Courtesy of backcountry.com
Severe weather didn’t halt free climber Brad Barlage’s assault on El Cap last Fall, nor did dehydration, equipment failure or injury.
The mountain didn’t stop him at all. Too many climbers did.
Barlage, 31, a sales rep for Black Diamond, shot up 14 pitches in one on El Capitan, about halfway to the top of the 3,200 foot ascent.
Starting in the pre-dawn light, he whooshed past eight people on the route only to rear-end a group that refused to let him pass.
Not planning for a slow, gear-heavy climb, he was forced to retreat.
On classic big wall climbs across the west, crowded routes and a community-wide increase in speed climbing prowess are causing traffic jams and pileups.
The best routes are crowded for a reason; they are the best. It has always been a problem, but there is at least twice as much traffic as 10 years ago on most routes, and the advent of speed climbing has exacerbated the friction.
It is a clash of climbing styles more than anything. If you want to climb fast, you do things differently. If you’re traveling light and fast without extra gear to spend the night, or extra retreat gear, you can’t switch gears and slow down because you are corked by other people who are doing it in a different style, taking up to five days. They have a lot more bulky gear and weight.
Imagine you’re on the autobahn, but it is only a single lane. You’ve trained your whole life to get here and go fast, but some body in a beater Volkswagon pulls out in front of you.
They won’t let you pass, and you don’t have enough fuel to drive all day in first gear.
“So you’re going 20 mph,” Barlage says, “and a ferrari whips up behind you. Most folks would let you pass.”
But not everyone. The solutions? Be willing to explore, learn to climb in the dark and know how to keep a cool head when things don’t go your way.
It was well within the capabilities of Barlage and partner Todd Bibler (of Bibler tent fame) to climb up and down El Cap in 24 hours. Barlage has climbed most crags in the West, and has racked up global adventures, too, even kite-skiing Baffin Island with Andrew McLean. Besides re-defining the term wall-tent, Bibler was one of the first climbers to do a 5.13.
The weather was good, 70 degrees, and their strategy simple. Looking up from the ground, the team could see people clinging and camping above on the route. Bibler and Barlage decided to start super early, around 4 a.m., and get past everyone on the lower route while they’re sleeping.
“Then, the next section of people were a thousand feet up, and we’d get to them while they’re waking up and plead our case,” Barlage said.
A lot like trying to pick a fast line through traffic on the autobahn.
When you’re moving so much faster than other people, (instead of five pitches in 12 hours they did 14 in five hours), most people will work with you, Barlage said, but the key is being unselfish; you offer to fix a pitch for them, take their ropes or haul a bag.
“It’s not a small thing to offer to haul someone’s 200 pound bag up a pitch,” Barlage said. “Most people are willing to do that and if not I offer to meet them and buy them a beer, and say ‘what can I do’?”
A speed climber is utterly at the mercy of a slower climber, and there’s literally no getting around it. It’s one path, one person at one time, with bottleneck belets forming stopping points for possible passes.
At some point, the slower climber has to wait anywhere from five minutes to an hour on the belay-delay if they are allowing someone to pass. They have to wait to start the next pitch, “so you offer to take their rope up,” Barlage says.
Between 15 and 20 people were on the Nose route that day on El Cap, and Bibler and Brad had already passed at least 8. “You try to communicate upwards, and yell ‘hey we’re coming up’,” Barlage said.
Finally, Barlage and Bibler were atop a tower communicating that they would like to pass and the four people above them said no, they were not going to pass, no matter what.
And that is that. All that travel, gear, preparation and expense, and that’s it.
Brad offered to haul their bag, put up a pitch, “whatever it takes, and they wanted nothing to do with it,” he said. “So we had to rappel back down.”
Maybe 10 years ago he’d have raised his voice, but not now.
“You can be a dick, and say we’re going to pass you and that’s the way it is,” he said, “but that’s their time is just as important as yours, just cause they’re slower doesn’t mean they have any less of a right to be there. That’s just the way it goes.”
People don’t like to be passed because dropped gear could endanger them, and they invested time to get on the route. Sometimes, it’s possible to find a place where the route splits and you can pass that way.
If not, well…
“They’re doing their thing, you’re doing yours, if you can’t make it work go elsewhere, where there are less people,” he said.
Add in the problem of limited optimal climatic windows for a big wall attack, and weather and temperature concentrate people on any route of significance.
“Every place, it’s just a fact of life. Yosemite is where it really matters, big walls, lots of people, and some of the best routes in the world,” Barlage said, “Zion in the spring and fall is pretty crowded.”
So should you not go fast? Go more with the flow? No.
“Ultimately going fast and light is a huge advantage,” Barlage said.
“That day I climbed 14 pitches in five hours, and they did 3 pitches the rest of the day so I still got to climb a bunch more than others, and I think that is how most people are going, trying to get faster, all the gear is becoming lighter.”
The average Joe is faster than 10 years ago, partly due to the advent of gear and partly because of changing attitudes and goals.
Carabiners, protection, even ropes are lighter and easier to maneuver.
