Mastering the chaos during solo battles on “the hardest big-wall route on the planet,” Mt. Thor, Baffin Island.
All my carefully laid plans are unraveling into chaos. It’s deep into my third night alone on Mt. Thor. Sitting on my camo bullet bag in my portaledge tent, I ponder the rivulets of water draining into the puddles on the floor. How am I to bivy in this mess? Should I sit up all night, or lie down in the water?
This won’t do. Despite my cold and fatigue, I go out into the storm and lower my tent 30 feet, out of the cascade. This freight-lowering maneuver becomes an epic as my arms grow weak and wooden with hypothermia.
An hour later I’m shivering in my sodden pit, hips and shoulders in puddles of cold water. And for two nights and one day I lie in those puddles of despair, wondering what happened to my Baffin luck.
Things got off to a rough start in Montreal in July of 2000, when my car got tossed and most of my gear was stolen. I dropped $5,000 the next day replacing some of it, but many of the hooks, hammers, and “special effects” were homemade and not replaceable. I spent many evenings filing hooks, making gear, and worrying about what was missing.
The rock low down on Thor is problematic. It is gneiss packed with gray quartz that is both harder and weaker than Yosemite granite. Extremely expanding and loose, this rock has a big weakness: its brittleness. Thin expanding flakes break easily. Fat natural hook moves atop weathered “crumble cookies” explode when weighted, leaving blank rock or slopers that must be “enhanced” with a chisel. This route I’m on looks so big and continuously hard that El Cap’s Reticent Wall—a hard, proud route—looks like baby food in comparison.
The wall above was terrifying and, filing new hooks at the base of the wall, I discovered my mind control was already wavering. The “pivotal moment” last year had occurred while I was drilling the belay bolt on pitch two.
The pitch had started with tenuous aid above two ledges and only got worse. After nine hours and a 50-foot runout on A5 (and a possible double-ledge fall), I finally found a decent knifeblade placement. Four hours later I was drilling that belay bolt. When I got there, I was so weak (with five bolts) that my normal A5 high was replaced with despair. I had overdrilled a second potential A5 crux down to A4 because of my faltering mind control. Furthermore, I was just starting up a huge route and was already worried that at my current rate I would use all my bolts before I got halfway. It was a huge mental battle. I needed to regain complete mind control (and stop drilling) or untie and “walk the wind” right now, before exhibiting further snail-eye. (“Snail-eye”: Ever poke the eye of a snail and see it retract into its body? That’s what your manhood does, figuratively speaking, when.…)
Several pitches higher I led a fat pitch that took two days. The bottom half is quality A4+ techno aid with tiny heads, expando beaks, and hooks up to an expanding flake that was just good enough to call the runout over. A blank section succumbed to hooks, a few bat-hooks, and two quarter-inch bolts. Above this was a long, two-inch-thick expanding flake that disappeared, followed by a long hook traverse (A5) into a good corner.
Pitch followed pitch, day after day, week after week. High up the wall I realized that I had mastered the chaos. I realized that I was more comfortable on Thor climbing expando and dodging rockfalls than I was in America. I felt a strange detachment from reality. With each misadventure I stood back and said,“What an adventure,” as if I was commenting on someone else’s misfortune.
For me, climbing big walls is not a speed event. It is a way of life. While others play trendy speed-climbing or “free”-climbing games on easy big walls, I play a different game of big-wall ascent, with rules of my own choosing. Climbing is anarchy. End of lecture. I daydream of going to a different planet that has mega big walls and spending a year on the face—just climbing, hauling, and taking rest days as needed.
While free climbing (5.9R) up to Hrungnir “Ledge,” I realized it was not a place I could afford to fall, as my protection was sketchy. A huge double roof below with multiple sharp edges would not be kind to my 9-mm lead line if I hucked. (I had extended my 11-mm lead line with my 9-mm tag line to finish a 250-foot pitch.) I was standing on dirty slopers with my left hand pimping an arête when my right hand pulled off a flake. The flake knocked my hand off the arête. I felt myself going off backward and time stood still as I slapped my left hand back onto the arête as my right caught a small crimper. I pulled back in and the “shake” didn't skate my feet off. A six-inch jet of blood spurted out of my hand with every heartbeat, and the arête was immediately covered with red. Blood poured off my elbow and sprayed into the air. The animal within took over and free-climbed like a man possessed for about 20 feet until a solo backup knot on the harness stopped him. At this point my mind was able to regain control. I’ve had my share of injuries, but never did blood spray out of my body. I pressed my hand against my mouth and immediately got a mouthful of rich blood. I swallowed. It tasted really good. This shocked me. I swallowed another mouthful before reaching for the tape clipped on my harness. I surveyed the trail of blood to the stained arête while licking my arm and beard clean.
