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The Prophet: Leo Houlding’s Daring First Ascent on El Cap

In 2001, Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles made an audacious ground-up, no-drill, onsight attempt to free climb a new route on El Cap. Nine years later, The Prophet finally spoke.


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John Long: It Started with a Pile of Stones


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 122 (October 2003).

The job sounded agreeable: film the Cliff Diving World Championships in Lana’i, Hawaii, for a network sports show. I didn’t know Lana’i from Tallahassee, but someone in the office had honeymooned there and related the basics. Lana’i, just a stone’s throw across the Auau channel from Maui, is so small that Captain Cook missed it during his fatal recon of the Pacific, circa 1780. Dole “bought” the island in the early 1900s and transformed it into the world’s largest pineapple plantation. Around 1985, zillionaire Rupert Murdoch decided he wanted the place for himself, but was told, no, it belonged to Dole, and they weren’t selling. So Murdoch bought Dole and he had his island.

Art by Jeremy Collins.

Rupert let the plantations go fallow and tossed up two luxury hotels, said to be amongst the finest on the planet. As part of the gig, we’d be staying at the swanker of the two, for nothing, with an open meal pass as well. Perhaps a week before departing for Lana’i, my dreams became absurd, featuring a pageant of jumbo, pit-roasted porkers with pineapples in their mouths, flanked by ravishing hula girls fanning me with palm fronds—and then onto terrain I can’t traverse in this article.

The day before leaving for Lana’i I logged onto a website and a photo exposé of the island, including a large spread of towering red lava cliffs, weathered sentinels to miles of wild seashore. I trawled through a few more web pages and in half hour I knew this much: The majority of Lana’i coastline bore vertical basalt bluffs ranging from 100 to 200 feet; no modern climber had yarded from a single hold on the entire island; there were no tourist facilities on Lana’i save the two 10-star hotels, and given the airfare and shocking lodging fees, a citizen from the mainland would be touched for around eight grand for a week’s stay. By my reckoning Lana’i had all the makings of a tycoon’s private sport-climbing paradise waiting to be tapped, and I envisioned my name over a stack of new routes. I bought a two-pound bag of chalk and charged up the drill.

Next day we flew to Oahu, took a puddle-jumper 20 minutes over to Lana’i and drove a few miles to the Manele Bay Hotel, an open-air palace with graceful little bungalows spilling off toward the ocean a hundred yards below. I checked into my room — plain but suave — grabbed my boots and chalk bag and jogged down to the beach and a 200-yard-long grotto with 40-foot-high, blood-red cliffs rising straight off the sand. I’d tune up on the short stuff, then extend my curriculum once I got dialed into the rock.

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