American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Shall We Take a Drill? The Riddle of Style in the Cordillera Blanca

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  • Publication Year: 2001

Shall We Take a Drill?

The riddle of style in the Cordillera Blanca

Leo Houlding, United Kingdom

Shall we take a drill?” I asked tentatively.

With only a few days left before Patch and Neil were due to leave, this was the last time we would see each other before meeting in La Esfinge base camp. We were about to go to Havoc, a techno club in Manchester, and expedition planning did not seem to be atop the agenda.

“Why do we need a drill? Look at the picture: the rock’s broken and well featured. I’m sure we’ll be able to climb naturally.”

Patch pointed to the shot in the Rock & Ice Super Guide. His purist’s perspective impressed me. Although Sam had never climbed a big wall, he agreed.

“What about pegs?”

“We definitely need to take a selection of pegs,” said Adam, the most experienced amongst us.

“Pegs are real pain in the arse—heavy and slow. We want to find lines we can climb in our usual style. OK, it’s a bit bigger than Gogarth, but it isn’t El Cap.”

The style that Patch was referring to is the way in which we normally climb at home in the U.K. A team of two climbers alternates leads, sharing the fun pitches. The second follows and cleans everything free. If necessary, he carries the load. There are no bolts; we do not use pegs (though some routes do contain them). Instead, we carry a massive rack, climb on two thin ropes and carry lots of long runners to limit rope drag. If the leader falls, we switch leads. If the second leader also falls, the decision as to whether to redpoint or use a point of aid and come back another time is made depending on the extenuating factors (hours of daylight remaining, distance above the ground, etc.).

The above is not a statement or rule about how you should climb. It is just the style in which my friends and I are used to climbing. However, having seen other climbers’ styles, and having had the chance to climb in our style on cliffs considerably larger than Gogarth (the routes of which are only three pitches long), I have come to realize just what a respectable style it is, and how pathetic some other styles are.

I respect that different people enjoy climbing in different styles. I don’t want to sound elitist, but it is the 21st century, the good new lines are running out and style is everything.

What I’m really getting at here are bolts. Specifically, bolts on big walls.

Climbing is a game and, quite simply, using bolts is cheating. What is the point in searching out great new challenges and then destroying them? It seems that to some, creating a route means more than climbing one.

On July 12, the last members of our comically disorganized “expedition” arrived in La Esfinge base camp. We did not have a drill. The decision not to bring one was never really made, but nobody had one and nobody wanted one. We are real climbers willing to play by the rules.

La Esfinge is a purist’s dream. The lines it holds are subtle and complicated, but they exist naturally. The rock is of a fairly easy angle and broken enough to provide sufficient natural protection.

We had very little information about the crag. The Rock & Ice Super Guide showed four routes, one free and three aid.

We split into teams and chose our lines. Sam and I picked the thin rising line of open corners that led up the center of the wall to the large “S” roof at two-thirds height before it then fizzled out right. It looked quite hard and in a few sections difficult to protect.

We hiked our gear to the base and chose our starting point. A wrestle with a bush, then a blank section leading to an easy angled line of ledges, would take us to the open corner. The bush had a good go at me, but I fought my way through and onto the rock. Some friction climbing without any gear brought me to the first interesting section, a smear move out left. It didn’t look particularly hard, but if I fell, I would deck from about 30 feet. After a brief search, I managed to dig out a selection of not entirely satisfactory wire placements ten feet lower. I returned to my high point and contemplated the move. Then to my horror I saw a hideous, ugly galvanized spot scarring the face of this gorgeous Peruvian beauty.

It was a bolt. Not even a bolt—just a drilled hole with a bolt sleeve in it. I realized that we were not on a new route, but my disappointment was withheld, as I still had to deal with the move out left.

The aid-climbing fool who had defaced this beautiful compact slab had assumed that people following his route would have a selection of masonry bolts suitable for screwing into the sleeve. Unfortunately, we are climbers, not construction workers, and carried with us only climbing tools. I sussed out the move, committed to the shiny smear and made it to the ledge without using the pointless hole. It wasn’t that hard.

