Thursday, August 23, 2012

What's in a redpoint?

It was arguably Kurt Albert who first introduced the redpoint concept: the notion of continuously climbing a route from bottom to top without grabbing or hanging on protection points (yes, it's still aid even if you just rest on a piece of gear). The story goes that he would paint a red X on a fixed piton he was able to eliminate as a point of aid. Once he had eliminated all aid from a route, he would paint a red dot at its base. For a while more colours entered the picture, but these days only people with old lycra tights in their closet know the difference between a redpoint and a pinkpoint (at least where sport climbing is concerned - trad is a different matter).

Kurt Albert's 'rotpunkt' idea makes it pretty clear what it means to free a single-pitch route. But what about multi-pitch climbs? Alex Huber was influential in clarifying just what it meant to free a long route when he applied the ethics evolved on the limestone of the eastern Alps to the Salathe Wall on El Cap. You can split hairs all the way down to individual atoms, but the basic ideas of a multipitch redpoint are that: a single climber redpoints all the pitches in sequence in a single push, and all belays are at no-hands stances.

I found myself thinking about such matters earlier this summer, as I worked on the eight-pitch Yamabushi (a far cry from the thirty-some-pitch Salathe, I know, but we all play in sandboxes of our own size). Along the way I came up with the following shades of red:
  1. A first-rate effort: flashing the whole damn thing. Again, you could split hairs, pointing out that Jack had watched a video of the crux of Yamabushi prior to his ascent while Diane did not, but the fact remains that walking up to a big route and sending it first try is a proud effort.
  2. A second-rate effort: working the route, then sending it in a push with no falls. In a way, this is the logical extension of Kurt Albert's redpoint idea to a multi-pitch route. It certainly sets the bar high, as a fall on the seventh (or seventeenth, or twenty-seventh) pitch erases the entire effort.
  3. A third-rate effort: working the route, then sending it in a push, redpointing all the pitches in sequence. Physically such an ascent might be even more punishing than a no-falls redpoint, as, say, having four goes at redpointing the twenty-seventh pitch makes a long route even longer. However, it does not demonstrate quite the same level of mastery.
  4. Redpointing all the pitches at one time or another. This is analogous to calling it good on a single-pitch route once you can do all the moves. Do you list a climb on your scorecard when you get to that point? I didn't think so. Enough said.
At this point you're probably beginning to suspect this kind of philosophizing is just so much wasted time, time that could be better spent climbing. But I must admit that while I was working on and obsessing about Yamabushi, these kinds of distinctions mattered to me. Now, a month later, the intensity has ebbed, and what I remember of the days spent on Yam has more to do with good friends, warm limestone, big exposure and swallows swooping around us than with numbers and letters. Having said that, playing the game would not have been as meaningful and as memorable had it not been for the admittedly arbitrary rules. We get as much from the mountains as we're willing to give them.

Below are some stories and photos from two of the many fine multi-pitch 5.12 routes in the Front Ranges. Cragging is great fun, but there is something special about cranking hard way off the deck.

Yamabushi (8 pitches, 5.12+)

The photos below are from my first, unsuccessful, redpoint attempt. Already by the second pitch, which took me two tries to redpoint, it had turned into a third-rate effort. Still, I was willing to settle even for that, and so continued upward. The fourth pitch also took me a couple of goes, and by the time I was climbing the last 5.12 pitch, the seventh, my forearms were beginning to cramp up. All the same, I managed to squeak through the thin and insecure crux, only to botch a sequence and blow it on easier climbing above. I lowered, rested for a few minutes and tried again, but quickly realized I was spent. Disappointed, I climbed to the top and moped in the warm evening sun.

A week later I was back, and this time managed to send the crux second pitch first try, saving precious energy for higher up. Once again I screwed up on the fourth pitch and had to redo it, but it turned out to be the only fall of the day. On top, I felt both happy and sad to be done. But at least now I could move on and start failing on other projects.

All the pitches on Yamabushi are good, but the fifth is one of my favourites: technical rather than powerful, with the outcome uncertain until the very end. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Pressing out a balancy highstep on the fifth pitch. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Then again, the sixth pitch is also high on my list: classic Yam climbing up overhanging corners, with a couple of powerful cruxes thrown in to remind you this is sport climbing, and two hundred metres of air under your ass. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Hopping from one corner to the next on the sixth pitch. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

Most people fixate on the second pitch as the technical crux - and it is that - but the crimpy seventh pitch pitch packs a punch by the time you get to it. It is probably the redpoint crux of the route. Trust me! Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

What can I say? "Nooo!..." Photo: Wiktor Skupinski.

A Particular Manner of Expression (11 pitches, 5.12-)

This route is the newest addition to Ha Ling.  It was put up by Jeff Relph with Mike Trehearne and Josh Lavigne. I found it to be one of the best long "mixed" (as in mixed bolts and gear) routes around, with interesting and engaging climbing on a "big" north face. Pitch 8 is the crux with sustained 5.12 climbing, but there is enough hard 5.10 and 5.11 climbing along the way that if your forearms are not cramping by the last pitch, you are in good shape indeed. And having to place gear and deal with the occasional bit of choss gives your brain as well as your muscles a workout. I was able to give the climb a first-rate effort (for me, anyway), but not without some screaming at the crux. "Pah!"

Evening sun on the north face of Ha Ling. A Particular Manner of Expression starts out behind the big tree, follows the sun-shadow line for a bit, then trends right of the big smooth corner near the top.

Juan Henriquez low on the route, with the upper headwall looming above.

The second carried the pack on the first few pitches, then as the climbing got harder and steeper, we switched to hauling. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan comes up one of the 5.11 pitches in the middle of the route...

... and looks down the crux eighth pitch.

Above the crux a couple of 5.10 pitches, while not giveaways, allowed us to catch our breath before the last "hard" pitch.

Juan Henriquez back in the sun near the top of the last, eleventh, pitch, with the whole north face spread out below. The route tops out at the base jumpers' takeoff point, making for a fine position.

From the top of the route we scrambled down the bowl south of the summit and contoured back below the north face to pick up our approach packs. As seen from the base, A Particular Manner of Expression more or less follows the blunt buttress left of the dihedral of Premature Ejaculation.

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