Three hundred and fifty feet above the piñon pines, dangling by a static line, I felt extremely alone on that bitter cold day of November 11, 1992. I was atop Mount Clark, the 7,982-foot peak high above the Southern Californian desert, and just across the border from Primm, Nevada. A Bosch drill, hooks, quickdraws and a bag of bolts hung heavily from my harness as I lowered into the abyss, unsure of what exactly was coming next.
Coming into view, a monumentally giant amphitheater revealed its magnitude for the first time to me. This smooth cave was like the Hollywood Bowl atop Mount Everest. The highest cliff band on Mount Clark was so far beyond anything I had seen before as to be a caricature one might draw of a dream crag.
As always, I chose the best line to bolt first. The most memorable part of the day was touching the incredible line of pockets and sidepulls and sloping protrusions that continued uninterrupted out this several-hundred-foot sweep of white limestone.
I was used to looking at routes that, at first, appeared too hard for my ability, yet later proved to be climbable. Each section of the line was surely doable, but it became increasingly apparent that I would never be able to free climb this route. The moves were there, but it would be too sustained. On that day I saw the future in each of those holds, and it was certainly 5.15.
It is 2007 and I am sitting in a folding chair watching Chris Sharma stab his way up the underbelly of that same immaculate shield capping Mount Clark. “FAAA!” His left middle finger finds a deep, one-digit solution pocket. “FAAA!” His right hand throws to a sideways sloper that he grips and re-grips, trying to gain purchase. Every single hand move requires three distinct foot moves to leverage his body in order to take full advantage of any friction the slippery stone may offer.
It is a very committing and physically draining style of climbing, but it is Sharma’s self-described strength: “Decent but slopey holds really far apart and really continuous.”
Watching Sharma climb on the so-called “decent” holds, which I know from personal experience are not, I honestly don’t know how he is sticking these moves. I see he is almost perpetually in a vulnerable position, about to pitch unless he bears down and keeps moving. There is no chance to clip most bolts, and Sharma, now looking at an 80-footer at least, climbs with the abandon of another generation.
“This is the next step in the evolution of hard climbing,” Sharma had said to me earlier. “Doing hard moves way off the ground and way runout.”
From the safety of my chair down below, I feel like I am watching an excellent climbing movie, but my partner Scott and I don’t know how this one will end. The redpoint crux comes at the end of the long runout past un-clippable bolts. “FAAA!” he screams as he stabs again to a small left-hand pocket. This is it: Sharma will either put all fears aside and lunge for the next, equally terrible hold, or grab the quickdraw that dangles temptingly close.
“FAAAQ!” He almost completes the word. Instead, he misses the hold and launches violently into space. His feet bicycle instinctively to try to avoid falling headfirst. In slow motion, he falls forever through the air against the backdrop of a white wall.
“That looked like a hundred-foot fall!” I say to Scott. “Let’s hike up there and get a close look at his next burn.”
“You think he’ll do it?” Scott asks.
“Yeah, but I hope not anytime soon,” I say. “It would be good to see Sharma have to push himself harder than he has before.” It was a weird thing to say, but I secretly wished that the route would be hard—really hard.
From the vantage of airplane portholes, I first noticed what looked to be a series of massive limestone walls in the Southern Californian desert. Views through a telescope from the I-15 freeway confirmed this east-facing cliff was worth a full exploration. Huge shadows cast at 10:30 a.m. suggested an enormous and steep wall. It was late April 1992 when my climbing partner Rudy Hofmeister and I had an extra day before a weekend of sport climbing at the Virgin River Gorge, near Las Vegas, Nevada.
We approached from the opposite (western) side of Clark Mountain, and after an hour’s hike through loose scree, arrived at the base of what we thought were the walls. The first amphitheater was steep and riddled with route potential. It looked about as good as I had hoped, so we made plans to come back and put up some climbs.
Back at the car, we drove east, down the dirt road of the Coliseum Mine. I happened to glance into my rear-view mirror, and my jaw dropped onto the steering wheel. The walls and caves I saw in the reflection were exponentially larger, steeper and smoother than what we had just explored. Suddenly it all made sense. The shapes of these cliffs and caves matched the shadows I had seen from I-15. We had unintentionally explored the wrong cliff band.
