2015 Golden Pitons: Big-Wall Free Climbing

Will Stanhope, Tom Egan Memorial Route, British Columbia
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Will Stanhope, Tom Egan Memorial Route, British Columbia

Four years is a long time for any project, but even longer when it’s high in the mountains, guarded by a notoriously steep approach and foul weather. At 13 pitches, the Tom Egan Memorial Route on the east face of Snowpatch Spire is on the small side for a big-wall free climb, but it’s undeniably fierce. When Canadian Will Stanhope finished the route in August, he could claim the hardest alpine rock climb not only in the Bugaboos but in all of North America. The victory was bittersweet, however, as Matt Segal, Stanhope’s longtime partner on the project, came up just short.

Stanhope discovered the Tom Egan, established as an aid climb in the late 1970s, while climbing a neighboring route in 2010. He rappelled the line and saw a beautiful splitter finger crack—but also a potentially stopper blank wall. Segal joined him for an attempt in 2012 and discovered a zigzagging face traverse from the left to reach the crack, looking like it might just go with bolt protection. (The two added no bolts to the original aid line, and the final 5.13 pitch, a flared crack, gets an R rating for danger.) For the next four summers, the two worked on free-climbing the four crux pitches. “I think we spent around 150 days on the wall,” Stanhope said. “It was far and away the longest I’ve spent on any climb.”

During their four-day ground-up push last August, Stanhope managed to redpoint the crux 5.14 traverse on his second go. But despite repeated efforts, Segal couldn’t free the pitch, and with the weather deteriorating, the American chose to support Stanhope for the rest of the crux headwall: a 5.14- tips crack and two more 5.13 pitches. Then they punched it to the top and rappelled off the wall in a terrifying thunderstorm.

“It was a head-spinning saga, from originally seeing the line up close, to figuring out the variations, to finally making it happen after a ton of work,” Stanhope said. “I doubt I'll ever come across something that close to my limit and so beautiful. It was a rare gift.” He added that while he and Segal stopped at hanging belays on the four-pitch headwall, “I’d be honored if someday one of those superhuman young guns linked the whole thing together in one mega pitch—it’s about 80 meters.”

As for Segal, he may return next summer and give it one more try. On the crux pitch, Stanhope said, “the tables could’ve easily been reversed. Matt is a fair bit shorter than me, making some of those spans on that face pitch really difficult for him. But before I managed to free it, he was actually getting farther than me consistently. If the motivation is there for him next summer, I’d love to accompany him on his final push.”

Recent Big-Wall Free Climbing Golden Pitons
Nik Berry, Mason Earle, David Allfrey, Mt. Hooker (2014)
Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse, Stephane Hanssens, Sean Villanueva and Silvia Vidal, Baffin Island (2009) 

See the rest of the the 2015 Golden Piton winners: