On July 10, 2018, almost 32 years to the day after Todd Skinner did the first free ascent in 1986, Brittany Goris redpointed City Park (5.13d) at the Index Lower Town Wall. That Goris, age 25, made the sixth free lead of City Park—the third redpoint and first by a woman—was something of a surprise to those who had not been paying attention. An accomplished sport climber who has redpointed 5.14a, she was not known as a trad climber. But in 2017, after failing on a 5.13d sport climb after months of effort, she had something of an existential crisis. Feeling she had reached a dead end, she didn’t know what to do next. For lack of a better plan, she started going out to Index with friends to dink around on the moderate “5.11d” trad routes, but lacked a sense of purpose. Where is all of this going? she wondered.
She was driving out to Index with guidebook author Chris Kalman, doing some soul searching, when Kalman gave her his thoughts. “Don’t be afraid to redefine yourself,” he told her. The dead end she had reached in sport climbing wasn’t the end of the road. She could shift gears, dedicate herself to something different. Why not trad climbing? And then she had an epiphany: Why not City Park?
The route has been toproped by several climbers, but prior to Goris’ ascent, City Park had been led free only by Todd Skinner and Hugh Herr in 1986 (both with some gear left in place from a previous attempt that day); Chris Schlotfeldt in 1999 (using all pre-placed gear, or a pinkpoint); redpointed (i.e. placing all gear) by Mikey Schaefer in 2006; and then redpointed again by Blake Herrington in 2016. All of these climbers were locals, aside from Skinner and Herr. Because of the finicky weather and remoteness from other climbing destinations, many visit but few stay long enough to put in the time needed to send the route. “It’s sort of a locals only kind of project,” says Goris, “unless you’re just that damn good that it could be bagged in few attempts.”
According to Index local Andrew Philbin, “Having small fingers, steel fingertips, superglue, and a certain degree of masochism is a good combination for success on this route.” Goris can’t say she disagrees about the masochism part. “There’s an element of that in me,” she says, grinning.
Goris first seriously tried the route on toprope in December 2017. It shut her down. “By the end of the day … I was bleeding from more than half my fingers and had managed to link less than half the climb,” she recalled in a blog post about her ascent. Undeterred, she returned in May 2018 with renewed focus, and was able to do all the moves on a toprope. She continued working the pitch through June, piecing sections of the climb together for an eventual lead attempt. Then one day, unable to hang a toprope due to traffic on the approach route, she was forced to make her first lead attempt, which did not go well. “I was absolutely terrified,” she confessed. Nevertheless, she spent an hour leading the pitch, hanging often, aiding through some of the moves. “If I had thought I was closing in before, I suddenly felt miles away.”
After more toprope work and mock leading, Goris returned in early July and made her first serious lead attempt. Three days later, she was back, able to lead through the first crux (a sequence of thin pinkie jams) without falling. She worked out the rest of the sequences, and felt confident.
Goris was back at Index in the late afternoon on Tuesday, July 10. Despite her recent progress, she wasn’t liking her chances. It had rained in the morning, and there was a chance the crack would be wet. Her fingers were still trashed from her attempt three days earlier. Her elbows were sore from training; her back hurt from heavy lifting at work. She was irritated with city traffic and people in general. Her climbing partner was late. Everything seemed to be going wrong.
“Basically my mental game was shit,” she wrote on her blog. “Nothing was right, but nonetheless I had to try.”
Still, she made it through to her high point on her first try of the day, heart racing, out of breath, working as hard to overcome her anxiety as do the actual moves. She fell at the break—the technical crux—and hung, breathing, calming down. Then she worked out the sequence and finished the pitch, her attitude completely adjusted.
“For the first time it felt real,” she wrote, “like I had a shot.”
That’s when the aid climbers arrived. They announced their intention of spending the evening practicing aid climbing on the pitch.
“That was fine,” Brittany thought. “I needed lots of rest anyway, and how long could they possibly take?”
A long time, it turned out. She returned at 8:45 p.m. An aid climber was still following the pitch, cleaning several stuck nuts. Minutes went by. The sun was setting, and as the daylight faded, so did Goris’ hope that she would be able to get on the pitch before it got too dark. Luckily, she was able to persuade the aid climbers to abandon their last stuck nut so she could make one last try. It was a good one.
In the cool twilight air, Goris climbed almost casually through her high point and soon found herself above the break, pinkies slipping out of the pin scars but feet sticking improbably to the wall. She was starting to pump out, but still cruising, even singing to herself. Before she knew it, she was standing on the small ledge at the end of the hard climbing.
“Oh my God!” she yelled, and the small crowd below erupted in cheers. But she wasn’t finished. There was still that final twenty feet of 5.11 climbing to the anchors, easy compared to the climbing she’d just done, but still no joke given the pump factor and impending darkness. In a hurry to finish before it got too dark, she rushed it. Her composure vanished; she was climbing on adrenaline, stuffing fingers into the crack, sticking her feet wherever, racing to the top.
“As I latched the final hold,” she wrote, “I let out a scream and felt tears immediately form and begin to fall.”
In all, Goris spent about 14 days working the route before sending it on her fifth lead attempt. Although the aid climber had left a nut stuck in the crack, she ignored it. ““It sure was tempting to clip the nut,” she told me, “but I climbed past it as if it were not there. Full redpoint or nothing for me.”
Jeff Smoot is a climber and attorney in Seattle. His book, Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14, will be published in April 2019 by Mountaineers Books.