America’s Greatest Alpinist Also Sport Climbs 5.14
Taking a break from his training dojo in Estes Park, Colorado, one of the world’s best all-arounders talks about hard climbing, the risk in alpinism, his low profile on social media, and balancing life as a father and pro climber.
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In October 2016, wearing two jackets and a kneepad over his pants, Josh Wharton laybacked above a micro-stopper, racing a storm that had enveloped the Diamond of Longs Peak, Colorado. After years of effort that included forays onto the line to scope its free potential, Wharton redpointed the Direct Dunn-Westbay (5.14b) as snow sprayed the wall. However, up at the 14,259-foot summit, he felt unsatisfied. He’d intended to climb the crux ledge to ledge, linking it in a single 80-meter pitch as Tommy Caldwell did on the 2013 FFA. But Wharton had used an intermediate belay. “I knew I wasn’t being honest with myself if I accepted that asterisked ascent,” Wharton says.
A natural athlete, the wiry, 6-foot-tall Wharton, 40, keeps his hair short, his tick list long, and his social media presence nearly nonexistent. He’s been climbing for 34 years with fanatic drive, displaying a high degree of performance across a variety of disciplines: As an alpinist, the FA of Azeem Ridge (VII 5.11 R/X M6 A2) on Great Trango Tower in 2004 with Kelly Cordes; the second free ascent of the Southeast Ridge—the Compressor Route (VI 5.12+)—of Cerro Torre in 2016; and in 2011 an onsight solo of the Eiger Nordwand via the 1938 Route (M5) in 7 hours, 15 minutes. As a trad climber, he made the 2010 FFA of Black Sheep (IV 5.13c) and in 2014 climbed the Hallucinogen Wall (V 5.13b/c R) in the Black Canyon in a day, and in 2018 repeated El Capitan’s El Corazon (VI 5.13b). As a sport climber, he’s flashed 5.13d and ticked 5.14, including Chasm Lake’s Sarchasm (5.14a) and Dave Graham’s 1990s Black and Tan Wall, Utah, testpiece Breaking the Law (5.14b). And as a sporadic boulderer, he’s flashed Normal Chaos, a powerful V9 in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), as well as sent Shoot to Maim (V10) in Lincoln Woods. (“I’m also ahead of Alex Honnold on 8a.nu [as of press time],” jokes Wharton.) As Cordes noted on Instagram, “I can’t think of any other climber who has so excelled to their highest potential in every aspect of the game.”
Born in February 1979 to Patricia McKee, a lawyer and judge, and John Wharton, an art and English teacher at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, Wharton grew up primarily in Nottingham, New Hampshire. Although his father had two children from a previous marriage, they lived in Seattle, and Wharton was essentially raised as an only child. As a high school freshman, Wharton attended Phillips Exeter for one year, but soon transferred to Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine, attending as a boarding student. In 1995, when Wharton was 16, his mother, then 54, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The cancer spread quickly, and McKee died six months later, leaving Wharton shattered. Afterward, he grew closer to his father. “A shared love of climbing brought us together,” recalls Wharton.
Wharton’s family has a long climbing lineage, which can be traced back to his paternal relatives in the UK. His grandparents climbed extensively in Wales in the 1940s and ‘50s, and John—an experienced climber who climbed the Eiger in 1966—worked for a guiding service in the Lake District as a teenager. After John immigrated to the States at age 18 for college, he climbed in the Gunks, RMNP, and the Tetons. At age 6, Wharton climbed for the first time, toproping at the Lower Slabs in Pawtuckaway, New Hampshire, with his dad and some friends.
“I hated it,” says Wharton. “I cried.”
