This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 132 (April 2004).
Lynn Hill and I spent the winter of 1981 in Las Vegas, climbing daily at Red Rocks and plowing through nights at dead-end jobs. After roughly 10 seasons of climbing 300 days a year, my learning curve had flattened and I found
myself singing the same old song. I wasn’t the first “famous” climber whose future looked like a black hole, so I kept switching venues rather than instruments. Everything would change the next summer during a filming gig at Venezuela’s Angel Falls, a jungle gusher sufficient to deliver me into television production and book writing. Never again would I climb full time. Several years later, Lynn joined the international competitive circuit, and we all know the rest. But that winter in Vegas found us in flux, searching for direction. Soon we’d find our separate ways, but before leaving Vegas for good, we’d also find the archetype of the nascent American sport-climbing revolution.
If ever an area lent itself to sport climbing, it’s Red Rocks, but 20-odd years ago, the idea of gym-bolting the now-popular sport areas never crossed our minds. We still followed a traditional approach. Bigger and bolder always meant better, so partly from a sense of duty, but more from force of habit, we focused on the many unclimbed, thousand-foot crack systems that slashed a half-dozen canyon walls. Only later would we realize that the classical “trad” days had died in the 1990s.
Since arriving in Vegas a few months before, we’d established a handful of long free climbs, often scaring ourselves stiff. Trying to limit bolts and pitons, or avoid them altogether—which is asking for trouble on the sheer, friable sandstone—we’d sometimes find ourselves belayed to cosmetic nuts and running out the rope on steep, iffy rock. On the steeper lines, busting out onto the face was generally suicidal. The red sandstone offered ample holds, but usually ran too steep for lead bolting. On one route, Lynn traversed from a bombay chimney onto the terrible face, busted a hold, and logged an airball screamer for the ages. Only an iffy Friend in the guts of a grainy flare stopped her from smashing into the boulders from 60 feet. We had enough other frightful episodes that the most startling lines—massive, surging faces upwards of 1,000 feet—remained futuristic projects to gaze up at in wonder.
On the steeper lines, busting out onto the face was generally suicidal.
Then we met local climbers Jorge and Joanne Urioste, who back then comprised roughly a third of the hardcore Red Rocks climbing fraternity. Jorge knew a great line when he saw one, and he saw plenty. He also understood that the old trad rules could dash a free climber into a porcelain urn should he try to lead those tempting unclimbed faces. So Jorge began leading would-be face climbs on aid, installing bolts at convenient places—hardly a new tactic, though usually applied only to brief holdless sections of short testpieces, and, to my knowledge, never before the MO on what essentially were short wall climbs.
Jorge would dress the pitch, then Joanne would work the moves on a toprope till she could free-climb the whole enchilada in one go. The bolting went slowly and the climbing more slowly yet. An anthropology professor at UNLV, Jorge enjoyed limited free time, so his ascents entailed miles of fixed ropes—meaning Jorge would siege each climb till the bolts were placed and Joanne had free-followed every move. Joanne would often need multiple days to free a single pitch, some of which were borderline 5.12. Once the climb was “done,” Joanne would return with another free climber and tick the redpoint.
Not surprisingly, the few Red Rocks locals were alarmed by the Uriostes’ disregard for traditional style, a style that kept adrenaline levels high but also kept us in the cracks. I’ve wasted half my life on jackass pursuits, but I’ve never bothered to tell others how to climb, or live, or die. Nevertheless, Jorge’s tactics privately confounded me.
As I scratched my head in the scree fields, Jorge quickly bagged a slew of outstanding lines. Though a few of Jorge’s routes looked as if he’d loaded a Gatlin gun with quarter-inch bolts and stitched a 1,000-foot vertical face from bottom to top, Jorge did all his drilling by hand. More often than not, the climbing on his creations was superb.
In fact, the few times Lynn and I repeated a Urioste composition, the climbing was surreal. So accustomed were we to shouldering a bulky rack and placing gear that casting off with nothing but quickdraws, and clipping bolts every eight feet, felt almost illegal. The experience immediately cast me onto the indefinite ground between two worlds: one known and established, the other a strange but alluring universe where fun meant everything and fear counted for nothing.
