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Pan American Story—El Gran Trono Blanco

Pan American Story— El Gran Trono Blanco

Paul Piana

IHAVE ALWAYS ADMIRED LIONEL TERRAY and his choice of climbing objectives. Terray lived in the greatest era of climbing, an era when he could choose nearly any objective. He didn’t choose a goal merely because it was “the tallest” or “the hardest.” Terray choose objectives like Fitz Roy or Huntington because they were timelessly classic and beautiful.

In seeking out new routes to climb, my ultimate criterion is quality and classic beauty. Many of the climbs on my list are far away from well-known or popular arenas and the Pan American Route on Mexico’s El Gran Trono Blanco is one such prize. Not long ago I recall sitting around a campfire with a well- traveled climber, putting aside my usual secrecy about new routes, I mentioned this region and my longing for this wall. Since he hadn’t heard of it, he was sure it couldn’t be good. My rantings produced no change; his expression was a 40- watt glow in an Astrodome-sized darkness. The glowing filament that kept my dream alight was a swooping dihedral in an old magazine article. Every time I happened across that photo, like a moth to a flame, I would be driven to return to this magical area. I had visited the Cañón del Tajo a couple of times in the winter of 1975-6. But until recently, the closest I got was scanning new route information and the American Alpine Journal for reports of a free ascent of this stunning line.

Finally, some abstract greed cranked up the power and it became imperative that I go yondering across that familiar Mexican border to kype one of the great prizes on my list of desires. The first order of business was to recruit a gang unafraid of rustling great prizes, unafraid of long and hard work—a gang who worshiped only the strength in their hands and who believed that one should beware of pews with padded seats. I needed a gang unafraid of what some would see as running iron tactics and of leaping off the horse of rote ethical dogma in order to bulldog success.

Heidi Badaracco and I are The Unafraid. We rode south, to the Sierra de Juarez of northern Baja California and into the high desert region of granite domes. El Gran Trono Blanco is the finest of them all and is home to the Pan American Route—the object of our desire. Over the Thanksgiving holidays of 1991, we drove into the high country behind and above the east face and then carried massive loads of food, water and hardware to the base … down a complex gully strewn with house-sized boulders. We each had four gallons of water and four ropes in addition to the rest of our tack. Wearing a Grade VI haulbag and having forgotten the waist belt, I crept along, the porta-ledge in my arms. The two-mile approach took all day and is the most brutal hike I have ever made. The day after collapsing at the base, we had free climbed the first pitch, sussed the dread hooking of the second and freed the third. The Brown Dihedral slinked seductively above us and we rappelled back to the ground through icy wind and swirling cloud. Even though the forecast had not been good, we thought we stood pretty tall until the El Niño ice storm swaggered in and pummeled us for a night, a day and another night. The storm left the wall shrouded in thick sheets of ice, blocks of which thundered off and sliced at the lower pitches. As soon as was feasible, we pulled out gear and slunk away, stuggling over snowy rocks, carrying the huge loads that had made it the most physically draining gully I had ever been in.

In late October of 1993, Heidi and I returned. We made two vows: to stay until we succeeded and never again to descend that debilitating approach gully. We spent the first day in the area finding the summit of the dome and then scouting the most efficient way back to the car. Our once brutal all-day approach was whittled down to 33 minutes. The next day, we carried eight ropes to the top of the wall and once we found the finish of the climb, simply began rappelling, Verdon-style, down the 1700-foot face. We fixed as far down as the top of the third pitch and checked out the savage-looking Brown Dihedral.

Our next order of business was to protect for free climbing this and the dread hooking on the second pitch. After top-roping and careful deliberation of the Brown Dihedral’s shallow seam, as well as removing pounds of sometimes wireless blobs—copperheads and hammered nuts—I added bolts where it wasn’t possible to place solid gear. We did the same with the second pitch, finding a more logical passage fifteen feet to the right.

