by JESSE JAMES ….
One of the most legendary multipitch excursions in all of Canada, the Grand Wall cuts a brilliant line up the cleanest sweep of granite in Squamish, an imposing face of steep corners and flakes. I run up The Grand at least once a month to re-assure myself of my manhood.
The Grand Wall is a fantastic afternoon climb for two seasoned trad climbers looking for a quick two hour workout on an awesome wall. It is no place for a newbie.
I thought I would introduce this tremendous route to my buddy’s cousin, let’s call him Pete. He was 20 years old, all muscle and radness, a lean and muscled warrior who practiced intense martial arts training for years. A hundred pushups? No problem. Fifty pullups? Easy peasy. I mean this kid was Bruce Lee. Shazaam!
We were going to run up The Grand, and eat breakfast while we simul-climb the Split Pillar. But there was just one problem: Pete had never touched rock before. Not even plastic. He might have climbed a ladder – once. This could be trouble.
I was a little worried about his belaying – as in, he had no idea how to belay. So we dragged up a mutual friend on a second rope. I would lead on two ropes, and use my trusty ATC Guide to belay both climbers up below me. Only problem was, the two ropes were so thin we weren’t sure they were rated for top-roping a second. Twins? Halfs? Who knows the difference? And up we went.
The first two pitches of the Grand Wall are designed to keep pussies off the route. With seven bolts in 70 meters, and the first bolt a solid 10 meters off the deck, the slabby dyke gets your head warmed up for the main event. This is not the place for a 5.9 climber to show his stuff on lead. I considered peer-pressuring Pete into leading the first pitch (‘what are you, dude, some kind of pussy?’), but thought he might actually fall off, and die, so I canned the idea pretty quick.
After the first two pitches, appropriately called ‘Mercy Me,’ we hit a beautiful 5.10b traverse. Now was the time to test Pete’s headspace; the pitch can be terrifying for a weak second if the leader ‘forgets’ to place any pro, simply clipping the two bolts and being done with it. As I traversed rightward, I considered plopping in a bomber red Alien. Nah, I thought to myself. He’ll make it. And around the corner I went, fingerlocking my way to the top. The cool thing about this pitch is that the second can’t actually SEE any protection as the leader disappears around the corner; no gear, no bolts, nothing. Let’s put this guy to the test, I thought to myself. See what he’s made of.
On a previous ascent, I watched my relatively experienced second take a horrific pendulum fall on this pitch, and waited patiently for an hour as he ascended the line with a prussik. If Pete fell, I would have to rap down and help him up. He didn’t know a prussik from a hand jam. Perhaps due to his martial training, Pete kept his head together on the exposed traverse, struggling fiercely at the crux near the bolts, but otherwise cruising. I was mildly impressed; the gruesome pendulum potential hardly fazed him. Or maybe he was too much of a newbie to understand what happened to the human body as it bobbed and bounced off slab on a 20 meter pendulum whip.
After the first three pitches, we arrived at the base of the famous (infamous?) Split Pillar, a 5.10b splitter crack soaring forty meters skyward, dead vertical, imposing, awesome. I climbed the Pillar during my first year of climbing, when my ‘coach’ handed me a few pieces of gear and said; ‘Go for it, man.’ I tottered and squirmed halfway up the pitch when my foot unexpectedly popped out of the crack, catching the rope and flipping me like a pancake, sending me headfirst below the belay, where, upside down and mouth agape, I found myself staring into the bulging pupils of a terrified female climber at the top of the previous pitch. I blinked, composed myself. ‘Howdy,’ I said. And then I began yarding up the rope.
Recomposing myself at the base of the Pillar, I quickly fired up the route, and this time kept my feet in the crack, where they belonged. When my ‘coach’ got to the top, he told me that below him were two German girls guided by a local rock guide named Jeremy, and that my fall had frightened the ladies so much that they insisted on a quick retreat. Jeremy also chewed out my coach for sending me up such a route, clearly unprepared, with a minimal rack and no helmet, much less any skill.
