Europe, my soul searches for you the cobblestone streets that wind through villages leading to glass windows of baguettes and old women whose men in work boots on tractors of plowed fields under endless skies filled with limestone undulations of time.
Cities of young and beautiful,(cigarettes and cameras) buildings of histories and oldlike the dirt on the soles of the shoes of those who left the pastoral fields for the sunrises on rooftops.
Well into our flight to New York, my head hit the tray table as I jarred awake, startled from my dream. I had just fallen for the 30th+ time on the last crux move of Picos Pardos, a route I had been climbing on for the previous three weeks. As my vision came into focus, I could make out the stewardess passing a customs form to the man sitting next to me. Our five-month trip to Spain to explore its limestone in places like Picos de Europa, La Hermida, Rodellar, and Oliana had finally ended, and we were heading back to California.
As I adjusted to my reality, I was a little relieved to be on the plane heading home rather than coming to rest at the end of my rope again. And yet even though I felt relief, I also felt empty, like I had a hole in my heart or like I’d just been dumped.
My husband was asleep in his seat. Two days before we boarded our plane, he had achieved a personal best in his climbing by making a successful ascent of the 55-meter overhanging route called Fish Eye — an aesthetic line of incut
crimps that ascends the very center of the crag on gold and blue limestone at Oliana. And while this was a big deal for him, no one on this plane knew or would even care.
I was excited for him and thankful for the time we had just spent together and the experiences we’d had, but I was downright depressed. Why had I spent so much time and effort trying something only to leave not having completed it, having fallen time and time again in the same spot? What was I doing with my life? I could see the doors of an existential crisis opening before me.
I am getting older. The sun and the wind define the lines on my face more with each passing day. What was a hobby in my teenage years has turned into a whole life, a passion I cannot ignore. Endless days have been spent amongst the rocks in places both near and far — from the alpine terrain of the Northwest Territories, to the granite monoliths of Yosemite, the sandstone towers in Utah, the sketchy crags in Mexico, the impeccable rock found throughout Europe.
Holidays have been missed, birthdays come and gone. I missed home — my grandmother’s hands, my mom’s voice, our traditional Lebanese foods, and the slow Southern accents. I missed my dad and his jokes and his sense of style.
My best friend was in California, a man who has devoted his whole life to climbing. His climbing resume is impressive to say the least. He is respected by many, has many acquaintances, and is involved in some great youth work. But he is single and lives alone, and I wondered if he hadn’t indirectly isolated himself from others by having chosen a life of climbing. Even though I was with my husband, I felt very lonely.
I knew it would be possible for me to climb Picos Pardos successfully — I had done all the moves, I had linked through the hard part but had fallen higher. I just needed another chance or two or five or who knows how many. I also knew I might not make it before we left, and I’d been telling myself it didn’t matter, that it was all just practice anyway.
But when I fell on my last try on our last day, it was hard to decipher the wave of emotions spreading over me. I wondered if it had all been in vain — if I had been fooling myself the whole time — and as I sat on the plane feeling sad, I wondered what was the point if in the end and in between we feel lost and lonely and empty?
By the time we were landing at JFK, the hole was filling with sad relief. I could move on, try something else, be released from my self-imposed prison. We tell ourselves, “We can do it,” because we have to convince ourselves it could be possible despite all odds — despite gravity, despite reach, despite conditions, despite any other external factor in the world — because we want to see what’s possible and what it takes to make the dream a reality. And many times we succeed. But more often than not, it’s these times that we don’t where we really learn about ourselves.
Words by Katie Lambert, Images by Ben Ditto
After months of planning, wondering and waiting, Ben, (our new friend) Edu, Sandra and I were finally standing below Picu Urriellu, except we couldn’t make out the formation, as everything in the cirque was enshrouded by Orbayu: a thick, misty fog with a smell not unlike the sea which it rolls off. Our only inkling that the Picu towered above us was that we stood on the porch of the refugio, which guards the approach to the base of the wall. Picu Urriellu, otherwise known as the Naranjo de Bulnes, a formation so grand that it can be seen from miles away in any direction, was still a mystery, even in such proximity.