At age 11, Wharton tried climbing again, this time in Wales, and enjoyed it more, feeling like a hero when his father hip-belayed him to the top of the crag. Through his teenage years, Wharton would toprope with high school friends at Tumbledown Dick, a scruffy crag near Bethel, Maine, and head to Pawtuckaway near his parents’ house during school breaks. After high school, he road-tripped to Boulder, Tuolumne, Yosemite, and Devils Tower. It was a “standard beginner, overstoker sort of trip,” Wharton recalls. “No rest days, driving through the night, and climbing 5.9s in the July sun.” In 1997, he moved to Colorado to attend CU Boulder and to pursue mountain biking. But once there, Wharton focused on getting “a bachelor’s degree in rock and ice climbing, with a minor in English literature.”
In his last year at CU while out at a Boulder dance club, Wharton met Erinn Kelly. The pair began dating in 2002 and married in 2009. Erinn, today a third-grade teacher at Estes Park Elementary, and he moved to Estes Park in 2010; four years later, they had their daughter, Hera, a precocious red-haired girl.
To some degree, Hera’s birth has changed Wharton’s approach. Before parenthood, he often semi-jokingly took a fatalistic “safety fifth” attitude, pursuing out-there alpine goals. These included enormous objectives in Pakistan like the 2002 FA with Brian McMahon of Under Fire (VI 5.10 X A3 M5 AI4) on the Flame. Then, two years later, he and Cordes climbed Azeem Ridge, one of the world’s longest rock climbs, on the Great Trango Tower. The men climbed “disaster style,” carrying two ropes (which they had to cut on the rappels), 28-pound packs, and no bolt kit, while committing to an alpine-style ascent despite losing a third of their rack low on the route and running out of water on the last two days. As Cordes wrote in the 2005 American Alpine Journal, “Josh and I wanted to go up more than we wanted to go down.”
As he developed as an alpine climber, Wharton began to make faster work of big objectives. In May 2012, in the span of less than two weeks, he stormed the Canadian Rockies, climbing Wild Thing (VI WI4 M7) on the northeast face of Mt. Chephren (10,741 feet) with Chris Alstrin, Infinite Patience (VI WI4 M5) on the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson (12,970 feet) with Jon Walsh, and the Greenwood-Locke (V M6) on the north face of Mt. Temple (11,625 feet) with Dylan Johnson and Mikey Schaefer. “It was arguably one of the most successful 10-day periods of any alpine climber up there,” says Schaefer.
The following August, Wharton—after his partner for another objective bailed—met with Hayden Kennedy and Kyle Dempster on the Choktoi Glacier below Ogre I (23,901 feet) in Pakistan’s Karakoram. The trio attempted a new route on the south face. At the second bivy, at 22,600 feet, Wharton contracted pulmonary edema and was coughing blood. Dempster and Kennedy blasted to the summit in an eight-hour round-trip push while Wharton—“happy to lie still”—stayed in the tent.
A few months after Hera’s birth, in 2014, Wharton established Scorched Granite (AI6 M7; 4,200’) with Will Mayo on the west face of Mount Huntington. Then in 2016, with Schaefer and Andrew Rothner, he freed the Compressor Route on Patagonia’s Cerro Torre, which had been climbed at 5.13b by the late David Lama in 2012 (Wharton pegs the grade at 5.12+). While as a dad he’s scaled back some of the riskier alpine climbing, Wharton has continued to make trips to Scotland for mixed climbing and to the 20,000-foot Jirishanca in Peru to attempt its southeast face. This July, he’ll be returning to Jirishanca to attempt one of the hardest routes in the Andes. “The face is a jaw-dropper,” says Wharton, describing its 5.12+ terrain to mixed climbing and ice pillars, topped off with a long, complex sugar-snow ridge. “It is the epitome of hard alpinism.” Being a father has also made it harder to peel away for long trips. Until Hera was four, Wharton was on dad duty every Tuesday and Thursday. Now, he drops her off and picks her up from preschool four days a week; on Wednesdays, they ski, hike, adventure, or play around the house together.
