I put up my first route in 1977. It was a crappy, 30-foot line that climbed a crumbling cliff of shale just downstream from a sausage plant. To call the cliff “loose” would be like calling George W. Bush “dim.” I excavated the hand and footholds with a geology hammer as I went and pounded in railroad spikes I’d picked up off the nearby tracks—not into cracks, mind you, but directly into the decomposing mud/rock. I called the route Eiger II.
Why did I throw my 13-year-old self into such an absurd adventure? Well, I’d read about climbing in a book called In High Places
, and Dougal Haston was always doing first ascents so I thought that’s what I should be doing, too. Plus, there were no other established climbs within five hours of Plano, Texas, where I lived, so if I wanted to climb, I had to make my own routes.
Since then I’ve established hundreds of climbs from shit piles to lauded classics, but in the interim between that first POS and my latest masterPOS, my motivation has changed. Now I don’t do first ascents because I have to or for fame or because I’m obsessed. I equip them for you, dear climber.
Here’s a little secret: First ascentionists just want to be loved. All us guys with our drills, haulbags of hardware and oozing knuckle gobies are secretly pining for the kind of affirmation someone gave me the other day (after chastising me for not using stainless steel bolts). “You’ve put up some pretty good routes, I guess,” he said.
That’s the kind of statement that melts a first ascentionist’s heart. When all’s said and done, that’s what keeps our drills spinning. Trust me, praise like that is rare indeed. People are far more likely to point out your routes’ faults than utter a word of admiration, but a compliment to a first ascentionist is like a pat on an unctuous dog’s head.
The love. Wag, wag
. Show me the love.
After almost 40 years of doing first ascents I’ve learned a few things about climbers and what they like in a route. So for those who, like me, are looking for a little love, I’ve summarized the 5 most important ways to make people love your routes.
1. Make it accessible.
Location, location! Rule number one for establishing routes that everyone will love is to locate your climb no more than 10 minutes from the parking area. The quality of the rock can have an inverse proportion to the time it takes to reach the base. Take the Arsenal in Rifle as an example. Despite the fact that entire sections of this roadside wall have fallen off, bolts and all, I’ve actually heard it described as “beautiful rock.”
If your climb is located more than 10 minutes away from the road, you will need to resort to advanced trail making. Simply stamping out a path will not suffice. You will need to clear away all vegetation that might brush against the bare arms of approaching climbers or potentially snag their packs. If the crag is uphill, you’ll need to construct switchbacks and stairs out of treated 4x4s and rebar stakes. Don’t forget to mark any confusing passages with cairns. Remember, if someone gets lost on the way to your route, or breaks a sweat, they will inevitably tell others that the crag is a shitpile. If your crag is 20 minutes off the road, you’ll need to supply cold lemonade. If your crag is located 30 (or more) minutes off the road and
at the top of a steep hill, no one will ever climb there no matter how much work you put into the trail.
2. Clean it.
You may not realize it by looking at their cars, or by the eau-de-roadtrip armpit stank lingering around their discarded t-shirts, but sport climbers are incredibly fastidious people. To satisfy the whims of today’s climbers, you’ll need to thoroughly swab every inch of rock within swinging distance of the bolt line. Start by removing any loose (or loose-looking) flakes with a pry bar. Keep in mind that sport climbers scare easily. If your route has a firmly attached piece of rock on it that appears
loose, pry that sucker off, because if a climber gets scared on your route (see #3) they will pronounce it a shitpile. After you remove any loose-looking rock, sweep the face with a hand broom, then take a wire brush and scrub off all stubborn debris. Then use a large-gauge plastic tube to blow away any dust. Then use a small wire brush and small-gauge tube to plumb any pockets. Then do it all again … and again, until not a speck of dust remains on the mirror of your climb, because if a sport climber touches dust, dirt, lichen, moss, bird poop or a loose flake on your route, they will tell everyone that the route is a shitpile.
3. Overbolt it.
Back in the 1970s, climbing’s cognoscenti had ruled that bolts must be used only as a last resort. I learned to climb at Enchanted Rock near Austin, Texas, and at Quartz Mountain in Oklahoma, areas where face climbs might have one bolt every 50 feet—if you were lucky. However, as mentioned above, today’s sport climbers frighten easily and the rules have changed. Many of the routes I cut my teeth on have been retro-bolted to assuage the fragile psyches of today’s climbers. These days, bolts are placed no more than a body-length apart when the climbing is challenging. If you choose to engineer run outs into your sport climb (i.e. pass up obvious stances where a climber could clip a bolt), and allow today’s squeamish tribe to experience a jolt of fear, they will pronounce your climb a shitpile and call you an asshole in the comments on Mountain Project. My rule of thumb is to bolt a climb so that I feel perfectly safe at all times—and then add a couple.
4. Overgrade it.
Concomitant with the fact that sport climbers scare easily is the psychological detail that they have very fragile egos. If you wish to be loved by them you must coddle their desire to appear mighty. Therefore, let this rule be burned into your heart like a brand: Thou shall not sandbag
. I’ve had excellent results with taking the grade I feel the route to be and adding a letter grade (or two). Do this and people will love your route. Ignore this advice and people will label your route a shitpile.
5. Give it a Funny Name.
We’re living in the age of irony. My original route, Eiger II
, the short, scruffy climb near the pig farm, was actually perfectly named if I’d been trying to be ironic. I wasn’t, but you get the idea. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Even though you’ve spent days and lots of money making a trail, equipping, cleaning and sending your climb, it’s time to let go. I think it was Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, who wrote that all works of art are flowers for the void. So breathe and smile through your tears when it’s time to say goodbye. Give your baby a funny name and send her out into the world with a grin. Thunderballs
, Super Garbage
or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better
are all appropriate names. Remember, if you appear to take yourself too seriously, people will attack you on Mountain Project and tag your climb a shitpile.