A saffron autumn sun sets over Yosemite as shade takes my hanging belay on the West Face of the Leaning Tower. My partner is hooking away with glee on pitch three while I wonder why I’m so unhappy. We’ve got a classic all to ourselves on this November evening, and a mega bivy ledge awaits just a hundred feet above. This should be rad, but I wonder why I’m even here. It seems I’m burned out.
The road to this hanging belay started at a YMCA in my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, where I took my first belay class in 2010 at age 19. In vertically challenged North Dakota, the nearest outdoor venue was the limestone cliffs of Red Wing, Minnesota, six hours away. In 2015, I moved to Golden, Colorado, to get my climbing fix on the regular. I took a job as an EMT on an ambulance, working 48-hour shifts, and leaving the rest of the week to focus on rockcraft. Still, after eight years in the sport, I’d begun to lose psyche—first with sport climbing, then with walls. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about climbing anymore; it was that I was tired of following in others’ footsteps, on established routes. Where was the adventure in queuing up for a conga line on another classic? And where was the mystery in being spoon-fed beta for every jam and placement?
It was time to graduate to putting up my own climbs—to enter this world of both rare treasures and abundant disappointments. In the past, I’d dabbled with developing sport crags and even put in a few ground-up trad routes, mostly in the Midwest. My mentors, Jesse Gross and Jeremy Collins, taught me how to hand-drill, and gave me a hand-me-down Bosch. However, there was only so much I could learn in the Midwest, where the rock is single pitch.
Six months after that Yosemite day, in May 2019, strong late-spring sunshine is melting snow off the high peaks of Colorado when I fire my therapist and replace him with a new climbing partner who needs the same things I do—namely, something to pour our souls into. Lane Mathis is a filmmaker and fellow Midwesterner, originally from Cairo, Missouri. He’s shaped by a decade lost to drug abuse and military service as a sergeant in the United States Air Force. He carries those years like fuel in a jetpack of manic motivation. We’d climbed together only once—at North Table Mountain in Golden—after he’d reached out looking for a partner. I’m still not sure how he got my phone number. When he told me he shared my love of hard work and relative disinterest in fun—two personality traits imperative to new-routing—I decided to test his resolve with a trip to Utah’s San Rafael Swell. Our goal was a virgin 200-foot tower I’d bailed off in June 2018 due to loose rock.
Lane and I were soon spending every weekend driving out to establish new lines in the desert: six hours one way and six hours back. The drives themselves were therapy. On the way out, we talked about our objectives for the weekend; on the way back, we debriefed our entire lives. During the actual climbing part, we attacked new routes with a fervor that left me exhausted on Monday morning at work. Out in the Swell, the sun never seemed to rise quickly enough, and it always set too early.
Summer came around and scared us away from the desert. By then I had done well over a thousand vertical feet of FAs. I did the math and figured that if I maintained this pace through alpine season and back into desert season again, I could reach a vertical mile of FAs by 2020. Setting goals has always been key for me—I struggle to get out of bed unless I’ve got a plan for the morning. So I decided to modify the Mile High Club goal from my years competing in the 24-hour climbing competition Horseshoe Hell—climb a vertical mile in under 24 hours—and make it 5,280 vertical feet of first ascents in a calendar year.
• 5,491 feet (211 over goal)
What follows are the results of my vertical mile broken down foot-by-foot, bolt-by-bolt. It’s the year I placed nearly as many bolts as I clipped. The year I spent more time cleaning rock than climbing it. The year I chased FAs instead of grades. Some of these routes I’ve made public on Mountain Project and in the American Alpine Journal. Others I haven’t, since they’re in areas that would be ecologically sensitive to high traffic. In all cases, we tried to put up our climbs with the smallest footprint possible and with an eye toward repeat ascents: If the rock is going to be changed (bolts, mega-trundling, etc.), it should be done with the intent that others can enjoy it—not just the first-ascent party.
All route lengths are estimates based on arm-lengths of rope after leading or rapping a pitch. Often, difficulty and safety ratings were informed by how scared I was or wasn’t—especially on the ground-up ascents. We often went ground-up, as it was the only way. However, if there was a way to drop in, we would do so to inspect the wall and trundle death blocks. Star ratings are the most subjective, with the only consensus coming from partners and friends. That said, I tried my hardest to spend time only on high-quality routes; if I rated them based solely on personal experience, they’d all be four stars!