An hour later I was hauling the pitch in a daze when my bags stuck. I jacked the haul system from 3:1 to 5:1 and it seemed to work for a while, but after 40 feet of increasing difficulty, I broke out of my daze. I realized that my 25-foot-long chain of six haulbags was not jammed against the double roofs below. Perhaps my old lead line (chopped by a loose flake on pitch 6) was stuck instead. This rope was dangling from the top haulbag in the chain. I set a rappel to check it out and brought two rope bags to pad the sharp edges below. Once on rap, I dropped in at speed without padding any edges. I quickly confirmed that, indeed, the dangling rope was stuck some 400 feet below. All my other long ropes were in play and to organize a 400-foot rap would be too slow. I tied my 50-foot ninja cord to the 230-foot mystery rope I was on and salvaged what I could. The stuck rope was incredibly taut, for I had hauled 40 feet of stretch out of it. I looked up my rappel line to the roofs and saw a big white puffy wad on the edge of the lower roof. This puff was my rappel rope sawing on a sharp edge. If my rappel rope separated, I’d get a quick tour of the lower face and make it to Valhalla before dinnertime.
I froze and tried to estimate my danger. The damaged section of rope was far above me, but even from here it looked bad. I clipped an ascender into each rope and reviewed my options. It appeared that staying clipped into both ropes would be safest, so, with some trepidation and a lot of innocence, I cut the taut rope and was catapulted upward. It was like falling up. There was a second of float, then a short fall downward.
And so I hung for a while as I’m wont to do and just laughed as I waited for my little dose to cut in. There is so little sweetness in this life, so when my adrenaline rush cut in I just enjoyed the moment. Looking down at my hand, I realized that I had not dropped my knife or cut anything important (like my rope) during that out-of-control maneuver. And then I started laughing like a psycho.
Go Abe was a Japanese solo climber who attempted, over the summers of 1996 and 1997, to climb a new route on Thor just to the left of my route. When just 45 feet or so feet above Hrungnir Ledge while leading an easy corner, he pulled off a dangling flake that chopped his 10-mm lead line. He did not survive his 40-foot ledge fall, and he died alone. I’m sure the Valkyries came and carried him off to Valhalla, for solo on Thor is certainly battle. Only those who perish on the field of battle go to Valhalla. I honor this warrior and admire his complete commitment to his chosen solo mission.
I was just 250 feet right of Go Abe’s gear stash and death bivouac chaos. My food and water were mostly gone, and I hoped he had enough to fuel my solo mission. I led a 250-foot traverse (off route) to get to his gear but was dismayed to find no food or water. Parks Canada did the body recovery but left most of his gear—the stuff I rooted and looted through. His portaledge camp had been destroyed by rockfall and he had worked the upper headwall from a boulder cave. How he planned to climb the virtually ledgeless overhanging headwall (1,800 feet) without a portaledge has troubled me since first I saw this epic possibility.
I had been looking up at the overhanging headwall for over a month now. It was the perfect venue for me: extremely overhung and very blank with only enough features to suggest a possible line. It looks like terrain on Reticent Wall or the Black Canyon’s Happy Trails, except far steeper and longer.
I decided to drill a bolt on the first headwall pitch. This was decided before I even started up the route. The reason is silly, but internally accepted. While Go Abe perished on an easy pitch, just 250 feet left of me, my pitch will prove to be more extreme. I refused to be killed in a situation similar to Go, because stupid people would lump us together. For a person outside the tribe, this might seem strange, but pride sometimes requires a man to die, and sometimes it requires him to live.
And so I started up the pitch (A4+) by climbing loose blocks (A3+ with a possible ledgefall) to a corner and finally a blank arch. A trenched circle-head blew in the arch but I didn’t huck, as my adjustable daisy shock loaded on a nearby funky knifeblade that held. After the bolt, marginal knifeblades driven straight up under thin expanding flakes led to a double-bolt belay—a rare treat to ease my troubled mind.
A blank corner above led to expanding roofs and blocks. Four placements into the crux (A4+) the wire tore out of my trenched (chiseled), small aluminum head and I dropped into space. I wasn’t scared. My mind instantly focused on my good belay anchor, and I just kicked back and enjoyed the 25-foot ride. Back in the old days, I seldom fell while big-wall climbing. Young and cocksure, I thought it was because I was good. Now I fall on every wall and know it is because the difficulty has increased to the point where cutting-edge gear and skill is not enough. Luck is also required—and required on a regular basis.
