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Full Value: Degringolade

This Full Value first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016-17.

“Look at that spectacular corner!”

I pointed at the stark, perfect right-angled dihedral that split the silver-grey granite wall above us and reached toward the sky.

“Could that be Brian’s route?” I asked Jon, my new climbing partner.

“No, it’s on the wrong side of the McCarthy rappel route,” he replied. He shrugged in resignation: we’d already spent several hours looking for the climb. I was young, on summer vacation, new in Canada and the Bugaboos, and ready for anything, but Jon, a bit older, had experienced more blizzards, whiteouts, and retreats than I had.

“Brian’s route is on the right side, not the left,” he corrected me.

That made sense–right of the rappel, the wall seemed friendlier: less steep and more broken up. Where we stood, left of the McCarthy route, precipitous pillars loomed over us, seeming almost to tip backward, barely held in place.

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

In July 1973, Jon and I stood at the snowy col between Bugaboo and Snowpatch spires in British Columbia, searching for the route that Jon’s friend Brian Greenwood had recently established on the west face of Snowpatch. All we had to go on was what Jon remembered of a brief verbal description–to start a few hundred feet right of the McCarthy rappel route.

Brian was in Calgary and unavailable for information. Jon didn’t recall how far to the right the new route was, so we searched the vast, grey and black face for a hint of something that might look like it, scrutinizing each possible-looking line. We traveled along the base of the wall, sometimes walking on the vast glacier between Snowpatch Spire and the Howser Towers, other times scrambling over scree. The granite face was often sheer, occasionally bisected by granite cracks, much like what I’d climbed in Yosemite or the Wind Rivers.

At last, we settled on a possibility–a line of weakness in the monolithic stone that somewhat resembled what Jon remembered. I struggled up a steep slant of rock on small holds, wondering if this could really be Brian’s route. After another pitch of miniscule flakes that broke like seashells off the slate-grey cliff, we decided it wasn’t. We rappelled down to continue looking for the elusive climb.

That’s when I spied the dihedral: a big left-facing corner, with a good-sized crack (not pinched off, and not too large), and it seemed to extend upward as far as I could see. Ledges broke up the otherwise perfect continuity of the sheer, endless planes of stone. Here and there, shadows furrowed the opposing walls. Good holds for stemming, I thought.

“Let’s climb that corner,” I said.

“That’s not Brian’s route,” he said. By now, Jon sounded utterly discouraged.

“Yes, but it’s gorgeous!”

I fell in love with the corner. It embodied everything I wanted in a climb–a bold, distinct line up a prominent dihedral, which, despite its abrupt sides, looked as if it would occasionally offer us respite in the form of a ledge, or a wider crack.

I’d been climbing both old and new routes with George Meyers (now of Yosemite fame) in the Bugaboos for a week when I met Jon, who had hiked in alone. George had left the day before to work on fire crew. I loved the rock, and decided to stay. After climbing the McCarthy route with a couple of other partners, I was eager for something new. Jon thought Brian’s route would be a relatively easy one for our first excursion together–not too long, and only rated 5.8.

Now, Jon voiced his reluctance to start up an unknown dihedral, especially with our minimal gear. While he’d primarily used pitons on Canadian limestone, I’d learned to lead in Yosemite in the 1970s, during the golden age of chocks, and I owned a few light nuts–much better than the old, cumbersome, heavy pins and hammer that my father used.

I begged Jon to climb the corner with me. It was so beautiful–and besides, there was no other option for us on Snowpatch.

Finally, he gave in.

The next morning, we set off on our exploration. We took my nuts and hexes, and Jon decided to bring some pins and his hammer, which we could resort to in an emergency. I was familiar with the idea that only a well-driven piton provided security. My father, Richard Hechtel, had started climbing in Europe in the 1930s, primarily on limestone and alpine ice. At age sixty, he still sneered at my nut anchors, pulled out his hammer and insisted on pounding in at least one pin before he deemed the belay safe. And he never changed his mind. Only once did he bow to peer pressure: while leading a pitch on Nutcracker in Yosemite with Steve Roper, he placed a nut. When he fell, the first nut popped out. Although the next one held, his low opinion of the treacherous things was confirmed.

My father later extended his suspicion of all things not hammered to include camming devices. In 2001 my former boyfriend, Tom Dunwiddie, and his climbing partner, Monika Eldridge, fell to their deaths when their anchor failed on the Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral. By then, my father was eighty-eight years old, but he could still follow 5.11 and outdo me in pull-ups. He pulled out a nut and said in a disparaging tone, “See these things? That’s why your friend Tom died.” Since Tom’s anchor had consisted of three cams and one nut, I thought it more likely that a flake had broken off, though I’d learned as a child to not argue with my father because he had a temper.

