Martin Boysen makes the lonesome descent from Camp 5 to Camp 4 (the tents of 
Camp 3 are visible) on the South Face of Annapurna, 1970

First Ascents
By Steve Grossman

It seems inevitable to be struck with curiosity about the first ascent while climbing an established big wall.  What were the original cracks like? What sort of hardware did the first climbers have?  Were there any storms or big peels?  Early routes on El Capitan set high standards for commitment and style.  These routes were done with a rack of pitons, the bare minimum of food and water, and a few bolts.  The written accounts are adventure classics.  Yvon Chouinard and TM Herbert's ascent of the Muir Wall is one of the finest examples of boldness and commitment.  After three thousand feet of climbing, they were left with one bolt and one quart of water.

Even today, with the most sophisticated gear and techniques, several thousand feet of unclimbed stone pose a formidable problem.  If the puzzle is solved creatively, using commitment backed up by solid technique, then the resulting experience can be among the most satisfying and rewarding that climbing has to offer.

With unclimbed rock at a premium, pressure to climb in good style and according to local precedent can prompt those considering a new route to reflect seriously on their skill level.  It is sad to see a potentially fine route brashly botched up.  Easy access, rapid rescue and the security of watchful eyes below create an environment that is conducive to pushing one's technical and psychological limits; however, it may be best to seek first ascents in a place where help is miles away, and thoughtful, courageous climbing is required.  In this way, you avoid the scorn of others and revel in the boldness of your own achievements.

But how does one climb a route safely, without compromising style? Questions of safety and style depend on the experience of the climber and the difficulties they encounter.  An inexperienced climber may place a bolt where a marginal piton placement might go.  Also, the psychological and physical strain of route finding, placements, hauling and the ever present weight of he unknown, may force a climber to make decisions he'll regret later.  Bear this in mind:  it is worth picking a line that is well within your ability for your first new route.  You can adjust to the slower pace and greater exertion involved.  Really concentrate on each placement.  Resorting to extensive drilling or bashing to overcome difficulty diminishes the subsequent climbing experience for everyone.  Greater experience and finesse allows a less destructive approach to the first ascent.

It deserves mention that two distinct styles exist when placements run out and drilling becomes necessary.  The traditional method assumes that the challenge in aid climbing lies in placements that are re-usable.  Drilled placements should be a rivet or a bolt capable of holding more than body weight.  The opposing style, New Wave, assumes that the technical and psychological challenge should be maximized.  Drilled placements need only be sufficient to hold body weight and not capable of holding a fall. This ethic allows drilling of holes for hooks, enhancing natural hook placements and chiseling or drilling trenches for copperheads where no usable placements exist.

While the longer run outs and greater fall potential add to the challenge left for the next party, it is debatable whether risking lengthy falls is worth it, when the technical challenge has already been reduced.

Imagine that you are faced with two thirty foot corners separated by a blank section.  In the corners are body weight copperhead placements. The traditional approach would allow for a bolt between the two corners to reduce the length of the fall.  The New Wave approach calls for hook holes between the two corners.  The traditional climber would risk a sixty foot maximum fall; the New Wave climber would risk a hundred foot fall. However, once the New Wave climber reaches the second corner, they will continue to enhance the placements, to be sure that a fall will not take place.  By upping the risk, they have reduced challenge.

Likewise, the New Wave approach legitimates use of drill and chisel on subsequent ascents.  If a climber can bring the rock down to his level, then the next party has every right to do so as well. The traditional approach assumes that all drilled placements are fixed, and obligates the next party to use conventional gear.  This serves to maintain the technical challenge for subsequent parties.  The two approaches conflict when a New Wave climber ascends a bold traditional route.  If a leader cannot differentiate between the two styles, he or she may reach for the chisel when things get dicey.  Unknowing, they have diminished the stylistic and technical challenge left by previous ascent parties.

A good example of this is the Jolly Roger route on El Capitan.  When first climbed, this route had some of the most difficult natural hooking anywhere and no drill enhancements were used.  I took several long falls, boldly forcing these sections through.  The next party to attempt the route was unable to muster similar skill or commitment and chose to reach for the drill rather than retreat - even though they were only a few pitches up.  These sections are uglier and far less challenging. Obviously, a choice of style is strictly personal on a first ascent.  However, the creativity and boldness that goes into establishing a first ascent must be respected - or we all lose out.

Whether your ethics are traditional or New Wave, the point of all this dangling and thrashing about is preservation of the challenge.  On the first ascent, the climber must overcome difficulty in such a way as to leave the problem intact for the next party to struggle with and enjoy. Have enough patience and self-respect to raise your ability and psyche to meet the demands of the route, rather than lower it to your capabilities through arbitrary use of force.  Exercise a little restraint in the use of destructive technology.  Otherwise you will create a route that lacks in creativity, boldness and inspiration.

Transcending fear and doubt in the face of the unknown is the very soul of adventure.  Settling for less than your personal best will only cheapen your sense of accomplishment and the quality of the route; have the integrity to wait if your intuition says no.

It is very easy to become obsessive about a new line.  You can lose track of your ideals and standards in the rush to do it before someone else does.  The most difficult question to honestly answer is this:  Do you desire to do the route for its own sake or because you feel the need for recognition and a small place in history?  When the going gets rough and your last good piece is way down there, it is a true test of confidence, skill, and desire to spare the bolt kit.  Reach within yourself for the ingenuity, trust, and willpower that allows us to transcend the ephemeral line between dream and reality.  In the many years I have spent climbing walls, it is this power to transcend that compels me to return again to the vertical stage to chase dreams of wild adventure where earth and sky meet.

View of Half Dome from Olmstead Point, 1997 

By Steve Grossman

Not long ago, climbers were few in number and only a handful of ascents of Grade VI routes occurred in the U.S. yearly.  Radical advances in gear, readily available detailed route descriptions, and piton scarring have made the vertical world increasingly accessible.  Popular Yosemite wall routes are now done several dozen times each season and crowding has become a significant problem.  With our numbers growing, the need to minimize the impact of each and every ascent is ever more acute.  The singular nature of long routes define their character, making one's experience intimately dependent on that of the previous ascents.  Trash, excrement or needless holes left by an inconsiderate party can turn a rich adventure into a sad reminder of how thoughtless our species can be.

Over the past decade a wall climbing ethic has taken shape to cope with increased usage and to preserve the routes.  In some respects it mirrors the wilderness ethic that evolved to safeguard the backcountry from the ill effects of increased traffic.  In essence, leave the route as you found it and, if possible, clean up after others that have been less considerate. Carry your trash and other waste with you rather than tossing it off with the intention of "picking it up later".  The clatter of tin cans bumbling down the wall and garbage piles at the base of multi-day routes are truly disgusting to anyone trying to enjoy the natural beauty of an area.

On well-traveled lines, duty bags are mandatory to keep the stench to a minimum.  When urinating, a double bag will allow the lot to be removed from the immediate vicinity.  Urinate into space and away from the route if possible or swing over to a ledge well off to one side.  Never piss behind ledges or into cracks where it can't easily evaporate.  Remember the Golden Rule:  "Dump onto others as you would have them dump onto you".  Resist the temptation to jettison the haulbags after topping out or while retreating.  Landings can never be predicted and the potentially lethal forces involved make it a reckless practice.  In Yosemite, throwing haulsacks is prohibited and substantial fines can result.  If you are too tired or overburdened with impediment to safely descend in one trip, consider returning for the excess after you've rested a bit.  By fixing three ropes on the East Ledges descent, for example, one can easily reach the top of El Capitan and recover stashed gear without jeopardizing anyone's well-being.


rock preservation  

The issue of rock preservation in a pursuit which can require the use of pitons, drills and other inherently destructive tools is necessarily a nebulous one.  Repeated use of hammered protection creates permanent, ugly scars that detract from the intrinsic beauty and mystery of a wall. Weighed against such defacement is our need to experience the unknown and yet feel secure.  The extent that force, skill and boldness are combined to meet a given challenge is the essence of style.  It largely determines the level of adventure in an ascent.  To safeguard the routes and the experience of future parties, we must consider the lasting consequences of such heavy-handed practices as overdriving pitons and copperheading.  Use the hammer sparingly.  Fortunately, natural protection technology has become so sophisticated and available that pitons, mashies and bolts have become less necessary.  Many classic wall routes, such as the Nose and Salathé Wall on El Cap and the Regular Route on Half Dome as well as numerous Grade V's, can and should be done without pounding on protection.  If done cleanly by all parties, these classic lines can retain their character, beauty and difficulty indefinitely despite heavy usage.

