Rob Pizem is a high-school teacher, and pretty avid rock climber, and a SCARPA team member. What follows is the first part of his account of how he circled around to find himself attempting a new big-wall free route in summer 2010:
I had planned on a summer adventure in Alaska, where my partners and I would have to trek through the bush, cross icy rivers, navigate unknown glaciers, and finally end up at an enormous unclimbed big wall. We would make base camp and establish an amazing new free route on the virgin stone. Afterwards, we would triumphantly hike out from our now “established” path and happily fly home to our families and friends with memories of overcoming the obstacles that were before us. That is what I had planned. So, as life goes, even our best laid plans don’t come to fruition.
For a long time, I have been of the thought that things always work out and that I would always accomplish something during one of my climbing trips. It wasn’t until this past March 2010 that I actually didn’t accomplish anything and now my once in a lifetime trip to “Seward’s Folly” isn’t happening. What was going on? First of all, my always psyched and seemingly always available partner on these adventures, Mike Brumbaugh, was not taken with the idea. He had been there and didn’t like the taste that crossing glaciers left in his mouth. Actually, he had been there multiple times and apparently had done or attempted the climbs that he had wanted to and was satisfied. And since finding a good partner is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack, I knew that I wouldn’t find someone that I was psyched to have watching my back in Alaska, so that trip was kyboshed.
I was a bit upset, but never showed it and began researching other possibilities that did not involve icy glaciers. What was ironic was that I didn’t even have any experience crossing these death traps, yet I was the one initiating the experience. I guess that I am just too naive in thinking that Freedom of the Hills will get me out of any situation in the mountains.
Here is a summary of the conversation that I had with Mike and within my head as we filtered out dream trips for new routing adventures: “Greenland, no too expensive and we would need more time, Europe, no not for a big-wall crack-climbing trip, Yosemite, no, been there done that. What about this supposed big wall in central California called Tehipite Dome?” As one of us brought up the Dome, after hearing about it from someone, somewhere, we began to do a little research. It didn’t take long to see the wall plastered all over the web on hiking websites and Google searches. It looked big, clean and for the most part rarely visited. “This could be cool,” I thought to myself.
Even though I was still holding out for the Alaska trip, this one seemed interesting. So we made efforts to read up on any and all ascents of the wall and found that it was first climbed by Fred Beckey in 1963. Apparently, back then the legends of early first ascents of North American big walls had all heard about this monolith and its huge approach and were just waiting for “the right time” to get in there and establish its first rock climb. Walls that are supposed to be as big as El Cap normally attract those who dream big and who don’t have failure in their vocabulary. Fred Beckey knew that waiting didn’t do anything for anybody, so he assembled a team and after a few days of hard work had summited, ground up, Tehipite Dome. After reading about his ascent it was clear that this wall was worthy and it made not going to Alaska a little bit easier. Mike and I were going to get in there and do our best to establish our own big wall free climb and we were going to do it in less than 10 days.
As soon as the decision was made to go for it, the next hurdle was timing. I am a high school science teacher and my time was not so flexible during the summer of 2010. My wife and I took two new jobs in another city, we had to pack, find a place to live, sell our house, move, and get settled before the school year began and I had to be in Squamish at the end of July to present during the Squamish Mountain Festival. Mike had to be at a wedding at the end of July. It seemed pretty easy, we would go during June and take care of business and be back early enough to meet our other obligations. That was the plan at least. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
It turned out that since we needed to bring in about 1500 feet of static line, six sets of cams, along with all our camping stuff and food, hiking in wasn’t an option. We had planned on horse packing our gear into the wall. Otherwise, it would have taken half of our trip just to move gear in and out the thirteen miles to the summit of the wall. Being naive about a trip like this, we had forgotten to figure in organizing the horse packer’s schedule. It turned out that he knew the area like the back of his hand and has told us that crossing one of the rivers on the approach in June might be iffy with the 15 feet of snow that had accumulated in that area over the winter. All of a sudden June was out and July was in. Allen Clyde of Clyde Pack Outfitters changed our whole game plan with that one bit of information.
This is where things got sticky and complicated. Not only did we have to plan the trip during the “busy month” but we had to let the other two members of the team know what was happening. One member was on vacation during that time and it wasn’t a problem, but the other was going in and out of town for work that whole month. At this point in time, I was ready to pull my hair out. I knew that for a project of this size that we really needed two weeks, perfect weather and a lot of luck. Now with all the scheduling and peoples commitments, we were down to only ten days. The ball was now in Allen Clyde’s hands and we could only hope that he had an opening in his schedule on the days that we required his expertise.