The scale of this rock amphitheatre struck me then and, after bolting and climbing routes (with Glenn Svenson and Ed Worsman) in the spring of 1992 on the two lower tiers, I returned in November by myself to start development of my ultimate objective, the Third Tier mega monolith, home to my own Jumbo Pumping Hate (5.14a) and, of course, the cliff’s best line—the 5.15 super project that Chris Sharma is currently working.
Fifteen years later, I get the pleasure of watching the new generation of climbers come here and enjoy themselves. Clark Mountain has become a gathering spot for a core group of locals, drawing players from San Diego, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah. The most devoted “local” is Chris Lindner, who has quietly repeated most of my lines and redpointed a few I had abandoned. Though Lindner, at 23, is a 20-year veteran of climbing, he is younger yet more mature than many of his peers.
Sharma is hardly the first top climber to visit Clark. François Legrand onsighted some 5.13c’s here early on, while Mia Axon and Katie Brown, two top female climbers, onsighted some difficult routes here as well. Jason Campbell, Tommy Caldwell, Todd Perkins, Dave Graham and Hidetaka Suzuki have all repeated some of Clark’s hardest and best routes.
But still, most of the credit goes to Lindner, without whom activity at Clark Mountain would’ve died years ago. Recently, he set his sights on the last route I started seriously trying—the extension to Wall of Glass (5.14a), which would bring the route up to a 5.14c for the crag’s most difficult line. I gave Lindner the green light to try the project seven years ago. He continued, year after year, to work Jumbo Glass—and while he deserved to be the first to redpoint it, the first-ascent honors went to Ethan Pringle, who sent what is now Clark’s hardest complete line this spring. I know Jumbo Glass was well within Lindner’s range, but the uncertainties of being the first to figure out a route can slow even the best climbers down.
After watching Sharma’s 100-footer, an awesome show of commitment and endurance, Scott and I approach the First Tier crag. The various cliff levels, known as tiers, are stacked steeply on top of each other, giving the climbing an exaggerated feeling of exposure. Intricate trails connect this complicated landscape, and only the most impressive and accessible cliffs are developed to date.
“Why are you wearing leather gloves?” Scott asks me.
“The gloves have saved my hands from the cactus and sharp rock,” I say. I tell Scott about one time I was rushing down alone to beat the impending nighttime.
Running past ledge systems, I could hardly see in the failing light. I jumped onto a bush that offered no support, and found myself in freefall. The heavy drill battery in my backpack sent me into a perfect front loop. Forty feet later, I was lying in a cactus, looking into the beauty of the dark sky with a fractured wrist.
After many hours, I reached my truck, sat down with an ass-full of cactus needles, and drove away, operating the manual shift with a broken wrist and a bloody shoulder, reaching the emergency room in Las Vegas at 3 a.m. Of all the epics that night, the scene most etched in my mind was the 290-pound black male nurse who removed cactus needles from my butt crack.
As Scott was laughing his ass off, we finally reached the First Tier, a 100-foot-tall limestone wall that sits in morning shade and houses over a dozen beautiful warm-up routes from 5.10 to 5.12d on golden rock.
The hiking turns a bit nastier to reach the Second Tier, involving a rope climb to surmount a 30-foot step. I point out New Respect, the best 5.12a on this tier, which takes a left-leaning corner system in overhanging orange stone. However, like most Clark routes, it is no gimme for its grade. While there are some good 5.10s and 5.11s, the proudest lines at the Second Tier are Read My Lips (5.13d), Hate Lifting (5.14a) and No New Taxes (5.13c), a potpourri of upside-down laybacks, isolated pockets, lunges and gastons on a tidal wave of white rock.
The Third Tier has the incredible amphitheatre/cave, as well as an undeveloped 500-foot wall on its right flank. With pine trees so high above the wasteland of the desert far below, the Third Tier is very compelling, with vistas for a hundred miles. The massive cave of nearly perfect bulletproof rock protects you from thunderstorms, snowstorms, or the heat of the sun. Its spiritual aura inspired my friend and trusted climbing partner Jorge Visser to name this amphitheatre the Monastery. It’s a special place to me, and I chose to scatter my father’s ashes here.
Sharma’s project takes the best line out the amphitheater. It is, he said, “the hardest and most aesthetic line I’ve ever tried. The fact that it’s in California is very attractive. It would be really cool to have something over in the States that would attract the Euros rather than it always being vice versa.”
