Stretching out for 50 meters along the massive cave roof of the Tomorrow’s World crag in the Italian Dolomites, A Line Above the Sky (D15) is the hardest dry-tooling route in the world, and looking at it, it’s easy to understand why.
“Out of 50 meters, probably 40 meters are dead horizontal,” Chris Snobeck said in an interview with Rock and Ice. “You get a couple rests, where you can get your feet in good places and shake out, but you’re still on a horizontal feature the whole time,” Snobeck said. “You get out on a route like that, you’ve already climbed a hundred feet on a roof, and you’re still faced with more cruxes. It’s intense.”
On November 23, the 34-year-old Snobeck became the first American to send the route, and also the first American to climb a confirmed D15. There are a couple of other dry-tooling routes out there proposed at D15 or harder, notably Gordon McArthur’s Storm Giant (D16) in Canada, but none have been repeated and confirmed at the grade save for A Line Above the Sky. First sent by the British climber Tom Ballard in January of 2016, the line has since acted as a proving ground for the best mixed climbers around, with ascents by Dariusz Sokołowski, Gaetan Raymond and Jeff Mercier. This time last year, the Italian Angelika Rainer also became the first woman to send the route.
But before Snobeck, no American had logged an ascent.
Born in Oakton, Virginia, Snobeck began climbing while in college at Virginia Tech, but it wasn’t until his friends introduced him to ice climbing eight years ago that he really took off. He began experimenting with dry-tooling and mixed climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, then headed to the Vail Amphitheater, where he found fame with sends of legendary routes like The Mustang P-51 (M14-) and Saphira (M15-), claiming the second American ascent of the latter.
“It’s hard to say why [dry-tooling] hooked me as much as it did,” he admitted. “The limits in terms of difficulty for climbing mixed or dry-only routes are obviously much higher [compared to ice climbing], but one of the biggest things I’ve noticed is you need a good mix of power and delicacy,” Snobeck said. “You can’t just launch yourself onto a hold. When you’re on a tiny pick it’s very easy to break a hold if you load onto it too quickly or too harshly. I love that you need that finesse, but you also need the power to do big moves.”
As a full-time financial planner in Denver, Snobeck doesn’t have the same amount of time to train that full-time athletes are afforded. Still, he doesn’t feel his career is holding him back, the opposite, in fact. “I like it,” he said. “It gives me the intellectual challenge that I need to offset climbing, and it allows me a different type of stimulus that climbing doesn’t offer. My career helps me appreciate my climbing more, my climbing helps me appreciate my career more.”
When Tom Ballard made the first ascent of A Line Above the Sky in 2016, Snobeck was there with him (Ballard climbed on his rope), so it was only natural that the American would one return to it. “It was really just the style of the climbing that was truly appealing,” Snobeck said. “A little bit bouldery, bigger moves, lots of stuff where your feet have to stay on the rock and you’ve got to press really hard.”
As the world’s only confirmed D15, the route represented the next step in Snobeck’s evolution as a climber. “I’m always energized by trying to find my own personal limits and then push beyond,” he said. “And [A Line Above the Sky] was the logical progression for me. It was like, ‘Alright, this is the next step to really test myself.’”
Though he visited Tomorrow’s World in 2017, Snobeck didn’t begin working A Line Above the Sky seriously until this February. He did a beta-gathering run of the route then, but bitterly cold temps stymied his redpoint attempts, giving him time for only one good attempt. He returned to Italy in October. Unfortunately, a huge storm in the Dolomites downed tens of thousands of trees and blocked all the roads, cutting off access to the crag. “The fact that we couldn’t get there seemed like a pretty minor issue in the grand scheme of things,” Snobeck said. “It completely changed the landscape for a generation, which was really sad to see.”
After two trips in a row with barely any climbing, Snobeck was somehow still optimistic. “Even if you can’t climb, being able to go to a place like the Dolomites is really special,” he said. “To go there, to experience the place, to have friends that you can hang out with, go share a meal, catch up on life… it’s not the end of the world.”
Back in the U.S., Snobeck concentrated on visualizing the route, climbing it hundreds of times in his head—at home, laying in bed, sitting on the couch, at his desk at work—so that whenever he actually had the chance to try it again, he’d be able to give it his all right from the start. That chance finally came this November. “I’d been training quite hard,” he said, “and I left the U.S. feeling pretty confident.”
His first day back in the Dolomites, he reached Tomorrow’s World late in the day. It was already past 3:00 pm, and light was fading. Knowing he only had time for one good burn, or two at most, he recalled: “My mindset was very much let’s just go up there, shake off the cobwebs. I went into it thinking, ‘I’ll just climb up to the first crux, see how I feel and make a decision. So I went up, felt good, and thought, ‘Ehh, I’ll keep going.’ I climbed to the next crux and still felt good. So I kept going. At one point I looked back to my belayer… kind of gave a look like, “Well, I’m already two-thirds of the way through this thing. I may as well just keep going and try to send it.”
And send he did.
“I didn’t think anything was going to happen that day,” he added. “The expectation was gone, and it got my brain out of the way. It allowed me to just get on it, have some fun with it and see what would happen.”
With A Line Above the Sky under his belt, Snobeck is still pushing. Aside from other harder, unconfirmed or uncompleted routes in Tomorrow’s World, he has his sights set on Storm Giant, Filip Babicz’s Oświecenie (proposed M16), and perhaps most importantly, the next, still-undiscovered crag.
“The search continues,” he said.