No question, Jorge had queered the very rules I’d slavishly followed since first roping up. Other climbers with more natural courage or recklessness embodied the old trad ethic with native ease. In uncanny, elusive moments, I could get after it like a Bengal tiger; generally, however, whenever I started redlining, only devotion to the classical verities kept me in line. I fudged those rules, certainly, but trying to maintain an idealized level of boldness had set my experience on fire. So to see Jorge engineering the jeopardy out of the game was both perplexing and enticing. I had a vague inkling I was looking at the future, and the possibilities seemed boundless.
That year, Jorge and Joanne were working on their biggest, steepest, most outlandish climb yet, a varicolored, 1,100-foot convex plaque towering over the tumble of Oak Creek Canyon, several twisting miles into the Red Rocks’ backcountry. They’d pushed the route about 500 feet. On several sections, Joanne hadn’t yet attempted to free-follow, though Jorge thought it possible to free most, if not all, of the climbing up to their high point. Possibly because Lynn and I were two of the few active climbers in the area, more likely because we lived a few blocks from the Uriostes, Jorge invited us to explore the free-climbing prospects. The expedition felt odd from the start. I wasn’t used to someone so thoroughly setting my table, and during the two-hour slog into the cliff I felt a like a cat burglar casing a score.
The bewildering angles of both Oak Creek Canyon and the surrounding bluffs made everything appear askew, and we couldn’t get a coherent fix on the wall until nearly reaching the base: It looked similar, in length and angle, to the business section of the Prow on Washington Column. I figured we’d get hosed at a jutting roof, 100 feet above. Maybe sooner.
Lynn led the first pitch, a steepening ramp/corner gleaming with that glassy, black desert varnish that earmarks the slickest stone on earth. She quickly pawed to the belay and yelled down, “Easy 5.10.” Joanne and I followed. Above the first belay, the wall jacked up to dead V, and I cautiously worked over blocks and eye-brow roofs that looked stout from below but passed easily at 5.9. Hanging off a jug, I gazed at the ladder of quarter-inch bolts cutting around the roof to the headwall above. A bomber Friend to supplement the bolts, a big stretch, one heaving layback, then incuts to a hanging belay. Maybe 5.11a, but exciting with those quarter-inchers.
I lashed off, leaned back, and started laughing. I’d never climbed anything remotely like this.
The next lead looked like 5.10 yet provided the only easy (5.8) pitch on the lower wall, following generous rails and passing a regular cavalcade of those quarter-inchers. Somewhere during that pitch I knew we were onto something rare. The cliff was as steep as a skyscraper. Because the route began halfway up a high canyon rampart, resting above a long approach slab spilling into shade, I felt as if we were climbing on a wall triple the size. Dangling from those initial sling belays, we’d peer up, wondering if we could climb 10 more feet, only to find hold after bomber hold, with ready bolts to clip. After a few leads I was charging with more momentum than I’d felt in several years.
The route had, so far, traced intermittent cracks, which abruptly thinned to a shadow; for unknown reasons Jorge had skimped on the bolts. Though only on rock-bottom 5.10, I found myself a good ways out on a quarter-inch “coffin nail,” pulling on vertical rock that would require 50 ascents to totally clean up. Then an easy crack led to another sling belay beneath a headwall.
I lashed off, leaned back, and started laughing. I’d never climbed anything remotely like this. After the first pitch, the nut and cam placements had largely dried up. If Jorge hadn’t pre-rigged the bolts, we wouldn’t have made it past the first pitch. And for Jorge to have beat himself raw with all that drilling, and then for us to waltz in … Well, I could have kissed the man. Almost.
Far below, arid, brown plains—today a solid grid of pre-fab homes and soulless office plazas—swept gently into the gaudy Las Vegas Strip, 25 miles and a world away. Just above, a thin, bottoming gash snaked up a bulging piebald wall, occasional bolts festooning both sides. This looked hard and sustained. It was Lynn’s lead, and I was glad.
Flexible folk are rarely strong and strong folk are rarely flexible, but Lynn has a wealth of both qualities, and I always had to lump it. As she steadily bridged, Gastoned, crimped and jammed up the pitch, the rope hanging free between bolts, Joanne and I sighed, wondering how we’d manage. Every so often, between bolts, Lynn would slot a wire or plug in a small Friend. Then the rock bulged slightly, and she started cranking for keeps. She stemmed her left leg out at about chin level, toeing off some burnished nothing and. I sighed once more. I would never walk again if I tried that move. I was finished.