With two pitches fixed on the headwall, I looked forward to getting another load of ice chunks in the morning, then committing to the headwall and moving up to my high point. A big storm moved in overnight, however, and dawn broke bitterly cold and snowing. This didn’t deter me from the day’s agenda, and mid-day found me unroped, crossing exposed, snow-covered scree and rock with a huge load of ice chips in a blizzard. One slip and I’d be over the edge. It was surreal in the half-light and blowing snow. It was so real yet I felt totally disconnected from reality. But I heard a voice on the wind and I listened. It was my three-year-old daughter. “Don’t fall, Papa,” she pleaded.
Back at the ledge/tent I piled in and resolved not to commit to the headwall until the weather broke. Five days later the snow tapered off but the weather was not much improved. Daytime highs of 50° Fahrenheit in August had become highs of ten degrees in early September. All my water was frozen. I had plenty of gas and ice, but only seven days’ food. Still, I was eager to finish my route, even though I knew it would take a couple of weeks.
On the morning of the sixth day of the storm I decided that if I were to have any chance of summiting this year I must climb today and the storm must clear today. I knew that once I committed to the headwall there would be no chance of retreat, as each pitch on the headwall (except the last) overhangs 25 feet. I jugged the two pitches, cleaned one, and racked up. It had taken five hours. Every rope was sheathed in one-and-a-half inches of rime. Every knot was frozen hard. Everything was coated in rime, and still it stormed. I was shivering uncontrollably in the bitter wind. The pitch above looked A5. Would I be able to stand on dicey hooks while shivering this badly? Would my rope, frozen stiff as a wire cable, even hold a factor-two fall? A rip to the belay was definitely possible. I realized my best chance on the headwall would be to abandon my circuitous techno aid and drill the direct linkages with bat-hooks. This would get me on top, but it would also degenerate my proud route.
This was the hardest decision of my life, as I wanted to complete this route in the best style I could and in a single push. Yet I realized it was September above the Arctic Circle and it was not going to warm up. It was all too much. When my analytical side did the math, it didn’t add up. Then my aggressive side cut in with: “This is what we want. How far have you come because of me? I will bring us through this, as always. I will carry you and in the end you will thank me.” Then I did the math again.
It was desperately cold. I couldn’t just hang around. It was either up or down. I felt sick to my stomach. I decided not to “think this through” but to “go with my instinct.” My instinct felt I would not survive the headwall in these conditions with the food I had unless I abandoned style and drilled it up.
I rappelled into the vapors. Eventually I felt a strange enchantment as I realized that I would live to see my children. I was supremely happy, as I had almost just given up that hope. But as I struggled out of my frozen outerwear I knew that I would have an opposite and equal reaction the following day: depression.
Two days later an eight-day storm broke, but the temperature never did rise in the following two weeks. I was bummed that my route would require two summers instead of one. This taint will bend climbers against my proud route and me. But I accepted my destiny.
The following day I traversed to Go Abe’s stash and grabbed an ice hammer and ice screw. His crampons would not clip to my boots. I soloed unroped with a small pack, for I had left everything behind except a micro rack, rope, lunch, and one liter of water. I expected to make my riverside campsite that day as I had previously read in an old magazine that two members of the 1985 American Direct team had traversed off and returned via this “ledge.”
I made fast progress until Hrungnir Ledge became an overhanging wall. A forlorn 9-mm rope with multiple deep core shots was fixed between widely spaced quarter-inch bolts. I slid across this marginal rope. The next pitch wasn’t any easier as I traversed snow-covered slabs 10 feet above a sharp edge, looking at the death fall. I reached easy ground as night fell, so I crawled into a crack and shivered all night without bivy gear.
At first light I downclimbed 1,000 feet on Hrungnir Ledge, but it ended abruptly on a blank 2,000-foot wall. I re-ascended 500 feet to a mixed gully and climbed without crampons and with but one primitive tool four pitches of 5.10 M6 to the shoulder. I took one fall on an ice screw while crossing an easy ice gully, but that was trivial compared with the shakefests I endured on the unprotected slabs and bulges above.
One snow-covered slab was particularly memorable. Small stones were frozen onto the slab, and these I cleared of snow, mantled, and stood on. While on a 50-foot runout I encountered an “impossible move.” No holds and no possible friction on the wet slab. I couldn’t down climb, and a big fall in this situation would be fatal. I packed snow onto the slab as a hold and—supergripped—mantled onto it.
After two of my coldest nights in the mountains and two-and-a-quarter days of alpine terror, I reached the base.