A few weeks before the climb with Pete, I had brought my friend Paul, a solid 5.14 sport climber, up this same route. Paul could clip bolts, but could he do the man-dance on a trad route? I wasn’t so sure. He admitted the day before taking his first fall on gear – on Hand Jive, a Squamish classic at the Lower Malamute graded 5.10b. Same as the Pillar, except Hand Jive was a one-move wonder. Paul agreed in advance to test his mettle on the fearsome, gaping hand crack of the Split Pillar, so I made sure to bring a bare-minimum rack for the whole climb, six cams and a few nuts. Secretly I hoped he would take a ferocious whipper like I did years ago. Handing Paul the gear at the base of the Pillar, I told him solemnly; ‘Man, we don’t have much gear. You’re gonna have to run it out.’ He had never led anything above 5.10b, and you could probably count his total trad leads on one hand. Interesting, I thought. Going to be some action.
Paul started up the initial half-inch layback crack, and just kept on laybacking. ‘Jam it, dude,’ I shouted up to him. ‘JAM IT!’ Nope. I watched in rapt horror as he laybacked the entire 40 meter crack, pausing occasionally to blindly stuff in a piece of gear. (Mental note: find a crack climb that sport crushers CAN’T layback.)
And so I stood with Pete looking up at this beautiful line, knowing full well that he would be yarding on every piece of gear I placed. Like Paul, he had no idea how to jam. But unlike Paul, he couldn’t climb 5.14. I doubted if he could climb 5.9.
I wasn’t sure he could make it up the Split, or the Sword, and almost certainly not Perry’s. It wasn’t that his footwork was bad; he didn’t have any footwork. It was almost like he didn’t have feet. He was doing pull-ups on the 5.9 crimpers of Mercy Me. This could be bad, I thought.
‘Don’t worry, Pete, it eases up,’ I encouraged him, as he gazed upwards, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, at the ridiculous splitter in front of him. ‘Easier than it looks, trust me.’ And so up we went.
Pete was an amazing guy; no complaining, no bitching, no tears. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his experience, with no evident fear of heights. The exposure on the next pitch, the world-famous Sword (5.11a), was startling, but Pete was grinning ear-to-ear. Much stronger climbers than him have been reduced to tears at this point on the Grand Wall, suffering the humiliation of retreat. I asked Pete how he was doing. ‘AWESOME,’ came the reply. He was psyched.
Unfortunately, his body wasn’t responding nearly as well as his mind. In the middle of the Sword, as he pulled left onto the absurd exposure of the face, his fingers began clinching inward, like claws. It was some kind of hideous cramp. He couldn’t even open his hands. He had to pry his fingers apart with his teeth. Yes, his teeth. Betrayed by his body, Pete struggled on, somehow inching his way up the final lieback, desperately yarding on gear.
The next pitch, Perry’s Lieback (5.11a), is an amiable 5 minute cruise for me, but for some people this is the crux of the entire route. A stupendous number of bolts protect relatively easy but endurancy moves. For people who aren’t strong, this pitch can feel hard. Pete was not strong.
After more than an hour grovelling up the wide layback crack, he emerged from the abyss claws-first looking terribly haggard, his hands bunched up into quasi-fists, bloody, unsightly, useless. As he crawled up to the belay station, like some ugly avian lobster, I pointed to the ominous roofs above me; ‘Showtime,’ I said. ‘This is the crux, the meat, the real deal. Are you ready for this, buddy?’ I watched all of the youthful exuberance seep out of him, like a tire slowly deflating, as he turned pale with dread. ‘Oh, sh*t,’ was all he could muster.
Of course, we don’t pull the roofs on that pitch – it’s a casual stroll across the slabby ‘flats.’ I had to haul him up the rest of the route, yanking with all my might on the belay, appropriate punishment, I thought, for my foolishness in cajoling a complete newbie up this intimidating route.
The final pitch, called the Sail Flake, took at least an hour, with Pete constantly falling and swinging downward, then trying to climb the rope, Tarzan-style. As we traversed Bellygood Ledge, looking down at five hundred meters of air, I was concerned that Pete, in his depleted condition, might stumble on a third class move, dragging me down to oblivion. So I roped him up to his friend, then sprinted across the ledge to eat lunch and admire the view.
What are you compensating for?
