awe of my climbing and it also frightened them. The standing order was to call home at the finish of any climb that took a whole day or more.
The first pitch out of the notch follows a thin ledge around the east side of the Arrow. It’s mixed free and aid although given that you’re stepping out into 2000 feet of exposure without having acclimated by having climbed up to that point, it’s “breathtaking” and if memory serves, when possible, I used aid to stay in the comfort of my stirrups.
Leading the first pitch out of the notch on the Lost Arrow Spire. Note the hammer, slings, and all sorts of junk hanging off me.
That awkward place between free and aid climbing. There was enough exposure behind me so that I doubt I pushed the free climbing all that much. Easier on the brain to stand in stirrups.
Getting clipped into the first bolt on pitch 1.
Looking down from the top of pitch 1. The rope is fixed and Faye is coming up.
We did this climb in the big wall style we’d done the west face of Monkey Face: leader leads on belay from second, anchors rope to top of pitch, second uses ascenders to clean pitch while leader hauls pack and/or rests.
Faye cleaning pitch 1. Note the exposure below her. Also, the dark “hole” off to the right of her in the frame is the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.
Faye leading pitch 2.
The first two pitches on this route are short and relatively easy mixed free and mostly aid climbing. The protection was good and while communication was difficult around a corner, it wasn’t too bad. Had the waterfall been running communication might have been tough. These days these pitches are free climbed (leader uses the rope and protection in case of a fall but not to hang onto) but in our day it was common to aid the entire climb. We no doubt made a few easy free moves but for us, just being out on that exposed place, even with the security of slow aid climbing was quite something.
The top of the second pitch is Salathé ledge, a very nice belay ledge with plenty of room and a nice anchor point. This would be where Faye would spend the next few hours (maybe more) as I struggled up the last pitch.
When this climb was first done, climbing ropes were 150 feet long and it wasn’t possible to do pitch 3 in one go. Because of this there’s a two bolt sling belay (no ledge, you hang from your harness and stand in stirrups) about three quarters of the way up the pitch which can be used if one runs out of rope. We had two 165 foot ropes and we were pretty sure they’d make the last pitch in one go. The problem with that is that a pitch that long that goes around a corner is bound to have rope drag (the rope is tough to pull through the protection because it’s not hanging in a straight line) and I brought extra slings to extend protection to avoid this. As I was to find out, the rope drag remained terrible.
Looking down on Yosemite Village from Salathé ledge.
We took a bit of a break on Salathé ledge. It’s comfortable with a breathtaking view and frankly, I was no doubt a bit un-nerved about what I was getting into next.
Faye settling in for what was going to be a long belay.
Richard on the west end of Salathé ledge getting started on pitch 3.
Pitch 3 works its way both up and left around a corner so almost immediately there’s potential rope drag. There’s no other way to set it up; the belay bolts are on the other end of the ledge where it’s easier to sit down and wait.
Pitches like this that go around a corner not only make for rope drag, they make it difficult to communicate. Each time I’d put in a new piece of protection I’d ask Faye to give me slack so I could pull some rope up and clip it in. At times, the calls for slack were within a few minutes, at other times when things got rough it was a lot longer.
Working my way up the beginning of pitch 3.
The exposure on pitch 3 is breathtaking and while I was to go on and do many more exposed climbs in the years ahead, this was my first experience of this kind of “air” and it was really something: both scary and amazing at the same time if you can imagine that. They say once you’re up a hundred or so feet you’ll probably die if you fall off so what’a another thousand or two? It’s not the fear of falling that’s a problem, it’s the feeling of being untethered (even though you’re well tethered) and being in a very unfamiliar place. There is no doubt that the more of these big climbs I did the easier this got, including taking falls in exposed places.
Faye and I were more than ready for this climb: we had the skills and fitness to do it but the psychology of being on something like this was new to us.
Almost disappearing around the corner on pitch 3.
Looking down on the belay from the beginning of difficult climbing on pitch 3. This was the last time Faye saw me for many hours.
We don’t have pictures of the last pitch. She had the camera and frankly, I was too busy to stop and take pictures. But, since our climb lots of people have done it and I found a video that documents part of it (the goPro ran out of card space just before the top). The video below, shot in 2013 will give you a good idea of what the pitch is like: the protection is very tough. No doubt it was tougher when I did it than it was when this video was shot simply because tools have improved and the climb is done more and better documented but needless to say, it was hard when we did it, definitely A3 in places. That’s tough aid climbing and relatively dangerous in that there are numerous marginal placements in a row so if one pulls, the ones below it will most likely pull creating a zipper fall.
