With winter hiding just around the corner, mixed-climbers have already begun to don tools and mono-point crampons to dry-tool the steep caves of Colorado. Ryan Vachon, 41, even managed to raise the bar of difficulty on what is already one of the country's hardest mixed lines in Vail, Colorado's, famed Rigid Designator Amphitheater. Vachon opted to skip the bolts on the steep Red Beard (M12), and instead place gear in the "chossy" limestone.
"Red Beard is a wonderful testpiece for climbing long, steep mixed and dry tool terrain and it provided me with my first M12 in November, 2012," Vachon told Rock and Ice. "But last year I noticed that the entire face has a chossy series of cracks opening periodic chances to slot in nuts and cams."
Vachon decided to test out the gear on the route a few weeks ago while climbing in the Amphitheater with Dawn Glanc. However, on his first attempt at pulling the powerful roof without clipping bolts, Vachon backed off.
"I had no solution for gear on the crux roof," says Vachon. "The gear is already questionable in places, and I was stymied when confronted with the final lunge over the lip."
Yet before Vachon lowered, he noticed "a glimmer of hope" for protecting the crux moves in the form of a slightly flaring crack under the roof. The following weekend, Vachon warmed up on Red Beard while clipping the bolts and inspected the possible gear placement.
"I placed a green Link-Cam as an offset and gave the piece a check, but on a test fall, it ripped into an over-cam," says Vachon. "It was my belief that it could take one size up."
On his next go, Vachon reached the roof once again, and this time committed. He plugged a red Camalot in the flaring crack and climbed through the final crux of Red Beard.
At the lip past the crux, Vachon placed a black Alien and then pulled the route's final hard moves to establish himself on Red Beard's headwall. However, he was unable to continue through the route's usual final section due to the fact that there was no ice.
"It would have been splendid if the ice was in place," says Vachon. "The adventure can always be upped, but I’m happy."
When asked about the committing nature of leading Red Beard on gear, Vachon comments: "The amphitheater is soft limestone. Like many mixed climbing crags, the rock quality is poor, meaning that it crumbles from time to time. Not a perfect equation for confidence, but the route took gear in a way that I felt would protect me past the lip. Nuts and small cams … some equalized. I feel it warrants an R rating."
Vachon is a self proclaimed "science geek" originally from Boston, Massachusetts. He moved to Colorado for graduate school and has been infatuated with all aspects of climbing, including sport, trad and mixed/ice-climbing. But "big mountains" according to Vachon, "fill a completely different part of [his] heart."
"I really love seeing advanced techniques taken high into the mountains," says Vachon, "and I think that the people pushing those limits have undeniable jedi mind controls."