High Quality Geology (5.10c) ★★★★
115 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
We came here for the Sock Puppet, an unclimbed tower splitting off the canyon rim, but the San Rafael River was too swollen with spring runoff to cross. Nearby, a laser splitter on the river-cut cliff is a great consolation. Looks like it’ll take four No. 3s—we’ve only got two—so I walk the cams for 40 feet of cupped hands. Two pieces between me and the hospital—this counts right?
April 20 (pictured below)
COR Zero (5.12) ★★★★
85 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Right away, Lane and I both know this will be the best line on the wall. To prepare, I spend the morning scrubbing the crack with a hole brush, inspecting placements, and stuffing my fingers into sharp ringlocks. After getting down, I tell Lane, “It’s so splitter that I’m not sure all the .5 Camalots in the world could protect it.” Refusing to give me the out, Lane replies, “Well, we’ve got five of ‘em, and the shade’s about to hit. Looks like you’re gonna find out.” With that, he passes me the rack.
Later that night in the van, Lane, who has just led his first 5.11 gear route, tells me that he’s going to send COR Zero. Bewildered, I remind him how tough our 5.10 FA High Quality Geology was for him to lead—screaming pumped the whole way up. He says that’s the point. COR Zero is so far above what he can imagine is possible that it’s the perfect goal. I sit on this for a second before asking, “But not, like, tomorrow, right?” He bursts into a cackle, then says, “If I tried to lead that tomorrow, I would DIE! I’ve got a lot to learn first, but I will send COR Zero one day.”
Outer Tomb (5.10) No stars
115 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Today, I learned how to climb an unprotectable squeeze chimney. The route started off easy, but soon my No. 6 was tipped out. I assumed that if I just kept driving my elbows and knees into the sandy squeeze, I’d eventually find another placement, so I committed, legs flailing to push me higher into the jaws of the chimney, elbows bloodying with each desperate thrutch. After 50 feet, I discovered the crack wasn’t going to taper down enough for pro again. Faced with no other choice, I battled up and out of a fissure in the top of the cliff like a zombie emerging from a tomb.
Wind Fish (5.10) ★★★★
213 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
While I’m rehearsing the overhanging hand crack on pitch two on Micro Traxions, a biplane flies through the canyon, likely on its way to some backcountry airstrip. Funny to think they’re the first humans we’ve seen in our secret little sector of the Swell. The ruckus of propellers bouncing off canyon walls is a jarring reminder that we aren’t the only humans in the world.
Even Calm Organ (5.10) ★★
167 feet, 2 pitches
Thunder Drum (5.11b) ★★
157 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Two good routes that would be great if it weren’t for a single band of speckled, gravelly choss at the base. While I’m trundling on rappel, a black and brown scorpion the size of my hand falls out of the crack! I instinctively jump back off the ledge. Had I been leading, I may well have followed the cascade of rock and insect husks down the wall into the sloping scree. I swing back into the wall and look down, just in time to see the scorpion’s tail disappear back into the crack.
Full Moon Cello (5.10-) ★★★
100 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Amazed to find this desert climb taking mostly tiny cams and nuts. Placing small nuts and TCUs feels cozy from slabby stances and with my fingers in shallow, varnished locks.
Happy Cycling (5.12) ★★★
220 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
I reach out to the desert legend and historian Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, author of Desert Towers, to see if he knows anything about an obscure tower deep in the Swell. I’m not surprised to learn that, back in 2005, he summited the tower via the most obvious, clean line on its southeast end. However, I was surprised to learn that it hadn’t seen a free ascent. Crusher suggests I go for it.
I rope my longtime friend and Missouri boy Ryan Gajewski into checking it out. He’s not much of a desert rat, but is willing to follow me up a tower if it means getting out and having a good time. When we reach the tower base, however, I’m not having a good time. The desert sun blazes hard on my neck as I hold my sweaty head between my even sweatier knees, shivering and swaying. We drove six hours to get to the Swell, hiked four to get to the Tandem Towers, and here I am so sick with some virus that I don’t even want to stand up.
I try to pawn the first lead—the money pitch of tight hands to an offwidth—off on Ryan, but he is quick to remind me whose idea this was. Yeah right, ya lazy jerk, I think after the fourth time being spit out of the offwidth like a piece of old gum. On the fifth attempt, I escape the offwidth and enter a battle of sandy, rounded-out ringlocks to the belay. Ryan urges me to take the second pitch, too. On the summit, when I thank Ryan for pushing me to lead, he confesses that it was all out of self-preservation: “I mean, I really didn’t want to lead any of that choss anyway—but, yeah, anytime, bud!” he says.