This is shot with a GoPro on a helmet so it can be a bit dizzying as his head moves around. Also, the didgeridoo soundtrack, well, use your discretion but I turn it down as it gets annoying after a while. The last pitch starts at about the 3.0 minute mark but the whole video is worth watching.
All of that said, this is one of the best documentation videos of what it was like for us to do that climb, especially the last pitch. They did a Tyrollean traverse to get off where we rappelled back down the route but this video will give you a good idea of both the exposure and the difficulty of protecting the last pitch.
Here’s another video, shot in 2014. I like the way they set up their Tyrollean with a big dip in it making ascending on the cliff side a lot easier. Smart. A tight clothesline is much more awkward. But, we didn’t do that when we did the climb.
We did this climb during a transition in the climbing world, from the use of pitons to protect climbs to the use of nuts, stoppers and expandable protection and other pieces of metal on wires and slings that one can wedge into cracks so as to hold falls.
In the early days, pitons were made out of soft iron and because of this, they bent and deformed when pounded into cracks. They held well, but it was difficult to take them out and if one did remove them they were usually bent up and distorted, difficult to reuse on a climb.
This meant that in order to do a long climb, one needed to either carry enough pitons for the entire thing, or, climb up a few pitches, then retreat to the ground to pick up more pitons to go higher.
Three types of pitons: on the bottom is a soft iron knife blade. I never used this one, found it on a climb in the Grand Tetons. Center: Chouinard angle piton made of chrome-molly. Top: Chouinard bong (big angle) made of bent sheet aluminum. It’s called a “bong” because of the sound it makes when pounded in. I bought the two Chouinard pitons (among many others) from Yvon Chouinard at The Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California in the early days, before he sold it to Black Diamond and branched off to start Patagonia.
In the 1950’s the Yosemite climber John Salathé (who Salathé ledge is named after) made some pitons out of high-carbon chrome-vanadium steel. These pitons were extremely hard and didn’t distort when pounded into rock. This was great for climbers (for a while) in that they could climb a pitch using pitons, then the second could remove the pitons and they could be used again higher up. This made it easier to do big walls and much longer climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere. Yvon Chouinard learned how to make these pitons from Salathé and continued making and selling them as “Chouinard Equipment” part of The Great Pacific Iron Works.
The problem with hardened steel pitons is that they are so tough that when you bang them out (back and forth and wiggle them out) you break of a bit of rock with them. In time, wider pitons need to be used in the same placements and over a long time, what started out as knife blade pitons ended up 1″ angles. In other words, pitons destroyed the cracks.
By the time Faye and I got to the Lost Arrow Spire the cracks were in bad shape and tough to protect without at least a few pitons which we carried.
A Chouinard Yosemite rock hammer for placing and removing pitons and other “hammerable” protection.
Both Faye and I carried rock hammers, one to place protection, the other to knock it out.
A variety of odd placement tools we took on the Lost Arrow climb.
One of the transition tools between pitons and completely clean climbing was something called a “bashie.” Take a small block of aluminum (soft metal), drill a hole in it, pass a sling through the hole. I made my own, pictured above. They were small enough so I used parachute cord to sling them. They could just hold body weight but not much more. One did not fall on these things. Used solely for aid climbing when things got tough. I used and left at least four of these on the Lost Arrow. I doubt they lasted long but who knows? You can see some in the rock in the videos in this post.
In the early days of the transition away from pitons, climbers in the UK who climbed routes near railroad tracks would pick up stray steel nuts, pass a rope through them and use them as artificial chockstones, wedging them into cracks above constrictions such when they pulled down on the sling, the nuts would wedge tighter. I almost always carried one just to bow to the Brits and the one I carried and used on the Lost Arrow is pictured above.
The term “chock” is used for any artificial chockstone. These are also referred to as nuts.
Later Chouinard extruded aluminum in an odd hexagonal form so it was easier to wedge and torque into cracks (hexes). And, for thinner cracks he (and later many others) made smaller aluminum tapered blocks on steel cables called “stoppers” that we had many of for this climb and they’re still used to this day. Place a stopper, clip a carabiner to the loop of cable at its end, and clip a sling and another carabiner onto that and the rope through the last carabiner.
