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The first time we came down after attempting to replace the old bolts on Resurrection Wall, to be honest, my motivation was low. The chances of me going back up were slim to none. The 400-foot face was cold, dark, and steep. In some spots, hanging on rappel, I could barely touch the rock. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
I have been rebolting routes for 28 years; to feel so out of sorts was, to say the least, unexpected. This project should have been squarely in my wheelhouse, but for some reason I seemed to be on the wrong ship.
Enter my partner Clint Cummins. Clint has spent more time on rock than most people have in bed. His consummate skills combined with his calm demeanor make him ideal to have along when things get complex and involve a lot of suffering. Power tools, including power drills, are not allowed at Pinnacles National Park, so we can only use hand tools to remove and replace bolts. That guarantees suffering.
It took the late Rupert Kammerlander and Craig MacKay four years in the mid 1970s to unlock the secrets of Resurrection Wall. Routes at the Pinnacles are, by tradition, done ground up. While these two were good free climbers, they had to establish a 15-bolt aid ladder to overcome the overhanging second pitch of their four-pitch route.
Yosemite legend Tom Higgins revolutionized free climbing at the Pinnacles. To him, Resurrection Wall looked to be the ultimate free-climbing prize. With 15 closely-spaced bolts on pitch 2 how could he resist? The lanky Californian succeeded a few weeks after the first ascent, but only after taking a gripping, 30-foot fall after he grabbed the belay knob at the top of the pitch but lacked the strength to mantle up.
Unfortunately, little has changed since Higgins’ visionary ascent, and by that I mean the bolts. Kammerlander and MacKay primarily used 1/4″ Red Head bolts with homemade hangers (see photo) tossing in a 3/8″ Red Head when they got a bit strung out. None of the bolts were more than an inch deep! Add the fact that Pinnacles rock can be sketchy at best and the prevailing ethic seemed to be “safety in numbers.” This climb was begging for new hardware.
When the Access Fund announced that they were giving out grants for bolt replacement, Resurrection Wall seemed like the perfect candidate. We (Friends of Pinnacles) applied. They granted, and now all we had to do was go up there and replace all the bolts.
Even after our dubious first attempt, Clint was still gung ho. I made up some lame excuse to avoid resuming the battle. Clint, undeterred, offered to go up solo. He spent two days on the route, skillfully rigging ropes from above to snag the bolts on the upper two pitches, which zig and zag back and forth through the weaknesses on the steep, foreboding wall.
Fortunately (or not), my guilt got the better of me; I couldn’t leave all the work to Clint. The two of us headed back up to Resurrection a few weeks later for what we hoped would be the final push. I got to work on the aid bolt ladder while Clint donned a waterproof jacket to replace bolts on the first pitch, which sit in a seasonal water streak.
We suffered. Clint got drenched on a cold November day. My harness severely tested my manhood as I hung free from the wall, trying to remove and replace bolts on the overhanging and right-leaning aid ladder. Uncharacteristically, we dropped tools. I somehow managed to clip my Jumar into a bolt while trying to clip a carabiner for a directional.
We were making headway, but it seemed like the rock was getting the better of us. I remembered Warren Harding’s quote after the first ascent of El Capitan. When asked by a reporter how he felt to have conquered Yosemite’s iconic wall he remarked, “As I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.”
As the sun set, we had four bolts left to replace. Even though we have done some of our best rebolting with headlamps, we were done for the day. I did the 100-foot overhanging rappel to the ground and just lay there for 10 minutes soaking in the joy of being in a horizontal world.
Clint stepped up once again and offered to go back out. He replaced the last four bolts solo. After the deed, he stripped the wall of all our fixed ropes and gear. I can only imagine his hike out under a bulging pile of wet and rusting equipage.
In the end, we replaced 29 bolts and removed an additional four that were unnecessary. Hand drilling is totally overrated. Well, it seems that way right now. As soon as the bad memories fade, I will be right back up there on another project, hopefully suffering a bit less, but driven on by the satisfaction of a job well done.
Further reading: Bruce Hildenbrand Profile—The Work is the Gift (2009)