Shrine Hut Crack (V3) ★
20 feet | Eagle County, Colorado
While getting some wife time in at the Shrine Mountain backcountry hut near Vail Pass, I spot this beautiful boulder along the ridgeline and posthole through the snow to look. On my first attempt, exploding crimps send me flying backward. I claw at the snow as I try to dig out of my crater without getting my rock shoes too wet. I fall a few more times before I top out with numb fingers and toes. Lesson learned: Snow crashpad is better than no crashpad.
The Upsides (5.11b R) ★★★
220 feet, 2 pitches
Moo’s Route (5.10c PG) ★★
115 feet, 1 pitch
Moove Aside (5.11b R) ★
25 feet (link-up) | Mount Evans, Colorado
Since desert season ended, I’ve been spending weekends sniffing out new lines up at Mount Evans some 13,000 feet above sea level, hunting through its slabs of black-speckled gray granite. We’re having a good time learning how to dance on little crystals and scoops between discontinuous cracks on an 80-meter slab above a meadow. However, the “locals”—the marmots—have been pranking us.
One day, I think I’ve lost my trekking poles only to find that a marmot has taken them up the mountain and eaten the grip off their handles! Another day, as we approach on rappel, Lane has an idea—he grabs our packs, raps over the lip, then places a cam about 100 feet off the ground and hangs our bags off it. “Now if one of those bastards wants our stuff,” he says, “they’re gonna have to climb 5.9.”
Fast-forward to the day’s end: Lane is cussing up a storm somewhere on the wall. Thinking he’s in danger, I rush to the edge to investigate. “What’s up? You OK?” I holler down, spotting him 20 feet below clutching our bags for dear life. “A marmot nearly chewed all the way through the webbing on my cam!” he yells. “One more bite and it would have rode our bags down the mountain!”
July 26–August 17
My Last Semester (5.11a) ★★
130 feet, 1 pitch
Marmots Ate My Neighbors (5.10a) ★★★
110 feet, 1 pitch
Smoko (5.11b) ★★
115 feet, 1 pitch
Homesick (5.11c) ★★★
115 feet, 1 pitch
Sick Marmots (5.10c) ★★★
10 feet (link-up) | Mt. Evans, Colorado
After coming out to help us climb the previous routes, my friends Tim Noble and Collin Tubert see the potential of what we’re calling the Possibility Slab. Soon, we have three routes going up at once—three hammers sending ringing echoes off the neighboring outcrops. We’re in sync for a few dozen swings—“Tink, tink, tink”—before one of us gets tired and loses the beat. I find myself taking fewer rests, not wanting to be the one to break rhythm.
Sheep of Faith (5.10-) ★★★
140 feet, 2 pitches | Mt. Evans, Colorado
Found another overlooked wall higher up the mountain, and it’s the steepest alpine wall I’ve ever seen. Pitch one has my body almost dead-horizontal while swimming through beefy jugs—very uncharacteristic of alpine granite. After so many first ascents, one might think it gets hard to come up with good names, but there’s always a good pun. For this route, I imagine any 5.10 climber who leads it will be taking a leap of faith trusting that this roof is only 5.10-. If they do have faith, I’m sure the bighorn sheep that populate the meadow below will be cheering them on. Hence the name, Sheep of Faith—get it?
Tiny Moving Parts (5.9) ★★★
80 feet, 1 pitch
Showboat (5.9) ★★
110 feet, 1 pitch | Mt. Evans, Colorado
Tim and I return to fill out a couple of the new crag’s easier routes. Now the wall has a good variety of 5.9-to-5.11 mixed lines. A week later, the first big snowfall of the season closes the road. We came up just in time.
Way of the Hueco (5.10) ★★★
500 feet, 5 pitches | Kolob Canyon, Utah
I’m called in as a workhorse to help Rob Pizem, the master of the desert FA, with this line in Kolob Canyon. I plan to impress with my new-routing skills and hand-drilling fitness. Piz, a blunt-spoken and hyper-motivated schoolteacher in Grand Junction, Colorado, already hung lines down this huge wall of huecos, so all I have to do is help drill. I think I’m nailing it until we’re at the final anchor together. I’m only about halfway done with my hole before Rob has his bolt slammed in and is staring impatiently. He gives me another minute before grabbing the hammer and drill. “Like this,” Rob says as he finishes the hole at twice the speed. Still a lot to learn—noted.
Dismantle. Repair. (5.11+ PG) ★★
295 feet, 3 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Lane and I first tried this line in the spring—I climbed the terrible squeeze chimney, Outer Tomb, as the most obvious way to reach pitch two’s enticing long corner up a clean headwall. Unfortunately, while leading pitch two, Lane ripped a TCU out of the soft rock, screaming during the 20-footer that had him crashing into the slab below. After a tense moment, he confirmed he was uninjured. We bailed.