We were excited. The route looked fantastic, the weather was sunny and warm but not too hot. Our days in this beautiful region were turning out perfectly. We were having lots of fun. The lightning approach to the top allowed us the pleasure of luxurious camping. The temperate days on the wall were graced by views of far-away mountains reflected many miles to the east in Laguna Salada. When we weren’t being hazed by a squadron of ravens, we often watched a team of redtail hawks, quietly gliding by to check our progress—and all was washed with the susurous rush of Washington Palm fronds from the valley below.

After a languid rest day of reading, eating and sunbathing, we slid down our ropes, all the way to the base and climbed the first three pitches. The first lead teetered up a solid-feeling but loose-appearing flake and then utilized varied edges, underclings and 5.11 reaches to belay at the start of the dread hooking pitch.

Heidi danced up high steps, solid side-pulls and 5.10+ edges. Soon she was at the belay, feeling too charged up not to lead the next pitch. While I followed her lead, Heidi urged me to savor the moves and to hurry so she could begin the third pitch. This 5.11b lead is another gem requiring a myriad of techniques: the need to go for it a little, and a desperate section that could be likened to a back-step-bridging in a chimney that is wide but only an inch deep. After climbing it, we decided to rest up for tomorrow’s fourth pitch.

The next day was to be given mostly to the Brown Dihedral. We were so jazzed, it was hard to sleep that night. Half-dreaming, I kept going over and over the moves in the Brown Dihedral, moves that weren’t so bad when picked on individually but when stacked one on top of the other swelled into a burning forearm bully of nightmare proportions.

I admitted that I was awake early but stalled as long as possible, pushing the envelope of procrastination to just before the point where Heidi would call me a sissy. Finally, we were at the bottom of the pitch and all I had to do was climb it.

I climbed the pitch in stages, hanging many times, the goal being to warm up but not to pump out. Even though I have flashed pitches of this difficulty, I had allowed this one to become a mind-killer and to intimidate me. Then I came down and stalled—I mean, rested—for a long time. When I finally started up, I let myself lose mental control at the eighty-foot level, even though the crux began at ninety. If I had been my own coach, I would have resigned in disgust upon seeing the mistakes I made! I knew I had far more power than was necessary to do the moves. I knew that no matter how painful and burning my forearms felt, I could attain a tranquil climber’s zen and make them stay in the hook position in order to keep climbing upward. I knew all this and more, but I let my pea-brain roll away and it didn’t come back. I fell off. An hour later, I performed once more the repertory of mistakes—and I fell again. These self-induced failures and my “resting” had allowed Heidi to read all of Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café as well as letting a good portion of the day to pass. I sighed a sigh so vanquished and hopeless that it might have come to life from the bluest melancholies ever scribed by those great Southern writers. I had hoped that today would see us gulp a large portion of the wall. Now, I figured I hadn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of success. Secretly, I was relieved. Since there was no chance of freeing the pitch today, there was no sense in getting all mentally lathered up. So in a relaxed fame of mind, I headed up a third time. Before I knew it, I had easily climbed up and through the crux. Suddenly, I had only a half move to the stemming rest from which there was a good chance of ticking the dang thing. Upon this realization, a change came over me—a change akin to the loss of calm which an about-to-be-hanged, zen master, cattle rustler might experience at that sudden, light-footed, trap-door creak. Unlike the hanged man, I became aware there was a chance I might not stretch the rope, and ten million volts of apprehension surged through me. My knees shook, my heart began pounding, my arms lit on fire and my hands became pools of sweat. George Bundy never shook so much, and then I made it to the rest and had only thirty feet to go. I forced myself to calm down, to breathe properly, to regain rationality. As my arms cooled, my feet began to scream louder. Soon, there was only smoldering ash and no open flames were visible on my forearms. I rested for hours and then shouted down to Heidi, “How long have I been here.”

“Not long … a minute … maybe.”

The shaking almost began again. My mind pinballed through the purgatory of shaking-out. “Have I rested enough to recover or lost too much trying to recover?”