At the time we did this climb, in the mid-1970’s there were many climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere that were done completely clean, without carrying pitons or a hammer and we did many. The first one, put up by Royal Robbins was called “Nutcracker” for good reason. But, for big wall routes, pitons and hammers were carried just in case, even if they were avoided.
You’ll notice in the first video above the lead climber is using a hook creatively (torquing it rather than using it as a hook). The hooks I had (pictured above) weren’t big enough for that kind of placement but I did use the hook above in the traditional way to hook a flake and stand on it. Not for the faint of heart.
RURP pitons were made by Chouinard and while I carried the one above on the Lost Arrow, I never used it there. RURP = Realized Ultimate Reality Piton. In other words, a RURP is used almost as a last resort when the crack is so thin nothing else will work. I used the one above one time and one time only. That was enough.
Carabiners have been around a long time and are one of the most essential tools in a climber’s collection.
A carabiner allows the connection various other climbing tools. A piton is driven in, a carabiner is clipped into the hole in the end of it, and the climbing rope is clipped into that carabiner protecting the climber. A nut is placed in a crack, a carabiner is clipped to the loop in the end of its sling, and the climbing rope or another sling and carabiner is clipped into it.
On Salathé ledge, Faye tied a figure eight knot on a a loop in the end of the rope and used a carabiner to clip it into the bolt she found on that ledge (she actually used two for redundancy). When I got to the top of the Lost Arrow I used a carabiner to tie into the anchor I found there (again, two).
Every piece of protection we placed on the climb had at least two carabiners associated with it. The belays on each end had four or more carabiners used to set them up. It’s not uncommon to carry as many as fifty or more carabiners on a climb like the Lost Arrow Spire.
Two carabiners. Top: a Chouinard solid aluminum carabiner. Bottom: A Robbins hollow aluminum carabiner made by the German company Salewa. Climbers mark their gear with colored electrical tape so as not to get it mixed up when partnering. The yellow and green taped carabiner came to me from my old climbing friend Dale Allyn long after I stopped climbing and was using carabiners for arborist work. The red-taped carabiner is mine and was used on most of my climbs, including the Lost Arrow.
The two carabiners pictured above will hold the same amount of weight (they’re equally strong) but the hollow one (the one with the red tape on it) is a bit lighter. When you multiply that slight weight savings times fifty or more carabiners that savings is significant. Because of this, I bought as many of the Robbins/Salewa hollow carabiners as I could find (they were only made for a few years and tough to get). At one point I had one hundred of them but most are gone now. I still have about fifteen.
Modern carabiners that are used today are better yet: lighter, stronger, and better shaped to allow easier use with one hand under extreme pressure of hard free climbing.
Belaying and rappelling
When Faye and I started climbing we were taught a technique called a “hip belay” to hold the rope for both a leader and a follower. The hip belay uses the friction of the rope running around one’s body (hips) to hold a fall. During the time we were using this technique thank god neither of us took a big leader fall but we did get to hold falls of folks on top ropes and followers and trust me, it’s not comfortable. Couple that with the fact that we were using “Goldline” (twisted nylon) ropes back then and it wasn’t fun.
Rappelling (descending a rope or a doubled rope) was done with six carabiners with a technique called a “6 carabiner brake” and it worked just fine although took extra time to set up.
In time manufacturers started making devices dedicated to both belaying and rappelling and the two pictured below are the ones Faye and I used on the Lost Arrow.
On the left is a small belay device that one runs the rope through so it can be pinched and locked off. It works very well. On the right is a tool called a “figure 8” which one or two ropes are threaded through for rappel. It creates the necessary friction so that one can descend a rope safely without having to set up a carabiner brake. The small end of the figure 8 can also be used as a belay device, similar to the one pictured here.
As I said above, when Faye and I started climbing the least expensive rope we could find to learn how to climb at our local top-roping place was called “Goldline” which was a nylon twisted rope that was very stiff and not great for holding leader falls. Coiling it was like coiling a stiff garden hose, awkward.
There was another kind of rope around although it was more expensive: kernmantle. “kern-mantel” (core-sheath) was a great improvement over Goldline. Kernmantel ropes cover a twisted core with a woven mantle that makes both rope handling, and designing custom rope strengths possible.
