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The Royal Scam

Coming clean on the mysterious first ascent of a Yosemite classic.

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Only with reservations do I record the following story. First, it ends a classic hoax, one so fine, so perfect, that I might never again have the opportunity to stage one with details so inexplicable. Second, it makes me out as a rascal, but I can deal with the flak. The gaff worked once, and no doubt would continue to work; but since there’s now an outside chance of some other rascal taking credit for my idea, I’m hoisting the curtain on the whole shebang. Dig:

In the fall of 1973, Jim Bridwell (The “Bird”) showed me a list of new routes he planned to attempt in Yosemite in the coming years. One took a bold, penciled line up a black-and-white photo of Middle Cathedral, which then, as well as now, is my favorite rock. The line looked striking — splitter cracks, thin corners, a roof, some open face work, hanging belays for sure. The length, projected at 12 pitches, made the adventure seem especially dramatic.

In conventional military fashion, Bridwell soon commanded a platoon of Camp 4 draftees to a high point of 900 feet. Here, buckling knifeblades and holdless granite halted vertical progress, though the Bird thought it possible for the platoon to execute a “column left” and traverse off to easier rock on the flank. In the spring of the following year, the platoon did just that, and the route was completed: The Central Pillar of Frenzy (IV 5.10b).

No less than 10 climbers had their hand in the final ascent. Angered at my exclusion, I chose the next best thing, an early repeat, something of recent vogue. The Bird and company had no sooner rapped off when folks started queuing up for The Central Pillar, an all-time classic from start to finish. Nevertheless, when Jim Orey and I gained the last pitch we were amused that the route “finished” by traversing off at the first rugged stretch, though not amused enough to brave Bridwell’s buckling knifeblades and holdless granite above. We traversed off like everyone else.

Enter Tobin Sorensen and Gib Lewis, the next team to attempt to straighten the Bird’s line. Tobin would traverse off only at gun point. Gib, then the stronger face climber, thieved up the holdless pitch, which ended in slings beneath a thin crack chocked with dirt and shrubs. The final 300 feet, leading to the U-shaped bowl, looked climbable, but they’d need a roto-tiller to clean this next 40-foot stretch. Never one to rap off, under any circumstances, Tobin punched out the jungle pitch on aid and the two carried on, encountering a one-inch splitter (5.10b) on the next and final lead. The complete line was finished: V 5.10d, A1.

Remember that The Central Pillar of Frenzy was a Bridwell route, a hallowed creation beyond rebuff. To think of improving — let alone completing — something so sacred was comparable to doodling on a Goya. Never comfortable usurped, the Bird resolved to tidy up the Lewis/Sorensen direct finish. Presently the Bird, Billy Westbay and I were in conference, glassing the route from El Cap meadow. The Bird slowly drew the binoculars from his eyes, his gaze still fixed on that green stretch, 950 feet up. He pulled a last draw from his Camel and toed the butt into the dirt.


“It’s offset,” said the Bird, tendrils of smoke wafting past his moustache. “Clean it up some, a touch of liebacking and we’re home free.”

Fresh off the first one-day ascent of the Nose, Billy, the Bird and I were on a roll, bagging gemstones at our leisure. Now in slings, we faced that holdless pitch. Billy —one of the finest climbers of the era — flashed up and we soon were again hanging in slings and scoping that grassy, offset seam, several body lengths up and left. According to the Bird, I would try and free it, ungardened, and if that failed, Jim would clean it with a long-picked alpine hammer. Straight off the hanging belay, I clawed up and left over dire acorns and gained the seam.

“Impossible,” I said, frantically scratching about the dirt-filled crack for a lock, a hold — anything. I slugged in a Bugaboo which drifted into the eye like a tent stake into fertile ground.

“Sounds bunk,” Billy warned. My feet greased off those acorns the moment I clipped into the Bugaboo, which straightaway shot out, lobbing me down the wall in a perilous arc and brazing a nasty red groove in the back of Billy’s legs as I wrenched straight onto the belay bolts.

After aiding up and hoeing that pitch with the ice axe, the Bird swung back to our hanging stance, smiling through a mask of topsoil.

“It’s clean now!” said the Bird. “Great locks to the end, then one thin face move and we’re up”

Billy shifted in his belay seat, wincing at the taut nylon cutting across his rope burn. The Bird stoked another Camel as I racked up for the lead. Lipping the hack, Jim pointed five feet down and left, where half-inch face edges allowed me to bypass the dire acorns and basically walk over to the seam.

“Dumb shit,” said Bridwell.

Those “great locks” were something less, with only sketchy wrinkles to boot, so at crack’s end I found myself suitably pumped. That one thin face move was altogether too thin, and for a frantic minute, leaning off a soiled tip-lock, my right hand pawed the face for any sort of bump or crinkle. A last wave for purchase, but nothing …

“Nothing! I’m coming off!”

“Grab the vine,” shrieked the Bird.

Perhaps eight feet separated me from the flawless one-inch splitter, streaking up the wall to easier ground. The “vine” in question, still several feet out of reach, dangled from a scrawny and altogether refutable stump budding from the start of the crack. Pencil thin, furry and shaped like a long corkscrew, the vine hardly seemed something to lunge for, but with a nut at my feet, what the hell?

“Watch me!”

