Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Vive la différence!

In March 2017, Ales Cesen and Luka Strazar of Latok I fame were visiting the Rockies from Slovenia. They came intent on alpine climbing but the rotten late-winter weather had other ideas. On a day that was too warm for ice but too miserable for rock, Ales, Luka, Jon Walsh and I went drytooling at El Dorado – not exactly a place you cross an ocean and a continent for. Still, better than not climbing at all. Ales was nursing an injured shoulder but Luka was keen for a workout. 

He warmed up on an M6 and an M7, nothing especially hard but not that easy, either, if you don’t know where the next divot or edge is. Next he moved on to a long M8. The on-sight crux of the route comes near the top, where the pockets turn shallow and slippery. Luka fought a building pump as he repeatedly locked off and probed with a steel finger, searching for something positive enough to take a pick. I knew where the next hold was but kept my mouth shut. Not that he needed my help to clip the anchor. 

Lastly Luka hopped on an M9. The route starts up a blank vertical wall, before pulling through a body-length roof. With just a few usable edges hiding in a sea of crumbling stone, I doubted he would get up even the vertical section without falling. But slowly, patiently he sorted out the sequences. Still, it’s one thing to search around for holds on a vertical wall, where you can take your time to do so. It’s quite another in a roof, locking off while struggling to keep your crampons pasted to the overhanging rock. Power-screaming, Luka fought through the roof and onto the headwall above. A few minutes later he was lowering off, having on-sighted every route he’d tried. 

It was one of the most impressive displays of drytooling I’ve ever witnessed. The grades might’ve been lowly – no M-double-digit marathons of figure-fours and nines here – but the skill and tenacity required were arguably greater. Luka wanted no beta and I didn’t give him any. The routes themselves didn’t make things easy for him, with few scratches and certainly no tick marks to guide him. His sends were on-sights in the true sense of the word. 

*** 

Drytooling has a long and somewhat chequered history in the Rockies. It all started in the mid 1990s, with ten-metre routes in places like Grotto Canyon and Haffner Creek, and multi-pitch lines like the Real Big Drip and Stairway to Heaven. To begin with, the pioneers bolted rock that had enough holds to make it climbable. As drytooling gained in popularity, popular crags began to resemble practice targets, with bullet holes worn into soft limestone by steel picks. From there, it was a short step to using a power drill to fabricate holds. While drilled pockets for rock climbing have gone the way of eighties' lycra, they have become an accepted part of drytooling. Nowadays, blending practices from rock climbing's past and present, most top-end drytooling crags and routes in the Rockies are both heavily drilled and tick-marked with chalk.

Fast forward to the mid 2010s, when Juan Henriquez and I started developing El Dorado on Grotto Mountain. Tired of driving two hours to the Haffner cave or three to the Cineplex, I wanted a drytooling cliff closer to home. Having burned out on hard M-climbing after a few obsessive years, I didn’t especially care about extreme difficulty either. I just wanted a local crag where I could stay fit for adventuring on the Stanley Headwall and beyond. That meant preserving a certain alpine flavour. There’s an obvious irony in calling a sunny, bolted crag forty-five minutes from the car “alpine”. It’s just while while drilled, ticked routes might be a shortcut to high M-numbers, I find the skills developed on them don’t transfer readily to the “real” world of big mixed cliffs and mountain faces. 

And so, for what it’s worth, Juan and I resolved to develop El Dorado without drilling and tick-marking holds. But wait, you say. Isn’t slamming the pick of an ice tool into a seam also chipping? Yes, it is. Still, even if things aren’t quite black and white, there can be differences between shades of grey. The Playground and El Dorado might share the same parking lot but have quite different flavours. 

I’m not altogether against manufactured routes. In January 2016 I had a blast drytooling at the Newtyle Quarry in Scotland, where we managed to salvage a rainy day by clipping bolts and slotting picks into drilled pockets. Two days later I found myself scared, high on a rime-covered wall in the Cairngorms, without a bolt, drilled pocket or tick mark in sight. Somehow two drastically different styles manage to coexist in the same hills, with many climbers playing both games. Contrasts like these make life interesting. After all, you wouldn’t want every restaurant to be a McDonald’s, would you? 

A few years ago Greg Boswell, one of the best mixed climbers in the world, visited El Dorado. In true British style he tried to on-sight every route he got on. On one of the M-double-digit extensions he fell when a tool, hooked blindly over the lip of a roof, popped. Had the route been drilled and ticked, he would likely have flashed it – he's plenty strong enough. But just going tic-tac-toe from hold to obvious hold would've been beside the point. Greg liked the challenge of a less manicured crag, blown on-sight and all.

I hope you check out El Dorado sometime and enjoy scratching your way up the chossy rock. If I happen to be there too, I’ll be happy to share beta – or not, if you’d rather have a Greg and Luka-like experience. But as contrived as the El Dorado rules of no drilling and no tick-marking holds might seem, at least a few people think they make the climbing there more interesting. Let's try to keep it that way.

Yours truly pulling on drilled pockets on Too Fast Too Furious in Newtyle Quarry... Photo: Ian Parnell.

... and playing a very different game on The Vicar in Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms. Photo: Dave Garry.

El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. Park as for the Playground but continue straight up on a decent trail. After 40 minutes or so, contour down into the canyon on your right, with bits and pieces of fixed rope on a few exposed sections. Photo: Gery Unterasinger, topo: Raphael Slawinski.