“You bring the jugs?” I asked Joanne.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I think she’s got it now,” said Joanne, craning to see Lynn 110 feet above. “It eases there.”
“Watch me!” Lynn yelled as she laybacked up a sandbar, her feet pasted at shoulder height.
Fortunately, I have a three-foot reach advantage on Lynn Hill, and could stretch past the acrobat moves, thieving by on sidepulls and shallow jams. While it lacked a definitive crux, there were long stretches of 5.10 and overall the pitch felt about 5.11c. The few wires and cams notwithstanding, pitch five closely resembled a modern sport-climbing lead, save that it hung halfway up a wall and actually had holds.
The fixed ropes ended here, with 300 vertical feet looming above. Much as we wanted to press on and bag the whole climb, without Jorge’s first installing another stack of bolts, we had no chance. It crossed my mind to grab our little rack, cast off, and hope for the best, but the next few hundred feet looked bulging, bald and periodically loose. And even if I had a bolt kit, the steepness shot down any chance of lead bolting without aid slings. Yet, with luck, and a few more days of toil, the whole mother might go free, a concept so wonderful that, down at the base, I suggested Jorge immediately get back to work. A short, stout man with the perseverance of an Andean mountaineer—which he’d been in the Bolivia of his youth—Jorge finished bolting a month or so later. The next weekend found Lynn, Joanne and me back at the highpoint.
I remember some reachy 5.10 face work on the sixth pitch, and how the rope dangled in space as I belayed the girls up. Pitch seven looked improbable, wandering a bit and working through several projecting white ribs. Lynn got that one and she got a dandy—and scary as well. Most every long Red Rocks route passes through a vein of choss, with a few gong-like flakes. The wall kicked back for good maybe 50 feet above. If Lynn could smuggle past this last bulge, we were home free.
Lynn Hill. We called her “Little Lynny.” She was a prodigy and everyone knew as much from Day One. She carried her gift with quiet ease rather than chest pounding or smug humility. Twenty years ago, no female had ever climbed remotely as well as the best guys, so when Lynn began dusting us off—which she did with maddening frequency—folks offered up all kinds of fatuous explanations, refusing to believe a woman, and a five-foot article at that, could possibly be so honed.
Out at Josh, it was said Lynn shone owing to quartz monzonite’s superior friction, which catered to her bantam weight. In Yosemite, her success apparently hinged on small hands, which fit wonderfully into the infernal thin cracks. On limestone, she could plug three fingers into pockets where the rest of us managed two. In the desert Southwest, she enjoyed an alliance with coyotes—or maybe shape-shifters. Even after a heap of World Cup victories, it still took the climbing world an age to accept Lynn as the Chosen One, and perhaps her legacy was never sealed, once and for all, untill she free-climbed the Nose.
From the early days in Red Rocks, it would take her several years to become “the” Lynn Hill. Nevertheless, she was always a supernova, especially on that funky pitch way up what would become the seminal Levitation 29.
“Watch me!” Lynn yelled as she laybacked up a sandbar, her feet pasted at shoulder height. Ten more feet and Lynn pulled onto easier ground. Modern topos call this pitch 5.10+, but it’s basically unratable, what with the band of loose, white rock and the bizarre, sideways moves. An easy crack led a few hundred feet to the top. We rapped the route, stripping the fixed lines.
I can’t remember if it was Joanne’s 29th birthday, or if that came shortly afterwards, but it factored into naming the climb Levitation 29.
All the way back to the car and for several days afterwards I felt that electric glow that follows a royal adventure. Sure, I’d climbed a stack of walls that long and that steep, but never out on the bold face, unheard-of in those days and unique to my experience. I can’t remember if it was Joanne’s 29th birthday, or if that came shortly afterwards, but it factored into naming the climb Levitation 29. I hear the route’s seen thousands of ascents, and that it’s cleaned up nicely. In her autobiography, Lynn called the route her favorite of all time. In real world terms, that was the start of American multi-pitch sport climbing, and it happened on one of the finest samples you’ll ever find. Luck of the draw.
Over the radio today I heard Sarah Vaughn singing a classic Hammerstein lyric, which ran, “When I grow too old to dream, I’ll have you to remember.” The majestic hike in, the soaring wall and the radiance of scaling that great stone wave are going the way of all memories. But a faint, visceral thrill of roving the open face, pulling for joy, starry eyed and amazed to be alive, will remain with me always.
Longtime Rock and Ice contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.