The ring of a hammer hitting a drill bit bounced down Gunsight Gully in Yosemite. Mad Dog’s mullet flapped in the breeze as he swore about having to sink another “bristler.” Balanced at a small stance with the help of two hooks, Mad Dog (née Dana Drummond) wailed on the drill bit. Jeremy Collins and Mikey Schaefer traded off belay duty on the ledge above a concave arc of granite.
The hard granite of Middle Cathedral Rock, with its sparse opportunities for stances—not to mention the team’s traditional ethos—kept the three climbers from placing many bolts. They moved slowly; connecting the short technical features of Middle Cathedral into a massive new free climb presented problems not only with protection but with route finding as well. Still, after six months of work in 2009, the trio had completed Border Country (V 5.12c).
Schaefer, a former Yosemite Mountaineering School guide, had scoped the line for a number of years before recruiting Mad Dog and Collins for a ground-up ascent of the route. One of the tallest short men to ever walk through Camp 4, Schaefer’s first ascents have included the first ascent of the 5.12+ Grade V face route Night Shift on Tuolumne’s Fairview Dome. A technician in the sacred art of slab climbing, Mikey walked confidently through his decade of Yosemite climbing, establishing significant first ascents in the Valley.
Mad Dog comes from Northeastern pedigree, but he spends his summers in California, working Yosemite Search and Rescue, hiding his crushing abilities beneath a Hulk Hogan mullet and a John Muir beard.
A couple of years ago, Schaefer and Drummond met Collins in Patagonia, where each had just completed separate first ascents. Collins took a few weeks off from illustrating in the Mid-west to take his horn-rimmed glasses, mild mannered, Clark Kent attitude to crushing altitudes in Yosemite.
In early June, around the time the climbers were halfway done with their route, an avalanche in China claimed the lives of Yosemite Valley monkey Micah Dash, budding filmmaker Wade Johnson, and Colorado alpinist Johnny Copp. The last entry in Copp’s journal, which was recovered in the remnants of the men’s basecamp, includes a poem entitled “Border Country,” which describes the perils of living on the edge of the unknown. Dash and Copp’s climbing goals had forced them to deal with a large increase in objective hazards- rock fall, crevasses, and ultimately avalanches. The mountains are dangerous.
Sean “Stanley” Leary, climbing with Mikey Schaefer, attempted the second ascent of Border Country. He made short work of the initial thousand feet, climbing 5.10 thirty feet between the bolts and sparse gear, and gaining a U-Shaped bowl mid route.
Stanley has nerves of steel. Four months earlier, Stanley packed the ashes of his recently departed girlfriend, Roberta Nunes, and jumped off of Patagonia’s El Mocho, tracking in his wing suit for 600 feet. The winds blew across Cerro Torre’s satellite peak spreading Roberta’s ashes blew across the glaciers. Then Stanley stopped descending. Panicked, he tore at the cord for his BASE rig. When his canopy opened, he propelled a thousand feet above the summit of El Mocho. He attempted to spiral and descend but the Patagonia winds kept him aloft for 13 endless minutes, until he was able to follow a few condors out of the thermal upwind and down to the glacier.
Four months later, Stanley returned to Border Country. He made it up to the head wall but fell pulling the hard face moves. Off the belay, Mikey and Dana had scrunched their bodies, stepping on a tiny edge, and mantling off a small dibit with their thumbs. Despite Stanley’s talent and tenacity, he couldn’t bend his long limbs into the mantle. He pulled on the bolt protecting the move and continued to the summit.
On the run-out fourth pitch of Border Country, 500 feet off the ground, I stopped. Katie Lambert, a Yosemite hard woman with an ascent of Tuolumne’s technical Peace (5.13c) to her name, belayed attentively below me. I pondered placing a tiny cam behind a small flake. I wanted to impress my attractive belayer with my climbing prowess. I shrugged. Running it out any more than I needed to wouldn’t impress anyone. I shoved the unit in, shot up another 20 feet to just below a bolt, and mantled onto a small edge.
I balanced precariously, crimping down on a wet hold as I stared at the bolt. Suddenly my hand popped. My body teetered on the brink. My hips pulled into the wall and then my back arched away from it.
I fell 20 feet before hitting a slab, flipping upside down, and rocketing down another 20 feet before the cam I had begrudingly placed caught me. Katie’s eyes went wide. The lobes of her half inch cam had bent. I groaned. My climbing prowess wasn’t impressing anyone. She met me at the belay, and we continued onto the headwall, where Katie danced up the difficult 5.12, hanging the rope for me. When the shadow of the Nose covered the entire Zodiac, we began descending, rappelling the route two pitches below the summit.
Luis “Lucho” Rivera slept in the back of his pick-up in Camp 4. Around midnight, the rangers knocked on the window, trying to wake him and alert him that he was camping illegally. He lay still, afraid of the heavy hand of the “Green Gestapo.”