After a few days of playing phone tag, I connected with him on the drive to the climbing gym after teaching all day. We were set. I would be flying in from Canada after presenting in Squamish to Fresno, where the rest of the team would pick me up with my truck. Ari was coming from Salt Lake, Mike was coming from Vail, and I was coming from Denver. The fourth member of the team had to change plans. Ari was lucky enough to be able to change his plans for work, Mike would be able to just make it to the wedding that he was in (the day after we horse packed out) and I would get home one day before packing the U-haul and heading west with all my belongings and my lovely wife, Jane. All that I had to do before flying to Canada was get my truck to Mike’ house and, however inconvenient, it seemed doable.
Since the major details were taken care of, I had to start assigning various duties to everyone. I have learned through experience that if team members don’t have duties, things get forgotten and amazing trips end up not being very fun. Responsibilities that each of us had were to plan the food, decide on how much gear and static line that we would bring, what kind of tent or tents, what was our strategy for establishing the climb, and so on. I took the lead and passed out duties and things seemed to go smoothly. As the weeks grew closer, the e-mails were flying back and forth about who had this and had that.
So, I finally was sitting at the airport in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and even though I was exhausted from a few days at Squamish and from staying up all night at the Western themed party the night before, I began to get excited about the trip to Tehipite. I had phone contact with the boys and all was going as planned and things looked good for our trip. The outfitter was ready, the weather looked stable and sunny, and we even had managed to get our good friend and photographer Andrew Burr to come out at the end of our trip to shoot photos of what was sure to be the next big thing in California big wall free climbing. As I stepped out of the airport and felt the 100-plus degree heat of Fresno, I began to second guess myself. The heat and the fact that the wall was south facing began to make me nervous.
Adrenaline and a cheeseburger gave me the energy to drive us to the outfitter’s ranch, where we had to explode the back of my truck and repack and reassess all that we had brought for the trip. We had a portaledge, 1,500 extra feet of Sterling Super Static Ropes, eight sets of cams and nuts, 3 hand drills, 30 bolts and 30 hangers, sleeping bags, ten pairs of climbing shoes, clothes, backpacking food and dried goods. When I saw all the gear that had to get into the saddle bags, I really feared that we would not be able to take all that we needed. Six giant saddle bags and nearly five hundred pounds later, we had whittled down all the gear and taken only the necessities. With only hours between us and our ride into the wall, we easily slept in the canvass tent at Clyde’s.
Remember, this is about how all the best laid plans can unravel before your eyes. Anyway, the next morning we were off. We had assumed that the five or six hours of riding would start off at 7 or 8 am but that wasn’t the case. Out in the hills, you get going when you get going. We had to drop off another group of horse packers who were going to another destination and then it was our turn. Now this didn’t really take all that long, but with three rock climbers on vacation sitting in a truck and not getting any closer to their final destination, it didn’t feel that way. So, when we finally loaded and mounted our horses and began moving down the trail at a snail’s pace, it was then that I began to worry some more about getting to camp that day. We still had to set up camp, find the wall, and move a load of gear to the top.
A few hours on a horse will make you forget about everything. Our butts hurt so much that we just wanted off and when Allen told us that we were as far as we’d paid for, we found a flat site near the creek and happily unloaded. It was sad to see him leave and know that we really were going to be here for ten days all on our own and not see another human being. Fortunately, I knew my partners really well and we weren’t in for any surprises.
The next few days were a whirlwind of activity. After dropping our gear, leveling a tent site, hanging our food and packing our packs, we picked up the surveying tape, looked at a topographic map of the area and headed to where we thought the wall was located.
The forest was burned out from the fire a few years prior and was nearly devoid of life except for a few small plants and flowers. We crossed a few smaller streams, listened to no birds and tried our best to maintain the direction that we wanted to travel. After about 15 minutes of hanging bright orange pieces of surveying tape, we arrived at an opening in the charred out and barely living forest. The Valley Of The Kings River opened up before us and we were taken back.
The valley was way down below (like over 3000 feet below) and the river which looked like a silver ribbon, charged down the gradient creating massive waterfalls and rapids. It braided back and forth through the wide and flat bottom of the valley. When we gazed to our left, we all knew that we were looking at the top of Tehipite Dome. I stress only the top of the dome because it was huge. It looked like we were just a few minutes’ walk away. Once we figured out where we were I continued with taping of our path. We got a bit closer to the wall along the same contour that we had been traveling only to find the terrain get a bit nasty for hiking with heavy loads. It was getting late, so we followed our flagging back to camp with excitement in our heads and the knowledge that this was really a big wall.
Our first day at the wall did not begin as it could have. We had shuttled our massive load of 6 sets of cams, nearly 1500 feet of static line, lead lines and personal climbing gear to what was “not as close as we had thought”. So we overloaded our packs and backs and trudged up and over Manzanita-choked hillsides, through mosquito filled stream valleys and down a 1,000-foot loose rock and boulder-filled gulley only to second guess an obvious path to the wall.