In the early days of climbing when leaders climbed on hemp ropes, leaders could never fall because the rope didn’t stretch, it broke or, it broke (injured) the climber. The invention of nylon allowed ropes to stretch which for leaders, allowed falls without as much damage to the rope or the climber. However, one doesn’t want the rope to stretch under body weight (Faye or me ascending a pitch to clean it). One only wants the rope to stretch under the heavy load of a leader fall and then, not too much or the leader might hit the ground.
In our day, if a leader took three good size falls on a rope, the rope was retired. The nylon/Dacron fibers in the rope can only absorb so much stretch and then they don’t stretch anymore, they break.
Over many years rope manufacturers have designed climbing ropes that can absorb more falls and good thing because sport climbing has pushed leaders into numerous attempts on hard pitches and a lot of falling.
And, in case you think there is no place for static ropes, they’re used in both arborist work, caving and yachting. Rope stretch is something to be avoided if you’re descending and ascending a deep cave or climbing a rope to top a tree or pulling in a boom on a sailboat.
For our climb and most of the climbs we did, Faye and I used an 11mm lead rope and either a second 11mm haul/rappel rope or later, a 10mm second rope to save weight. On the Lost Arrow Faye and I had four 11mm ropes with us: two to fix to the notch, two for the climb and rappel back to the notch.
Ascenders are mechanical devices used to climb a rope. Before these devices were invented various friction knots were used to climb ropes. The most common among climbers was the prusik knot.
The idea of both the knots and mechanical devices is to easily slide the device up the rope, but through friction (the knot or a cam in the ascender) have the device lock on the rope when pulled down. With two ascenders (or friction knots), each tied into one’s harness and aid slings for one’s feet, one can climb a rope by sliding one up, putting weight on it, then sliding the other up once weight is removed from it.
Two modern ascenders, one with the rope attached, the other with the cam disengaged so it can be attached or removed from a rope.
Once weight is removed from an ascender the cam can be retracted and it can be slid down the rope, or, by retracting a safety mechanism, detached from the rope completely.
Mechanical ascenders made big wall climbing much more manageable and with the use of a pulley, one can use two ascenders to haul heavy loads up a rock face. By hanging one ascender upside down to hold on the downside of the pulley, and placing the other one on the upside of the pulley, a climber can use body weight to lift a heavy big wall bag up and the ascender on the downside will stop it from going back down.
Back to the Climb
I’m reposting an image I shot of another climber finishing pitch 3 below:
A climber finishing pitch 3 of the Lost Arrow Spire
The last fifteen or so feet of this climb is relatively easy free climbing on a smooth slab. The climber in the image above has just stepped out of his aid stirrups and is probably faced with a some rope drag because the rope is running down and around a corner.
When I was in the position the climber above is in I thought for sure I’d fall off trying to pull enough slack in the rope so I could finish the climb. And, I wasn’t sure Faye was hearing me when I yelled for slack, or if she was, maybe the reason I wasn’t getting any slack is that we were out of rope. While that climbing was relatively easy, I remember having a tough time there. Thinking about that now makes me nervous.
When I finally got to the top car horns in the valley below went off and the sound of it all, even at a distance startled me. I had no idea that folks were following us with binoculars but in fact, a lot of folks were and I was wearing a red shirt which made it easier (I hadn’t chosen the shirt for that reason).
I tied into the belay and yelled down to Faye that I was off belay so she could start up.
My guess is it took Faye an hour to get the belay cleaned up and come up the pitch with her ascenders cleaning all of my weird aid placements. She was a fast climber (faster than me), but I was no doubt cooling down after settling in on my perch at the top. Faye had our small pack with sweaters and a hat for me but I’m guessing I got pretty cold up there waiting. Again, stupid me for wearing shorts.
Once Faye reached the top and got clipped in I remember her saying that she had wondered what took me so long, but after seeing the weird protection I had to put in she got it. It was impossible to see what I was doing from Salathé ledge.
Richard on top after Faye came up behind him.
Faye took a shot of me before we rappelled back down. We didn’t stay up there long, it was getting cooler and we still had to get back down to the notch and back up our fixed ropes, which we could now see (still there, thank god) on the wall behind us.
There’s a small pothole on top and folks have put coins in it. Wish we’d had some coins to leave.
The start of the rappel off the top. Note, you can see the knot tying both ropes together and its placement means we would need to pull the orange rope to keep the knot from jamming into the anchor ring.