Back in 1973, I’d not yet experienced a serious emergency, so I was oblivious to the need to plan for them. But I was used to doing what I was told, and when Jon said he wanted to bring a hammer in case something went wrong, I believed that he must know more than I did about what eventualities could arise.

At first, as Jon and I began up the dihedral, everything went well: the grey granite remained solid, with good friction. There were flakes for our feet to stem on, cracks for our hands to jam into, and places to set our nuts when we felt the need. We were moving at a reasonable pace, and we had already completed three pitches when I noticed that the top still looked far away. With no trees, bushes or natural chockstones for rappel anchors, I realized that we might not be able to retreat without leaving every piece of gear that we owned.

At the end of the fourth pitch, we reached our first obstacle. The left-hand wall of the corner steepened, and the face appeared as smooth as glass. While a small crack remained in the corner, it seemed wide enough only for our fingertips, not for our hands. Clearly, it continued for a long way. Equally clearly, it was steeper and more polished than anything we’d yet encountered. The flakes we’d used as footholds had long since vanished.

“I’ll do it,” Jon shouted.

“Great!” I replied. Steep liebacks were not my strong suit.

Fifteen feet up the corner, Jon fumbled, trying to place a chock blind. He got one of the nuts in, clipped it and climbed another ten feet or so. In a slightly better stance this time–and apparently still not trusting the nuts–he inserted a pin into a somewhat wider spot in the crack and hammered it soundly in. Jon clipped the rope, and he hung our one hammer on the carabiner so I could remove the piton when I followed.

He slowly continued up the miniscule fingertip crack, liebacking with his feet on the slick wall and wriggling with ever more hesitant movements. I noticed that his legs were just beginning to tremble, and I clutched the rope a little more tightly. Jon stopped at a tiny flake, his legs shaking ever more violently, and he tried to slot a chock into the crack. As it was primarily my rack, he initially grabbed the wrong nut. After another attempt, he succeeded in placing one. Now he was quaking all over.

Jon made a heroic attempt to struggle up toward better cracks or flakes.

Suddenly, he was falling. And falling. He tumbled about five feet to the nut, and plummeted past as it pulled out and kept falling. I clutched the rope with my brake hand as hard as I could. He continued past the belay ledge. Then, the force of the fall slammed me into the rock. The rope burned my hands as I desperately clung to it.

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

The pin held, and he’d stopped, silent, well out of sight below me.

“I’m OK!” he yelled.

Thank God. That was the longest, biggest, scariest fall I’d ever seen, much less had to hold–about fifty to sixty feet. After a brief moment to regroup, he climbed to our ledge.

He turned to me and shouted, “I almost had it. I’m going back up.”

I stared at his hands. Each fingertip was torn open, with only a flap of skin remaining to cover the flesh.

“You can’t,” I said. “Your fingers!”

I don’t know whether in the shock of the fall he’d even noticed the injury.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “I can do it.”

I refused to be convinced that anyone with that much damage to his hands could possibly lead a fingertip lieback. It was clear that he’d slip out–if only because of the blood smeared on the rock. We needed to reach the summit and traverse across to descend via the fixed anchors of the McCarthy route.

“I’ll lead it,” I said. I understood that, for the first time in my life, it was up to me to get us to the top. I only hoped Jon would be able to belay. I climbed to the pin. Jon’s fall had left it crooked. A little more force might have ripped it out entirely. I refused to contemplate that possibility. The stone reared abruptly ahead, its surface too sleek for stemming (at least not in my blue RR boots). With only a few slings and no aiders, I could stand in one sling, place a nut as high as possible, put a sling on it, climb and pull myself up to there, and repeat. Despite Jon’s spectacular (and nearly disastrous) tumble, I trusted my gear–his must have popped out because he hadn’t placed it well enough, I told myself.

Luckily our few slings were adequate to enable me past the crux. From here, I could climb the widening crack to a chimney and then to a good ledge.

Dusk was falling. The air chilled, and stars appeared in the darkening sky. The moon rose–fortunate for us, since we had no headlamps. Once the initial adrenaline rush had worn off, Jon felt the pain in his torn fingers, and he was happy to let me lead. His fingertips looked swollen, with blood crusted around the sliced pads, and as he struggled to remove my gear, I saw a grimace of pain. Under the pale glow of the moon, his face turned wan and grey.

