Climbing First Ascents – Why?
By Dave & Maiju Lucas // The climbing press and media are full of accounts and images of very impressive first ascents by the climbing gurus of the day, just take a look at the press of recent days and you’ll see it splattered with the details of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first free ascent of Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Faced with these images and write-ups it is very easy to believe that in order to attain a first ascent you must be at the top of the game, climbing high E grades. With the right encouragement, guidance and destination any climber can pioneer their own new routes. People say that the golden age of climbing is over, but I believe that it is still alive and kicking, it may just take a little more effort to find and climb virgin rock. With a little research and commitment you could be standing at the bottom of an unclimbed wall looking up at a multitude of unclimbed lines grinning like a kid in a sweet shop. This beautiful experience is open to more people than you think – maybe even you….
A sense of adventure leading to the unknown…
Discovering a wall untouched by another human hand is a great adventure. The thought of the next Yosemite lurking just around the corner can keep you walking, driving or even sailing on long journeys to the other side of the world. Following this ‘dangling carrot’ can still lead to nothing more than what you had when you started. But sometimes, just sometimes, a great adventure can start from following the smallest of clues. Perhaps a picture in an old faded postcard of a crag behind whatever the focus was in the foreground. Or reading an account of a mid 19th century British botanist who recorded seeing pillars of rock from the forest around them. Or the ramblings of a blind man you meet in a spit and sawdust bar in the middle of Africa. Following this clue, whatever it may be, could lead you to potentially some of the best rock you have ever had the chance of climbing.
Once you have overcome all these hurdles in getting to the crag, of course you still need to climb it. The chances of success in getting to the top of a route now comes down to you and your climbing partner’s preparation, experience, fitness and mental ability; these are the limiters of what you can achieve. Climbing free from the boundaries and limitations of route descriptions and topos drawn up in a guidebook, you are left to climb, not being concerned if you are on route or off route.
Is it a dead end or the new Yosemite…?
Sometimes one can have that lurking feeling of climbing yourself into a dead end, so easily stopped dead by loose rock, the lack of gear placements or the difficulty of the climb, the only option being to abseil all the way back down the route you have just fought your way up. The nature of the rock and the limitations of one’s own abilities are not the only thing stopping you, as we found out on one such occasion:
“At the end of the third pitch, I was about to pull myself onto the ledge my hands had a hold of when two very shocked vultures with fluffy chicks made me think otherwise. As they leaped towards me I saw it not a problem to slide very rapidly down the chimney that I had been previously struggling to climb up. Having only just escaped their beaks and talons I sat down panting, trying to calm down. I shouted down to the guy following me that the climb had finished and we needed to get down, and explained why. At that point the vultures made their second attack. One flew off the higher ledge, circled around and faced his enemy, me. I sat there between a rock and a hard place; it gave me no choice but to reach for my ‘sword’. The stick was rotten and it broke when I picked it up so I was forced to go for my second weapon of choice. The forked twig looked feeble but gave me confidence enough to face the bird. I don’t know if it was the twig or the vulture’s inability to stay in one spot for long periods of time that made it fly off. Luckily the vultures did not return but they had made their point and I considered it a 1:0 victory to the vultures so we began the long abseil back to the ground below.”
If all goes to plan and you are able to get up the line then the sense of achievement can be overwhelming. You are sitting on top of a climb, where no one may have been before. All of your previous research, training, mental effort, blood, sweat and possibly tears have culminated in you reaching this lofty perch.
But why first ascents…
Some of the first ascents you achieve may be so remote that it might only ever see a handful of repeats or sometimes none at all. It’s certainly unlikely to get the same press coverage that the Dawn Wall ascent has recently received. So then, why put all this effort into climbing first ascents? To me it is because climbing really does become just about you and the rock. No one may ever repeat your route, no-one will give you a pat on the back, there is no “tick” or grade to achieve, and there is no guidebook to add your route to. It becomes purely a means for your own exploration, a reason to have adventures and if all goes to plan, a very great personal achievement.
If you’d like to find out more about joining the TXC Womenclimb all-women expedition to South Sinai in October 2015, check out the following articles: