Direttissima of the Desert: The Second Free Ascent of Sundevil Chimney (5.13b R)
The sheath of our rope had been cut. It was around five o’clock p.m, May 19, 2018, when, hanging numb in my harness, I began work hammering a bolt into the soft mud in front of me. The sun was beginning to set on the Fisher Towers deep in the Utah desert, as a chasm of air tugged at me from below. 700 feet of nothingness. I fitted the tip of the drill back into the small divot I had made and glanced up again at the exposed length of white strings in the dirty purple rope twenty feet above me.
I could feel the flush in my face and hear the blood rushing between my temples and so I went to work, knowing physical effort could calm the racing pulse. I had a tarnished drill bit fixed in my hand-drill, blunted and blackened at the tip with hardly a point at all. It was in poor condition, but I reminded myself the sandstone of the Titan was soft. Still, the work would take me 40 minutes. But with a core-shot rope and stranded out on the face, it was all I could do—I desperately needed to unweight the system.
Within the hour, my voice hoarse and arm aching, I had nearly gotten the bolt in. After the drilling came the hammering and then a subsequent shouting match with Casey at the belay above as we executed our plan. I went in direct, took myself off rappel and he adjusted the ropes to put me on belay—hopefully I’d be able to climb back to the anchors above or find another set of anchors somewhere on the wall before the rope gave out. I delicately swung over and wedged myself inside a chimney 20 meters to the left. Still there was no anchor. Perhaps it had been covered by one of these thick curtains of mud in a recent storm? I probed one such curtain with my foot and it fractured, bits of flakey stuff avalanching away immediately. I was distracted by the uncanny appearance of my feet as I did so. My white socks had been stained an orange-brown and all my toes now poked through a single hole in the end, blending with the warm colors. I flexed the discolored digits and they responded a moment later. Where were my shoes? In the haul bag? Had I attached them to my harness? My mind was fuzzy with exhaustion. I located the shoes dangling behind me but didn’t put them on. My hands were trembling and I feared I’d drop one. The pit in my stomach still yawned and my chest was flashing cold with terror.
Never had I felt fear like this. I gritted my teeth and made another tentative swing into the chimney. I winced as the rope slid across the face above me sending down a barrage of dirt. I cammed a shoe-less foot deep into a crevice of soft silt and stemmed the other out across kicking a second foothold into the face with the butt-end of my heel. Then, taking my weight gingerly off the mangled rope, I began to climb.
There is no more direct route up the Titan, in the Fisher Towers, than Sundevil Chimney, sometimes called the “direttissima of the desert.” The earliest free climbing on Sundevil Chimney took place in 1993 by Todd Skinner and Tom Cosgriff. Their attempt to climb the chimney by aid, still the norm in the Fisher Towers to this day, was stymied by the dearth of solid gear on the route. Instead they resorted to a sort of “fraid climbing” because the route was “too scary” for full on aid. They most likely free-climbed much of the insecure mud curtains within the chimney, but pulled through some of the cruxiest bits on pitch one and three, where old Stardrive bolts dot the path.
At the turn of the millennium, Stevie Haston, the fiery Brit known for his bold ascents in the desert around Moab, set out to finish what Skinner and Cosgriff had started. Over nine days Haston climbed the route all free, claiming it was harder for him than climbing the Eiger. He went at the route with the best of ethics, projecting ground up. He sent in May of 2002.
In 2018, over 16 years later, it still hadn’t seen a second free ascent.
Sundevil Chimney had held my mind in paralysis ever since that twilight in May, when, with our damaged rope, Casey Elliott and I had finally reached the base of the Titan alive. We had been rappelling the route after free climbing The Finger of Fate (5.12+ R) on the opposite side of the giant sandstone pinnacle. My decision to do some anchor recon on Sundevil during the descent had led to our epic, and afterward my mind kept replaying the horrors of that hour.
Now, November 19, six months after our epic, we had returned to the little spot atop a plateau in the Utah desert. Haston’s legendary free-climbing feat towered tall in our in our minds, and we knew attempting to repeat it would push us to our absolute limits. But long days spent honing our craft on other walls led me to a knowledge that if I didn’t at least try to free Sundevil, regret would inevitably follow.
Casey and I, both Salt Lake locals, came together as climbing partners through our shared interest in bold climbing. We both believe in the necessity of developing our head-skills alongside our physical prowess on rock. Commitment is everything. To this end, Sundevil Chimney became a testpiece to measure our progress.
During our first days of projecting, the Titan once again unsettled me. From the whirling funnel of icy wind, a dust devil which formed daily on the very east edge of the ridge, to the groaning slabs above the first belay, the tower’s tactics of intimidation were unrelenting. The movement, the gear, the style: All our questions about the route were slowly worked out as we trudged to and from camp each day. At first frustratingly futile, the project was becoming frighteningly possible.
We decided we would shoot for a team-free ascent, in the style of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall. We would each have to free every inch of the route, whether leading or following, and we would each lead the crux 5.13b R pitch. On the day of our final push I would take the first pitch, Casey the second and so on.
Long conversations between Casey and I always ended in the silence of anticipation. We knew we couldn’t delay: every day we projected the crux, every day we failed, and every day more holds broke. We would have to go for the push or risk never climbing the route as it disintegrated before our eyes.
The day arrived and we departed camp before light. The trek to the base was a blur. Before we knew it gradual rays of sunlight bathed the Titan in gold. We lay together at the base, taking in the route as if taking a final breath.
