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In the fall of 1972, Jim Bridwell (The “Bird”) showed me a list of new routes he planned to attempt in Yosemite in the coming years. One took a bold, penciled line up a black-and-white photo of Middle Cathedral, which then, as well as now, is my favorite Yosemite monolith. The line looked striking — splitter cracks, thin corners, a roof, some open face work, hanging belays for sure. The length, projected at 9 or 10 pitches, made the adventure feel especially dramatic.
In conventional military fashion, Bridwell soon commanded a platoon of Camp 4 draftees to a high point 600 feet up the cliffside. Here, buckling knifeblades and holdless granite halted vertical progress, though the Bird thought it possible for his squad to execute a “column left” and traverse off to easier rock on the flank. In the spring of the following year, they did just that, and the route was completed: The Central Pillar of Frenzy (IV 5.10b).
No less than 10 climbers had their hand in the final ascent. It pissed me off that I wasn’t one of them, so I chose the next best thing, an early repeat, something of recent vogue. The Bird and company had barely rapped off when lines started forming up at the bottom of Central Pillar. So imagine our confusion when Jim Orey and I gained the last pitch (7), to discover that the route “finished” by traversing off at that holdless granite, stretching overhead. We traversed off, like everyone else.
Enter Tobin Sorensen and Gib Lewis, eager to finish what The Bird and friends had started. Gib, then the stronger face climber, thieved up holdless pitch 7, with those buckling knifeblades, and fashioned a two-bolt sling belay beneath a thin crack filled with dirt, vines and shrubs. The final 300 feet above, leading to the U-shaped bowl, looked climbable, but they’d need a roto-tiller to clean a 40-foot stretch just off the belay. Only at gunpoint would Tobin ever rap off; so he punched out the jungle pitch on aid and the two carried on, encountering an all-time, one-inch, 5.11 splitter crack above the bushes on this penultimate lead. A chossy 5.9 corner found tiered ledges at the bottom of the U-shaped bowl. (The 1,200 headwall above the U-shaped bowl is loose and ill-defined, so parties either rap the route or follow ramps leading up and left, bypassing the crummy headwall.) The Central Pillar Direct was now finished: IV 5.11 A1.
Understand that The Central Pillar of Frenzy was a Bridwell route. To think of improving—let alone completing—something so hallowed was like doodling on a Vermeer. Bridwell, deeply troubled, resolved to tidy up the Lewis/Sorensen direct finish. Presently the Bird, Billy Westbay and I were in congress, glassing the route from El Cap meadow. The Bird lowered the binoculars from his eyes, his gaze still fixed on that vegetated stretch, 800 feet up the wall. He pulled a last draw from his Camel and toed the butt into the dirt.
“Crack’s slightly offset,” said the Bird, tendrils of smoke wafting past his moustache. “Clean it up some, a touch of liebacking and we’re home free.”
Billy, the Bird and I were fresh off the first one-day ascent of the Nose, and we’d kept the momentum going ever since, bagging gemstones at our leisure. Now in slings, we faced that holdless pitch. Billy—one of the finest climbers of the era—flashed up and we soon were again hanging in slings and scoping that grassy, offset seam, several body lengths up and left. According to the Bird, I would try and free it, as is, and if that failed, Jim would garden it with a long-picked alpine hammer. Straight off the hanging belay, I clawed up and left over dire acorns and gained the seam.
“No way,” I said, frantically scratching about the dirt-filled crack for a lock, a hold—anything. I slugged in a Bugaboo which drifted to the eye like a tent stake sunk in a sandbox.
“Sounds bunk,” Billy warned. My feet greased off those acorns the moment I clipped the Bugaboo, which straightaway shot out, lobbing me down the wall and brazing a nasty red lesion in the back of Billy’s legs as I wrenched straight onto the belay bolts.
The Bird aided up, excavating with the ice axe, then swung back to our hanging stance, smiling through a mask of topsoil.
“Great locks to the end,” said The Bird. “Then one thin face move, and you’re into the shrubbery.”
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Billy shifted in his belay seat, wincing at the taut nylon strap torturing his rope burn. I racked up for the lead as The Bird stoked another Camel, pointing five feet down and left, where half-inch face edges allowed me to bypass the dire acorns and basically walk over to the seam.
“Dumb shit,” said Bridwell.
To speed up the adventure, the Bird had only cleaned selective sections of the crack, enough for the meagerest finger locks, four or five feet apart. Twenty feet of marginal 5.10, then a transition into the short jungled section The Bird reckoned I could vanquish by hand-walking a slender vine. Except The Bird hadn’t bothered cleaning the last body length of dirt-choked crack. I’d have to pull a couple of impossible face moves to fetch the quick of the vine, dangling just out of reach. For a frantic minute, leaning off a soiled tip-lock, my right hand pawed the face for any sort of wart, crinkle or carbuncle. A last wave for purchase. Nothing
“I’m coming off!”
“Jump for the vine,” shrieked the Bird.
The “vine,” still a body length out of reach, was pencil thin, furry and shaped like a long corkscrew. Hardly something to lunge for, but with a nut at my feet, what the hell?
I sprung up and right, latched that crooked root which crackled and popped, elongated two-fold and uncoiled straight as a banjo string as I shockloaded onto the furtive stump. I hand-walked up the vine and grabbed said stump, held fast by soot and frozen cobwebs. I started mantling up, but reconsidered after realizing the opportunity for a royal scam. I reached down and with bare hands, I snapped the vine in two. Above the stump, the one-inch crack soared proud and flawless. As if cut by a laser. But the last 20 feet below the stump were packed with dirt: No vine to hand walk, no gaining that stump. Never.