We needed both ropes tied together to get back to Salathé ledge. The ropes are knotted and it’s important (essential) to remember which side of the rappel anchor the knot is on so you pull the correct rope and don’t jam the knot back into the anchor. The anchor was two bolts with nylon slings running through their hangers with a steel ring on the end. We cut one of the old slings off to make room for one of our newer slings.
I might have tied a knot in the end of the doubled rope so I couldn’t rappel off the end but I don’t remember. Frankly, to this day I’m not sure what climbers do when rappelling into unknown territory. No doubt they bring ascenders with them so they can go back up if they get in trouble.
I remember taking this rappel slowly because there wasn’t a lot of rope left when I reached Salathé ledge. Once on the ledge I clipped into the anchor there and yelled to Faye to come down.
Faye took a picture of me waiting on Salathé ledge as she came down.
After Faye came down we tied one end of the pull rope into the anchor so we wouldn’t lose both ropes over the edge as they came down, and pulled the other rope through the anchor on top. There was a lot of rope drag but we did get it down.
As I remember, we were able to rappel pitch 1 and 2 together in one go as they were short. It was an awkward rappel as it spiraled around the spire back to the notch.
Using ascenders to climb the rope we’d left fixed down to the notch.
In the image above I’m climbing a rope and tied into a second rope. Faye might have been belaying me although it did no good. Had the rope I was ascending failed I’d have fallen back down to the notch. Maybe it was a mistake because we were tired, who knows?
When I got to the ledge I tied in and she used her ascenders to come up. Maybe I used the second rope to belay her, I don’t remember.
This is our last picture of this climb. Me ascending the second fixed rope back to the rim. Again, Faye is probably belaying me for no good reason.
When I got to the top I signaled for her to come up on her ascenders behind me.
As I remember, after we cleaned up our gear and got things loaded back into our packs we had just enough daylight to get back on the falls trail and head down. I don’t think we were using headlamps in those days but we had flashlights and probably made it back to our camp which was my VW bus in the dark.
I don’t have a clear memory of the rest of that trip but I’m guessing we took a day off to rest and then got back to climbing. Probably nothing as serious as the Lost Arrow but we did do a lot of great climbs in Yosemite over many years.
I posted a shorter version of this clip in my first installment but I’m posting it again because it’s one of the clearest looks at what the Lost Arrow Spire is all about. It was shot in 2017, our climb was 38 years earlier. I’ve included all of their Lost Arrow climb this time, not just the drone footage at the end (they also did the “snake dike” route on Half Dome which is the first half of their video. Rewind all the way if interested). Note the waterfall in full force. Same place we were swimming.
I love looking back at this but to be honest, it’s tough to imagine having done these things in an earlier time of my life. I know myself well and I was never a natural at any of this (in fact, I’m a polio survivor), but over many years with great instruction (thanks Bob Ashworth) I got into it and improved. While I never took it as far as some of my other climbing partners I feel good about how far I got.
I climbed for another eight years and I’ve got plenty of other stories to tell; the slides have been scanned. Stay tuned.
This post and story is part two of a three part story: Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire (part one), preparing for the climb (this post), and doing the climb. Stay tuned for part three. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape, so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for “monkey face smith rock” or a Google image search will give you many more modern and clearer images although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.
When Faye and I returned to Oregon from our 1977 Yosemite trip we had our sights set on a climb at Smith Rock, a climbing area on the other side of the Cascades in the high desert of central Oregon. We lived in Eugene, a good half day drive away (more if the VW bus was acting up). Smith was popular back then but it became a lot more popular after our friend and fellow climber, Allan Watts brought sport climbing techniques to the area (rappelling and placing bolts to allow harder free climbing without having to place protection). Many new difficult free routes were opened up and people started arriving from all over the world to do them. In the mid 1970’s Smith might have had only a few dozen climbers in the park on a weekend. In the 1990s and later things got a lot more crowded.
Because we were trying to prepare for a steep aid climb on the Lost Arrow Spire, we figured we needed a steep aid climb that would help us get faster at rope handling, placing marginal protection, hanging belays, and doing aid on an overhang. Both of us had done the Pioneer Route and West Face Variation on Monkey Face so we were familiar with the tower but the West Face Route was longer, involved at least one hanging belay and at that point in time was done almost completely by aid climbing. It had been put up (climbed first) in 1962 by Dean Caldwell, Byron Babcock, and Bill Lentsch. They followed the initial crack and put the expansion bolts in on pitch two and in the back of the monkey’s head to the top.