In late summer 2018, Wharton, after a morning in his home training dojo, strode up the talus of Upper Upper Chaos Canyon. We’d met previously in Boulder Canyon and climbed in Eldorado Canyon on Hayden’s Line, a 400-foot sustained 5.13c that he’d established on the Redgarden Wall. Wharton’s rock résumé of 20 5.14 ticks and more than 400 5.13 ticks follows a typical early 1990s testpiece style—techy, vert climbing. “I was fortunate to start climbing with zero upper-body strength, so I learned to stand on my feet early on,“ says Wharton. Some of his hardest ticks, such as his flash of Sayonara Bitch (5.13d) in Ten Sleep and his ascent of Lumpy Ridge’s trad testpiece Country Boy (5.13d), epitomize his “(relatively) weak but technically good” climbing style. That day together in Chaos, Wharton flashed Normal Chaos (V9), a series of difficult underclings and heel hooks. His cultivated power stems partly from his training obsession. As Schaefer puts it, “He’s probably one of the most consistent and motivated climbers of his era.”
Next to his tiny cabin in Estes Park is a 16-by-24-foot shed, housing one of the best training gyms in Colorado, with a MoonBoard, Treadwall, campus board, four hangboards, and a 50-degree-overhanging spray wall. Additionally, Wharton built a replica of the crux on Freerider (VI 5.13a) on El Capitan to train for a flash attempt this fall. He spends a few hours each training day in the dojo, writing fastidious notes in his journal and moving quickly from a limit problem on the MoonBoard to max reaches on the campus board. As Steve House puts it, “His every day is structured around improving as a climber.” Wharton’s dedication has paid off: In September 2018, he redpointed the Direct Dunn Westbay ledge to ledge, powering up the never-ending laybacks, tips locks, gastons, and sidepulls in a monster, hour-long lead.
“For me, it was important to put in the necessary time and effort to make the climb right in my heart and mind,” says Wharton.
How has being a parent changed your view of risk?
Josh Wharton: Things have changed less with fatherhood and more with age. I was bolder as a younger climber, but now I’m technically better, stronger, and more experienced, so things that may have once fallen into the category of recklessness in my twenties feel more like calculated risks these days. That said, I do carefully choose the riskier routes that I do now, and avoid unnecessary risks whenever possible. I also try to emphasize technical difficulty and avoid objective hazard. As the younger, more ambitious version of myself, I may have been guilty of equating objective risk-taking with badass climbing. Now I value alpine routes that require a high level of skill, [and] I strongly prefer minimal amounts of objective hazard.
But climbing isn’t golf. There will always be some level of risk, and I don’t hide from that. Life is short, and following your passions is worth it. All of us will experience the pain of loss in our lives, and eventually die. That should serve as a reminder not to shirk from life’s joy’s but to live our days and our passions to their fullest.
How do you juggle childcare and climbing?
Any parent knows that kids teach you to be more efficient and productive with your time. I’m fortunate to squeak out a living as a full-time climber, primarily through my work with Patagonia. This means I only have to juggle family and climbing, and not work, family, and climbing like many folks. I’m also grateful that Erinn is so supportive, and we communicate and plan well together. In the last few years while Hera has been young and it’s critical to give her lots of time and attention, I’ve focused more on rock climbing. It requires far less time away from home, and has fewer variables out of your control than, say, a trip to the Karakoram or Patagonia.
In 2016, you climbed the Direct Dunn-Westbay but split the pitch in half. In 2018, you returned to climb the crux pitch in its entirety. Why is style important?
I don’t think that style is particularly important, as long as you respect those who came before you and don’t adversely affect the experience for those to come—and are completely honest with yourself and others in describing what you’ve done. With the Dunn-Westbay, my initial goal was to do the route ledge to ledge, and in 2016 I fell short. Although I’d free-climbed the route in horrendous conditions, and was happy with my effort, I knew I wasn’t being honest with myself if I accepted that asterisked ascent.
What training was needed to send the DDW in one pitch?
