Only six women had ever sent 5.14 trad as of yesterday morning. By the evening, that number had risen by one. Molly Mitchell, 26, currently of Boulder, Colorado, redpointed her marathon summer project, the storied climb China Doll in Upper Dream Canyon, Boulder, Colorado, placing all gear on lead.
“I’m still in disbelief that it actually happened,” Mitchell told Rock and Ice this morning. “It’s literally been my whole summer.”
And it really has: She started working on the 130-foot, thin, flaring, granite crack in mid-May. She estimated that she was usually out working on China Doll three days a week. So that’s somewhere in the realm of 50 days of work. “I guess I’ve gotten on it a lot,” Mitchell said, laughing.
But China Doll was always going to be big project. She has redpointed three 5.14 sport routes, including Gild the Lily (5.14a), Mt. Charleston, Nevada, but her hardest traditional redpoint was Free Line, a 5.13b, in 2016, at Rincon Wall, Eldorado Canyon, Boulder, Colorado.
China Doll was a serious step up.
Originally climbed in 1981 by Marc Hirt as a 5.9 A3 five-pitch line scaling the entire cliff, China Doll became a microcosm of the larger conversations about style happening in the climbing community in the years since. Prolific Front Range developer Bob Horan bolted the second pitch and sent it in 1996. He called in 5.13b, but repeat ascentionists later put the grade at 5.13c. Improving upon Horan’s style, Adam Stack climbed the first pitch on gear and, after Chris Weidner added higher anchors, sent a third pitch at 5.13c/d, also on gear. The next step was to climb the entire thing—both pitches as one big pitch—on gear. That finally happened in 2010, when then-23-year-old Mike Patz redpointed the entire thing, placing all gear on lead, to create the current, purest version of China Doll.
Some of the best traditional climbers have made a point of repeating—or trying to repeat—China Doll. Repeat ascentionists include Matt Segal, Ethan Pringle and Brad Gobright.
Mitchell, close friends with Weidner, made it a goal to become the second.
With the summer winding down, Mitchell began leading the route in full. She had worked up to it piecemeal: first doing the 5.13c pitch as a sport climb, then the first pitch on gear, then the second pitch on gear, then all of it on toprope.
Its headiness came into relief as she found herself constantly run out above teeny-tiny gear. ( The only fixed piece on the route that Mitchell used was a piton—which she clipped a sling to during her redpoint. Prior ascentionists, including first ascentionist Mike Patz, also used it.)
After soloing up the 5.9 intro pitch to reach the start of the 5.13c, she would place two solid hand-sized cams in a horizontal crack, and launch into territory protected by a medley of the smallest protection on the market. First a 000 Black Diamond C3 cam, then a 0/1 offset Metolius cam, and then a red #2 Ball Nut.
“The 000 has popped before,” Mitchell said. “The way I place it is kind of blind, and if you don’t place it perfectly it can rip out. It’s such a flared crack and the placements are very specific.”
She took falls—“Two? Maybe three?” she said—on the Ball Nut, too. It held.
After months of working China Doll, Mitchell knew the whole climb—the intricate beta, which piece went where, the finicky rest positions—by heart. Toward the end, she was warming up on the first 5.13c pitch on toprope and sending every time.
Over the past couple weeks, she made tangible progress on every attempt, eventually sending it on toprope, then one-hanging it on lead. It seemed like she could send anytime.
Yesterday brought more of the same muggy weather that Mitchell has been working the route in all summer. “It’s been fucking hot,” she said. “Yesterday I was really excited because it was in the low 80s in town, so it was probably going to be better temps up high at the route. But the 13c still felt greasy and gnarly.”
Oddly, in a way, this was exactly what she needed. Belayed by Nellie Milfeld, Mitchell started up. After reaching the rest before the start of the 5.13c/d section, it was almost a bonus to still be sending in such sub-optimal conditions. “I just figured I’d try my best from there,” Mitchell said. “I would have felt way more pressure to send if there were perfect conditions.”
She climbed through the upper part of the route, placing a tiny silver nut, executing the beta just as she had memorized it. On the final move before the no hands-rest—the end of the difficulties; only 5.10 climbing remains afterwards—Mitchell almost “blew it.”
“I could feel my shoulders sagging,” she said. “I padded my feet up the wall.”
But she held on.
Mitchell finished the easy climbing up to the chains, clipped them, screamed, cried.
“It really doesn’t feel real yet. I’m in disbelief,” Mitchell said. “When I started trad climbing, sending 5.14 was always a dream. But it just seemed so far-fetched. It feels crazy that over the course of the past few months it has become reality.”
Watch Heather Weidner send China Doll in 2016