The ring of a hammer hitting a drill bit bounced down Gunsight Gully in Yosemite. Mad Dog's mullet flapped in the breeze as he swore about having to sink another bristler. Balanced at a small stance with the help of two hooks, Mad Dog (née Dana Drummond) wailed on the drill. Below him, Jeremy Collins and Mikey Schaefer traded off belay duty on a ledge above a concave arc of granite.
The hard stone of Middle Cathedral Rock, with its sparse opportunities for stances, not to mention the team's traditional ethos, kept the three climbers from placing many bolts. They moved slowly. Stitching the line's short technical features together into a massive new free climb presented problems not only with protection but with route-finding as well. Still, after six months of work in 2009, the trio completed the first ascent of Border Country (V 5.12c).
Schaefer, a former Yosemite Mountaineering School guide, had scoped the line for a number of years before recruiting Mad Dog and Collins for a ground-up ascent. A technician in the sacred art of slab climbing, Schaefer has numerous Yosemite first ascents, including the 5.12 Grade V face route Night Shift on Tuolumne's Fairview Dome.
Mad Dog has a Northeastern pedigree, but he spends his summers in California, working Yosemite Search and Rescue, hiding his crushing abilities beneath a Hulk Hogan mullet and a John Muir beard.
A couple of years ago, Schaefer and Mad Dog met Collins in Patagonia, where each had just completed separate first ascents. Collins took a few weeks off from his work as an artist in the Midwest to bring his horn-rimmed glasses and mild-mannered Clark Kent attitude to Yosemite.
In early June, around the time the climbers were halfway done with their route, an avalanche in China claimed the lives of the Yosemite Monkey Micah Dash, the budding filmmaker Wade Johnson, and the Colorado alpinist Jonny Copp. The last entry in Copp's journal, which was recovered in the remnants of the men's basecamp, included a poem entitled Border Country, which describes the perils of living on the edge of the unknown. Dash and Copp's climbing goals had forced them to deal with a increasingly dangerous hazards, rock fall, crevasses and, ultimately, avalanches.
After the Yosemite trio's F.A. of Border Country, Sean Stanley Leary attempted the second ascent. He made short work of the initial thousand feet, running it out on 5.10, 30 feet between the bolts and sparse gear. He quickly reached the U-shaped bowl mid-route.
Stanley has nerves of steel. Four months earlier, he'd packed the ashes of his girlfriend, Roberta Nunes, who died in a car accident in 2006, and jumped off Patagonia's El Mocho. He tracked in his wing suit for 600 feet. The winds blew across Cerro Torre's satellite peak, spreading Roberta's ashes across the glaciers. Suddenly Stanley stopped descending, a relentless Patagonian gale was sweeping him upward. He tore at the cord for his BASE rig. When his canopy opened, he soared a thousand feet above the summit of El Mocho. He attempted to spiral and descend but the Patagonian winds kept him aloft for 13 endless minutes until he was able to follow a few condors out of the thermal, moving upwind and down to the glacier [See photo, page 38].
On Border Country, Stanley onsighted up to the headwall but fell pulling the route's definitive crux: a thumb mantel on a small divot, a scrunchy move that requires flexibility. Despite Stanley's talent and tenacity, he couldn't bend his long limbs into this position. He pulled on the bolt protecting the move and continued to the summit.
I've lived in Yosemite for the last eight years, for the most part under the radar. Border Country was the talk of the scene. Like all present Monkeys (the group of committed dirtbag denizens in Yosemite) I wanted the second ascent.
On the runout fourth pitch of Border Country, 500 feet off the ground, I stopped. Katie Lambert, a Yosemite hard woman with an ascent of Tuolumne's technical Peace (5.13c) to her name, belayed attentively. I pondered placing a tiny cam behind a small flake. I wanted to make an impression on my attractive belayer, but running it out any more than necessary wouldn't impress anyone. I shoved the unit in, shot up another 20 feet to just below a bolt, and manteled onto a small edge.
Balanced precariously, I crimped a wet hold and stared at the bolt. Suddenly my hand popped. My body teetered.
I fell 20 feet before hitting a slab, flipped upside down, and tumbled another 20 feet before the cam I had grudgingly placed caught me. The lobes of Katie's half-inch cam had bent, but held. I groaned. We continued on to the headwall, where Katie danced up the difficult 5.12, hanging the rope for me. When the shadow of the Nose stretched as far east as Zodiac, we rappelled from two pitches below the summit.