Neither of us had done the route before and the route traversed the back of the monkey’s head which is a large cave with a relatively flat floor so we decided to plan a bivouac there to add to the fun.
Here are some recent shots of Monkey Face at Smith Rock by a variety of Flickr photographers:
A nice Smith Rock landscape taken by Flickr member scott zarnegar from the Crooked River looking north showing a line of cliffs and Monkey Face in the back. The west face is on the left skyline.
A nice shot showing the entire Monkey Face Tower and the entire west face route by Flickr member Jeff Johnson.
Three climbers on the west face route on Monkey Face (the route we did). They’ve just finished pitch one and are starting on two. This image was taken by Flickr member scott zarnegar.
Flickr member Thomas Shahan shot this unusual view of Monkey Face, looking south. The west face route goes up the right skyline (note the overhang on the top half). You can see the Crooked River below and the Oregon Cascades in the distance. This is a brilliant shot.
The 1979 Climb
We didn’t actually get to climb the West Face of Monkey Face until May of 1979.
Faye and I drove over to Smith Rock Park and spent night one in one of our VW campers in the parking lot. Then we assembled our gear and hiked over Asterisk Pass and north on the Crooked River to the base of Monkey Face.
We unloaded and sorted out our gear before the climb. Note the two packs (mine eaten by marmots in Yosemite), foam pads to sleep on in the cave, rack of hexagonal nuts (small protection underneath), slings, a load of carabiners (long aid pitches and sling belays require a lot of them) two ropes, and stiff climbing shoes to make standing in aid stirrups less painful. We had no sleeping bags, we slept in our clothes on the pads.
Faye sorting gear at the base of Monkey Face.
After we got all the gear sorted and me set up to lead the first pitch, we found a place for Faye to anchor to belay me. We also tied the two packs together and I hauled them when I got to the first ledge as one would a larger pack on a bigger multi-day wall climb in Yosemite (or elsewhere). Remember, we were rehearsing for our future Lost Arrow Tip climb as well as learning and practicing big wall techniques for other longer climbs we planned to do in the future.
Faye putting on knee pads.
We experimented with knee pads on this climb because aid climbing involves resting with a knee against the rock and the rock at Smith is volcanic “welded tuff” which rips up pants and skin. In the end, we didn’t continue to use the pads as they got in the way on mixed free and aid routes but this route was all aid so we figured they’d be useful. If memory serves, they were.
Looking up at the west face route from the ground.
I realize that as I write this in 2018 the west face route on Monkey Face is free climbed (5.12b) but the free route does not follow the original aid route. At least at this point, it would be impossible to free the overhanging bolt line on pitch two (the top of the image above). The free route goes to the left (north) a bit and follows the corner.
Notice on the image above that the first pitch is mostly a thin crack which can be protected with small stoppers and nuts. There are a few bolts on it but it’s mostly a thin crack. Pitch one ends where the red rock changes to tan. There’s a small ledge there.
Richard (me) aid climbing pitch one on the west face of Monkey Face. Note: the blue rope is the lead climbing rope, the red rope is the haul rope and will be used to haul up the packs.
The protection on pitch one was not hard to place as I remember. It’s a great place to get into the rhythm of leading an aid climb:
- Place a piece of protection.
- Put a carabiner or two or a sling and another carabiner on it for the rope to run through
- Clip the lead climbing rope through to protect yourself and not lose the protection as you test it
- Clip an aid sling (webbing ladder) onto the carabiner and gently test the protection by shifting weight to it
- Put all your weight on it and reach down and unclip your other aid sling from the lower protection
- If you need to rest, clip the second sling next to the first, put your foot in it, clip a short sling from your harness to the carabiner and lean back and rest
- Climb to the top stirrup in one of your slings reaching as high as you can
- Place the next piece of protection
More on this here: aid climbing.
Richard (me) approaching the first belay on the west face of Monkey Face.
Because Faye and I were doing this climb in “big wall style” when I reached the small ledge belay at the top of pitch one, I tied off the lead climbing rope (blue) which tied me into the anchor point and also secured the rope so Faye could ascend it with mechanical ascenders and clean the protection out of the pitch without an active belay by me. This allowed me to use the red rope and my two ascenders and a pulley I was carrying to haul the packs up to my ledge.
