When Peter Croft and Johnny Woodward first freed the Moonlight Buttress in 1992, they rated it 5.13b, making it one of the hardest big-wall free climbs in the world.
Over the next decade, the perennially popular “clean aid” route saw a handful of free ascents by a crop of well-known crushers, and, ultimately, consensus pegged the Moonlight Buttress down to 5.12d.
Nowadays the Moonlight Buttress is a casual day outing for people with 19-inch forearms who’ve never even placed a cam. A few climbers are starting to think the Moonlight Buttress might only be 5.12b—and if so, that makes it a full number grade easier than it was during the first free ascent.
So … what has changed since 1992? Were Croft and Woodward just a couple of grade fluffers compared to today’s dime-a-dozen bone crushers?
Me thinks gnomes. After 24 years of aid climbers crawling up the Moonlight and bounce-testing every single textbook cam placement in the relatively soft Navajo sandstone, subsequently gouging out the 1,000-foot splitter one hang-dogging fat-ass at a time, the finger locks have meow gotten much easier.
At this rate, the Moonlight Buttress will be a super fun 5.9 hand crack soloed by every Honn-abee in hand jammies.
To stave off this obscene destiny, can we all just please agree that the Moonlight Buttress is no longer going to be an aid climb?
Or … can we not agree to that?
This is the question du jour. Must we climbers be open, encouraging, and accommodating to every whimpering gumby who wants adventure like they want their Burger King orders—their way?
Two worlds, not colliding online … but very much colliding in reality.
What’s interesting about the Moonlight Buttress is that the “clean” protection ethic that was best first articulated in Doug Robinson’s seminal 1972 article, “The Whole Art of Natural Protection” didn’t account for what “clean” protection such as cams (not that cams were even around back then) would do to sandstone splitters after 20+ years and thousands of ascents.
If you’re one of those climbers who thinks, “Hey, we’re all climbers and it’s all good, bro!” then you aren’t thinking hard enough. Now that more and more people are interested in taking their sport-climbing-honed skills up onto big cliffs like El Capitan, I predict this discussion/conflict will define the next five to 10 years of climbing.
A discussion pertaining to this issue erupted on the Evening Sends Facebook page. Some of the most relevant voices in climbing chimed in about how fixed gear will begin to play a role in this unfolding conflict, particularly on El Capitan, which is a veritable 3,000-foot Christmas tree of shiny, fixed ornaments.
The question is no longer as simple as whether or not metal of one variety or another should be used. It’s about answering a multitude of questions, beginning with is this route going to be primarily used by aid climbers or free climbers, and what kind of experience would improve the quality of the climbing on the route while remaining true to the original style in which it was first climbed (aid or free)?
Here are some highlights from the Facebook debate:
James Lucas: Maybe Valley climbers will remove bullshit fixed gear and replace it with bolts. At least people are starting to freeclimb more on El Cap.
Marc André Leclerc: I thought the bird beak protected climbing on Corazon was awesome. Would’ve been lame with bolts. You could rip a pitch and hit nothing but air anyways.
James Lucas: yeah…I’m not into it. If you’re gonna alter the rock, it should be long lasting. A good beak for you might be shit for the next ascent. Punching holes in flakes on the top of Golden Gate, the fixed hexes on the Enduro pitch of the Salathe, the numerous pins, they should either be pulled and climbers should use the large variety of removable protection we have at our disposal (c3s, huge cams…) or bolts should be placed. People need to forget some of the traditional tactics and consider the future of the crag. If there’s been tat on a bolt for fifteen years, the bolt shouldn’t be given a permadraw, it should be moved. Set El Capitan up to have minimal impact. Climbing gear is good enough now that the pro should either be non-damaging and removable or it should be a bolt. Putting heads and pitons in the rock harms the rock more than a bolt.
Max Jones: A few years ago, Mark [Hudon] and I cleaned about 100 heads/deadheads from the first two pitches of Mescalito. In some places there were two or three stacked on top of each other. When removed many small cam placements appeared. What was odd is the crack, with all that copper, has essentially been sealed from damage by pins until beaks and good small cams were invented. Why would anyone want to clip their way up a time bomb head ladder when you can use ones brain and place gear. I think I agree that on the free routes bolts are better than placements that will blow out a crack.