One of the largest bits of Yosemite climbing news in 2009 was the lack of any groundbreaking achievements. In the past decade, the Huber brothers, Tommy Caldwell and others have established a dozen hard free routes on El Capitan with seasonal fervor. Last year the young Alex Honnold free soloed the Regular Northwest face of Half Dome (5.12a) [See photo, page 44], reviving a true sense of boldness within the Monkeys. Thanks to a tireless cadre of Bay Area boulderers, the Valley exploded with double-digit problems and many newly developed blocks.
Yet compared to the tidal wave that was the last decade of activity, 2009 seemed flat: there were no new routes on El Cap, no bold solos, and the participants in what once was (and may always be) the center of the American climbing universe diminished. Bachar died. Dash died. Copp died. Within the context of that empty space, Border Country stands as the achievement of the year.
Unlike the free climbs on El Capitan, which had been worked and sussed on rappel, Border Country was an adventure into the unknown. The three first ascentionists didn't have what Bachar once called the invisible toprope, the mental assurance that better gear, or even holds, was coming.
Why the lull in the Valley climbing scene? A number of Yosemite regulars, like Stanley, have spent less time hanging in the Valley and more time BASE jumping off small bridges, planes and remote Patagonian towers. Other climbers have avoided the Valley for fear of persecution.
One night, Luis Lucho Rivera was sleeping in the back of his pick-up in Camp 4. Around midnight, the rangers knocked on the window, trying to wake him and alert him that he was camping illegally. He lay still, hoping the rangers would leave.
The rangers shook the truck. Lucho, with saucer eyes, remained motionless. The rangers straightened a coat hanger, twisted it through a gap in the car window and poked the dirtbag climber with the metal rod. He eventually surrendered and emerged from his pickup to receive a ticket. Despite years of establishing first ascents here, and a strong desire to continue climbing new free wall routes, Lucho, like many, began hanging in the Valley less and less.
His argument for not paying for a campsite was weak. Climbers tend to feel a sense of entitlement to the wilderness, one that's not necessarily earned. But this anecdote illustrates an ongoing aspect of living in Yosemite Valley. For better or worse, the constant conflict is part of the culture here.
Not only are activities like BASE jumping and out-of-bounds camping illegal, so are many acts that make climbing logistically easier such as power drilling and leaving fixed lines. In general, being in the Valley presents enormous difficulties to climbers who wish to stay here for an extended period of time. Jesse McGahey, the current law-enforcement officer with climber ranger status, doubled his staff in the past year.
Climbing Rangers are a crucial piece of protecting the vertical Wilderness through outreach, education, hands-on maintenance, and coordinated clean-up volunteer work, McGahey said in an interview.
Undoubtedly, the rangers have helped protect Yosemite, but the ever-increasing bureaucracy involved in camping and staying in the park drove a number of Monkeys out of the Valley.
Some moved on to the alpine setting, trading the warm California climate for the blustery cliffs of Patagonia. Facebook updates from El Chalten, the town below Cerro Torre, are in vogue. For many aspiring alpinists, Yosemite has always been merely a training ground, not a proving ground, where they could learn to move fast, freeing and aiding, up a big wall. Once they have those skills, they move on.
Many climbers just appear to be over it. The energy involved in climbing hard new routes in Yosemite is daunting. Hand drilling on the sharp end brings more calluses than glory. The sheer adventure wears people down. The Ditch chews climbers up and spits them out.
Lucho hung off the side of Middle Cathedral, belaying and staring across the river at El Cap. Hayden Kennedy crimped his way up the wall, onsighting Border Country until the mantel crux. Hayden, though only 20, has already proved himself as a true, young Yosemite force. However, though talented, Hayden is tall and has the flexibility of a steel flagpole. For 15 minutes he tried to hike his foot up and scrunch into position. Finally his young voice cracked, Dude, I like can't do this!
As of this writing, Border Country awaits a second ascent.
Hayden's big-wall free-climbing list had been slowly increasing and a send of Border Country would have been a solid achievement. Routes like Border Country are establishing a solid foundation for the next generation, giving them the experience to tackle even bigger and harder lines with a sense of adventure.
In early November, Jeremy Collins returned to Border Country to repeat the route. He climbed through the tick marks that Hayden, Lucho, Stanley, Katie and I had left. He was three-quarters up the route when the sun dipped behind Lower Cathedral and the walls of Middle Cathedral became arctic. Collins rappelled. Before he began his descent, he opened an urn and spread the ashes of Jonny Copp. The scene in Yosemite changes, but the spirit remains.
James Lucas has spent the better part of a decade climbing in Yosemite. He can't resist the granite, the walls, and the thrill of it all.