For this year’s attempt I prepared in a manner similar to the year before by soloing a hard El Cap route in the spring—this time a new A5 variation to Surgeon General. I also soloed an A6a test piece—Canyonland’s Outlaw Spire—that required not only extreme aid expertise, but an ambivalence toward life that is refreshing. Pitch two (A6a) on Cult of Suicidal was a full 90-foot runout with ground-fall potential. It was at least one full grade harder and more dangerous than anything on Reticent.
In mid-July, two weeks after leaving Montreal and after many days of load-carrying, I set out for Hrungnir Ledge. I drop in with six raps and do eight roped traverse pitches to my route. I rope up on the traverse as the conditions are sketchy with three inches of snow on three inches of ice on loose scree, which all lay upon wet, dirty slabs. I adopt a climbing mode of fixing my lead line to an alpine belay anchor, then returning for my 65-pound load of food. This works for me because I get to kick steps with only 20 pounds, then follow the pitch with the big load in a set of steps along a horizontal rope fixed at one end. I slide an ascender for a belay.
While traversing an icefield just five feet above its bottom edge, I suddenly find myself falling down a gully atop a thin slide of snow, ice, and scree. I flash upon my anchor-protection-system and come up with “probable death fall.” My anchor is a one-by-one-by-three-foot boulder lying on loose, 35-degree scree. My fixed line stretches 150 feet horizontally across easy snow/ice without intermediate protection. I am clipped into this rope via a single ascender, and the edge of Hrungnir Ledge is but 40 feet below me. Instantly I rock my long axe from swagger stick to selfarrest position. Just before insertion I flash on angle of insertion, depth of insertion, and body position. It is at this moment that I realize I am falling down a rock gully. I don’t think an ice axe self-arrest will work. While face down in self-arrest position—riding this rapidly accelerating debris—I look down over my left shoulder and spot a boulder, three feet above the gully, three feet left of the gully, embedded in gravel and coming up fast! Instantly I drop my axe and throw a four-point dyno for this boulder. My hands land on either side of the boulder and I am in a point of balance when my 65-pound load drives me hard into the boulder. I am fully amped and hold on.
“I stuck it with both hands,” I say slowly as I look below. There is not another sizeable boulder above the edge of the 2,000-foot wall. I survived this fall in the no-fall zone only because I reacted instantly, figured out a new plan of action, threw a big old busta move, and stuck it— all in a couple of seconds. If one hand had missed I would not have had the strength to hold the impact of my falling pack and me.
A strange moment of sweetness follows as I realize I’m in the zone, climbing well, and will live to climb those A5 pitches on the headwall.
After ascending to my high point of the previous year and fixing an A5 pitch, I set out on what turns out to be the crux pitch. Two beak-and head-seams lead to a small roof that provides only a circle-head and bad blade stack. Further heads lead to delicate hooking on loose flakes. Thin natural hooking up to the natural belay is the technical crux (A5c). It is an 85-foot runout airfall. I’ve put in shorter runouts elsewhere that were rated higher (A5+) but they were ground-fall routes.
The weather breaks the next day, and for a week it’s stormy and cool. Although I am on an overhanging wall, I am constantly damp from condensation—I’m climbing in a cloud. I take one day off but climb all other days. One day is particularly miserable, so I quit after five hours.
During this period I am distressed to note that what appeared to be a knifeblade crack from the ground is in reality a thin dike of black crystal. I do more drilling than expected here, but still end up with long Reticent-style A3+/A4a pitches.
After 18 days on the wall, I reach the summit. I believe my route, Project Mayhem VII, 5.10c A5c, is the hardest big-wall route on the planet. Sixty-six bolts and about 35 bat-hooks were drilled. It has five pitches of modern A5, three pitches of A4+, nine pitches of A4, and one-and-a-half pitches of 5.10c face climbing. I hiked 175 miles and spent 57 days on the face and three months alone over the summers of 2000 and 2001.
After cleaning up the base of Thor, I raft out with most of my gear in a tiny Kamikaze raft I had carried in. While rafting below the last major portage, I miss an eddy and am swept into a rapid I had not planned on running. I jump out into the shallows, but while I struggle with my raft in waist-deep whitewater a wave breaks over my raft and carries away my only paddle. I jump on my raft, and, lying face down on top of my packs, insert my index fingers into the half-inch holes provided for the optional oarlocks. I then balance my overloaded raft through the rapid and four-foot standing waves chasing my lost paddle. The river separated into multiple braided channels, and I never saw that paddle again. I floated the remaining eight miles to Overlord out of control.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
New Route: Mt. Thor: Project Mayhem (VII 5.10c A5c), Jim Beyer solo, three months total during the summers of 2000 and 2001.