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Who Says Ground Up Is Dead?

A quiet ground-up movement is underway in Yosemite Valley, with new routes going up every month.

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A quiet ground-up movement is underway in Yosemite Valley, with new routes going up every month. At the center of this resurgence stands big ol’ Eric Gabel. At 6’3″, let’s say 200-plus pounds, “Able Gabel” has established many single and multi-pitch lines from 5.8 to 5.11 in traditional ground-up onsight style over the last 13 years.

Yosemite has a long tradition of route development from the ground up. Intermittent bolts are placed on lead, preferably from stances rather than hooks. Yet sport routes – those established on rappel – have increasingly sprung up on Valley crags over the years, including entire sport crags such as Sean Jones’ “Mecca” on Lower Cathedral, while new routes completed in true traditional style have become relatively rare. It’s one of the many reasons Gabel and his routes are unusual.

“I tried hating everybody who didn’t do things in good style,” says Gabel, characteristically matter-of-fact. “Didn’t get me anywhere. I ended up not liking people who were otherwise my friends and good people. I miss some of them now.”

“I like ground-up, onsight, stance-drilled routes,” he continues. “I don’t mind hooking natural features if I can’t get a stance. I try to bolt only as a last resort. But that’s me. I do believe in good style, but know that most people aren’t going to change, or respect me for trying to change them. I would prefer to lead by example. And no, it’s not all good.’ Things people do on the rock affect me down to the core of my soul. I just try to do my best.”

Honest effort – and size – are in many ways what define the Able Gabel experience. His routes are long, his trademark “office” – a 70s-blue custom van – is plush and expansive, and Gabel himself is a big voluble bear of a man. Partners such as physicist Ed Hartouni and Valley historian Clint Cummins describe Gabel in terms of his big spirit, great generosity, immense motivation, positive energy, and larger-than-life personality.

Gabel’s first ascents in the Valley stretch back to 1996 with Valley Locals (Are Chumps) (5.10 A1), on the Lower Brother formation, with Lovers’ Leap ex-bartender Marc “Petch” Pietrolongo.

“We hiked up to Lower Brother, and put up this bitchin’ line,” says Gabel. “We couldn’t believe no one in Yosemite had done it before.”

These days, his routes tend toward more diplomatic names: the Gabel-Dignes (IV 5.11c A0) on the Mosstrum/Supernova Wall next to the Rostrum, the South Face of Middle Brother (IV 5.10 A1), the seven-pitch Beyond Lunacy (5.11c) extension to Lunatic Fringe on Reed’s Pinnacle, and the four-pitch Dream Easy (5.8), also on Reed’s. Other significant FAs include Edge of Absurdity (5.8) and Adventures with Linda (5.11b), both above the Cookie Cliff, and Runaway Emotions (5.10b/c) and Angry Natives (5.10a/b) on Reed’s. On these routes, Gabel has drilled bolts from hooks when desperate, but otherwise he placed minimal fixed pro from stances. Occasionally, he has added a few bolts on the way down if the route seems “worth it.”

“I’ve never drilled a bat-hook in my life,” Gabel says, referring to the aid-climbing technique of drilling a tiny hole to place a hook to hang from. “If it could be done by stance, I’d give my last breath I had in me to do it by stance. If I have to hook, it’s [on] a natural feature. Some people do it different, though. And if I place a bolt I guarantee that anyone repeating the route is going to want to clip it.”

It was between 2001 and 2005 that Gabel left his most defining mark on the Valley when the big man put in eight 5.9 to 5.11 grade III/IV routes on Lower Brother, three grade IV routes on Middle Brother, and two routes, including the looming, unrepeated Goliath (V 5.10), on the foreboding Lost Brother.

These big new routes have not come without a cost: Gabel has broken multiple bones on the Three Brothers and torn a hamstring on Sentinel Creek wall. In 2001, when a hold ripped on the first ascent of the 1,600-foot Middle Brother’s Big Adventure, Gabel broke a finger one pitch from the summit. Rappelling in a storm, Gabel and partner Tim Toumey fixed and cut their ropes twice before dragging back to basecamp. Here, Gabel splinted his own distended digit, pounded a few Budweisers, and passed out.

“That cliff is trying to kill me,” he says, referring to Lost Brother. “I can’t go back there. The majority of these routes are unrepeated and viciously sandbagged,” says Gabel, half-jokingly.

In other ground-up action, Bay area climbers Clint Cummins and Joel Ager added five lines near the five-star 5.8 Braille Book on Higher Cathedral, including the classic Perfect Vision (5.11c). Dan Dingle and Bob Steed established ground-up slab climbs throughout the Valley, including Nataraj (IV 5.10b A0) on North Dome, and Fall Guy, a three-pitch 5.10a on Glacier Point, and over a dozen moderate pitches on the Cookie Sheet, above Cookie Cliff. Gabel, Brian “Coiler” Kay, and others also established several nice moderates on the Sunshine Cliff, left of Cookie Sheet. In 2004 Tom Harper, Tom Malzbender and Hannah North went ground up on My Favorite Things (IV 5.10-) on Cloud’s Rest, and last month Dustin Stephens established the three-pitch Superwolf (5.11c) on the House of Atreus, a new crag right of Reed’s.

In the middle ground lies the Stooge Crag, a new one-pitch crag on the Ten Lakes trail off Tioga Road, roughly equidistant between the Valley and Tuolumne. Dirt-filled cracks, death blocks and improbable protection engendered a clean-on-rappel, protect-on-lead style with the crag’s primary developers, Wyatt Smith and Stephens. Between 2007 to 2008, 28 new routes were established in this manner, most purely ground up below 5.11, and a variety of tactics at the harder grades, most notably toprope-rehearsed headpoints.

Highlights at this beautiful crag include Professional Suicide (5.10), What Now, Ikea Boy? (5.10 R), Beast with One Back (5.10), Tender Manhood (5.11a), Yuppie Sophistry (5.11b), Mod Pod (5.11d), TV Eye (5.12c), and Creature of Darkness (5.13a). Cody Sims first freed the latter two testpieces, and established the excellent Hydra (5.12c) last year near Lower Cascade Falls. Hydra begins with three pitches of ground-up 5.11 crack climbing and finishes on a 5.12c bolted pitch – a true “postmodern” classic if there ever was one.

“I think ground-up is the best style of climbing, but in terms of putting up good quality routes that are difficult and will be repeated, top-down is often the best strategy,” says Sims. “What matters most to me is leaving behind a good line.”

—Dustin Stephens