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Peaches Preaches: Cosmic Debris, or How to Put Your Fingers In a Vicegrip and Stomp On Them

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“You walk without a sense of purpose,” a Berkeley bar manager once told James “Peaches” Lucas before firing him. A dedicated climber who spent 15 years living out of caves, tents, and then a Saturn station wagon to pursue the sport, Lucas stumbles through life but marches to the boulders, crags, and walls. Peaches Preaches is his monthly column.

On May 4, 2017, I wrenched my fingers into Cosmic Debris, a thirty foot 5.13b crack behind the Yosemite Valley Chapel. I locked off above my tick marks and over reached the thin constrictions. I’d never felt so strong on the moves. Panicked, I stabbed in a tipped-out cam. If the .4 umbrella blew, I would break my feet on the ledge below. My body fought against my memory of weaker beta. I cranked my fingers as hard as I could, smeared my feet on the overhanging wall, and thrutched to a finger lock.

In 1980, a year before I was born, Bill Price completed the first ascent of the Valley testpiece. Price named it from the song on Frank Zappa’s 1974 Apostrophe album. “Although I was not really into his music, I just liked the name and our generation seemed to use names from music, books, and movies.” The crack was the culmination of Price’s climbing career. By 1979 he had made the first free ascent of The West Face of El Capitan (V 5.11c) and repeated harder routes like Tales of Power (5.12b), and The Phoenix (5.13a). Climbing with Ray Jardine, Price was one of the first climbers to employ spring-loaded camming devices in hard, traditionally protected routes, and he used some on Cosmic Debris. In the song, Zappa sings about a guru offering him the chance to reach nirvana through a “nominal service charge.” Zappa refuses, instead taking the guru’s crystal ball and hypnotizing the man.

Over the past 16 years, since arriving in Yosemite after graduating from highschool, I’ve worked my way through the classic Yosemite cracks. In the early 2000s, I floundered my way up Peruvian Flake (5.10a), Serenity Crack (5.10d), and Catchy (5.10d). In 2004, I started taking climbing a little more seriously, learning how to redpoint and climbing Butterballs (5.11c) at the Cookie Cliff. In 2008, I pinkpointed—climbing with in situ gear—Hangdog Flyer (5.12c) under the Arches. Three years later, I fought a heinous flash pump and sent The Phoenix, a 130’ foot crack near Cascade Falls. I wanted my climbing to continue to progress; I wanted to climb my hardest while placing traditional protection. I believed   (5.13b) would be a logical next step. But my ambitions quickly ground to a halt.

I tried Cosmic Debris for the first time in October of 2012 with my friend John Schmid. The 17 move, 30-foot crack involved campusing on fingerlocks, a hand jam, then a difficult finger crack boulder problem. The whole route required six pieces of gear, mainly ¾ to one inch sized cams. We gobbied our fingers quickly, but I felt close on my first few tries, reaching the top with only a couple falls. I had climbed two other sport routes of the grade and thought that I could battle with the fierce crack.  

Over the next five years, I would remain in the same place. I struggled to improve. I was convinced that my climbing progression was just a single try away. I would randomly climb to the last few moves, falling with my feet on the horizontal two meters from the top. I could consistently one-hang the route. I traded burns with Enzo Oddo on the route, seeing him make a few moves past my high point and send. Beth Rodden told me about how hard the route had been for her small fingers. Alex Honnold, who had soloed the route, said “It’s not that bad.” In the winter of 2015, Sean Villaneuva O’Driscoll belayed me a few times. He lapped the route and told me, “You just need one perfect go.”

Exasperated, I continued focusing on my other climbing goals. I wanted to free climb El Capitan in a day, another long-term project. After each failed season on the Freerider (VI 5.12d), I would torture my fingers in the locks of Cosmic Debris. My knuckles swelled. Three years ago, I tried Cosmic Debris with Hazel Findlay. I came close but failed. A few days later, I almost sent the Freerider, falling just a few times on the hardest pitches. In June of 2015, I sent the Freerider in a day. I’d climbed a half dozen more 13b sport routes by then, but I couldn’t bring myself to even try Cosmic Debris. I knew it was still too hard for me.

Photo: Ashley Helms

This spring, I traveled to Yosemite to explore the boulders. I needed to work on a bouldering guidebook to the Valley. I had a few climbing projects in mind and they all felt hard. Late in the trip, I went to Cosmic Debris and successfully toproped the route, which I had only done twice before. I threw my eggs in one basket, and decided to try the route for a week, hoping that Advil and tenacity would help.

My first attempts to lead it this spring felt horrible. Alex Honnold jugged up and took pictures of me going to the death on the finger locks. I couldn’t remember the gear at all. I fumbled about, working a bit more on the top section, where I had consistently fallen. With just a few days left in Yosemite, I wanted to accomplish something. I felt older and wondered if it was possible for me to progress in my climbing. I had a full-time job and far more responsibilities now.

I rested two days and ate little. I warmed up in the boulders behind Camp 4, climbing easy problems in my approach shoes. I headed to the climb, anxious. I wanted to send so that I could climb El Cap with Alex two days later. I also never wanted to put my fingers in that vice grip again. Tim Derohen, a friend from high school who I had tried the route with a few times before, belayed me.

I climbed past the tipped-out cam terrified. My forearms screamed with adrenaline and lactic acid. I made the next few moves to reach the horizontal. Nina Williams hung just over the mantle edge, filming me. I screamed through a tenuous layback, hit a small finger lock, and yarded to the jug at the top. The week before, Nina had sprained her ankle and her oversized boot covered the top hold. I yelled at her to move her foot. I tossed my leg over but slid when my calf hit her boot. I adjusted and flopped onto the ledge. I felt dazed. Hitting a benchmark in my climbing, progressing in even a tiny way, had taken years of effort. My fingers already hurt from putting them in the vice grip crack and stomping on them. I thought of the Zappa song. The service charge to reach this nirvana felt more than just “nominal.”

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