Now, after adding a lead bolt and a more direct pitch one, I’m sitting back at the belay watching Lane reintroduce himself to pitch two. He moves quickly past where he fell before. I open my mouth to shout up congratulations, but am cut off by the sound of … wind chimes? I quickly realize it’s pieces on the rack jangling—Lane is shaking so badly I can hear him 30 meters below.
Sock Puppet Tower (5.9 A2) ★★
197 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
About one year ago, I bailed off this obscure tower after a loose-rock death-lead attempt. Like something from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, entire shelves of stone broke just as I moved off them—over and over for 30 meters. When we come back for another go, I quickly realize my mistake—I chose choss over the clean line because the choss looked easier. Mental note: Let the good rock dictate the line.
Pitch two proves to be the crux. Only 20 feet off the belay, I aid on black Aliens as the crack pinches down to a seam. Up to this point, I’ve avoided using our rack of Lost Arrows and Knifeblades, harvested from other climbs throughout the desert. Now, I’m out of options: I walk my feet high in aiders and swing my hammer lightly overhead, pretending I know how to aid-climb. Above, I drill a few bolts that lead to a 15-foot section that needs to be free-climbed—any cam I try to place expands under body weight, threatening to tear. On the summit, I pound the rock at my feet, looking for something solid to anchor in, only to hear a dull, chossy thudding.
Super Crack of the Reef (5.10+) ★★★
220 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
I reached out to another desert legend, Paul Ross, a UK expat who has lived in America for some time, about a route he posted to Mountain Project. Paul is a big aficionado of the Swell and has, like his equally twisted desert-rat peer Crusher, climbed a host of more-mud-than-rock desert spires. He’s also left loaves’ worth of breadcrumbs for those searching for adventure. One of them, Super Crack of the Reef, looks to be a gorgeous line—and Ross had never heard of a free ascent. I lead both pitches free with my patient wife, Jas, belaying from the ground. I don’t want to push my luck and make her sit at the cold pitch-one belay stance, so I lower from it to clean my cams, jug back up to the belay, and use all of my 70-meter cord to lead to the top. I open the old summit register to find no other entries other than a penciled note from Ross: “Another great day in the Reef.”
Orange and Green (5.10) ★★★
196 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
The first of two lines up the Gummy Worm Buttress is a full-value offwidth and mega-squeeze chimney. While following pitch one—my friend Ari Schneider’s lead—I trundle a block the size of a queen-sized bed that he deftly snuck past like a ninja.
Only a few feet above the belay on pitch two, it becomes clear the crack will be too wide for even my biggest pieces. Either we bail or I can leave all my cams clipped to the No. 6 I placed 10 feet above the belay and press upward, hoping the crack widens enough to crawl inside. I ditch the cams and begin squirming. Before long, I’m facing a 40-footer onto a jagged slab and I still can’t fit into the squeeze. Lane, shooting photos from a fixed line, shouts over to ask if I can feel a breeze through the chimney. “I don’t know, man,” I say. “I’m just trying to not fuckin’ die right now.”
Pink and Blue (5.11) ★★★★
145 feet, 2 pitches | San Rafael Swell, Utah
The second Gummy Worm Buttress route is, oddly enough, mostly good, clean fun! A touch of sandy desert dancing opens up into a wide crack in fantastic rock. However, as the fissure widens, my fist jams begin to wobble and I feel a creeping dread. I press on for a few body-lengths when my knee suddenly locks into the crack and something clicks. For the first time in my life, I’m having fun climbing an offwidth.
Rat Crap Waterfall (5.11-) ★★★
65 feet, 1 pitch
Get in on the Bone (5.9) ★★★
50 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
Went ground-up on two more great pitches in the Gummy Worm area, then took a run up the next canyon to scout for more. Ari asks why I’m in such a rush. The truth is, I feel guilty spending so much time away from my wife. Every weekend I’m not chasing my vertical mile, I’m making memories with Jas, settling into our routine of walking the dog along Clear Creek or shouting Jeopardy answers at the TV. For someone who isn’t a climber, she’s supportive and understanding of my obsession. However, when she uses phrases like, “Well, you weren’t here so … ” I know my absence is beginning to weigh heavy.