Justen Sjong: James Lucas, If this is the case we are going to have so many cool new free lines on El Cap! I’m all for protection that lasts but not just adding bolts for sheer convenience. There is a fine line that we are walking but I strongly believe that most of us can make the right choice. Just think long and hard about the long term impact on the rock. Love seeing El Capitan getting so much free climbing traffic.
Dave Allfrey: There isn’t a blanket rule to be applied here, Marc likes it, James doesn’t, but I think there is a difference between a pitch that takes good beaks and, for example, the hammered in stoppers on the Enduro pitch on the Salathe. The wires are rusting, they are poorly placed and old, I doubt they would hold a substantial fall. Maybe Totem Cams would fit those weird flares, but Camalots wouldn’t. It’s a tricky, and perhaps slippery slope for making this changeover. I do think that if some of the fixed hardware were replaced with permanent gear (bolts) the climbing would be more fun and aesthetic. And, as important, we need to update some of the old, crappy bolts that litter the mountain (like the ones on ‘The Move’ pitch of Golden Gate, one already pulled out straight from the hole). It’s too bad there isn’t a way to receive a permit to power drill so that mass updates could be made and higher quality glue-in bolts could be added to anchors and routes on El Cap to preserve them once and for all.
Marc André Leclerc: The beaks on corazon are in an A1 seam, there are RP placements in between at times. I thought it was quite safe and added an adventure element. I’ve never been on Freerider, and admittedly the A5 traverse is a bit of a mess with long shitty slings hanging and stuff. I’ve definitely been put off by the slings hung so you can clip from low down. They rot, look like shit and are kind of weak sauce. The two routes I’ve done (Muir, Corazon) have none of it thankfully.I just don’t think every pin or head needs a bolt slammed in right next to it. That’s been done on routes in Squamish and it makes for unnecessary bolt in poor stances and takes away from the aesthetics of the route. A good example of this is The Great Arch, which goes naturally on good wires, but had original pins swapped one for one with bolts and is a mess.As a general rule if I place bolts in favour over leaving pins I put then well spaced with good clipping holds for good engaging climbing with airy runouts. Like the Underfling on the grand wall, which used to have pins and now has bolts, but significantly less bolts than the original number of pins.
Bolt All Of It? Some of It? None of it?
When Tommy Caldwell established the free Dawn Wall—as in, when he pioneered where the free route would go, which took place well before he actually got around to free climbing it—he made a number of prudent, tough decisions about where to place new bolts.
A big part of that consideration was leaving the original aid climb intact.
Caldwell reportedly placed no bolts on any pitches that were/are part of the original aid route. As a result, many of the free pitches that overlap with the aid climb are quite spicy, as confirmed by Adam Ondra’s recent ascent of the Dawn Wall.
During his initial ground-up ascent, Ondra, on pitch six, a 5.13c, took a 40-foot fall after several copperheads and broke a sling.
“I didn’t know how to place copperheads, so I didn’t want to rip any more of them out of the wall,” says Ondra. “So I aided up and tried to top-rope the pitch.” (Obviously, he later led the pitch clean during his successful free push.)
Here’s a great scenario to consider. This is a situation in which the gear is inadequate to protect free-climbing lead falls; replacing the copperheads after every fall would damage the rock, perhaps needlessly; and, subsequently, the use of aid-climbing gear results in using headpointing/top-roping tactics for free climbers, which arguably makes the experience more lame.
One solution, of course, to a situation like this might be to add in a few well-placed bolts. However, even a few extra bolts on a copperhead pitch detracts from the challenge and aid-climbing experience.
So, who wins?
As of 2016, there are only three people in the world who have freed this pitch. Obviously there are way more aid climbers out there, so should preference be given to aid climbers?
Or can we safely assume that, 20 years from now, there will be 300 people free climbing the Dawn Wall? And after all that traffic and nailing, will some of these pitches drop a full number grade—as they have on the Moonlight Buttress?
What do you think?
Thanks to Corey Rich for the opening photo of Tommy Caldwell on the 19th pitch of the Dawn Wall (5.13c/d).