Looking up at the Monastery is a mesmerizing experience. Mick Ryan, a climbing author, once aptly described it as an overhanging football field. He continued the metaphor by claiming that my first complete route in the Monastery cave, a four-pitch 5.14a I named Jumbo Pumping Hate, was the only one that scored a touchdown.
The thrill of discovery has always motivated me in climbing. But it is not just the discovery that is inspiring. The vision to turn that discovery into something meaningful is a key ingredient. El Capitan in Yosemite was discovered and explored by many top climbers. The mental and physical barriers of climbing such an imposing prospect on questionable gear were first broken by men like Warren Harding, Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard. But when the more obvious cracks and shadowed lines started to dry up, the “new generation’s” visionary route potential was realized by guys like Jim Bridwell, who could ferret out dramatic aid lines from a matrix of complicated and confusing flakes, cracks and hook placements.
Or take Boone Speed, who was one of the first to realize the stellar possibilities of the limestone “choss pile” known as the Virgin River Gorge next to I-15 in Arizona. How many climbers had ignored that desolate freeway canyon? I can still remember the look in Boone’s eyes as he was describing the futuristic, pocketed face of The Fall of Man.
So, after my generation discovered and bolted up all these new areas, what sort of vision is left? Plenty, it turns out. After a lull in action, the next “new generation” of visionaries is eagerly standing on our shoulders to do things we would have never imagined. We didn’t foresee the Huber brothers turning El Capitan into a crack-climbing sport crag, and no one predicted that Tommy Caldwell would free climb El Cap twice in one day. We did imagine that someone, someday, might onsight 5.14, but the regularity with which this now happens is rather sobering. And just when I thought I had seen it all, Chris Sharma climbs, sans rope, a potential 5.15 (Es Pontas) out an amazing arch high above the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in Mallorca, Spain. Along with Es Pontas and Realization, Sharma views his project here at Clark as one of his visionary routes.
I’ve heard some voices of my generation, mostly fulltime has-beens and never-weres, pooh-poohing the likes of Chris Sharma and Dave Graham as just overly strong guys who do hard moves near bolts. It goes something like, “Yeah, they’re strong, but they can’t crack climb and they don’t know how to place gear!”
The reality is that high-end sport climbing has never been easy, lazy, overly safe or secure. And nowhere in the world right now is sport climbing as high end as this. This 5.15 project is so continuous that Sharma skips most bolts on the route, meaning that if he fails, he will take a mandatory 60- to 100-foot fall. Not just once or twice, but over and over again. I see in Sharma, a 26-year-old who doesn’t take himself too seriously, an ability to fly through these moves without any reservation or hesitation.
If this project goes too quickly for Sharma, he has found a 50-foot bouldery start that would bump the grade up, he reckons, to a 5.15d.
The sheerness and smoothness of this big cave is unique among king caves in that it actually has adequate holds for 5.15, yet not too many … and certainly no kneebars, making it, in Sharma’s words, “the perfect antidote for Rifle-type climbing.” This particular rock is perfect for 5.13, 5.14 and 5.15.
Sharma’s vision, unlike that of the previous generation, isn’t about finding somewhere completely new. It is more about seeing something we already know through new eyes—his. When I bolted this route in 1992, I envisioned a belay at a stance 60 feet up, where the route diverges from Jumbo Pumping Hate, and another belay after the “hard” climbing was over, at the base of the 80-foot 5.12d summit headwall. But Sharma is climbing his route in one long 230-foot pitch.
At Clark Mountain, I have found what climbing means to me. It is wild and sometimes scary. The rock is dramatic and you can find yourself in positions that were once only unique to Yosemite big walls. The landscape is a melting pot of the desert and mountains. And the climbing is hard, like nowhere I have seen before or since. It will become a magnet for more climbers who want a challenge and adventure, solitude and beauty.
As the deadline for this story approaches and the desert heat of the late spring creeps up the altitude of Clark Mountain, Sharma is still putting a significant effort into climbing the project.
“It would be cool if someone could do this route,” he muses. “Anyone.” The reality is that there probably isn’t anybody more able or qualified. Sharma eschews the customary red tag that many climbers, including this author, have employed to claim a route off limits.
“I prefer a hemp tag,” Sharma says jokingly. “Climb it if you can.”
Randy Leavitt was the first climber to establish first ascents of both 5.14 and A5. From first solo ascents on El Capitan to hard sport climbs, Randy still loves to climb.