The one-inch crack was a marvel at 5.11, likewise the upper wall, right to the U-shaped bowl. The Central Pillar Direct was finally sorted out: IV 5.11c/d.
1978. I’m kicked back in Yosemite Lodge and in walks Englishman Ron Fawcett (with whom I’d first climbed El Cap) with an antsy young upstart at his side. The kid had hiked many of Middle Cathedral’s finest routes, and wanted the dope on The Central Pillar, so far unrepeated in its entirety. The kid had the topo in his hand.
“A real plum” I said, pointing to the impossible pitch. “The crux is just here. Following some 5.7 liebacking, there’s a crafty friction step here, then a quick slap for a treasonous stump. The rest is suave, but routine. Great route, man. Have fun.”
“I will,” said the kid.
I crossed paths with the kid several days later. He looked like I’d shot his dog.
“You know we checked out that Central Pillar of yours,” said the kid, hands on hips.
“Great route, eh?” I said
“Well,” said the kid, “we got to that friction step you mentioned. I figure there’s no man alive who can crank that move. In fact, there’s no move to be done.”
Though I had much more experience, the kid had enough to know damn well that no one scales a holdless wall, and he probably would have called bullshit save for the pin I’d fixed just after the vine maneuver.
“Must have taken a load of falls,” said the kid, kicking the ground and resigned to believe the unbelievable.
“Got it first try, actually,” I said. “Had it going on that day.”
The kid’s face turned perfectly red and I thought he might break into tears or draw a knife.
“Listen up,” I said. “You’re just not keen on the specialized techniques involved. The route’s only 5.11, and I’ll wager you’ve done harder things on occasion (he’d done 5.12s everywhere). Get yourself over to the Apron for a few days, shine up that friction a touch, then blast on up for another shot.”
My recommendations had provoked such choler in the kid I figured it even money he might run up there and actually climb the bastard, giving me credit for flashing the first 5.13 on Middle Cathedral. Either way, I couldn’t lose.
1982. I splayed up the final chimney moves, then rolled onto the terraced summit of Rixon’s Pinnacle. And there he was, the kid, except he’d grown up.
“Hey, Largo!” He walked over, hand extended and a smile stretching across his face. His breezy manner caught me off guard, but I suspected monkey business as he continued pumping my hand.
“Remember The Central Pillar?” he asked.
“How’s that?” I said, clipping off a knot of natty slings at the anchor pins.
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“Sure you do,” he said. “I went back up there last week—and guess what?” Here he shook his head theatrically. “Remember that grim friction step to the stump? Well, a vine’s grown out of the bugger, and by hucking a wee dynamic, you can latch the vine and pull right up it like a hand rail. No friction step involved.”
“I’ll be darned,” I said.
“That’s not all,” he said. “My mate, he’s a real joker, he is, and when he followed the pitch, he gets this crazy idea. I tried to talk him out of it, but nothing doing. The guy just boots off the whole bloody stump, vine and all. Roots probably survived, but it’ll take a decade or more for that stump to grow back, and well into the next century before anyone’s swinging around on any vine. Way I got it figured, we’ll both be broke or dead before anyone repeats The Central Pillar of Frenzy.”
I first wrote this story over 40 years ago for the venerable Mountain (number 91). My dear friend and partner, Billy Westbay, had since climbed into history, and the great Jim Bridwell followed in 2018. “The kid,” to which the Central Pillar Direct issued such a cruel spanking, went on to champion the nascent sport climbing revolution, and later became a software designer in Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the first five pitches of The Central Pillar of Frenzy became the most well-traveled multi-pitch free climb in Yosemite Valley.
But the real sons and daughters of Middle Cathedral, those of us who’d climbed all the existing lines, over and over, knew there was unfinished business on the Central Pillar. The original Bridwell line started on the first pitch of the Chouinard-Pratt, then traversed into the Central Pillar splitters above the first belay. The route deserved its own first pitch, establishing Central Pillar as a totally independent, 1,100 foot, standalone masterpiece. Kevin Worrall and Dale Bard were first (Spring, 1978) to complete the direct start, a 160-foot long, 5.12 jigsaw and crimpfest that joined the regular Central Pillar at the second belay.
Considering this was 45 years ago, the historical significance of this pitch was not fully appreciated till 2017, when Adidas Outdoor was financing exploratory climbs in Yosemite and beyond, and I threw a team together including multiple national sport climbing finalist, Chelsea Rude, long time adventure climber, Rita Young-Shin, Yosemite slash desert crusher, Marcus Garcia, and AAC Safety Officer and guide, Ron Fundeburke. The plan was to clean and retro-bolt Central Pillar, bottom to top, and link all the pitches in one go, creating a modern classic—something I’d planned to do, back in the day, but never did.
The prep took weeks, including dusting off the hanging garden that had grown back on pitch 8, where the infamous broken vine gaff had originally transpired. The pitch cleaned of dirt left a flawless 5.11 crack on which Rita took a cartwheel fall so spectacular it featured on Weekend Whippers. Ron punched it out at stiff 5.11. Marcus straightened out the last pitch via a dashing, 5.11 slab, the route ending at Planet Garcia, the tired ledge system at the bottom of the U-Shaped Bowl. Chelsea led the 160-f00t first pitch, which the team appraised at 5.12d, a historic achievement for Worrall and Bard back in 1978, and one of the most iconic free pitches in the Valley. All told, it took four generations of climbers 44 years to finally complete one of America’s greatest adventure climbs. And a scam or two along the way …