Often referred to as the centerpiece of Spanish alpinism, the Picu has become Spain’s most famous mountain, yet it sits largely unknown to the rest of the world. It has been said that anyone wishing to call themselves a true climber needs to have this on his or her list. I was drawn to the Picu’s west face by its reputation of steep and bold limestone, by rumor of oddball trad placements, out-of-sight bolts and hard, technical free climbing. With there being around 50 free routes on the west face, my tick list would potentially be quite extensive. Climbing some of the harder free routes would be a more long-term goal; this would be an intro trip, a trip to get to know the wall, the place, and find the most inspiring lines. We would have a couple of weeks in the area before fellow Eddie Bauer athlete Caroline George would meet us. This would be our first time meeting and climbing together, and I was excited to have a good route picked out for us.
Murciana 78 (6a, A1+/ 7c+ free 550m) was one of my objectives. It was first put up as an aid line by Alfonso Cerdán, Juan Carlos Ferrer, Juan Carlos and José Luis Garcia Gallego in 1978, over a period of 9 days, and then eventually free climbed in 1990 by Nick Dixon and Andy Popp. I had come across some photos of the route in my searching in earnest for some sort of beta on getting to and climbing in the Picos. The crux pitch ascended an overhanging dihedral and then exited out onto a steep and technical-looking face. From the photo, the rock looked impeccable. But as we stood on the porch of the refugio and scanned the area for a good spot to pitch our tents and unload our burdensome packs, Murciana 78 and the west face, with all the rest of its routes, still stood as myth and rumor. And just as the anticipation of seeing the wall was about to kill me, the fog dissipated and gave us a very quick glimpse of the orange and grey towering monolith of limestone. In bed that night, tucked into my sleeping bag, I mulled over the guidebook, trying to decipher the history of the Picu. I drifted off to sleep that first night with the thrill and excitement of the days to come.
In August of 1904, Pedro Pidal, Bernaldo de Quirós and Gregorio Pérez (“El Cainejo”) opened the mountain to climbing by establishing a route going up the north face via the path of least resistance. They soloed barefoot, up chimneys, corners, cracks and runnels to the summit, naming their line after themselves, the “Pidal – Cainejo” (V- 400m). This is a feat both impressive and futuristic, especially when one considers that nowadays climbers typically use ropes and gear, as well as shoes, to ascend this feature. As the years went by and the skill and knowledge of climbing walls improved, the other faces of the Picu saw ascents. August of 1924 marked the first ascent of the more modest south face, with a route named “Victor” (IV+ 250m) established by Victor Martinez Campillo. The east face had its first ascent in 1955 by Maria Jesus Aldeco, Jamie Cepeda and Pedro Udaondo, establishing a route called “Cepeda” (V+ 350m). However, it wasn’t until August of 1962 that one of the most historic ascents took place up the steepest, most technical and impressive faces of the Urriellu. Alberto Rabadá and Ernesto Navarro ascended the west face, employing both free climbing and aid climbing tactics, up a line climbing 750 meters to the summit. It was dubbed the “Rabadá-Navarro” (6c 750m), a name which brings many people to the Naranjo de Bulnes to this day.
While there was a lot of action on the Picu for over half a century, most of it was accomplished by men. In 1971, another very historic ascent took place on the west face. Martine Ware—Caroline George’s mother—with her husband Larry climbed the Rabadá-Navarro. They spent two days on the wall, carrying bivy gear with them. With a newborn son (Caroline’s older brother) only 4 months old at home, she became the first woman to scale the west face, a feat that was newsworthy, as reporters and camera crews awaited them on top. Sometime in the 1980s, this route went free. As the decades rolled on, so did the talent level, frequency and magnitude at which people were capable of free climbing, and many other routes went free as well. The grades started to soar from the 5.10 and 5.11 range to 5.12, 5.13 and 5.14 range. The Pou brothers opened up numerous hard aid lines to hard free climbing, creating some of the world’s toughest walls. In 2002, Josune Bereziartu, a very talented and accomplished Basque climber, became the first woman to free climb one of the harder free lines on the west face,”El Pilar del Cantábrica,” going at 5.13. This made quite a mark in the history of the Picu, as well as female alpine rock climbing.