I'm sure you simul climb the split pillar
Usually I have a hard time seeing the rationale behind the "Climbers are a bunch of risk taking, selfish adrenaline junkies" attitude. But, when I read about people behaving like this and then, for some bizarre reason, feeling proud enough about it to write an idiotic essay I totally get it.
Very happy I've never encountered Jesse on a multi-pitch. Our few encounters in the bluffs have been enough for me to pick another crag if I notice him around.
Someones gonna get hurt
Hi, I'm Jesse James. I'm a professional Mountain Guide and run the rock climbing meetups in most Canadian cities and climbing venues. Visit my blog at http://AlpineRock... and check out http://ClimbMeet...., it's Facebook for climbers
6:00 AM Myself and a first (and last) time climbing partner I'll call "Elmer" met up at the parking lot in Squamish to climb Diedre, a classic 5.7 on the Apron. He is a cc.com lurker who said he is a "safe, all around 5.10 leader" who's been dying to climb this route forever. I've climbed the route before and led all the pitches, so I agreed to let him do the leading.
7:00 AM We arrived at the base of Diedre. The approach took somewhat longer than usual because Elmer insisted we rope up for the steep approach through the trees. There was a festival-like atmosphere at the base of the climb, with people of all ages from around the world. We found ourselves waiting for the party ahead of us, which was waiting for the party ahead of them, who was waiting for the party above them, who was waiting for the party above them--who was apparently superglued to the rock. Or perhaps they were just a pair of immobile manniquins that some jokers hung from the anchors of the fifth pitch to create a traffic clusterf*#k.
8:00 AM After an hour, nothing had changed, and I suggested we climb a different line up the Apron. "Hell no!" said Elmer, "I've wanted to climb this route forever!"
9:00 AM The top party showed some signs of movement, thus proving they were, in fact, not manniquins. Elmer started taping up (?) and racking his gear, which included a double set of nuts, a double set of cams to 4 inches, 4 tri-cams and 7 hexes.
10:00 AM The sun cleared the top of the Chief and the day turned HOT. Elmer set off on the first pitch up to the little tree.
11:00 AM Elmer arrived at the tree and put me on belay. I walked up to the tree.
1:00 PM We reached the belay at the base of the corner. Elmer was--as advertised--a very safe leader. I returned the 11 pieces of gear I cleaned on the pitch leading up to the corner where the fifth class climbing starts.
1:30 PM The parties ahead of us had moved up sufficiently that we were clear to climb with no one slowing us down. Elmer started up the dihedral. Judging by the severity of the sewing machine leg he had going, he appeared to be a little nervous. But he protected the pitch very well.
3:00 PM Elmer arrived at the belay. Shortly thereafter I arrived and handed him back the 19 (!) pieces of gear he placed on the pitch. The insufferably slow parties ahead of us had by now left us far behind. We had clear sailing ahead all the way up to Broadway! However, now we appeared to be slowing down the pack of anxious climbers below us.
4:00 PM The scorching day got hotter. We drunk all our water. Elmer was showing signs of physical and mental strain after leading the first three pitches of 5.6 or 5.7. A noticable tick has developed in his left eye. I offer to take a lead or two, but he responds with surprising vigor: "No f*#king way, I've wanted to climb this climb forever!"
5:00 PM Elmer is still within spitting distance of the belay, swearing and sweating as he tried to fiddle in an RP, his 6th placement on the pitch thus far. There were approximatly 8 frustrated parties jammed up beneath us now. I was starting to feel like the stubborn turd that's clogging the toilet.
6:00 PM Elmer arrived at the fourth belay. The climbing was taking its toll on him. Our water long since gone, I started to wonder how long it takes an average person to die of thirst. After resting for a half hour, his twitching had subsided somewhat and Elmer started up the next pitch.
7:30 PM Inexplicably, Elmer was building a gear belay 3/4 of the way up the pitch instead of continuing on another 40 feet to the bolted station. Gently, I queried him about his intentions. All I heard is a stream of angry profanity echoing across the valley and something about running out of gear. "I'm f*#king leading this f*#king climb...blah...gear...blah...f*#king forever blah...blah..." I wondered to myself how it would be physically possible to place all the gear he was carrying (enough to stock several small retail shops) on one 5.7 pitch. And as the sun cooked me like a worm on pavement, I wondered idly if he was afflicted with Tourette's or perhaps some sort of degenerative brain disorder like Mad Cow disease.