Now the disappointment kicked in. Not only was I disappointed that our “new” line was in fact an established route, but I was also heavily demoralized by the fact that the first interesting section of this route had been destroyed. As we proceeded up, we found one of these ugly spots at every interesting section. Whoever put them there was obviously more interested in forcing a route than doing a climb.

The benefit of not being the first people to climb this line was that all the gear placements had been dug out, enabling us to climb onsight. I wasn’t too concerned that we weren’t making a first ascent; surely this would be the first free ascent. What bothered me was the pointless vandalism of the rock and the subsequent spoiling of our adventure. I know that the bolts were pointless because we climbed past every single one of these ugly spots using the age- old technique that some seem to have forgotten: the runout.

Whatever happened to rising to the challenge? Is it because somebody has traveled so far and invested so much of their time and money that they feel they have earned the right to destroy the point?

The second pitch was where we found our adventure. It was Sam’s lead. From the unnecessary bolt belay, he moved left into the open corner we had been aiming for—and how very open it was. It was, in fact, more of a groove. The rock, a beautiful golden red, glowed in the warming sun. He traversed onto the left wall of the groove and scoured the blank slab, searching for an edge or two. Not far above him, a thin line of small ledges (or possibly big edges) led up through cracked ground to an obvious rest ledge, and so onto the tasty looking section that would prove to be the crux of the route.

Eventually he found a couple of small crimps, but no gear. Then another ugly spot winked and laughed at Sam in his precarious, exposed position. He returned to the belay and we discussed going down to get some tent pegs that we might be able to hammer into these irritating holes. It really is frustrating trying to summon the psyche for a bold section of climbing, knowing only too well that if we had brought our construction tools, bold it most certainly would not be. It has a profound effect on the vibe of the situation.

Sam decided to go up and have another look. With the ugly spot now banished from his psyche, he committed to a balancy high step and made it to the ledgy edges and bomber gear. Forty feet of fun, safe terrain and he was on the rest ledge contemplating the steep intimidating groove above.

“Leo! I think this might be your pitch!” he concluded.

Sam came down and I went up. The groove had a very thin crack in its back. I arranged a cluster of 1 and 2 RPs and equalized them onto one rope 15 feet above the rest ledge. I downclimbed to the rest, clipped my other rope into the bomber cams at the ledge, and bounce tested the RPs. They held. Above my little cluster, the crack virtually closed. I could see the scars from knifeblades been and gone. It would have been easy to aid.

Painstakingly, I began the process of deciphering the moves of the groove, up and down, up and down, until quite suddenly my traitorous left arm abandoned me. We were above 4500 meters. At such altitudes, lactic acid becomes an even more menacing enemy to the unwary trad climber. The pump had taken hold, followed shortly by the fear. I was 15 feet above my none-too-inspiring cluster, facing a 30-footer onto a slab if they held and a really unappealing prospect if they failed.

My purism gave way to my cowardice. I fled for safety; we went down to get the pegs.

Early the next day I was back at the RP cluster. I tried in vain for too long to place a blade with one hand from a free position just above the RPs. After wracking my knuckles several times, dropping a peg and losing my rag, I gave in and sat on the cluster while I hammered in a piton to back them up. It didn’t go in well; in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t placed it.

By now, we had spent hours trying to negotiate this steep little groove. It was time to free it or frig it. I lowered to the ledge, rested, and went for it. A little way above my high point, I fiddled in a 0 RP, did a move that was harder than it looked to a hold (obscured by a small exotic cactus) that was smaller than it looked, and found myself committed.

My left arm on a countdown, I bit the bullet and busted several difficult moves until finally I was past the steep part, and my weight was back on my legs. I felt quite sick and incredibly relieved. A good wire out right, then another 80 feet of much easier climbing spoiled only by two more unnecessary bolts, and I reached the shady belay. A fine pitch. The heat I had generated while climbing in the sun in a t-shirt dispersed quickly and by the time Sam joined me at the belay I had developed a sniveling cold (which stayed with me for the rest of the trip).

We were forced by blank rock to deviate from our original line. A traverse left followed by two dirty pitches of an adjacent route brought us to a ledge where we could traverse back right. There was a heavily overbolted belay on the ledge. Perhaps there were so many bolts for the hauling convenience of the Spanish aid soloist who had been raining used toilet paper down our route. Perhaps not, but eight bolts in two square meters of rock is over the top for safety. Whoever placed them put them there for lazy convenience.