Utah climbing legend Ted Wilson pioneered many of that state’s routes since starting out in 1957. He has hit the Grand every year since then, sometimes more, for a total of over 70 ascents on the Tetons, in addition to most of the other western classics. Now the crowding of routes reminds him of slow golfers not allowing others to play through.
“It’s frustrating, now I want to take my kid this summer (to Grand Teton) and I realize I can’t go and just go up the mountain,” he said. “I have to find out if there’s a space available and be there at 6 a.m. in a lineup to get a camping spot. ”
“It’s discouraging and it’s a hassle to get the climb set up…but that’s the lament of the pioneer,” Wilson said. “You have to get used to it, be social, enjoy other people because they’re going to be there. Give them leeway.”
Going early and working with people is still the best strategy, or do climbs when people are not climbing: start late, or consider climbing at 3 a.m. or 6 p.m., climbing through the night.
NIGHT TIME: THE CLIMB-IT CLIMATE: There are some strong advantages to nocturnal ascents with headlamps. Most people cannot climb routes that are as difficult as ones they can handle during the day. It’s too hard to see holds, place protection safely and doesn’t seem natural to most.
Traffic problems crop up when people are climbing quickly. And if you are climbing quickly, that means you are climbing below your peak ability level, and that means that with practice you can do that climb at night.
Advantages? You use less water, and water is weight and weight is speed. You can’t move fast with a heavy pack. Nighttime is quieter, there is no sun to zap energy , and less wind.
There is a special appeal, too, in a zen-like focus that comes at night.
“Things become really simple, all you focus on is climbing, you aren’t checking other stuff out,” Barlage said. “I like it just as much as day climbing.”
It should only be done after practice, and it is critical to know your limits. In the darkness it’s easy to get over your head and into a dangerous situation, so work up to it. Start with climbing pitches that you know with a headlamp. Do daylight ascents of two-pitch routes, then five, linking them, and then move on to a 10-pitch route, spending a day and going as fast as possible. EXPLORE: If you are looking for something different, definitely explore, Barlage said.
“But if you want to climb the good stuff, do it and just expect to work around and work with people and accomplish your goals,” he said.
Whatever you do, don’t become a speed-snob.
“I hate people that think they own the rock because they climb fast,” he said. “Nobody is more important than anybody else.”
And if you’re the slow caboose blocking a route, try Not to squash someone else’s hopes if someone is faster than you, particularly if they are gracious in their pleas for permission to pass.
Wilson prefers to remain the pioneer. In his sixties now, he still does summer and a little winter mountaineering, but he doesn’t head here everybody else is, has been or will be. Instead, he goes to the ranges of Montana.
“Nobody goes there, everybody wants to do the same climbs, the grand, El Cap, everyone wants to hang out on the nose route,” Wilson said.
“Climbers are funny, they like to think they’re really independent people but they’re really sheep. They read 50 Classic Climbs, so they all rush to them but there are thousands of climbs elsewhere and few people are pioneering these days.”
With longtime partner Rick Reese, a fellow Salt Lake City climber and Wilson’s partner for a half century, Wilson bagged a beautiful west face in the Jefferson Range two summers ago.
“It was a lovely multi-pitch rock climb on a face anybody would die to go to,” Wilson said. “And nobody had been up there, to our knowledge.”
Exploring takes commitment, though. You have to be willing to do your research, and perhaps some severe backpacking to get to it.
“But it’s a lot more gratifying, also, than running out and doing some established climb that everyone and their dog is on,” Wilson said.
Whether honking your horn on the autobahn or exploring an uncharted crag, those who are down with the sickness know it’s well worth the trouble.
“Climbing is one of the greatest joys on earth,” Barlage said.
“There’s something about it, it can encompass whatever you need. Maybe you need some peace, or a workout, some suffering, or maybe you just want to get out away from things and be in some incredible places. That’s one cool thing about climbing you can make it whatever you need.”
EL CAP RE-CAP: Here’s a wrap up on the lessons from El Cap.
1. Speed climbing is still a rewarding technique, and should not be abandoned because of traffic, Barlage says, because you can do so much more climbing in a day.
2. That said, the two smartest approaches to dealing with traffic are getting a good alpine start while others are still sleeping, and showing a relentless willingness to work with people. If you can’t stay calm and be gracious, appreciating that everyone has the same right to be there as you, popular climbs are simply not going to work for you no matter how fast you are. If you’re impatient, consider exploring.
3. Besides starting early, consider climbing late, say, starting at 6 p.m., climbing into late evening or even through the night.
4. Brush up on night climbing. Nocturnal climbing presents a new world of challenges, but climbers who gain enough prowess so that popular climbs are below their peak level can enjoy the many advantages of climbing when the bats are flying: using less water (less weight); dealing with less wind; no crowds; cooler temperatures and enjoying a new dimension in climbing. But practice, practice, practice.
5. Explore: If dealing with the crowds sounds like more trouble than it’s worth, you have a pioneer spirit and should consider digging out new routes. While you will not discover a new El Cap, there are many multi-pitch climbs that have no name, and no crowds on the crags. This takes homework, time, and generally a home in the West.