I tried again in 2017, but it was a wet season so I didn’t get close. Relatively speaking, I actually trained equally hard, if not harder, in 2016. The key difference in 2018 was more-thoughtful training and better tactical decisions. In 2016, I had already done Sarchasm (5.14a) and The Honeymoon is Over (V 5.13c) that same summer, [and] the cumulative fatigue caught up with me. I was getting up early to rope-solo on the DDW, and bouldering and fingerboarding in the afternoon on the same day. I hiked into the Longs Cirque and to the top of the Diamond more than 30 times over three months! In 2018, I had more time to work with and a singular focus. I was kinder to my body with more rest, and I asked Jon Cardwell to work the route with me to help provide some energy. Those tactical decisions helped get the job done.
You’ve displayed an ability to climb well in different disciplines. How has this affected your view of climbing?
I think I understand the nuances of high-end climbing across the disciplines in a way that’s unusual in North America, where the geography and climbing culture lend themselves more to specialization. That’s given me some unique perspectives, and taught me to draw on the positive aspects from each genre. For instance, the nerdy, gear and strategy focus possessed by the best alpine climbers is actually a very useful tool for big-wall free climbing. And the drive of many young boulderers to carry pads for hours high into the mountains to work on their projects, and climb in nasty conditions, has been a lesson in work ethic and toughness that crosses over into alpine objectives.
Why do you avoid social media?
I came of age in a time and place when tooting your own horn was frowned upon, and I’ve also always enjoyed being in the moment, rather than documenting it. Also, as I’ve read more about the subject and seen its influence on the culture at large, I’ve become increasingly concerned about its negative impacts on individuals and society. I wonder if we might look back on social media like we now look back on smoking: once commonplace and widely accepted, but now largely socially unacceptable and known to be very unhealthy.
That said, I’m not a zealot, and I do check in on some climbers’ and friends’ social media to be inspired and see what people are up to. Erinn also has an Instagram account for sharing Hera’s childhood with distant friends and family, and I love checking in when I’m on a trip. I also realize that my decision to avoid social media has likely cost me opportunities in my climbing career, both financial and otherwise.
Yet you participate on Mountain Project and have an 8a.nu scorecard. Why these outlets as opposed to others?
I see Mountain Project as a way to contribute. I like giving good beta on routes I find particularly high quality that may have been overlooked. This dispels myths and ultimately spreads climbers out.
I signed up for 8a.nu for two reasons. First, I was looking at the database to get inside info on routes—like when is a climb in “redpoint season,” is it considered quality, easy or hard, etc.? I was often frustrated by user comments. They were mostly about ego and didn’t contain much useful information. Basically, I was “bottom feeding,” and felt I could contribute positively. Second, when I was coming off a blown ACL, I wanted to use the competitive aspect of the ranking for motivation.
What does your climbing future look like?
I’d like to keep improving at rock climbing while I still can, and complete some “dream goals” before I’m too old for the demands of the required training. I still have some alpine aspirations, so I’ll continue to get into the mountains once or twice a year. Perhaps in another 10 years when I crest 50 and Hera heads off to college, I’ll start going to the Himalayas again on longer expeditions.
Josh Wharton’s top 6 ways to up your all-around game
1. Live in a place with easy access to all types of climbing throughout the year, and take advantage of it.
It’s hard to get good at alpine climbing if you only put on crampons once a year!
2. Climb on different rock types/styles.
Favor onsighting over redpointing, particularly in your first five years of climbing.
3. Emphasize mileage and experiences over difficulty in the alpine.
If you can’t see yourself rapping down a complicated alpine wall, building your own anchors with a small-ish rack, there’s still work to be done.
4. Climb a lot of ice early on until you’re competent, but then spend more time alpine and rock climbing.
Once you know how to ice-climb well, you can replicate that, even with time gaps.
5. Be open to learning new things, and adopting skills and practices from other climbers across the disciplines.
For instance, experienced alpine climbers are often an amazing resource for tips on tactics, weather, and conditions, while high-end sport climbers often have a breadth of knowledge about training.
6. Learn to be objective about your own strengths and weaknesses—and attack the weaknesses.
If you’re thoughtful, dedicated, and passionate, eventually there won’t be any weaknesses left—just strengths that can be reinforced!