The Ongoing Exploit
My dad has been a subscriber to Alpinist Magazine for longer than either of us have actually been climbing. I think we got him the first year as a Christmas present and we’ve been renewing it ever since. Anyway, sometime in those early years before I actually knew a butterfly knot from a piece of buttered toast (and had far more experience with the latter) I read an article about Eric Kohl. Now, unless you also read that article, or are a Yosemite Valley aid climbing aficionado, you probably don’t have a clue who Eric Kohl is. Eric Kohl was one of the baddest aid climbing masters who ever stood up on a skyhook. In the 90s he put up a couple dozen A5 monstrosities, most of them solo, most of them on the Falls Wall; a few of them used recalled bolt hangers and most of them are still unrepeated. You can’t find a story about someone repeating one without it involving them feeling like they are about to die. Anyways, so Eric Kohl solo aided a lot, and back then there was only one way to do this, with a clove hitch; the gist being that you feed yourself some rope, cinch up the knot, climb for a bit, and then feed yourself some more rope, and then climb for a bit more. This planted an idea in my head, long before, as I said earlier, I knew shit about climbing, that aid climbing could be done solo, and I paid attention to that because unlike climbing, I knew something about being alone.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that being alone has been the central and defining struggle of my life. My sister once dismissively described all her friendships before middle school as taking place before she “had friends who were not better friends with other people.” I have never gotten past that point; I have always been peripheral – a marginal character in a few people’s lives. I don’t fault them for this, I’m sure it’s all my fault for being an awkward, socially inept, self-absorbed, narcissist, but that doesn’t change the fact that trying to get into, and get better at, climbing, when you can’t seem to form relationships like a normal person, is quite difficult. But you can aid climb alone, that’s the point of this, you’re going so slowly that you can belay yourself with ease. Well, not exactly with ease, it’s actually a pain in the ass, but more on that later.
Some preface on how I got into aid climbing will probably be beneficial here. Me and Ryan wanted to do Liberty Crack, which, depending on how you do it, is about thirty percent aid, so we went to Index and spent a drizzly afternoon climbing the first pitch of City Park. We had his alpine aiders and my hand-tied aiders and his set of BD stoppers and my set of BD stoppers. I should probably mention the time I aid climbed a tree. I aid climbed a tree in my backyard one time. I came up with a sling system that constricted around the trunk to allow me to climb a 70ft Douglas fir. It was perfectly safe, except that I had no belayer, no lead rope, one hand-tied aider that was probably ten feet long, a set of texas slings designed for glacier travel, and two of these tree-anchor-sling things. At any one time I was anchored to at least one them, or rather, I was tied by a length of cord from the anchor to my twenty-year-old Robbins harness that was made of the same material as your car’s seat belt. I climbed about half way up the tree and then threw a sling around a couple branches and rappelled using a chunk of 11mm Petzl static line my dad had brought home from work. Some weeks later I went back up to get the sling. So City Park was the first time that I had aid climbed for real. Before that me and Ryan had gone out on a rainy afternoon and tried to aid climb Shirley. He had gotten confused and lowered off a fixed pin tied off with some god-knows-how-old webbing. Instead of pulling the rope, I followed, aiding on his pieces and cleaning them as went (I don’t think either of us had an ascender at this point). When I got to the pin I just lowered. In retrospect that would have been crazy, maybe I rappelled, or maybe we left a biner, it was dark by that point and I’ve consumed a lot of alcohol between then and now. Point is, it was a shit show, unlike our City Park climb, which took forever but went fine, because that climb is nothing but perfect nut placements from top to bottom.
Some weeks (months? like I said, lots of alcohol between then and now) later we did Liberty Crack. He freed the first pitch at 5.11something, I aided the Lithuanian Lip, he aided the scary fixed copperhead pitch, and we freed most of the rest of the climb except for about 15 feet around the rotten block. So by spring of 2014 I had aided two pitches, but I was recovering from a dislocated ankle and a badly ingrown toenail so all normal climbing was basically out of the question, and I remembered that Eric Kohl article and thought to myself that maybe I should try solo aiding. At the time I was working 6am-2:30 in a window plant in Bothell, so driving out to Index for an afternoon of climbing was no problem at all. My first goal was to solo aid City Park, after this went reasonably well, and working off of Daryl Cramer’s list of clean aid climbs in Sky Valley Rock, I solo aided Iron Horse and Stern Farmer. At this point I was still using a grigri, or at least I was for City Park. At some point I read about them spontaneously not holding falls and I switched to just a clove hitch. These all went reasonably well, except for when Danny Coltrane saw me just below the crux of Stern Farmer and voiced some concerns about my anchor. I had thought those two podded finger-size cams oriented for upward pull looked fine. He said something to the effect of, “Just don’t fall, oh and by the way do you have any hooks?” I said, “No, I thought this was supposed to be C2.” To which he replied, “Yeah, C2 can have hook moves, here I’m attaching mine to your tag line.” And that’s the story of how I did my first two hook moves, in a row, with no belayer and a questionable anchor.
After this I attempted Green Drag-On for the first time, which was really fun because the second pitch has some mandatory free moves. It’s a six pitch route and I bailed after pitch two, pledging to return with more gear, more water, and more of a clue what I was doing. In the end I managed two of those promises. The “more gear” turned out to be cam hooks. Somehow, a pair of cam hooks were the first piece of climbing hardware I bought new. I tried them out on City Park and Iron Horse first and then took another shot at Green Drag-On. This time I got Chandler to come up with me the night before and fix the first pitch via the Davis-Hollard route. With this head-start I made it to the top of pitch four before bailing, although, in my defense, I had completed all of the good aid pitches, with only the rest of a bolt ladder, a short C1 section, and a dirty low-fifth top out ahead. The real reason was that the bolt ladder was reachy as hell and I didn’t have a stick clip and that meant sketchy-ass hook moves between bolts, which, my anchor far out of a sight below a roof and no belayer, had scared the hell out of me.
Despite the fact that I now know other people who like to aid climb, this is actually something I’m still doing. Sometimes it goes better than others. The other day I hauled my entire rack and two 70m ropes to the Upper Town Wall to try Dana’s Arch and check out the nearby pitches. It felt like I sweated out about a quart of water just getting there. Upon arriving I discovered a couple things, the first is that Dana’s Arch is really quite short, and also sport bolted. As a clean aid exercise, it was deeply disappointing: almost nothing but easy hooking between bolts. I could have contrived myself a challenge and skipped the bolts entirely, or even just used them for protection only, and I’ve done that before on aid climbs that have been retro bolted. On TPMV I clipped a few bolts I didn’t step on and on The Stigma I just pretended they weren’t there, but the pin scars on this one were funky as hell and I didn’t have very many offset cams. It was cool though, to get a look at a new part of the wall, and to know that I can go climb almost whatever I want if I’m willing to endure some shenanigans.