Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14
The following story from Jeff Smoot's new book, Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14, follows one of the pioneers of hard sport climbing in America, Alan Watts, as he brings his hangdogging tactics---at that time, in 1985, anathema to the virtues held holy by Yosemite hardmen---to a notorious undone project at Donner Summit, California: Crack of the Eighties.
Monkey Off My Back
“So, what now?” I ask, as Alan untied from the rope the next morning, having dispatched Star Walls Crack on his first try of the day. It was still early.
“Hey, let’s try Crack of the Eighties,” Alan said. “It’s right over there.”
“That little buttress there, with the light green lichen, just off on the right side of Snowshed Wall, the big wall there. See it?”
“I think so, but I don’t see a crack there.”
“It’s a thin crack. More of a seam really.”
“How hard is it?” I asked.
“Nobody knows,” Alan said. “It hasn’t been climbed. Hudon and Jones used to try it and they couldn’t do it. They said it wouldn’t be climbed until the nineteen-eighties, so everybody calls it Crack of the Eighties. Lots of people have tried it. Almost everybody tries to toprope it. Let’s check it out.”
We drove down the road and pulled off in a gravel turnout. We hiked along the base of Snowshed Wall to a steep buttress split by a vertical seam. As we walked, Alan recounted the list of climbers who had tried and failed to climb the crack: Mark Hudon, Max Jones, John Bachar, Ron Kauk, and lately Kurt Smith, “the Kid,” an upstart trying to establish himself as the rising star of the next generation of Yosemite hardmen. He had climbed the Bachar-Yerian the year before, which hadn’t hurt his reputation any. And he had supposedly been trying hard to make the first ascent of Crack of the Eighties, hoping it would vault him into the next realm.
“It would be funny,” Alan thought out loud as we hiked along, “if I could
swoop in and bag the first ascent.”
“It looks pretty thin and shallow,” I observed, after scrambling up to the base of the buttress. “Maybe there’s a reason they’ve been trying to toprope it.”
“Maybe,” Alan said. “Let’s see.”
Alan roped up and I put him on belay. He started climbing, traversing across the blocky, weathered granite wall, then pulling up on a flake and jamming past a little roof to where the tiny crack split a slightly overhanging, green-tinted headwall. He plugged in a cam just above the roof, pulled back on an edge of the crack, and reached for a flaring slot higher up. He stuck it, then started fiddling with a nut that was the wrong size. He put it back on the rack and tried another nut that also didn’t work. He pushed off, falling only a few feet onto the cam.
“I can do this,” Alan said. “I just need to figure out how to hold on to get a nut in. Hold me here.”
After hanging on the rope for a minute, Alan climbed back up to the cam and hung there. He pulled a few HB nuts off of his rack and tried to find a spot where one would fit and hold. Finding a placement he trusted, he pulled up onto the rock and tried to place the nut while in a climbing position. He tried a couple of different hold combinations until he found the one that seemed to work best, then he pulled the nut out and clipped it in the front of his rack.
“That should work,” he said. “Lower me.”
After a short rest, Alan was back on it. He cruised up to his high point, placed the nut as he had practiced, clipped it, then pulled on the crack edge. He reached up for the slot, stuck it, pulled up, and stuck a higher fingertip jam. He placed a shallow cam and cranked upward, laybacking the thin edge of the seam, placing a nut here and a cam there as he climbed. In a few minutes, he was pulling onto a big ledge. He set a belay and peered down with a big grin on his face.
“Somebody’s going to be pissed,” Alan called down. “You want to follow?”
“No thanks. I know my limits.”
“Okay, suit yourself,” Alan said. “I was going to rename it Watts-Smoot if you followed it. You would have been famous.”
Alan rappelled down to retrieve his gear, then scrambled back up to the top and dropped his rope. By the time he got back down, I had the rope coiled and was ready to depart.
“So, how hard is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Not as hard as Star Walls Crack.” Alan had decided that Star Walls Crack was 5.12d, so Crack of the Eighties, seeming easier, must be 5.12c.