On routes that still require pitons, use nuts and camming devices as much as possible.  The nutting game is every bit as demanding as tapping and can be even more satisfying.  Most of the future achievements in heavily developed areas such as Yosemite lie in better style ascents of established routes.  Ultimately, if a route is done cleanly, the accomplishment should be respected for its boldness and imagination. Subsequent parties will hopefully be inspired to reach within themselves for the patience and resolve necessary to avoid force and substitute ingenuity instead.  The prevailing attitude that you do walls just to be able to hack away at the rock and use all that ironmongery is rather shortsighted considering that the manifest destiny of hammer and drill is a woeful prospect.  The technical skill and expertise to use existing technology in good style requires considerable experience.  Practice is indispensable.  Spend some time experimenting with the available hardware until you develop some faith in it.  Getting in over your head and bashing your way out is ignoble at best and will only lead to unnecessary pin scarring and bolting as fear erodes judgment.

Perhaps the worst case scenario is when a copperhead is placed where a nut would work and a potentially natural placement is lost when the head is cleaned and the pocket becomes too flared for anything else to work. Shallow slots can quickly degenerate to the point where leaving the placement fixed may be necessary.  Copperheads have considerable holding power and, like pitons, don't need to be overdriven to work, especially if you're not in a serious fall situation.  They can be cleaned by clipping the cable to the head of your hammer with a sling and cleaning carabiner and yanking straight out.  It is also advisable to use the tip of a standard knife blade to separate the metal from the rock on one side of the pocket prior to the outward pull.  The surface of copper in contact with the rock determines the strength of the placement and unless this is reduced it will often exceed that of the cable.  If the wire does break, a thin-tipped flat chisel can be used to open up the outside of the copperhead, allowing the remaining cable to be extracted, which makes it easier to pry the rest of the metal out.  Thin piton tips tend to damage the rock less than chisels, making them preferable to use for the separating step.  If used artfully, copperheads can be less destructive than pitons but they should generally be regarded as a last resort.  Be considerate while cleaning and remove the copperheads that you place even if the cables break.  Clean any other junked heads you might come across that are inessential.  You may be surprised to find a perfectly usable nut or piton placement that has been blocked because someone chose to mindlessly belt in a mashie rather than take the time to figure out something better.

The drill and chisel also occupy a curious position in the array of climbing tools.  Unlike conventional gear which requires a certain adaptation to circumstance, they both allow placements to be "created" or "improved" at will.  This sort of technological sure-thing reduces the challenge of a given section of stone.  At any point, for any reason, you can change the rules and lower the difficulty for yourself and those that follow.  Don't take the easy way out by drilling a hole or chiseling a copperhead slot deeper.  It is a significant visual and technical impact that is usually confined to first ascents and is discouraged heavily while doing repeats.

However, I need to stress the importance of having an emergency bolt kit along to be able to fix bad belays, bolt failures, flared hookholes and for use in rescues.  There is a world of difference, however, between one of these situations and placing a bolt where others have found it unnecessary simply because you might be too inexperienced or scared to work it out.

Strange as it may seem, route features are fragile.  Difficult lines usually retain their initial character for only a couple of ascents before someone sees fit to add a bolt or otherwise botch up the challenge presented to them. Several lengthy ascents of difficult El Cap routes by less than experienced parties point out that, given enough time spent drilling and chiseling, even very hard lines can become manageable.  Why waste time working up to the hardest routes when they could be conveniently slid on down to you? Amazingly enough, people once came down from walls they couldn't do in good style.  Some modern day dreadnaughts seem to think nothing of using whatever means necessary to gain the hollow prestige of having repeated a route with a reputation. Unfortunately, they have neither the ability nor the patience to pull it off without having totally trenched their heads.

Big wall climbing is at a pivotal point in its development.  With the timid righteously clamoring for holes in the name of "safe success", we could well witness the number of unnecessary bolts climb from dozens into the hundreds as routes of daring and technical brilliance are lost in the mire of aspiring Wannabees.  Or we can take pride in our heritage as climbers and continue to insist that ingenuity and skill take precedence over expedience and force so that the adventure and trial by fire that have historically made big wall climbing uniquely rich will not become lost to us.  By consciously adopting a low impact ethic and boldly pushing our creative and technical limits, we can sustain the challenge vital to the pursuit with a minimum of residual damage to distance us from the environment we seek to share.

These chapters first appeared in Big Wall Climbing, edited by Mike Strassman, 1990.


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