Rising phenoms Ben Wilbur and John Ebers classify their partnership as a “COVID belaytionship.” Thrown together by the COVID-19 lockdown, the two have since pushed one another to achieve astronomical feats in the Colorado alpine—feats that, they believe, would have been impossible for them otherwise.
Ebers and Wilbur are young for alpinists. Age 23 and 24 respectively, the two recent college grads made the news this summer with big sends on The Diamond on Longs Peak: Ebers redpointed The Dunn-Westbay Direct (5.14-, IV), and Wilbur sent The Honeymoon is Over (5.13c, IV). The two also secured the coveted Naked Edge speed record in May, with a jaw-dropping 24 minutes and 14 seconds on the Eldorado Canyon ultra-classic.
They first met in Zion two years ago. Both were working Moonlight Buttress (5.12c, 1,200 feet). Every morning, Ebers would attempt to free the line in a day, passing Wilbur and his partner at their bivy on the wall. (He succeeded, thanks to belays solicited from a revolving roster of local slackliners that he’d teach to jug at the base each morning.) Near the end of their days on Moonlight, Ebers caught wind of Wilbur’s plan to drive to Red Rock next.
“On the way to Zion, I’d been flipping through the guidebook for Red Rock and said, ‘I just want to climb everything in Black Velvet Canyon,” Wilbur recalls. “Then I started to think, ‘Well, maybe I could.’”
Wilber had planned to line up partners one after the other, scheduling a fresh one whenever the previous burned out. It would have been complicated.
“Thankfully, he met me,” Ebers laughs.
Ebers hitched a ride with Wilbur. On the way to Red Rock, they learned that they were on the same spring break—both were engineering students at different Colorado universities—and both were celebrating birthdays that week.
So, the pair concocted a birthday challenge that paid homage to their combined ages at the time: 46 pitches of Black Velvet Canyon trad lines in a day. It didn’t matter that this was their first day climbing together, or that neither had any real idea of the other’s risk tolerance or rhythm. From the start, they were committed.
It worked out. During that first day, the pair found that they had the same preference for pace, the same analytical approach to fear, and the same risk tolerance (“serious injury but not death”). After 46 pitches of mostly 5.10, they celebrated with another challenge: one piece of sushi for every pitch climbed.
At the end of the week, Wilbur and Ebers returned home, back to their separate universities and their separate lives. They drifted apart and only climbed together sporadically—until this spring.
With lockdown in effect throughout Colorado, the two decided that it was responsible to climb with only one or two regular partners.
“And no one was as motivated as John,” says Wilbur.
For the first time, they climbed together regularly, as much as four days per week. The colliding of quarantine bubbles was a Big Bang moment of sorts—it would become the catalyst for evolution in each of their climbing careers.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done together that we would not have ever done by ourselves,” says Wilbur. “I’m more of a completionist, so I push us to do all these big linkups, and John gets more psyched on hard objectives—he doesn’t get intimidated by a big number or a historically significant route. I see those, and I think, ‘I don’t belong on that.’ John breaks past that and pushes us in that way.”
For example, Wilbur says he never would have attempted Honeymoon had John not told him he could do it. And Ebers says he would never have agreed to try for a second ascent of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s CUDL Traverse, an exhaustive continental divide linkup, which Ebers and Wilber attempted late this summer. (They had to bail about halfway through after 48 hours of onsight route-finding; both had work on Monday.)
“Likewise, I think I have better footwork, but Ben is more powerful than I am. [Since this partnership started], I’ve trained harder, and his footwork has gotten better,” says John.
The partnership has also had a positive effect on the local environment: This summer, Ebers and Wilbur spent so much time on The Diamond that they began to notice just how much trash littered the iconic face.
“One of the coolest things about this summer was taking The Diamond, which is a wall that’s so intimidating the first time you climb it, and turning it into our home crag,” Wilbur says. “Part of that is you try and clean up.”
The two replaced slings, removed frayed tat, and hauled out decomposing stashed ropes. They picked up forgotten wag bags and hung other parties’ packs to protect them from marmots. Ebers once carried a hammer up Honeymoon and spent hours pounding out fixed gear. He didn’t get all of it, but he says you’d need a hacksaw to remove anything that’s left.
The desire to try the routes in good style was part of the duo’s motivation, but the main driver was a love for the mountain and a wish to see it returned to the wild, imposing beauty that first drew them there.
“It’s an important place for both of us, and we want to take care of it,” Wilbur says.