A fantastic airy layback pitch put us back on track. The sickle crack was, for me, the most traumatic pitch. Our only 00 Alien, fumbled and dropped in a crucial position, spoiled my fun and caused a brief humor failure. A little soul-searching and abusive screaming uncovered the bottle to keep going without any protection through the next hard section. A fall would have put me on Sam’s head from 35 feet. The satisfaction of sending the pitch onsight made it worth (for me at least) all the trauma.

Sam led a long wandering pitch through loose rock and long runouts to a hidden ledge system colonized by more bizarre Peruvian cacti. These were large spiky bushes with impressive four- to six-foot flowers reaching out of the face of La Esfinge. Trippy. I let Sam take the next lead, as I wanted the “S” roof.

A dream pitch—a small slab to a big roof and overhanging groove—led a full rope length through another roof to a ledge. It went onsight, but only because of a kindly placed, hands- off, back-and-foot rest right in the center of the big roof—and well-needed, as the roof is above 5000 meters.

To the top from the ledge was considerably easier then the rest of the route: long runout pitches blemished only by more of our aid-climbing friends’ pointless holes. We bailed right at the top instead of climbing the two scrappy looking pitches to the highest point of the wall.

On the summit we met Adam and Miles, who had climbed the 1985 route free in an impressive seven hours. Theirs was a little quicker than Nick and Marc’s eight-hour ascent, and considerably quicker than the ten-day first ascent.

Patch and Neil had arrived before us and had already begun their route when we got there. They had chosen a line based around the two large, left-facing corners in the center of the wall. They had climbed the most difficult-looking section of the route—the first four pitches—onsight without incident. This success inspired them to attempt the route in the best possible style.

They didn’t fix any ropes, opting instead to reclimb the start of the route every day. They took a standard rack, no pegs and of course no drill. By the third day they had reached the top of the first big corner, where the angle of the rock eases.

They decided to take a rest day before going for the route from the base to the summit in a single free push. They set off at first light and made good progress over the initial, by-now- familiar ground. A great stroke of misfortune overtook Patch on the fifth pitch when a side pull that he had used on the previous days broke, resulting in an unexpected fall.

They reached their high point and made a difficult traverse into the base of the second corner. It had looked quite reasonable, but upon closer inspection the hollow truth was revealed. The corner was a jumble of dangerously loose chunks of granite. Patch led the pitch without touching any of the blocks. The real danger was for Neil, who belayed directly below the corner. (Patch and Neil climbed with 50-meter ropes; apparently it is possible to belay in a considerably safer position on the left with 60-meter ropes.) The pitch warranted the unappealing grade of E5 5c, a grade reserved for only the most horrifically loose or dangerous routes. From the top of the comer, several easy pitches brought them to the summit.

Their ascent was not a by-the-book onsight, but who cares. They know it was. They weren’t climbing in good style to prove a point to anybody other than themselves. They opted to rise to the full challenge of La Esfinge without compromise. They had invested their time, money, and energy into finding a real adventure, leaving the wall the way they found it: free for others to enjoy the same adventure with no ugly spots.

It would seem that their route, Little Fluffy Clouds, follows a very similar line to that of the aid route, Ganxets Glacé, although we were not aware of this at the time.

Two friendly Spanish aiders creating a route to the left joined the Brit’s route at the fourth belay. For some reason, they found full big wall tactics necessary to scale La Esfinge, and were heavily equipped with static fixing lines and portaledges. At the fourth belay, which Neil and Patch had used repeatedly, the Spanish found it necessary to place three bolts (for their convenience, no doubt). Retrobolting should not be accepted.

Patch, climbing with Nick, also freed Dion’s Dihedral, a brilliant, obvious corner at the extreme right of the wall. It looked compact and hard, but the climbing turned out to be easier than it appeared. To avoid the 30-rivet ladder the aid climbing rapists had drilled straight up the corner at a blank section, Patch and Nick followed the natural line: a rising traverse on the left face leading up and then traversing back into the corner along the lip of a small roof. I believe this was the crux pitch.

Aid climbing is so artificial. When I aid a pitch, I usually refer to my ascent as a frigged or failed attempt. It’s just not climbing—it’s cheating. Of course, it has its place on the immense hairline cracks of Baffin Island, high-altitude walls of the Himalaya and for the majority of today’s climbers on El Capitan. But La Esfinge is not such a crag.

Two other free routes were ascended on La Esfinge in the summer of 2000. The American Dave Sharratt and Japanese Taki Miyamoto climbed a blank wall between the lines of Dion’s Dihedral and Little Fluffy Clouds. Intuition (V 12c) took them ten days to clean and to drill 24 bolts. Apparently, the climbing was good but unprotected in places.

Silvo Karo (Slovenia) and Mauro “Bubu” Bole (Italy), both of whom are accustomed to bold climbing, climbed the largest, steepest part of the east face via a vague nose. They took eight days and drilled 33 bolts to free the impressive Cruz del Sur (V 5.13a).

Both of these routes looked fantastic, and I would like to climb them. However, I would have far preferred to have come back and attempted to climb these fantastic lines, particularly Cruz del Sur, onsight without bolts. This is the real challenge in climbing; anything else is a second-rate attempt.

When Johnny Dawes attempted the nose of Strone Ulladale (on an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebridies) onsight and found it too intimidating and committing, he didn’t pull out his drill and chip his way to the top. He backed off and vowed to come back better prepared or leave it for the next generation. It awaits its ascent.

What is it that drives people to create a route at the expense of an inspirational line? The phenomenon is short-sighted and seemingly wide-spread. Of the many international climbers we met at the base camp, all of them intending to do new routes had brought a drill (except, of course, for our Irish friends Joe, James, Donal, and Al, who had forgotten theirs and who had a successful trip without it).

In many climbing cultures, it seems that dirty ethics and poor style are acceptable. In mine they are not.

It is the nature of the rock that must determine the style in which we climb. La Esfinge could have been developed without any bolts. It’s a shame to see such a perfect, naturally free crag raped by aid climbers’ drills. It is no longer futuristic. Stop destroying the challenge, which is the point of climbing. Leave your drills at home!

Summary of Statistics

Area: Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Ascents (all of the following lie on the east face of La Esfinge, 5325m): Here Comes the Sun (Bigger-Regan, 2000) (E6 6b, 700m), second ascent and first free ascent, Leo Houlding and Sam Whitaker, July 14-18 (with one rest day). This route uses the first four pitches of Papas Rellenas (Cruaud-Devernay-Peyronnard-Plaze, 1999). Little Fluffy Clouds (E5 5c, 650m), first ascent, Patrick “Patch” Hammond and Neil Dyer, July 12- 15. Dion’s Dihedral (Dolecki-Isaac, 1999) (E5 6b, 450m), second ascent and first free ascent, Patrick “Patch” Hammond and Nic Sellars, July 17-19. Bohórquez-García route (Bohórquez-García, 1985) (6c+/7a), free ascent, Nic Sellars and Marc Pretty, July 11; free ascent, Miles Perkins and Adam Wainwright, July 18.

Personnel: Marc Pretty, Patch Hammond, Leo Houlding, Neil Dyer, Nic Sellars, Miles Perkins, Adam Wainwright, Sam Whitaker

Twenty-year-old Leo Houlding makes his base close to England’s Lake District, but he is currently traveling and climbing professionally. He started climbing at age 10 and was brought up on the classic traditional routes of the Lakes. He moved to North Wales in 1996, where he climbed a string of the renowned bold test-pieces onsight, and established some cutting-edge “head- points” (leads that were first rehearsed on top rope). His preferred style is traditional climbing, and his passion is freeing big walls and bold climbing, though he also loves bouldering. He is best known for making the second ascent, with his friend Patch Hammond, of the Huber brother’s route El Niño (5.13c, 1000m) on El Cap virtually onsight in 1998. Other notable ascents include the first onsight ascent of Master’s Wall (E7 6b, 5.12d X) and Trauma (E9 7a, 5.13c X) in North Wales; the first ascents of Sweden’s Savage Horse (E9 6c, 5.13b X) and Norway’s The Shield (E6 6b, 5.12d R, 900m); and the first ascent of Passage to Freedom (E7 6c, 5.13c/d R) on El Capitan.

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