In the early 1990s, I was 18 and climbing consumed my thoughts. One day Jimmy Dunn – a legendary Black Canyon climber whom I admired for his go-for-broke “rope, rack and shirt-on-your-back” style – walked into the climbing shop where I worked in Moab and said, “Hey man, you want to go to the Black?”
“Sure,” I replied, not knowing what that entailed.
A few days later at 5 a.m., we left the North Rim campground and headed down the Cruise Gully to the start of the Diagonal. Jimmy and Earl Wiggins had tried to free it twice before, only to get benighted and forced to aid to the top. I’d never climbed a big wall and, staring up at the 1,800-foot route, it suddenly sunk in: We were going to climb that in a day with one rope, a few cams and a set of stoppers?
Six and a half hours later, after lots of simulclimbing and some 60-foot whippers (by me …), we’d made the first free ascent of the Diagonal. I looked at Jimmy and instantly knew we had accomplished something proud. That day opened my eyes and forever inspired me to climb in a traditional style.
Traditional climbing is an art. Finding protection is also an art, and there is nothing wrong with a rock unclimbed. My most satisfying climbs have come when I’ve left only chalk behind, and I think climbing in a minimalist style in the big mountains is the ultimate expression.
In 2006, I stood in a lush wildflower-choked alpine meadow in Pakistan’s world-famous Trango Valley, surrounded by some of the world’s greatest big walls. My dream of climbing in the Karakoram had come true.
Under calm skies, Micah Dash and I packed for an alpine-style attempt on one of the Cat’s Ears Spires. We wanted to ensure that these inspiring spires remained bolt-free, so we went without a bolt kit (or pitons). To save weight, we also went without sleeping bags and real food – it seemed like a great idea in base camp. We soon learned that off-width climbing at 17,000 feet is a true test of one’s ability to suffer, especially because we only brought one large cam, and as we climbed higher, the sound of calving seracs crashing into the glacier below seemed to increase the intensity. Several times, I approached my breaking point and called on all my years of climbing on smaller stones. I felt like an ant in a sea of granite.
Near the end of day two we finally drew close, and the summit’s needle-like point seemed to pierce the sky. A 400-foot traverse across a knife-edge ridge of gendarmes led to just below the summit block. We stood on a small ledge and pondered the encroaching storm. Water ran down the cracks. The temps dropped, and blowing snow now covered the gendarmes. “Dude, I don’t know if we can reverse the ridge,” I said. We continued until we’d each climbed to the summit and then back down, since the top had no anchor.
Several rappels later – slings around flakes and single stoppers for anchors – night fell as we reached the ledge where we had left our pack. “Wish we had some food!” Micah said, as we melted snow, trying to fill our stomachs with water before another night of shivering.
The next morning we packed up, finished rappelling, and stumbled across the glacier. Back in camp, I looked up at our climb with eyes wide-open, just like 12 years earlier with Jimmy in the Black.