The next morning, we rose to clear skies and readied ourselves for the first climb of our trip, Soy Un Hombre Nuevo (7b+ 450m). Recommended to us by a Spanish friend, it would be a good introduction to the climbing there. The chill of the morning was almost unshakable, as the four of us hiked up to the base wearing jackets, windbreakers, hats and gloves. We were looking at approximately 6 more hours of cold shade until the sun hit the wall.
This would be Spanish alpine rock climbing at its finest. The climbing lived up to its reputation of thin, technical and run-out, with creative gear placements. Sandra gave over all her leads to me. In between many meters of climbing, there were sometimes spits (often mistaken for an expansion bolt), sometimes there were pods or small fissures to place cams or stoppers and sometimes there were cords threaded around rungs of limestone, where the water had worn away the rock behind. Very often, it was just better to run it out over long distances, not worrying about which funky piece of gear was better or worse. My previous season in Tuolumne Meadows had tuned me up just right for this, and I was overjoyed to lead us through the edges, sidepulls, gotas, and steep jugs. We climbed ten pitches or so of 5.11 and 5.12, with a handful of 5.10 and easier, joining Ben and Edu on the summit nine hours after setting off. The cold never gave way, and we were taxed from the climbing as well as all the shivering. Elated to be on the summit, we coiled our ropes and discussed which way to the descent. The last rays of sun cast a golden glow over the sea and across the vast valleys capped with paleozoeic limestone in alpine karst peaks. Picu Urriellu had not disappointed us. I was excited about what we had just experienced and looked forward to reaching the summit again with Caroline.
A week later, piles of food, clothing and gear stretched out across a tarp in an asphalt lot in the small village of Arenas de Cabrales, the gateway to the Picos. Caroline George had just arrived from Switzerland via planes and rental cars, and we were gearing up for our next trek up to the Picu. The three-hour approach follows a well-worn footpath through herds of goats and cows, ancient houses that resemble well-organized piles of rubble, and an ever-steepening incline gaining somewhere close to 3,000 feet from the car to the base of the wall. As we paced ourselves under heavy loads, we talked about her parents’ ascent in 1971, what our previous week of climbing had been like, and what the route I proposed we do was. She was intrigued by the myths of the Picu as well, and was game for whatever I wanted to climb.
We arrived at our base camp just as the goats had come in for their daily visit. For a hefty fee, the refugio offers a three-plate dinner both to those who sleep there and those who wander in from the mountains. They serve bananas for dessert, and as disappointing as that may seem to us, the goats love the peels. It is the habit of the refugio workers to throw all food waste outside. Because of this, every day a herd of 100 or more goats comes running down the mountains into the cirque—through the tents, trekkers and climbers—straight to the food pile. After entertaining ourselves with the goat show, we set up camp and settled in. The evening was clear and gave us a great view of the wall. Going over the topo and pointing out the line of Murciana 78 to Caroline, it was agreed that we would climb it the next day. So once again I settled into my sleeping bag that night with the excitement of the day to come.
The sound of the Jetboil igniting roused me from my slumber. At 7 am the cirque of the Picu was still cast in darkness and only the promise of something hot to drink could lure me from my bag. As daylight shook it’s drowsy head we made tea, cheese and jam sandwiches and donned our climbing gear. The chill was uncomfortable but as we made our way to the base, blood coursing through our bodies it was decided that it wasn’t all that cold and we left behind our thicker down jackets in exchange for the lighter ones. The “crisp” mountain air would be perfect for trying hard on the 5.13 crux, a pitch that would be coming soon after the first two 5.10 corner pitches.
Having climbed on the wall the week prior I was used to it’s characteristics and opted to lead whatever Caroline didn’t want, but her enthusiasm was evident as she said I should take the crux pitches and we could just swap leads for all the rest. It was game on as I set off on the first pitch. The cool limestone was tacky and textured and as I stemmed and chimneyed my way to the belay placing some gear but not much I was eager to get to the business of the route. After belaying her up the first pitch she set off on the second 5.10 with more crumbly rock, gear placements and crack climbing. This brought us up to a gently sloping belay ledge and the crux of the route.
