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Seeking Life After Death

01-Jul-2010
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Brian Kimball plugging gear up the crux of Epitaph (5.13b), on the Tombstone.
FOUR YEARS AFTER Dean Potter made the first free ascent of the immaculately cleaved Epitaph (5.13+) just outside Moab, Utah, Brian Kimball sacked up for the second. Kimball, 29, of Westminster, Colorado, also became the first person to free all three pitches of the pumpy 420-foot route in one day, on December 16. 

“It was an expensive route, but worth it!” says Kimball of the 25 small cams he used for the technical tips layback, the 185-foot crux second pitch. Unlike Potter, who didn’t place a single piece through the crux due to the insecure locks, Kimball was able to place gear and clip it as he climbed past. 

Brian Kimball plugging gear up the crux of Epitaph (5.13b), on the Tombstone.

Kimball spent last summer season at Rifle, redpointing about 17 5.13s and two 5.14a’s, including a one-day ascent of Mr. T. A wet fall season sent Kimball, who works as a concert production rigger, to Indian Creek, an unlikely location for someone who hadn’t crack climbed in six years, and “had never, in my 20 years of climbing, fallen on trad gear.” Climbing with friends Steph Davis-Potter (who followed Epitaph all free) and Nathanial Walker, Kimball became comfortable with desert crack climbing, sending about five hard 5.12s, and even taking his first trad falls, on Black Corner (5.11b), and later on Ruby’s Café, “5.12c/d or 5.13a, depending on who you ask.” 

“I was learning quickly,” says Kimball, “but I still had my doubters. I mentioned to Steph and Nathanial that I wanted to do the second ascent of Epitaph. Nathanial said, ‘Yeah, boyyyeee,” and Steph said, ‘Ha ha. I’d like to see that! It took Dean years.’ She was right, the odds were not in my favor, but I did have over half a dozen 5.13d’s or harder under my belt from Rifle, so I was confident in my physical condition.”

Fifteen minutes before midnight on November 19, Kimball and Walker arrived at the base of the Tombstone. Too psyched to sleep, they got out their headlamps and headed up Epitaph, working the first 100 feet of the crux second pitch, a 5.12a/b section that leads to a hanging belay used by aid climbers, but which Potter eliminated on the FFA. Kimball set up a toprope, and they worked the moves out until 4 a.m.

Kimball was back on the route by noon, and deciphered the crux layback on toprope on his second go. The next day, Kimball, on toprope, freed all 185 feet of Epitaph’s crux, and spent an hour dialing gear placements. Around 4 p.m., Kimball racked up for his first lead attempt, his fourth time on the rock. 

Says Kimball, “I couldn’t help but think about Dean Potter, one of the world’s best crack climbers, taking huge falls onto a small cam. Also, Nathanial was screaming, ‘Don’t think about falling and the 50-footer!’”

Despite the anxiety, Kimball managed to redpoint the pitch—“accidentally,” he says. But the sun was setting, and trying to onsight the third, 5.12b/c pitch would be difficult.
On December 16, with Matt Lloyd, Kimball returned to redpoint all three pitches of Epitaph in one day. 

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“It had been so long, I wasn’t sure how it would go,” says Kimball. “But I managed to climb the so-called 5.13c/d pitch without much effort. For me, it feels more like 5.13b. People with big fingers might say it feels harder, but I think a good place to start a consensus on this route would be 5.13b.”

Kimball has climbed at least three days every week since he was 9 years old, 20 years ago. He says his experience on Tombstone has opened his eyes. “I would love to free climb on El Capitan, and am even willing to give up some sport climbing and bouldering to have that experience!”

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