From below Yosemite’s Cascade Falls, you can barely see the 160-foot fissure splitting a steep granite wall west of the waterfall: The Phoenix, perhaps Yosemite’s best-known hard crack. Access requires an extended bushwhack and two rappels; the route itself is equally hard to climb. A pin-scarred corner leads to a biceps-blasting undercling traverse, then a sustained, fingers and thin-hands crack for 120 feet.
In 1977, steep, hard crack lines like The Phoenix seemed barely possible, and protecting them even more so. When former aerospace engineer Ray Jardine rapped in, he realized the potential of his latest invention, the Friend. Nuts and hexes, made to slot into constrictions, required Herculean effort to place in parallel cracks—if they stayed at all. To alleviate the difficulties, climbers would yo-yo: toprope to their high point, place a piece, fall, lower, and then TR back up. Rarely did anyone consider a redpoint.
Beginning in the late 1960s, climbers, including Greg and Mike Lowe, had been working on camming units. But the Lowes’ Cam Nuts walked in cracks. Jardine worked with Kris Walker and Bill Forrest to create prototypes of a spring-loaded camming device they could place one-handed. In 1974, Walker, Jardine, and Lou Dawson used the cams on a 28-hour ascent of the Nose, realizing the utility of the invention. Soon, Jardine brought his cams, nicknamed “Friends,” to difficult crack routes in the Valley, FA’ing the 5.12s Crimson Cringe and Hang Dog Flyer in 1976.
In 1977, armed with a handful of Friends, Jardine rapped into The Phoenix. Instead of lowering after he fell, he hung and worked out the moves. Though other Valley climbers scorned his tactics—his hangdogging—Jardine pushed through. On his fourteenth try, he climbed the route, protecting it with nuts and pins at the bottom and Friends on the splitter. “The Phoenix is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Jardine in a 1979 Mountain Magazine interview. Not only had Jardine shown what cams and hangdogging could do, he’d also established the world’s first 5.13.
Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park, California
Ray Jardine, 1977