In a rush to reject any form of ritual, I began the first pitch, a sporty 130-foot 5.13b that immediately tackles two roof systems before spitting you out onto a vertical face with only cobbles, monos and pins-scars. Above this, during the last twenty feet, awaits the crux. I botched my beta, but somehow stayed on by smearing my right foot out on a tiny cobble. The heat of doubt flared up, but I locked into the final gritty finger locks and finished the pitch. Having led the crux pitch twice previously, Casey followed my lead and joined me at the belay.
He then made his first attempt at pitch two, coming off in a cloud of dust at the crux. He lowered and made a second attempt, beautifully dispatching the overhanging crack. My sense of doubt only increased as I followed his lead, fighting to plug my hand into a slot already taken by a cam. Again, I somehow managed to hang on, and reached the anchors without having to return to the bottom for a second try.
I began pitch three cruising through decomposing 5.9 filth. Fifteen feet from the anchor desperation struck once again. Resting in a strenuous layback with my feet on a shelf, staring at the unfeasible moves above, I froze. I had clipped the Stardrive bolt at my waist and was searching for gear higher up. Something. Anything. Haston claimed that he had used a six-inch hook and “nut broddler” for pro at this point, whatever the hell that meant. Unable to find anything viable above me, I downclimbed and placed a tiny ball nut to equalize with the Stardrive before resuming my rest in the layback.
I moved up into the next sequence three times before finally committing to the compression moves above. I clawed viciously at the dust-choked pin-scars, moving out onto the arete to search for purchase. Just when I had nearly reached the large horn marking the end of the crux, the white rounded cobble I had trusted my full weight to ripped out of the wall. My left foot was on the wrong side of the rope and I knew it even before I started arcing upside down through the air. I splattered head-under-heels on the slab 20 feet below the equalized pieces. The rope-drag had provided a long fall but a soft enough catch for the ball nut to hold beside the ancient bolt. Somehow, I was uninjured.
It was at this moment, instead of failing, that our team-style ascent saved the day. My spirit broken, I lowered back to the belay to let Casey take his turn on the sharp end. He managed to reach the tattered anchor, brilliantly climbing through the no-fall zone. I followed up, also free.
It was nearly three in the afternoon as I clipped my tether into the dusty sun-dried anchor at the top of pitch three and hung back to breathe. My nerves were frayed. I couldn’t bring myself to look up. Casey said, “You ready for this one?” It took all my will just to stop myself from replying, “Fuck no, why am I up here?” which had become my internal refrain during the past couple of hours. But after breathing slowly for a moment, I readjusted my footing and turned my head skyward.
Six months had passed since I had stared up into the chasm of the fourth pitch—where our rope had threatened to unravel—and here I was staring up into it once again. During the long days it had taken to project the two preliminary pitches, I had asked Casey for the opportunity to lead the fourth pitch. “Unfinished business,” I had told him. The mud curtains above looked like demonic organ pipes. I knew they would fracture beneath my shoes, just as they had in May beneath my bare feet. But this pitch—with its X-rating and huge-hollow blocks of petrified dust—was one that I knew I needed to face.
I looked down. My legs were visibly stuttering against the rock. With some encouragement from Casey, I began to rack up. He wasn’t going to let me bail on the pitch without first giving a proper fight. We laughed about the need for hexes as I clipped them shakily into quickdraws for immediate use. Hexes, I figured, might hold well in case of a fall, what with their large surface area compared to the thin lobes of a cam that would act like dull blades and simply sheer through the soft mud. I took all the slings we had, hoping for chockstones along the way.
With a breath and a clap on my back from Casey for luck, I traversed awkwardly to my right down out of the belay and kicked over into the chimney with slow pressure until I could cam my back against the mud. Already the pitter-patter of a thousand particles began below me and a fine dust blew up around me. Jamming my fist into the first curtain, I pulled gently, just enough to inch my way up. The chimney shed clods and hunks but always shortly after I had finished my work with them. I made slow and delicate progress. After 40 feet I had placed just one shitty cam and two hexes—all of which would have ripped in a fall—but continued to stem ever higher. Huge stalactites of mud sheared off below me every few minutes, dousing Casey in rubble. His helmeted head was down and his eyes were closed but he continually called up muffled words of reassurance and encouragement.
Eventually I reached a stance and discovered a modern bolt concealed beneath a layer of mud. I hooted with relief. Casey responded and then I heard a chorus of hoots and whistles from the escarpment below. A large group had gathered below to watch our progress as the day waned. They had situated themselves beyond reach of the cascading mud. Looking out past the dark walls of filth that surrounded a filthy me deep in a filthy filthy full-body stem I caught sight of a glint of silver visible far out on the right-hand face. It was my bolt from six months prior!
A wave of exhilaration filled me and suddenly I was laughing. I was laughing and hooting and I could see my dog, Panda, running circles around the crowd below. My laughter carried down to my mud-covered partner and it must have sounded mad, but I didn’t care. I was in ecstasy.
“Glad to have you back Cass!” Casey called up. With those words all the fright melted away. We were both howling like we were back safe on splitter granite cracks with great pro. The Titan would allow us passage and I knew it.
I smiled, still chuckling. Then, with a sigh, I rubbed the sand out of my eyes for the hundredth time and made my way deeper into the chimney.
Cassady Bindrup lives and climbs year round in Salt Lake City where he is studying Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. To fund his climbing lifestlye, he works as a commercial electrician and writes.