TO BE BOLD OR NOT TO BE BOLD
In the summer of 1988, Aaron Houseknecht and I did a road trip to Tuolemne Meadows for a little fun on beautiful, scary, run-out leads with manky ¼ inch bolts that wobbled when you clip your biner. Tuolemne Meadows is one of the most beautiful places to climb in the world. With towering domes throughout the valley, and pristine lakes tucked in amongst the domes, you get a sense that you are in a special place. This was my first big road trip as a rock climber and what a place to cut my teeth on my first leads. The Meadows was part of the Golden Era of climbing. Many of the routes were put up in the late 50’s and 60’s, and were bolted on lead. For you new comers that means you climb until you find a somewhat solid stance, pull out the hand drill, pound in a hole, and while your feet are burning with pain, place the bolt, clip it, and climb on until you find another spot to stand and do it over again. Usually you do not know what lies ahead of you, but you go for it any way. That is why you come upon so many run-outs, since the leader put in as few bolts as possible.
My first lead ever was the West Crack of Daff Dome. This is a classic 5.9 crack climb with a chimney section and about 4 or 5 pitches. (I can’t remember the details anymore). I was more than half way up the first pitch and I came to a thin section where I attempted to place a #3 Metolius cam. The crack was awkward and at an angle so that I couldn’t see exactly how it was going in. I kept placing the cam, but every time I gave a test it would pop out. I was getting rather irritated. So I leaned way over to the side, shoved the cam in to where I thought I had a sure fit, and gave it a good hard yank. The next thing I know I have a #3 smacking me in my front teeth, throwing me back away from the wall with flailing arms. With panic and desperation I somehow got my hand back into the crack and grabbed with all I was worth. Talk about adrenalin. Poor Aaron was thinking, “why the hell did I get hooked up with this guy? He’s going to kill us both”.
This really pissed me off. Even though I was run out at that point, I said the hell with it and took off. I got up to the belay ledge and realized what I had just done. It took a bit to get my wits back, but there was something very rewarding about that first lead. It scared the hell out of me and somehow it felt good.
Later that week Aaron and I decided to try a funky route on Lembert Dome called Willy’s Hand Jive. It was one of the first 5.11’s put up in the early 70’s. That was pushing the standard at that time. We didn’t know anything about the route and I decided to take the lead. It was a bolted climb that traversed over an arch and then up through a water groove. The first part was the 5.11 and it was thin and tricky. I actually handled that ok. The next section that went straight up a water groove is what freaked me out. At that point there was no turning back. I was in the rounded water groove that was almost smooth as glass with little bumps every so often. I looked up and couldn’t see any bolts. I had no choice but to go up. This was the 5.9 section and it dawned on me what the R meant in the guidebook. It meant – you’re screwed if you peal off – so don’t fall. I finally go to the first bolt and it was a wobbly ¼ rusty bolt. I got a smidgen of relief from the clip, but I knew I did not want to fall on that piece of crap. All along I was thinking – what the hell did I get my self into. There were only two bolts on that section of the climb. About 3 less than I needed for comfort. The only thing that wasn’t shaking and freaking out on me was the melted Snickers bar in my pack. If they had a rating for the pucker factor, it would have been near the top end of the scale. When I finally settled in at the belay station and was able to relax and look out over the Meadows I had this big sense of relief and satisfaction.
I feel much of the satisfaction in rock climbing back then stemmed from that element of being scared, of pushing not only your physical limits but also your mental limits. It took boldness to do some of those climbs. All the climbers who came up in the 70’s and 80’s climbed with boldness. It was the only way you got up the climbs. I wonder if people approach climbing with that in mind any more? With everything so zipped up with bolts, and all the new equipment, I wonder if being Bold is a thing of the past. Of course the high-end climbers still push that limit, but I wonder if that element of being scared has withered away? Something to think about.
“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe