Hitting the Deck on a Top 100 “Protected” 5.9

Sunday, Oct 6:

Having just learned trad at Rock Party the week before, I’ve been eager to get out to Squamish and practice leading on as many climbs as I can before heading off on a five-month Arctic excursion with no bolts or anchors in (known) existence. So at just before bedtime the night before, I texted my friend Emile Vogel-Nakamura that I’d dutifully finished my homework for the weekend and was down to do a “chill multi on the Chief” on Sunday. We both assumed it would be an autopilot day for him belaying me up some 5.4-5.8′s.

On our way, we picked up his friend Kyle (last name unknown). On the drive up we hmm’ed and huh’ed about what to climb for the day. Kyle wanted to hit some harder 10+ climbs at a crag to push his grade, whereas I wanted to practice leading sub 5.9′s on trad (ideally on a multi), and Emile was just happy to be in Squam for the first time since we’d done the Buttress together back in late August.

After throwing Rambles, Snake, Ultimate Everything, and even Grand Wall into the hat, I happened upon White Lightning, a Top 100 10c that starts at the same pitch as Dierdre and Banana Peel. It had a good mix of easy leads for me, and some harder 10b and 10c leads for Emile and Kyle. I didn’t really read the route description, but since it was only seven pitches we figured we’d be done by mid-afternoon, leaving enough time to head to the crag afterwards. A good compromise. A safe bet, we figured.

I led up the first two pitches, and then we debated on which variation to take. There was a 5.7 or 5.8 option on another route but we decided to stay on-route and climb the legendary unprotected 5.9 pitch. Emile wanted to lead the hardest pitches, and I wasn’t comfortable leading without pro. Kyle graciously accepted the challenge. Watching him traverse on unprotected 5.9 friction slab for some 40-50 metres was probably the scariest belay I’ve had all summer, and neither Emile nor I resumed normal breathing until he clipped his first bolt.

The next two pitches, 10b and 10c slab, were as challenging as we expected and we all took a fall or two. I was very grateful to the two of them for leading while I yelled “take!!” after every move on TR.

By now we’re two pitches out, a 5.9 and a 5.8, and talking about what crag we’re gonna hit on sport after this slab nightmare. While I’d originally planned to lead them, rain had started to fall and we knew it would take me forever to lead it, so Kyle went up the slabby but bolted arete of the 5.9. The guidebooks said it was “the first well-protected pitch of the route”. But after Kyle had clipped the third bolt, we heard “falling!!” and I turned just in time to see him crash through the trees to the right of the arete and smash into the rock.

His fall looked so atrocious — fully horizontal through trees into the side of the arete and bottoming out — that I seriously thought he’d be concussed or broken in some form or another. It was my first time witnessing a bad fall and a near-miss. Luckily, he came to. We lowered him back to the anchor and he reported pain in his hip and ankle and a slight inability to breathe, but seemed to know his whereabouts, giving us peace of mind that he (hopefully) hadn’t hit his head.

After finishing the pitch, we each assessed it and called bullshit on this “protected” beta. The bolts are so close to the arete that if you fall to the right of any of them you’re almost guaranteed to hit the deck. Perhaps the idea is to stay clear in the middle of the slab, but then why place the bolts so close to the tempting ledge? Sure, there are trees to break your fall, but if you don’t fall side-first as Kyle did, you could easily break a leg or smash your head.

Hopefully whomever is reading this treats both 5.9 pitches of this climb as unprotected. Falling on any of these pitches isn’t fun, but could be seriously dangerous and potentially even fatal if done on P6.

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One Response to Hitting the Deck on a Top 100 “Protected” 5.9

  1. Jeff Mottershead says:

    This is a fine trip report. It’s a good story, but it’s also got lots to think about in terms of guidebooks, humans, bolts, rock and rain.

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