The wall arched slightly overhead and out of the rock opened up a steep, overhanging crack in a wide dihedral. After 40 feet of this the crack abruptly ended at a gentle overhang where the hard and technical face climbing started. Taking my shoes off I rubbed my cold and numb toes. I needed all the feeling I could get in order to stand on the small edges and high-step my way through the crimps. I had a quick snack, chalked up and set off.
The crack was steep and pumpy but amazingly friendly and took great cam placements. A threader marked the last move out of the crack and onto the steep face. Some tenuous and punchy moves led up to the first bolt and then a brief rest. From there it was more foot edging and more crimping up precision movements to the first crux. A cross-through to a small, sloping right hand edge, a high left foot and an aggressive move out left to a very positive incut. I matched there, shook out and continued the crimp fest to the next crux where a series of sidepulls and wafer like holds made the way to a long move up to a flat jug. I rested briefly and entered the sequence to the last crux consisting of a small gaston and a thrutchy move to another large flat hold and then I was clipping into the anchor. I had sent the crux pitch, a pitch which is mostly done as an aid climb and now there was just one 5.12 next followed by 10 or so more pitches of 5.11 and 5.10.
I belayed Caroline up and set off on the next pitch. It is here that I almost fell, as this pitch is also typically aided and there was no chalk to follow. I quested up, down, right and left. I kept a wicked forearm pump just at bay, and I barely managed to sort out the correct sequence on the correct holds to make it through to higher ground. Relieved to have made it to the anchors, I belayed Caroline up and happily handed over the next lead to her. From here, we pretty much swapped leads the whole way out, leading over similar terrain as the week prior with long runouts, some spits, and creative gear placements. With a couple hours of light left, we reached the summit! We had just made a team free ascent of the classic Murciana 78. Caroline reached a summit that both of her parents had stood on over 40 years ago. I made the first American (female) free ascent climbing–all 550m of it–with no falls. While this was not perhaps some groundbreaking ascent, it was another mark in the history of the Picu.
The sun beats against the white lacquered walls of the Tuolumne Meadows store as the grease sizzling in the grill filters out the door. A breeze rattles the notes, flyers and pictures tacked to the cork board out front; climber partner wanted, gear for sale, looking for a ride, missing persons – it’s always the same year after year, week after week yet checking the board, scanning the names, looking for some bit of inspiration scribbled on a scrap has become regular habit. A faded and sun-bleached picture of John Bachar soloing adorns the left side of the board, written in marker below it says, “Bachar Lives.”
Tuolumne is riddled with the imprint of Bachar – while he passed on in 2009 much of him still remains and it’s arguable whether or not what’s been left is a positive force (or not.) We all know the story of the ground-up days of bold in the 80’s and early 90’s – where anything from 5.5 to 5.11 could be so run-out that injury and possibly death become factors of the climb. Bachar wasn’t the only one establishing hairball routes but he did have an immense role in the legacy that modern day climbers are left to face. Some more modern routes still follow this style but what it’s all led to on the whole are mystery routes not oft repeated; routes that hold an allure but scare off those not seeking the questions or the answers of, “What is going on up there?”
This year makes my 8th summer in Tuolumne and through the years I’ve found myself on quite a few precarious smears and stances searching for the next hold, the next bolt, the next gear placement and the passage that will unfold. Originally, I was drawn to Tuolumne by the Masters of Stone videos – Dan Osman not only soloing but dynoing way off the deck on Blue’s Riff; Ron Kauk crimping his way up the pebbled streak of Peace. I heard tales of having to be head strong, sure footed and unwavering in motivation for the domeland of Yosemite.