First, I boldly shouted down, “Okay, I’m going up!” Then truthfully, I squeaked, “Watch me!”

Surprising myself, I thought I’d climbed smoothly and had flowed to the belay. In between hoarse, wind-sucking wheezing, I clipped in and gasped, “That last bit wasn’t so bad.”

Heidi was laughing at me. “I don’t know,” she said. “You looked even shakier than usual!“

The next day found us camped on the top of the wall and rappelling happily down to the head of the Brown Dihedral. Heidi quickly led a great pitch, up a short crack with a desperate 5.11 surge to the right and then up onto a stance with a belay. Above this was the site of a pendulum to the next belay, twenty feet to the right. We discovered that it was possible to lieback the off-width to the top of a pinnacle-like flake and then down-climb the opposite side. This eliminated all of the rope swinging at a mere 5.9+ and put us right at the belay.

Although she had never climbed a flaring hand-crack, the next 5.10+ lead fell to Heidi. She cruised steadily upward until somehow she got both feet into the crack and pinned the rope in a way that kept her from either moving upward or from coming into balance. More than a few anxious moments passed while she frantically solved how to get out of the situation without getting out of the jams she had gotten herself into. When in doubt, thrash! She did and it worked. Just above, she found herself belaying beneath a sinister formation called “The Maw.” This remarkable feature is a huge fanged mouth, jutting into Mexican airspace. The next lead climbed from a sloping belay into the black-bottomed mouth, then behind the giant hanging tooth. By grabbing the lower tooth with the left hand, it is possible to reach way out to a finger bucket with the right hand, then let go with the left and perform a one-armed trapeze swing across the void to a horizontal hand-jam leading to a ledge. This pitch, in 40 feet, threads its way through the Maw, free climbs a tension traverse and turns a large corner.

On the next 25 feet, we replaced aid from rotten copperheads in a rotten seam with a touch of 5.11a free climbing. The remainder of the rope-length was a sometimes overhanging and always fun 5.9+ bucket-haul, up a steep corner- and-crack system.

From here, two long rope-lengths of varied 5.9+ climbing put us at the end of our eleventh pitch. Here was a blocky trough, suitable for a spacious bivouac, but with no place to lie down. Even though the ledge wasn’t the most comfortable, the bivy was very fine and the night was clear and warm. The stars burned icy-white as we enjoyed a leisurely meal of mustard-sauce sardines and Stoker bars. We had brought along our stove. After our banquet and several hours of reading by headlamp, we enjoyed a dessert of hot Tang and a mini Snickers.

The next morning, we climbed up the last impasse. Above a 5.7 pitch was a cave-like alcove. Rising out of the alcove were two overhanging crack systems. I looked at each and figured that either would go, but not without a good fight. While I was deciding between them, Heidi had been eyeballing a weakness she had seen from below. She urged me to climb straight out the side of the alcove, traversing right and up, along a thin crack. She believed the crack would arc upward to easier, and therefore faster, cracks than the ones just above her shadowed and windy-cold belay. I took her advice, and a dicey but well protected 5.11a lieback allowed quick climbing up a system of cracks that paralleled the two rising out of the alcove. We knew that we were really close to the top because Heidi’s next lead began by threading through the branches of a tree growing from the top of the alcove pitch we had avoided. From those branches, fun, 5.8 climbing up corners and grooves took her swiftly to the summit. Heidi belayed me up and we both were beaming smiles and laughing. It was the end of our great climb and the first ascent of a new, super quality free climb of a Grade V wall. The fantastic route, the sublime weather, the magical region and my incomparable partner: it was a perfect blend. Even though we have experienced this area when it deserved its nickname of Poor Man’s Patagonia, this free climb was just the opposite. For us it became a Rich Man’s Spiritual.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Sierra de Juarez, Baja California, Mexico.

First Free Ascent: El Gran Trono Blanco, Pan American Route, V, 5.12c/d, late October, 1993 (Paul Piana, Heidi Badarocco Piana).