For some reason this always happens. You see the obvious way and then make a challenge out of it by not choosing that path. You epic for way too long only to finally go the way that you thought was correct from the beginning. In the end you just want to kick yourself for the enormous amount of time and energy that was just wasted. Let’s just say that that’s what happened.
My back hurt, I was exhausted and sweating and not feeling like I had any energy. I was dehydrated and, most importantly, worried that we would run out of time to establish a new line on this gigantic wall that we finally had stumbled upon.
The next moments, the team looked to me; I had to determine where we would begin scouting for the new route that was lurking somewhere below. We had finally reached the ledge system that was nearly at the 2,000 foot mark of the wall and had no idea where any existing lines were and no idea where to begin. After spending some time looking at the old photos, I decided that the longest portion of the wall lied to the left of center and that we were probably standing just above some dihedrals that were almost the length of the lower wall. I handed everyone a black 70-meter static line and said rap off that tree and see what you find. We would see what the wall looked like below and go from there. It was so simple. Surprisingly, we hit the jackpot only after four tries.
The second that I saw the line below Ari, I knew we were going to be happy about the rest of the climbing trip. I will describe what I saw from the top to bottom for the next day and a half. I rappelled with a triple set of cams and nuts, and over 1000 feet of rope hanging off my back and harness. I will say that although I was giddy as a school girl, it did suck rappelling with all that weight, choosing the line, building anchors and fixing the ropes for Ari and Mike to depend on.
At the top, I rapped through a giant tree. Surrounding the tree at the high point of our soon-to-be route was about three feet of debris that I dragged the static lines and cams through. I then had to pass by the very sharp and gigantic yucca that stabbed me every time that I passed by it. Below that the rock turned perfectly free of exfoliating layers. It looked like a 5.8 slab with a splitter undulating smooth crack dividing it in two. Seventy or eighty feet below this wonderful ending pitch, the wall went overhanging and turned black. It was clear that water from above drained down these cracks, but the wall was hardly dirty.
A three- and four-inch crack climbed up this black dihedral for fifty feet and I smiled at what I imagined this pitch would climb like. Further below, a slab with a flake was waiting to be climbed. As I followed the crack lower and lower, I kept finding a continuous system of thin seams, offwidths, dihedrals and hand cracks. Mike and Ari waited above patiently as I chose where we would be spending our time over the next five or six days. I thought to myself that they would be freaking out right now if they saw what I was finding.
I built anchor after anchor and did my best not to allow the rope to rub over any sharp spots. Jugging on a fixed line 2,000 feet up with a core shot isn’t fun. When the wall was dead vertical for hundreds of feet and I saw a corner covered in some small plants, I scoured the options since I feared that our line would have just a few points of aid because the crack appeared so thin. I swung back and forth checking the nearby cracks, planned moves through a nearby roof, located possible pin or bolt placements and finally moved on, not positive that a small section of the climb would go free.
Just below the questionable portion of the route was the most amazing three- to four-inch crack that I had ever seen so high on a wall. It was nearly two hundred feet long and passed through a series of triple horizontal roofs. Below that pitch I had to do some thinking again. The cracks continued, but were a bit dirty and slightly vegetated. Again, I swung back and forth and after minutes of exploring, decided that the route would be climbable after some cleaning.
The line was moving from dihedrals and jumping from cracks and still I hadn’t needed to trundle anything off the wall. I had rappelled over a thousand feet and still hadn’t found any bad or even poor rock. The wall was amazing. I thought to myself this is what the pioneers of El Cap had to feel like when they first ventured up the big stone. One more pitch below and I arrived at a nice ledge and that was where my troubles began. I had been picking the line for hours at this point, the boys were on their way down and had begun cleaning some of the vegetated cracks and I thought that I had just hit a snag in the game. What ended up begin the second pitch of the route was not looking so good for free climbing, I was hammering pins into non-existent seams, hooking flakes that were nothing and doing everything that I could to get to a place where I thought we could connect to my “low point” of free climbing.
It didn’t look good, but I fixed that last rap line and went to the ledges that signaled the beginning of the wall and the route. What a day.
It was epic, we rapped, cleaned, jugged and hand drilled a few belay bolts and headed back to camp exhausted. We were all pleased about what the route was going to look and climb like. By the end of day two, all the uncertainty was gone through a little bit of luck and cleaning. Pitch two turned into a hair raising 5.12 with three bolts through a blank section and pitch five ended up being climbable in the best part, where I thought the crack was too thin.
The next few days we spent bolting anchors, jugging and rappelling, hiking and stashing gear and water, and rehearsing moves and the harder pitches. They were brutal. The long hike up and down the thousand foot gulley and the California sunshine nearly wiped me out.
It all led to what was almost the first free ascent of the route. Stay tuned for the rest of the story …