First Come, First Served

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Four first ascents and the rockers who made them happen

A first ascent is like a good pot of stew. Sometimes you start from scratch; other times you begin with leftovers. The occasion may have been long-planned or spur-of-the-moment. You think you know what you’re trying to cook up, but it seldom comes out the way you expect. Ultimately, the flavor is part art, part chance, totally unique.

You assemble ingredients: an imaginary line up a cliff, a partner or two, maybe some bolts, and a rack to match the task. Set aside some extras to toss in if the broth gets too spicy.

Throw this all together and turn up the heat. Ground up, top down, onsight, ongoing, whatever. Cooking time varies: a day, a month. Microwave if it’s a sport climb; simmer over an open fire for trad; either way, cook with love and care. Taste frequently. Spice with the unexpected: weather, loose blocks, blank rock, vibes from your partner—sweet or sour.

Once it’s done, savor. On the first ascent, everything tastes fresh.

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BEN GILKISON, MASTER BLASTER (5.13+) ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

Ben, a soft-spoken crack-climbing machine from Index, Washington, nabbed the coveted first free ascent of this roof in spring 2007. Over the years, MB has spit off many of the world’s greatest crack climbers, and with the appearance of an eye-catching Black Diamond ad of Didier Berthod almost pulling the crux lip move, the race was on. It was a total Cinderella story: Ben’s last day on the route, last try before dark, his last chance before flying home. This time, he somehow got his mitts to stick in the severely overhanging 0.75 Camalot crack, jumped for the sandy jug, and latched the edge, just barely.

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ZAC ROBINSON, FLIRTIN’ DEATH (5.12-, PHOTO ON LEFT) SHINGO OHKAWA, CHECK THE TECHNIQUE (5.10+) LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, UTAH

Shingo and Zac have been a breath of fresh air for newrouting in this well-traveled granite canyon near Salt Lake City. Many routes have gone up here in the last few years, and most are not that great, but Shingo’s mysterious way of sniffing out good routes from a pile of rubble is amazing—like a dude using witching sticks. These guys’ climbs often end up becoming modern-day classics, much to the chagrin of crusty locals who overlooked them. Plus, maintaining the canyon’s near-forgotten old-school ethics, their routes are often put in ground-up.

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MIKE ANDERSON AND ROB PIZEM, ARCTURUS (VI 5.13+, FIRST FREE ASCENT) YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

For Mike and Rob, it was time to branch out from Zion, where they’d freed a stack of big routes together or with other partners. In 2006, they embarked on a two-year super-project on the northwest face of Half Dome that nearly ended in disaster several times. The first summer’s attempt ended when Rob lobbed off the crux and broke his back. On round two the next summer, the feeling was slightly different: Helmets were worn; caution was upped. Over two days, the duo managed to pull off the send, stealing a neglected prize out from underneath the Valley locals. How often do you get a chance to free an old Royal Robbins line?

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JEAN-PIERRE “PEEWEE” OUELLET, LA ZÉBRÉE (5.14A, PHOTO FAR RIGHT) VAL-DAVID, QUÉBEC

Deep in the soggy forest of Québec’s Laurentian Mountains lies the rosy granite of Val-David, a climbers’ Eden. When it is dry, it is so good, but it’s rarely dry. Over the years, Peewee has nabbed the first redpoint of many of the area’s hardest cracks—placing pro along the way instead of clipping preplaced gear. No crack proved harder or wetter than the amazing “zebra crack.” Long hours over various summers were spent working the moves and toweling out the crack. Peewee had two “sponge kits,” and would swap them out between burns. Sometimes it was just too wet, and he would find nearby routes to put up, such as En attendant que ça séche (“Waiting for it to dry,” 5.12+, photo at left). In May 2007, everything came together and Peewee sent, vowing to never again spend that much time drying a crack.