Since my first summer in Tuolumne I have picked my way through many of the classics and many of the more obscure, making many second ascents, some possible first ascents and learning a lot in the process. In 2009 I partnered up with Lonnie Kauk and together we made the 4th and 5th free ascents of Ron Kauk’s contribution to Medlicott, Peace. In over a decade this superb piece of rock had only seen less than a dozen ascents. With a successful red-point of this 160 ft knobby crimpfest my ego made me feel special but I wondered why such a beauty had been left alone for so long. This route opened up a new world to me of Tuolumne climbing and in my search of the climbs of lore what I found were mossy holds, old bolts, weird bolts, run outs, technical test pieces and few people who wanted to embark on these journeys. It was becoming clear to me that these gems of the past were being looked over for safer, easier, more traveled terrain.
Sometime in the 90’s Dave Bengston put up a one-pitch climb on Daff Dome which exits left off the sloping ledge from the 1st pitch of Cooke Book. His long and lanky figure spanned from distant hold to distant hold and he rated the pitch 5.12c and aptly named the route The Albatross. However, two more potential pitches loomed above and yet it wasn’t until some 8 years later that they were unlocked and red-pointed by Mikey Schafer. Mikey’s smaller stature and technical prowess laid to rest what Bengston’s longer frame couldn’t pull and thus The Rise and Fall of the Albatross was established going at 5.13a/b. Another 6 years went by before another ascent was made of the steep, technical and slightly run-out route when Ben Ditto and I both subsequently red-pointed every pitch summer 2012.
While I was temporarily pleased with our accomplishment I was intrigued by a line that was veering off to the far right from the second pitch belay. I realized that this was the crux pitch of the infamous Bombs Over Tokyo. Rumors and mystery surrounded this climb and the words, “hariball and runout” seemed to drip off the holds. Just after our red-points of Albatross we left Tuolumne for the Cirque of the Unclimbables and then Europe. We wouldn’t be in Tuolumne’s graces for another year, yet my interest was piqued by this mysterious route and I vowed to return later.
In July of this year I went from the ground to search out the mystery of Bachar’s Bombs Over Tokyo. After the first and classic 5.10c pitch we encountered the 5.11dR pitch. A Bachar route in all its glory as a fall going to the first and only pin some 20 plus feet up would result in a fall into a ledge and broken ankle. We went around and lowered in. The thin, closed-off seam turned out to be more of a technical crimp fest than a lieback and the possibility of any real solid gear was questionable. According to local hardman Bob Jensen, some friends had tried to pound in another Lost Arrow but couldn’t get it in and they bailed. I was equipped with tiny nuts and managed to get two odd-ball placements of a small brassy and small offset. If they held a fall they would at least keep me off the ledge and even if they pulled they would hopefully slow me down enough to not totally smash my world apart. Hopefully all of my technical training on runout slabs would prove useful on this one.
Then came Pitch 3, the real mystery of the route. Originally the aid line went straight up from the belay and then around an arete into a right angling crack. Bachar’s account is that this is the line he freed; after a few attempts he red-pointed and rated it 5.12c. It looked ok, but what really had my interest was a bolt line going up and then way out right out of sight over a roof. The “hairball traverse,” that maybe hadn’t gone free but had been attempted and was probably in the 5.13 range.
I ventured up placing some cams and then moved down to the first bolt and the start of the hand traverse out fairly positive edges and knobs for 20 feet to the next bolt. A fall from this zone would have been terrible and resulted in another ankle breaking possibility. Relieved at having made it to the second bolt I peeked around the corner at what lay ahead and what I saw was both amazing and intimidating. 40 more feet of traversing on thin edges to a down mantel to some hand traversing across a roof to another mantel up to hopefully some holds and then 40 more feet to the anchor. In all of that terrain there were 4 more bolts. They were newer, shiny and egged me onward.
I took some deep breaths and set out around the corner and out of sight of my belayer. Climbing across fairly delicate and pliable holds I had made it to the roof and set about hand traversing out it. The exposure was surreal and it was starting to give me the creeps. I thought to myself that all I had to do was mantle up, make a couple of moves and get to the next bolt. Except the holds were dirty and covered in lichen and every time I pulled up with a heel hook into the mantle my hands would slip a little and every time I would climb back down and way back left to the last bolt 15 feet behind me. I did this about 5 times, each time looking back at my 9.1 rope draped across sharp knobs, wondering if the sideways fall into the unknown below the roof would cut my rope. Eventually I returned to the belay, leaving behind two lowerout biners and we rapped to the ground. John Bachar Lives played over and over in my head as we walked down the trail and I was more intrigued than ever.