I sprung up and right, latched that crooked root which crackled and popped, elongated two-fold and uncoiled straight as a guitar string as I shockloaded onto the furtive stump.

Holding my breath, I hand-walked a body-length up the vine and grabbed the stump, held fast by an inch of soot and a frozen cobweb. I started mantling up, but reconsidered after realizing the opportunity for a royal scam. In a moment of spontaneous knavery, I reached down and snapped off the vine. No one short of Andre the Giant could ever reach the upper crack from the lower article, and none but our Savior, Jesus Christ, could tread over that bald face without the vine.

The one-inch crack was a regular marvel at 5.10c, likewise the upper wall, right to the U-shaped bowl. We all laughed at our rating: IV 5.11c/d.

1978. I’m kicked back in Yosemite Lodge and in walks Englishman Ron Fawcett (with whom I’d first climbed El Cap) with an antsy young upstart at his side. Hot on Middle Cathedral, the kid had hiked many of Middle’s finest routes, and wanted the dope on The Central Pillar, thentofore unrepeated in its entirety. The kid had the topo in his hand.

“A real plum” I said, pointing to the impossible pitch. “The crux is just here. Following some 5.7 liebacking, there’s a crafty friction step here, then a quick slap for a treasonous stump. The rest is casual. Great route, man. Have fun.”

“I will,” said the kid, no doubt imagining some piddling high step off a foot stool.

I crossed paths with the kid several days later. No longer cocky, he sounded grave and looked insulted.

“You know we checked out that Central Pillar of yours,” said the kid, hands on hips, his toes drumming the ground.

“Great route, eh?” I said.


“Well,” said the kid, “we got to that supposed friction step you mentioned, but no go. I figure there’s no man alive who can crank that move. In fact, there’s no move to be done.”

Though I had much more experience, the kid had enough to know damn well that no one scales a holdless wall, and he probably would have called bullshit had it not been for the pin I’d fixed just after the vine maneuver.

“Must have taken a load of falls,” said the kid, kicking the ground and resigned to believe the unbelievable.

“Actually, I got it first try,” I said. “Must have been on that day.”

The kid’s face turned perfectly red and his teeth gnashed so horribly in his head I thought he might break into tears or draw a knife. The only decent thing was to tell him about the vine prank, but you don’t fess up to someone so annoying, so I decided to play him like a cheap banjo, simply for my own amusement.

“Listen up,” I said. “You’re probably just not keen on the specialized techniques involved. The route’s only 5.11, and I’ll bet you’ve done harder things on occasion (he’d done 5.12s everywhere). Get yourself over to the Apron for a few days, hone up that friction a tad, then blast on up for another shot,” I concluded with an upward sweep of my hand.

If smugness were a rock, I was El Cap, and the kid looked as though the mighty bulk of the Captain itself had crushed his pride to sand. But he quickly reformed, like a character in Dante’s Inferno, and shot me a look insisting he could climb anything that I could. Anything but The Central Pillar of Frenzy, I laughed to myself. My recommendations had provoked such choler in the poor kid I figured there was an outside chance he might run up there and actually climb the son of a bitch, giving me credit for bagging — first try — the first 5.13 on Middle Cathedral. Either way, I couldn’t lose.

1982. I splayed up the final chimney moves, then rolled onto the terraced summit of Rixon’s Pinnacle. And there he was, the kid, except he’d grown up, and his arrogance had matured into an infectious self-confidence.

“Hey, Largo!” He walked over, hand extended and a smile stretching across his face. His breezy manner caught me off guard, but I suspected monkey business as he continued pumping my hand.

“Remember The Central Pillar?” he asked.

“How’s that?” I said, clipping off a knot of natty slings at the anchor pins.

“Sure you do,” he said. “And I’ll have you know that I went back up there last week — and guess what?” Here he shook his head theatrically. “Remember that grim friction step to the stump? Well, a vine’s grown out of the bugger, and by hucking a wee dynamic, you can latch the vine and pull right up it like a hand rail. No friction step involved.”

“I’ll be darned,” I said.

“That’s not all,” he said. “My mate, he’s a real joker, he is, and when he followed the pitch, he gets this crazy idea. I tried to talk him out of it, but nothing doing. The guy just boots off the whole bloody stump, vine and all. Roots probably survived, but it’ll take a decade or more for that stump to grow back, and well into the next century before anyone’s swinging around on any vine. Way I got it figured, we’ll both be broke or dead before anyone repeats The Central Pillar of Frenzy.

The guy laughed for a solid minute. I started to cook up a comeback, but a voice bellowed from the chimney below:

“Hey, dumb shit, am I on belay or what?”

Author’s note: I first wrote this story over 20 years ago for the venerable Mountain (number 91). Of the three people on the nefarious ascent, Billy Westbay has since climbed into history, Bridwell has ventured up the meanest walls on earth, and the other principal in the story, “the kid,” an eventual champion of the nascent sport climbing revolution, became a software designer in Gibraltar. Meanwhile, The Central Pillar of Frenzy has become perhaps the most traveled moderate free climb in the Valley. However, recent parties rarely if ever venture beyond the ledge atop the fifth pitch, scarcely halfway up the entire route. I’ve got to wonder how a modern climber might fare on the peculiar crux section detailed in the story. To my knowledge, no one has ventured back up there since the second complete ascent in 1982.