8:00 PM Elmer finishes building his anchor and brings me up. The tick in his eye has deteriorated noticably and his pupils are dialated in a worrisome way. I can't help myself and comment on his anchor, which is clearly a work of art--if you're a Celtic knotsmith or some sort of mad engineer. The anchor consisted of 4 cams and 3 nuts each qualized with double clove hitches and backed up with a secondary anchor composed of two tricams, a hex, two RPs, a cordellete and four slings. Granted, I'm a fan of bombproof anchors, but this one could have survived a direct napalm airstrike followed by a nuclear holocaust and still held a factor 5 fall. He didn't appreciate my kind comment. "Are you questioning my f*#king abilities you goddamn pissant?" Judged by his full-body spasms and the way he kept grinding his teeth, he was physiologically unstable and psychologically unbalanced.
8:30 PM After his outburst, Elmer calmed down a bit and started apologizing profusely, weeping and blubbering like a schizophrenic on a bad acid trip. I didn't want to say the wrong thing, so I just wrung out my sweaty shirt into our empty nalgene bottle, took a swig and offered him a drink, which he accepted gratefully.
9:00 PM We were still hanging awkwardly from his armageddon-proof anchor. Elmer had stopped crying and appeared to be in some sort of meditative state, perhaps visualizing the sequences or protection on the pitch above. An angry mob of climbers hoping to get off the Apron before nightfall had gathered below us, wondering what the delay was. (I'm sure they were also curious about all the yelling and wailing.) While we hung stationary at his gear belay, several parties simply climbed by us, including a grandmother in flip flops who was soloing with her grandchild in one of those kiddie backpacks, two hikers who apparently got lost on the Stawamus Chief trail, and a surprisingly speedy team of quadriplegics who were aiding the climb by placing gear with their mouths.
9:35 PM I was hesitant to disturb Elmer while he was concentrating on preparing mentally for the next pitch. However I was getting concerned about our pace--we were only about halfway up the 7 pitch climb, and I had to be back in Washington by tomorrow afternoon. I nudged him and once again I casually offered to lead a few pitches for the sake of efficiency. This threw the previously-peaceful Elmer into a blind fury: "No f*#king way, I've wanted to f*#king lead this goddamn climb for f*#king forever! What the f*#k do you think I am, some sort of f*#king incompetent?! If you ever again try to take one of my f*#king leads on this f*#king climb I will take this f*#king knife (brandishing his Swiss Army knife), saw your f*#king ears off, then cut you loose to plummet to your death you f*#king miserable condescending piece of sh*t!!!!!!" He emphasizes each word by puching the rock until his knuckes bled. One of his eyes rolled eerily back in his head. He was foaming at the mouth.
9:36 PM Hmmm. Fight or flight? That was the question. I figured pacifying this maniac was perhaps the best approach to the situation--or at least preferable to brutal hand-to-hand combat while tied in to a common belay 500 feet off the ground.
9:37 PM I put on my most sincere smile and said "Sorry, Elmer--you're the leader, you're on belay, climb when ready!" I said as cheerily and nicely as possible. Meanwhile I casually repositioned my nut tool on my harness for easy access in case I needed to kill this raving lunatic before he killed me.
10:00 PM It was getting quite dark. Elmer was finally ready and headed up the next pitch of Dierdre. I breathed a sigh of relief as the rope ran out (very slowly) and he put some distance between us.
11:00 PM Elmer finally reached the next set of bolts. Once I saw he was safely anchored, I yelled up "You're off belay!"
11:01:30 PM In the fading twilight, I untied from the rope, tossed the free end into space, waved up at a perplexed Elmer, turned and ran down the Apron (roughly along the line of Sparrow) as fast as I could.
11:15 PM I reached the parking lot, quickly disabled the alternator on Elmer's car, gunned my van towards the border and never looked back.
Epilogue: "Elmer" apparently survived, because he is back in the Partners Section looking for another poor sucker to attempt one of Washington's classic routes. The moral of the story? You never know what kind of psychotic you might get hooked up with when browsing for a climbing partner on cc.com...
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