“I mean, I practically walked up it,” he said. “How hard could it be?”
We hiked back to the truck, wondering why, given the amount of effort over the past decade, nobody had been able to climb Crack of the Eighties before, even on a toprope. Plenty of solid 5.12 climbers had tried it. Why hadn’t they been able to climb this “miserable, busted-up seam,” as Alan was referring to it? Alan had a theory, which he explained to me on the drive back to Reno.
“They’re good enough,” Alan explained, “but they don’t hangdog, so they get stuck on a crux move or section and keep falling off at the same spot and get tired and give up before they work it out. Or they get a mental block, so the route becomes bigger and harder in their minds. It psyches them out, and they fail.
“A hard route is like a gymnastic routine,” Alan continued, “a sequence of difficult elements linked together in a routine. Imagine if a gymnast didn’t wire each element before putting it all together, but had to start over every time they screwed up? It would take them ten times as long to do it. Same thing with the Valley climbers. Their ethics are holding them back. I know why they’re doing it, and I think it’s admirable, but it’s counterproductive. They sit around complaining. ‘He’s a hangdogger. It’s not a legitimate ascent.’ Meanwhile, everybody else is climbing all these hard routes. The sport is changing. They need to get with the program or get left behind. I mean, this route, they’ve been trying to toprope it for ten years, and I come in and lead it on my second try?”
“I think you could have done it without hanging,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” Alan conceded. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.
I guess if I had known it was that easy I would have approached it differently. But for all I knew, it was going to be really hard and I was going to be falling off a lot. I needed to be sure I had at least one good piece of protection. Having that one good nut made all the difference. And I placed it on lead, and did the whole route in one go without falling or hanging, so it’s a legitimate ascent.
“They’ll complain about it anyway,” Alan continued. “I’m a bolt-drilling hangdogger. Everything I do is suspect.”
We drove back to Reno in the late afternoon shadows, delving deeper into the psyche of Yosemite climbers along the way. In the morning, we would be on the road to the Valley so Alan could give The Stigma a try. If he could bag the second free ascent of The Stigma, it would be a coup de grâce, a fatal dagger in the heart of the last bastion of traditional ethics, or so I imagined it. With all the controversy Todd Skinner had stirred up with his ascent that spring, I was not sure I was looking forward to Alan potentially repeating the route. But Alan didn’t want to make a statement. He just wanted to take the measure of this new, hard route that might, just might, be 5.14.
The 5.14 barrier had already been broken, only not in the States. At least there was not a verified, consensus 5.14 route in America as of August 1985. Wolfgang Gullich’s route Punks in the Gym, established that April at Australia’s Mount Arapiles, was rated 32 on the Australian scale, which translated to 5.14a, a notch harder than Stefan Glowacz’s Lord of the Rings, also at Arapiles, rated 31 or 5.13d. (John Sherman would immortalize Lord of the Rings by posing for a photo while clipped to a hidden bolt, pretending to free solo the route in his sandals while drinking a beer.) The fact that two German climbers had established the hardest free climbs in Australia more than hinted at the efficacy of the European approach to hard free climbing. American climbers who were open to adopting the so-called Euro tactics were determined to establish a 5.14 in the United States before some hotshot foreigner did the deed.
So far, foreign visitors to the States had been content to repeat established hard climbs in better style, hence all of the flashing of 5.12 and 5.13 routes across the country. Alan had come close to 5.14 on the East Face of Monkey Face, and Todd had apparently come close on The Stigma, but nobody had cracked the barrier, not yet. But it wouldn’t be long. Alan had projects at Smith Rock that would be 5.14 when he finished them. He was sure of that.
Excerpted with permission from Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14 (Mountaineers Books, April 2019) by Jeff Smoot.
Jeff Smoot is a lawyer, writer, and photographer primarily known for his hiking and climbing guidebooks. He was a frequent contributor to Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Mountain magazines during the 1980s, and has also written for Backpacker and Outside magazines, the Western American Literature journal, and The Writer’s Workshop Review. He lives in Seattle.
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