The rangers shook the truck. Lucho remained motionless, with saucer eyes, hoping that they would leave. Instead, they straightened a coat hanger, twisted it through a chink in the car window and began to poke the dirtbag climber. He eventually fell out of his pickup and into the arms of the ticket-ready rangers. Despite years of establishing first ascents in the Valley, and a strong desire to climb new free wall routes, Lucho began hanging in the Valley less and less. He felt he had given enough to the Yosemite climbing scene with his countless first ascents, that a cold winter night in the back of his truck would go unnoticed by the rangers. The rangers poke and prod climbers because they often break laws. Out of bounds camping is illegal, so is power drilling, and leaving fixed lines- activities which make the logistics of climbing easier. The constant battle between climbers and the bureaucracy can be more epic than the climbing.
One of the largest bits of Yosemite climbing news in 2009 has been the definitive lack of any groundbreaking achievements. In the past decade, the Huber brothers, Tommy Caldwell, and others have established a dozen hard free routes on El Capitan with seasonal fervor. Last year, the young Alex Honnold free soloed the Regular Northwest face of Half Dome (5.12a), reviving a true sense of boldness within the ragtag crew that calls Yosemite Valley home. Thanks to a tireless crew of Bay Area boulderers, the Valley has exploded with double-digit problems and many newly developed blocks.
Compared to the tidal wave that was the last decade of activity, 2009 seemed flat: no new routes were established on El Cap, no bold solos were done, and the participants in what once was (and always will be) the center of the American climbing universe, diminished. Bachar died. Dash died. Copp died. In this hallow space, Border Country stands alone as the achievement of the year.
Unlike the free climbs on El Capitan, which had been worked and sussed on rappel, Border Country was an adventure up into the unknown. The three first ascentionists didn’t have what Bachar once called “the invisible toprope,” the mental assurance that better gear, or even holds, was coming. A dimming of the unknown.
Why the lull in the Valley climbing scene? A number of Yosemite denizens, like Stanley, have spent less time hanging in the Valley and more time BASE jumping off small bridges, planes, and remote Patagonian Towers. Many climbers, like Lucho, have avoided the Valley for fear of persecution. Not only are activities like BASE jumping illegal but camping, and generally being in the Valley presents enormous difficulties. Jesse McGahey, the current law enforcement officer with “climber ranger” status, doubled his staff in the past year.
“Climbing Rangers are a crucial piece of protecting the vertical Wilderness through outreach, education, hands-on maintenance, and coordinated clean-up volunteer work,” McGahey stated in an interview. Undoubtedly, the rangers have helped protect Yosemite, but they still chase climbers through the boulders at night. The ever-increasing bureaucracy involved in camping and staying in the park scared a number of the committed dirtbag rock climbers, the monkeys, out of the Valley.
Others have moved onto the alpine setting, trading the warm California climate for the blustery cliffs of Patagonia. Facebook updates from El Chalten, the town below Cerro Torre, were in vogue. For many aspiring alpinists, Yosemite has always been merely a training ground—not a proving ground—where they could learn to move fast, freeing and aiding, up a big wall. Once they have the skills, they move on.
Many climbers just appear to be over it. The energy involved in climbing hard new routes in Yosemite is daunting. Hand drilling on the sharp end brings more calluses than glory. The sheer adventure wears people down: the technical ground-up climbing, the offwidths, the rangers. The ditch is a meat factory that chews climbers up and spits them out. 2009 was a year with a noticeable shortage of fresh meat.
Lucho hung off the side of the Middle Cathedral, belaying and staring across the river at El Cap. Hayden Kennedy crimped his way up the wall, onsighting Border Country until the definitive mantle crux. Hayden, though only 18, has already proved himself as a true, young Yosemite force. Though lean, tall and talented, he has the flexibility of a flagpole. He tried to hike his foot up and scrunch into position for 15 minutes. Finally his teenage voice cracked, “Dude, I like c-an’t do this!”
Across the river, El Capitan loomed. Hayden’s big-wall free-climbing list had been slowly increasing and a send of Border Country would be a solid achievement. Routes like Border Country are establishing a solid foundation for the next generation, routes that will give them experience necessary to tackle the bigger and harder lines with a sense of the adventure.
Collins returned to Border Country in early November. He climbed through the tick marks that Hayden, Lucho, Stanley, Katie, and I had left for him. Below the summit, the sun dipped behind Lower Cathedral and the walls of Middle Cathedral became arctic. Collins returned to a ledge, and rappelled the route. Before he began his descent, he opened an urn and spread the ashes of Johnny Copp on the route. The scene in Yosemite changes, but the spirit of the climbers remains.
this article was published in Rock and Ice 185 and can be found online