On September 15, 2020, Wes Fowler redpointed China Doll (5.14a R) on gear after six total months of effort. His ascent was the route's eighth successful trad lead.
China Doll was first put up as an aid line (5.9 C3) in 1981 and later bolted (5.13+). Adam Stack freed the individual pitches on gear in 2002, and then Mike Patz made the route's first integral free ascent on gear in 2007 when he climbed it as one mega pitch. The Boulder Canyon test piece lies deep within a narrow, shaded offshoot canyon called Upper Dream. It rolls over sparse white granite before splitting upward in a gorgeous, arching offset crack in 130 feet of perfect stone. It’s about the closest you can get to Yosemite without leaving the state.
Before he started projecting China Doll in September, 2019, Fowler had tried it once, on a whim, in 2015. “It was very clearly the king line of Boulder Canyon,” he recalls thinking upon first sight. That first attempt ended a few bolts up, at the 5.12 bulge on pitch one.
“I got totally smacked,” Fowler laughs. He never imagined he’d go back for a second attempt.
But over the next four years, Fowler racked up harder ticks around Colorado, up to 5.13b/c (El Diamonte Eternal), M15 (Saphira in Vail), and V13 (Circadian Rhythm in Poudre Canyon). And he never could get China Doll out of his head. In September of 2019, he decided to go back.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to pick a route to work on for the long term, I’m not going to compromise,’” he said. “Go big or go home, right?”
For Fowler, the process tested every facet of his climbing ability—the logistical, the technical, the physical, and, most of all, the mental.
|Not Good Enough: Self-Worth, Anxiety, and the Pursuit of 5.14 Trad|
Read a feature story by Molly Mitchell about her quest to redpoint China Doll on gear and her struggles with mental health in the upcoming Winter 2020 issue of Climbing Magazine. Summit Members can read the story in print and on our website the day it hits newsstands. Join here.
Fowler began by examining his normal excuses and finding ways to eliminate them.
“One of the more practical reasons I chose China Doll is that it’s accessible from the top, which meant I was able to work it as a toprope solo,” Fowler explains.
The crag was also within a 20-minute drive of home and had a short approach, which meant he couldn’t talk himself out of squeezing in a few laps whenever he had a free afternoon.
And while no one could reasonably hold Fowler responsible for the conditions, he controlled what he could: In the winter, Fowler rappelled into China Doll after snowstorms with a small broom. He’d brush off each hold, making sure they were dry enough to use the next day. And when it was too humid to climb in summer, Fowler showed up anyway. Putting in more attempts, even imperfect attempts, became the priority.
“Even when it was hot, I could still feel the benefits of the repetition,” Fowler says. “The moves were getting just a little higher percentage every time. So I kept going.”
To maintain lockoff power and finger strength, Fowler kept up a routine of gym bouldering and MoonBoarding. However, the real crux for him was flexibility.
“On the first pitch there’s this one section where you kick your left leg up into what’s close to a full split,” Fowler says. After trying the route over and over, he eventually developed enough flexibility that he could get the split, sink into it, and cop a no-hands rest. That rest turned out to be one of the keys to sending, Fowler says.
Selecting the right gear for a line at your limit is a delicate balance between weight, safety, and ease of placement. Fowler said he met some climbers so concerned with weight that they would always use the tiniest pieces possible—even when there were safer options.
“My priority was selecting pieces that I knew would make me feel good,” Fowler says. “Where I’ve seen others place a red ballnut, I placed a 0.75. Where they might place a black alien or a micronut to protect the crux, I placed a green C3.”
Fowler adds that when he first started leading the route, he brought about twice as much gear as he did on his final attempts. By that point, he’d clocked plenty of repetition—and plenty of falls. He’d learned what gear would hold, which pieces were absolutely necessary, and which were just “mental protection” that he was expending valuable energy in placing.
Of course, choosing ditching the mental protection can have its own drawbacks.
Even with Fowler’s beefed-up original rack, China Doll is still R-rated—for a lot of its 130 feet, the placement options are slim. A huge ledge in the middle of the first pitch makes decking a serious possibility. If Fowler fell at the crux and the one piece protecting it—the green C3—blew, he’d be looking at shattered lower extremities or worse.
None of that bothered Fowler at first. He’d taken the big crux fall once before—a nerve-electrifying 30-footer—and the C3 had held. But then he saw a partner blow a small cam in the same spot, narrowly avoiding disaster. That’s when the dam broke and fear began trickling in.
“I started to make negative mental progress,” Fowler says. In late November, after sending the first pitch on gear and spending weeks attempting the second pitch, he started to shut down.
After a six-month break due to travel plans and COVID-19 lockdown, Fowler went back to toprope soloing and started placing an additional piece of gear, an offset 0.1/0.2 cam, at the exit of the crux.
“Every time I would place the piece as part of my toprope solo routine and tell myself, ‘Everything is safe now because you’re placing that piece. You’re never going to take as a big of a fall as you took that one time, because you placed that piece.’” Eventually, his confidence returned, and he was able to enter the crux sequence climbing smoothly—not panicked about the runout or the fall.
Putting it All Together
After a summer of working the route, Fowler tied in on September 15 for yet another lead attempt. He made it to the big ledge before the first 5.12 moves and was resting when a few friends walked by.
That’s when Fowler realized what his last excuse was: The feeling that there was no rush, no pressure. Today was different; he had an audience.
“My brain said, ‘OK, I don’t have to send, but I at least have to put on a show and take the whip instead of taking,’” Fowler says. He started up, pulling perfectly rehearsed moves through the bulge. He kicked into the split, nabbing a short no-hands rest before shooting up a layback section on sloping holds.
Conditions were perfect—cool but not humid. “The rock felt like Velcro,” Fowler recalls.
Pretty soon he was flying up the second pitch, entering the crux sequence with every intention of plugging in that second cam. But when he arrived at the sequence exit, everything had lined up. He was calm. He was relaxed. And he knew that he didn’t need the mental protection. Fowler ran it out to the end of the sequence, floated the last 10 to 15 feet of 5.11 climbing, and clipped the chains. He let out a whoop. The dream was realized. The work was done.