In summer 2018, I crimped the side of a thin crack at Area A at Colorado’s Mount Evans. I gastoned a ghost hold with my right hand, smeared my right foot, and stood up, launching myself up the iconic Seurat, one of Colorado best alpine boulder problems. However, I wasn’t sure if I’d truly sent. As with so many things in climbing, there were nuances to the problem—such as the starting position used on the first ascent—that resituated my effort in a larger context. Namely, “Who makes the rules of climbing?”
In 1995, the Fort Collins–based climber Ben Scott hiked in to the Chicago Lakes on the flanks of Mount Evans and began establishing problems on the area’s clean, white, granite boulders. He started Seurat, named for the late-1800s painter and inventor of pointilism Georges Seurat, with his right hand in the crack and his left hand palming down. The way I climbed the crack, with my hands in a different sequence, made for a more difficult starting move; however, it also allowed me to skip a hand move once I got going.
Later that night, I polled 944 of my Instagram followers, asking if my ascent counted. 75 percent agreed that it was “2 legit to quit,” while 25 percent felt it was “invalid salad.” A few days later, I returned to the problem and tried Scott’s original start, but failed higher, at the crux. I spoke with Scott about the problem afterward. “If you can’t fully stand up for your whole experience or accomplishment for doing it the original way, then you’re just looking for a little boost to your ego,” he said.
While Scott’s statement drew a hard line, he had a point. Many climbers who talk about their ascents do so because they want validation. But oftentimes their need for validation eclipses their need to tell the entire truth—to be accurate and honest when recounting the particulars of their ascent. Climbers have defined what terms like “send” mean: The Climbing Dictionary’s first definition is “to free-climb without falling, either as a redpoint, flash or onsight.” Representing otherwise or failing to correct a misconception is to lie by omission, spreading mistruths that often catch up to you in the court of public opinion. The way past this is to represent the facts with an asterisk, to clarify your ascent. I’ve spent the majority of my climbing career in Yosemite, where the asterisks are many and the lines get murkier than where you started with your hands on a boulder problem.
In 1988, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana made the first free ascent of El Capitan via the Salathé Wall. However, their ascent had a few asterisks. In spots, they did it in a style in which one person freed a pitch and then the second jumared, so they didn’t each free every single pitch—though all told, each climber became one of the first humans to free-climb such a large portion of the Big Stone. However, they also climbed the original aid line, freeing the difficult nineteenth pitch, a 5.13c flaring, pin-scarred crack that most detour around today via a 5.11 offwidth. The second free ascent of El Capitan came in 1993 when Lynn Hill freed the Nose. Then Hill set a new standard for style in 1994, freeing the Nose again, this time leading every pitch free in a day—a highmark that in the quarter century since has only been achieved on El Cap by less than 25 people. So, should all other climbers who want to free El Cap now be held to this standard: leading every pitch free in a day? Simple logic would dictate that the answer is “No”—few will be skilled enough.
The consensus on how big-wall free climbing should be done is murky at best. At times, people toprope crux pitches. Or the climbers leave the wall to resupply, and then rappel back in to free the crux. Other times, people skip crux pitches—for example, how the Salathé gets climbed now, avoiding the 5.13c nineteenth pitch for the easier offwidth. Add in fixed lines that let you move freely about the wall and the continuous-ascent debate, and suddenly it’s more of a difference than the number of pads you’re standing on to reach the starting holds at the boulders. However, what hasn’t changed is a need for clarity.
There will always be a need for clarity.
In 2015, I sent the Freerider on El Capitan in a day after 40 days of effort spread over 4 years, leading every pitch and freeing the route with my friend Austin Siadak jumaring behind with a backpack full of supplies. However, I have a few asterisks. After falling twice at 4 a.m. on pitch 6, a delicate 5.11 slab on Freeblast that I climbed by headlamp, I yo-yo’ed, leaving the rope clipped to my highest bolt. I did the same on the first Enduro Corner pitch, pitch 26. I fell at the crux and then lowered, toproping back to my highpoint with the gear in situ. On the last 5.12 pitch, a short traverse on pitch 28, I grabbed the rope momentarily when I thought I was falling—I didn’t want to whip any farther than I had to. Lowering back to the belay, pulling the rope, and re-leading the 40-foot pitch seemed excessive. I had all the excuses: At that point, I’d been on the go for 12 hours, with only 575 feet of climbing left to do. It was time to move on. I returned to a no-hands stance and then finished the pitch. While my ascent was less than perfect, it was what I could do at the time. These asterisks provided opportunities to learn, though. As notes of truth, they showed me just how I could make mastery of climbing more important than the send.
In 2011, my girlfriend, Nina Williams, grabbed a series of crimps on Joe’s Valley’s black-and-grey Resident Evil Boulder. She moved through a difficult sequence, got a heel-toe cam in a crack, and topped out. She thought she’d sent the namesake problem. However, unknowingly, she—as have many others—had started higher than the first ascentionist, Stephen Jeffrey.
“I started Resident Evil so low that no poser could come along years later and say they added a sit start, try to rename it, and claim the FA,” says Jeffrey of his 1999 first ascent. In the mid-2000s, a tree growing out of a jug at the top was removed and the problem was extended for a longer, albeit easier, exit. Jeffery estimates that the way people do it now is V8/9, easier than the original V10.
Earlier this year, Nina returned to Resident Evil. This time she began on the lower holds; after warming up to the tiny crimps, she climbed as Jeffrey had, though she finished on the dead-tree topout. Repeating the problem from the original start displayed her growth in climbing over the past seven years—she had improved on her style.
This past summer, in Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, Nina projected The Automator, a 20-move V13. After six days of work, she climbed the initial hard crimp moves to the difficult redpoint crux. She stuck the move, but as she topped out she looked perplexed, like something was off. Earlier on the climb, her back had grazed the pads, and she felt like she’d dabbed. Instead of leaving the asterisk, she rested for 30 minutes and then repeated The Automator, one of her hardest problems ever, without touching the pads.
As my strength has increased, so too has my desire to return to Seurat and send it from the proper start. Watching Nina remove her asterisks has inspired me: It’s shown me that progression is sometimes displayed in style, in a push to make your best even better. Although I’m satisfied with my effort on Freerider, I’ve also taken what I learned on its punishing slabs and cracks to apply to future climbs. Perhaps the next time I free-climb El Cap, I’ll work it from the ground, or swing leads with a partner in a day, or I’ll climb it with no falls. Though the asterisks are difficult to admit, and I wish they weren’t there—that I was climbing in the best style at all times—without those little dots, what would I have to improve on? In a sport where nobody, really, makes the rules and where we rely on each other to be honest about our ascents, I’ve come to see this as a fundamental question.