In fact this is how big walls are climbed and this technique, developed by Royal Robbins and others in Yosemite Valley in the 1950’s is still in use today. Most of the individual tools have been modernized but the technique remains the same: leader leads on a belay from follower, ties off rope, hauls bag while follower ascends and cleans pitch. Switch places, repeat x times up the wall. When a route is shorter and involves more free climbing (less aid) and less stuff to haul the leader might belay the follower up a pitch so he/she can climb it free. For more on this see Big Wall Climbing.
Looking down pitch one from the small belay stance.
Faye using ascenders to climb and clean pitch one. Notice that the red rope and packs have already been hauled up.
Faye continuing up pitch one.
Faye almost done with pitch one. Note: using ascenders like she’s doing here is strenuous although like leading aid, one gets into a rhythm and that involves short rests.
Faye finished with pitch one resting at the belay.
Notice Fay’s harness in the image above. The style in those days was to wrap a thick, tubular piece of 2″ webbing around your waist 3-4 times and tie it with a water knot (an overhand follow through). Then either take a long sling and make a figure 8 out of it and step through it for leg loops and secure them to the waist webbing with carabiners, or, buy sewn leg loops. We had an industrial sewing machine and made our own leg loops which you can see in later images. They worked well and we used this setup for many more years until pre-made harnesses got more popular and we had more money to buy them.
Looking up at the bolt ladder at the start of pitch 2.
When there isn’t a crack to bang a piton or slip a nut into, bolts are used to climb blank walls.
What you have to remember is that the guys who did the first ascent of this stood here and used a hand drill to drill 1/4″ or 3/8″ holes in the rock. These drills were a drill tool that looks like a screwdriver handle with a drill bit on the end and a hardened other end for hitting with a hammer. Place the drill on the rock, hit, twist, hit, twist, hit… repeat dozens of times to make a hole deep enough to put a bolt in. Later with the invention of better batteries folks carried electric drills and extra batteries up walls like this to drill holes for bolts.
Once the hole is drilled and cleaned out there are a few different types of bolts that can be put in, depending on the strength of the surrounding rock and what the climber has in his or her pocket.
The easiest to place is an expansion stud: a short rod, 1/4″ which with a bulge in the middle and threads on the outer end. You pound it into the hole and the bulge collapses making it tight with the walls of the hole. Alternatively, a sleeve is pounded in with threads on the inside of it and the threaded stud is screwed into it.
Each of these techniques leaves a threaded stud sticking out of the rock. Onto this stud one places a bent piece of sheet metal called a “hanger” which has a hole on one face for placing on the stud and a larger hole on the other face for clipping a carabiner to. Once the hanger is in place a nut is threaded onto the stud. Some folks used to put epoxy on both the top of the nut and around the hole to prevent water and ice from getting inside.
So, the idea that the first ascent party put in this ladder of bolts going up (not hanging on a rope coming down which was later popularized in sport climbing here) is amazing. Then think about some of the other big wall climbs with hundreds of bolts on them and you get a bit tired in the arms, back, and neck.
I’ve put one bolt in on a climb in my entire life and that was more than enough.
Climbing a bolt ladder, as long as the first ascenders weren’t too much taller than you isn’t all that hard and as memory serves I was able to climb pitch 2 relatively easily although I’m only 5′ 6″ so no doubt some of the reaches were long for me.
The cave at the back of the monkey’s head at the top of pitch 2 on the west face route.
After finishing pitch 2 I entered the cave at the back of the monkey’s head. I anchored the lead rope so Faye could clean the pitch and I hauled our bags up. The last bit was tough as I remember as it was over a rough edge.
Faye assembling rocks for our campsite in the cave. Note the long shadows as the sun goes down and it gets colder.
Faye and I had been on top of Monkey Face numerous times on other climbs but we’d never been in this cave and we weren’t sure what we’d find there. Maybe mice, bats, or some other beast was living there and we were prepared to keep going and sleep on top if we had to but in fact, the cave, while rough, wasn’t too bad and we were able to find enough loose rock to build a wind break.
We just had some extra clothes and foam pads so it was going to be a less than fully comfortable night but hey, when you’re young you can do stuff like that.
Looking west out of the cave toward the Cascades. Three Sisters (mountains) on horizon.
Faye geared up to lead the last pitch out of the cave and around the back top of the head.
Note: Faye was a very strong climber. I was the one who got us into climbing in the first place and mostly drove our interest in it, but she could do most anything I could do, including leading the toughest pitches we did at the time. We didn’t compete with one another, if I didn’t want to lead something she almost always did it which is exactly the kind of climbing partner you want to have. We got along much better as climbing partners than we did as a couple.
Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three.
Even though the last pitch was mostly bolted, it started out on an extreme overhang and the roof was tall enough so that as I remember it, we had to pile some rocks up for Faye to reach the first one.
In the image above you can see her wearing our home-made leg loops, she’s got her two blue ascenders on a sling and her left knee pad is earning its keep on the rough rock. Behind her is 380 feet of air to the ground. She’s reaching up to clip into the next bolt.
Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. Note the hang of the ropes and overhang. My image is not very level, the overhang is more severe than it looks here.
Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. Note the hang of the ropes and overhang. She’s putting extra slings on the protection because the rope drag over the back of the head is horrendous.
Faye leading out of the cave at the back of the monkey’s face, pitch three. She’s resting, clipped into the anchor and catching her breath. The overhang makes this pitch tough. Good thing it’s not all that long.
The image above is the last one of us on this climb.
Needless to say, we got to the top and did the notorious free rappel off the monkey’s nose.
Here’s a more recent shot of that free rappel by Flickr member Dan I. This is looking at the east face of the tower (the west face climb is on the other side). The rappel ends in the notch between Monkey Face and the main wall. Note: the east face of Monkey face has been free climbed. Amazing. I did the north face (right in this image) of Monkey Face a few years later with another climbing partner.
After finishing the rappel we packed up our gear and hiked back out to our VW van for the trip home.
It was a great climb, well within our abilities and while the Lost Arrow Tip in Yosemite was going to be tougher in many respects, we both felt like this climb helped prepare us for it. Rope handling (fast and safe technique with the gear) on climbs like these is almost as important as climbing ability and both of us felt we learned a lot on this climb.
We weren’t going to return to Yosemite until the following summer so we had plenty of time to continue practicing which we did, both at Smith Rock and at other Oregon climbing areas.
Next installment, climbing the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite Valley.
The above trailer is for a documentary: Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey.
Fred Beckey died on Monday, he was 94. Beckey was one of the greatest mountaineers of all time and he was also quite a character.
Robert McFadden at The New York Times does a great job of summarizing Beckey’s amazing life in climbing: Fred Beckey, Conqueror and Chronicler of North American Peaks, Dies at 94.
In the late 1970’s I went to a presentation/slide show that Beckey gave at REI in Seattle. It was amazing, less for the number of first ascents he’d done at that point (and since then he’s done a lot more), more for his lifestyle which was the epitome of the climbing bum, known among climbers as a “dirtbag” lifestyle.
At that point Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, two other pioneers from Fred’s era had already moved away from climbing into business startups (Patagonia and Royal Robbins clothing). But, Fred was all about climbing. He wasn’t a people person either, he was rather gruff during the Q&A after the slide show I went to.
These days climbing is a totally different sport than the sport Fred Beckey took part in: he didn’t compete, he had no sponsors, and he didn’t really care if he was well known beyond the world of serious climbers. He definitely was well known in the world of serious climbers who know the history of their sport and he will be sorely missed.
Here’s Fred Beckey’s Wikipedia entry.
Update: I heard from my friend Chris Jones who shared a Beckey story:
I once got one of Beckey’s famous I-need-a-climbing-partner calls, while he was on his way from Seattle to Smith Rock. This was one of his things – he’d head off somewhere with a climb in mind and go through his call list on the way, and by the time he was there he’d have at least one (sometimes several, just in case) partners lined up. I somehow ended up on his call list for Smith Rock, and he wanted to climb Monkey Face by the Pioneer Route (he would have been 82, though at the time I thought he was closer to 70).
I met him at Smith, but it started to snow. As it started to snow, he asked “What do ya think about the weather?” This was exactly one of the lines he was famous for, heard by many climbing partners through the years. I had read about his penchant for this particular line, and recognized it as he said it. But oblivious that I might have this recognition, he was just asking (for real), what I thought about the weather. We decided the weather was too poor (I pretended this wasn’t completely obvious), so we didn’t do the climb. Right about then a second potential climbing partner showed up, so he had arranged a backup in case I didn’t work out (or maybe I was the backup and I just got there first).
So, I didn’t actually get to climb with Fred, nor did Fred get to climb Monkey Face that day, but I did get to hear him say “What do ya think about the weather?”. And that was better than doing the climb.