Big Game Hunter (5.12d R) ★★★
1,110 feet, 9 pitches | Kolob Canyon, Utah
We spend a day hiking around Kolob Canyon, scoping out walls. It isn’t until the end of the day that we find something promising: a mammoth buttress on an otherwise-blank orange shield. The next week is spent attacking the wall, pushing from the ground. Some days, we blast away, free-climbing multiple 200-foot leads; others, we’re happy to get any higher at all. Take pitch three, which has us mired at the same ledge for two days straight. First, no one can fit in the squeeze. When we figure out that it’s easier to climb around, we can’t protect the offwidth up higher. So I place a strenuous lead bolt just to find out the crack tapers to a seam not far above. Finally, Lane discovers an easy face traverse that links to a juicy splitter on the headwall and four more pitches beyond.
On the fifth day, we reach the end of the good climbing, 1,100 feet up amidst scrub and choss, having run up a final two pitches that involve spelunking through thorn bushes and rotten rock. We rest on the sixth day, and on the seventh finish equipping the raps. The eight-hour drive home has me planning our return trip to free the route, which we do a few months later—on January 19, 2020. (I decided to include Big Game Hunter in my 2019 tally since it was technically first climbed—just not entirely freed—that calendar year.)
Pitch three goes free at 5.12d and requires every tool in the box: offwidth, laybacking, fingers, ringlocks, and hard, hard dihedral and face climbing. Pitch four is easier at 5.11c and is so money that I want to take it to the bank. It has a killer stem box that gives way to a finger corner and a 30-foot stretch of hand crack so perfect I shout, “I’ve finally met a god and her name is Kolob!” as I lead it.
Red and Yellow (5.10) ★★★★
100 feet, 1 pitch | San Rafael Swell, Utah
I team up with Sam Stuckey to do a third offwidth at the Gummy Worm Buttress. Sam is a 22-year-old mud-nailing desert maniac from Kansas with notable ticks like Beaking in Tongues (5.8 A4) in the Fisher Towers.
The route takes every big cam we can get our hands on: two No. 5s, three No. 6s, and even a Merlin No. 8. After I lead, Sam cleans the pitch on a slingshot toprope while racking all the gear on a single loop. Just as he reaches the anchor, he lets out an angry grunt; this is followed by a tearing sound and another furious scream. Before I can take in any rope, a shimmer appears from the top of the cliff. It grows into a bright ball of terror as I realize a half-dozen aluminum battle axes are tumbling 100 feet down the wall right at me. I stand there, stunned, as the cams crash into the ground all around. Perhaps our belay check should have included assuring that Sam’s old-ass gear loops weren’t hanging by a thread!
29 Cameras (5.10+) ★★★★
60 feet, 1 pitch
Micah Mine Roof (5.10) ★★★
80 feet, 1 pitch
Handy Man Mathis (5.11) ★★★★
100 feet, 1 pitch
Finger Peddler (5.13-) ★★★★
80 feet, 1 pitch | Grand Junction, Colorado
Getting it done under the wire! Piz invites me out to Grand Junction to finish strong on the last few feet of my vertical mile. 29 Cameras is just over the length I need, but we go on with more because who would waste these sweet, below-freezing sending temps? Both my attempts on Finger Peddler, a razor-sharp finger crack, start with numb fingers and end in big whips on small gear. In the end, it doesn’t matter that I don’t free the pitch—it was the process I’d come for.
After a year’s worth of scrubbing lichen, brushing sand, and trundling choss, I’ve found a new appreciation for climbing, specifically for all the routes I’d repeated in the past. My vertical mile has shone a light on the amount of unseen effort and vision required to do something first. The skill needed to push both one’s creative and physical limits in dangerous environments. The demand for both patience and nonstop effort. I will continue on this path, chancing miles of rotten rock in search of more undiscovered gems. Not because it’s fun or sexy, but because it’s hard and dirty. I’m told that nothing worth doing is easy. If that’s the case, 2019 was a great year.
Quick Tip for Hand-Drilling Masochists
The 666 Method
Hand drilling is simple, right? Just hit the drill with your hammer, turn the handle, and repeat until your hole is deep enough for a bolt. However, after drilling around 100 holes in 2019 alone, I quickly learned that you need to be efficient so you don’t turn your hands into blister soufflé or blow out your elbows. The key, I learned from Rob Pizem, is one moderate, deft swing per turn. You should be able to both turn and deliver six volleys before having to adjust your hand on the drill—and in sandstone, never take the bit out of the hole!
Piggybacking off Piz’s teachings, I developed the following method to help keep track of progress: Do your six volleys six times to finish one set, and do six sets before taking a break. Six volleys, 6 times, 6 sets—666, hail Satan! Repeat until the dark lord claims your soul.
Dakota Walz spends many of his days (and nights) working in an ambulance, serving the burbs north of Denver. His new travel-adventure book is called Everything I Loved More.