I spent time thinking about the route, asking around about it’s possible ascents and was left with questions. I kept climbing on other lesser known and less-repeated routes. Ben Ditto and I made an ascent of one of Drug Dome’s newer, forgotten classics called Anatolio (5.12+R). A route put up by Chad Shepard in honor of his departed grandfather. While on this route I became intrigued by yet another newer, forgotten classic put up by Sean Leary called Acapulco Gold, going at 5.12cR. It took me three different trips up the route before I could pull the moves on the wildly steep (by Tuolumne standards) crux pitch. In my attempts to stick the polished and sloping knobs I took a few large wingers out into space as there are no bolts which protect the crux moves making this route stiff and committing, (not to mention the R first and last pitches). It was fun to have such air time in Tuolumne and I relished the moments of flying. Eventually with the belay of good friend Patrick O’Donnell I made possibly the second ascent of this route.
Continuing on with my tour of the harder, technical and less-repeated routes of Yosemite’s high country I set to work on another Ron Kauk contribution to Pywiak Dome called European Vacation (5.13b); A definite technical test piece and one rumored to be too reachy for the shorter folks I was determined to sort out a sequence. In asking Ron about it he could hardly count on two hands the number of known ascents of this route. He did mention that Lynn Hill red-pointed it but as far as other women it was unlikely. My dear friends and fellow petit crushers, Maki Grossnick and Thea Marie and I tried it out one evening. Initially unable to pull the intro moves but managing to crimp and balance and steady our way through the rest of the route I was immediately hooked. Two more sessions in this beautiful spot hidden from the crowds and the noise of the road I managed to figure out the opening sequence and was blessed with another Tuolumne free ascent making possibly the second overall women’s ascent of the route.
On August 10th I once again set out to solve the mystery of Bombs Over Tokyo. Cruising up the most enjoyable 5.10 intro pitch I arrived at the 5.11R. Having placed two small nuts in shallow, precarious placements the thin, technical climbing was now protected with three pieces in it’s entirety. As long as I stayed calm I could keep the balance and precision. I recalled the stories of this pitch with it’s original two fixed pins and how one of them had fallen out. My nuts seemed solid enough and keeping my breathing regular I gently made my way to the anchor, hoping that the next crux pitch would go just as well. I belayed Ben up as he did spectacularly well on the foot chips and centimeter edges of the crack.
So, here I was again on Pitch 3 climbing over and around the arete, crossing my left hand over my right onto half-pad edges and smearing my feet on the steep gold wall. I reached the breakable, incut flake edge and shook out. I had a wicked forearm pump and was starting to consider the terrain ahead. Another cross to a bad, layered crimp and then the down mantle to the roof traverse to the final mantle to the balancy, technical face. Two more bolts stood between me and the anchor.
Before setting off I had told Ben to just have a lot of slack out, as a fall from anywhere out there could result in a crater into the roof. I figured at least with a lot of slack I had the hopes of falling past the roof into space. I wavered between totally calm and confident to scared silly. I yelled back at Ben who was out of sight 60 feet away that I was scared and he replied, “It’s ok, nothing bad can happen.” That was all I needed to hear, a light went off in my mind. I just needed to let myself pull the moves. With some tenacity and assurance I climbed down to the roof, one foot below me, one foot heel hooking and into the sloping knobs and mantled up to edges. Soon enough I was balancing on both legs, pressing up to reach the high half pad crimp to clip the next bolt. I stood up, exhaled, chalked up and kept moving. I made it to the anchor and let out a “WOOT!”
A party below us was on the 1st pitch of Bombs and the belayer yelled up in excitement. With two more moderate pitches to the summit I had done it, I had made the first free ascent of this route. All summer I had sought out the questions and pulled through the mysteries. I had just put myth to rest and what I found to be truth wasn’t so bad after all.