Ahead, however, the climbing became easier, and I felt comfortable forging up the wider cracks and chimneys, moving between the black shadows and the silver light. At times, I placed a nut by touch, feeling for gaps between cold edges of stone. The fading twilight obscured the void below me. With each pitch, I felt more confident that we’d finish the climb, and that I could find the way down by moonlight, having rappelled it only a few days earlier.

My hands were on fire from where the rope burned my palms holding the fall. While it didn’t hurt much to climb, pulling the rope up when belaying felt like running my fingers across a razor.

We reached the summit in full dark. The moon blazed on the glacier beneath us, reflecting off the snow that surrounded our spire.

We’d made it. Bleeding, battered, bruised and hungry, but we were on top.

We traversed to the rappels. I went down first so I could untangle the ropes and give Jon a fireman’s backup if he lost his grip. My hands stung each time I pulled the wet ropes. Jon tried to help me thread them through the anchor, with the use of only his palms. After four slow and painful rappels, we reached the base and stumbled to our packs, eager for gorp and sandwiches.

It was not to be.

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

While we were floundering on our climb, some lucky rodent had chewed into our packs and consumed most of our food. At least plenty of water was running everywhere. We filled our bottles, drank all we could hold, and then drank some more to fill our stomachs before we staggered over to our tent.

The next morning, we woke to shouting from Jon’s friends.

“We’re going to climb Pigeon. Why don’t you join us?”

Hungry, sore and tired, I just wanted to get down to my food.

“Great! Give us a minute, and we’ll be ready to go,” Jon said. I couldn’t believe it. Despite ten cut, bloody fingers, and no food, Jon wanted to climb Pigeon. He didn’t even ask if I wanted to go. Perhaps, I thought, he was eager for the relative safety of familiar male companions, as opposed to a young girl who’d already gotten him into trouble.

But, then, I thought again. Well, why not. We were here, we’d done most of the approach, and we had our equipment. Food was some time, effort and distance away, and Pigeon was much closer. Unroped, we scrambled up large ledges and footholds that enabled Jon and me to make only minimal use of our damaged hands. A known route on prominent holds in bright sun, with other people who knew where to go. It was an entirely different experience from the unknown moonlit face the day before. It would have been idyllic, if I weren’t starving.

Back at the lower campground, at the end of the day, everyone wanted to know about our new route. Jon and I had set up tents outside of the hut, but a few wealthier climbers had hot meals cooked by the hut-keeper, and they invited us in to socialize. There we basked, warm and dry, while our eager listeners plied us with leftover food and drink to inspire us to ever-lengthier descriptions of our adventure. Since Jon’s torn fingers were the most conspicuous, they asked first about his accident. After he described his attempt to lieback the tapering crack and his long fall, they wanted to know how we’d gotten up.

“She nutted it,” he said. He gestured toward me proudly, as if showing me off as his protegee.

Jon’s praise had unexpected consequences: Dick Lofthouse, an older Canadian mountain guide, invited me to climb the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire with him, and asked if I’d lead the first four pitches. As a limestone climber, he wasn’t used to jamming cracks, which I’d learned to do in Yosemite. In those days, it was almost unheard of for a man to invite a woman to be a ropegun, especially a young student. His request surprised me, though I gladly accepted. I needed a climbing partner, and besides, I rarely turned down any chance to climb.

Jon agreed to write up our new route for the Canadian Alpine Journal, since he was heading back to Calgary, and I was heading into the unknown.

“Let’s call the climb Degringolade,” Jon said. “It means a tumbling fall, or plunge.”

A couple of summers later, the famous alpinist George Lowe III called my father to invite him to climb. My dad, busy with work, replied, “I can’t go, but I can offer you my daughter.”

On a weekend in Tuolumne Meadows, George asked what I thought was my best climb.

“Degringolade, on Snowpatch Spire,” I replied without hesitation.

He looked surprised. “I thought it would be your ascent of the Triple Direct on El Capitan with Beverly Johnson,” he said, referring to the first all-female climb of El Capitan, which Bev and I had done in the autumn of 1973 after I returned from the Bugaboos.

“No, Degringolade, because it was a first ascent. I found the route, and I ended up leading most of it. It taught me to get myself up, and then back down, in the mountains.”

This Full Value first appeared in Alpinist 56–Winter 2016-17. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.