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Mason Earle Jams 5.14 Utah Crack

Mason Earle at the base of the Bartlett Wash Project (5.14-, 115′) after completing the first free ascent on March 12, 2015.

[Photo] Jeremiah Watt

On March 12, 26-year-old Mason Earle completed his three-year-crack-project the Bartlett Wash Project (5.14-, 115′), thirty minutes outside Moab, Utah in the eponymous canyon. Earle–originally from Concord, Massachusetts, but today based in Salt Lake City, Utah–has been climbing for sixteen years, since age ten, and tackling cracks since he was eighteen.

Earle has had a prolific last couple of years leading up to his latest ascent. In July 2013 he established a six-pitch route–a previously abandoned project first tried by Mikey Schaefer–Psycho Bitch (5.13b) on Schultz’s Ridge in Yosemite Valley. In January 2014 he climbed the Hidetaka Suzuki thin-crack route Stingray (5.13+) in Joshua Tree National Park. And in August 2014 he made the first free ascent of Sendero Luminoso with Nik Berry and David Allfrey (5.10 A4, Quinlan, 1980; FFA: 5.13d) on Mt. Hooker in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. [We reported on this climb in a NewsWire on September 5, 2014–Ed.] He has also been working on Squamish’s Cobra Crack (5.14, 120′), but “I’ve fallen off of the top of [it] a lot,” he says.

Alpinist caught up with Earle over the phone while he was at a friend’s house in Moab–where he joked that he was “kind of lost now that I don’t have a project.” A lawnmower turned on in the background, about ten feet from him, as we began the interview.

Earle jamming his way up the Bartlett Wash Project.

[Photo] Jeremiah Watt

Alpinist: How did you discover the Bartlett Wash Project?

Mason Earle: It was a rest day. I was on the way to Canyonlands, saw a wall in the distance and thought I’d check it out. While driving along the base of the wall, I thought I saw a hint of an overhanging crack line. I found it in the autumn of 2012.

The first thing I did was to tie my rope to some rocks at the bottom and solo-aid it with a GriGri. Apart from breaking off a few chips, there were no loose blocks. It’s in the Entrada sandstone–the softest garbage in the desert–like what you find in Arches National Park. It’s a bit sandy: you brush it and you make more sand. Luckily, the route doesn’t rely on face holds or a crimp–[the rock is so bad] it would’ve broken off.

It was way over my head. At first, I could only link one to two cam placements. I came back the next spring and autumn. Once the chalk was embedded in the sandy rock it started to link together. I felt like I had a good chance on it last spring, but I popped a tendon on my wrist, and the same thing happened this autumn. [The injury happened during] a thumbs-up jam–where your pinky tendon meets the wrist. [The injury] got worse and worse.

I probably gave it thirty attempts over three years. Once my hand healed again, the route went down.

ALP: Do you often work on routes alone?

I only solo projects by necessity. When I’ve had really psyched partners, that’s been great, but more often than not I’m out solo with a GriGri. It’s therapeutic when you work on something with no timeframe. You also need to not have a job for that to work.

I guess you could say that I’m a professional climber. The sponsors are what keeps the ball rolling and diesel in the tank.

ALP: What’s your climbing schedule like?

ME: I maintain an average of two to three days on, then a rest day. I definitely couldn’t work [the route] more than two to three days out of the week. The pressure on the knuckles from overhanging jamming takes awhile to recover from.

There are probably a lot of 5.14 cracks out there that would be just too painful and wouldn’t be fun. There aren’t any stopper moves on the Bartlett Wash Project; it’s just steep and long, [and] without rests. It’s like the perfect hard crack in that sense.

ALP: Did you train specifically?

ME: There were times when I trained on my little wall in Salt Lake City. Other than a bit of campus boarding, I didn’t do any training.

ALP: I understand you climbed much of the route with one shoe off. Why?

ME: My left shoe was a [specialty limestone shoe] and the right [was a soft slipper], which fit in the 50-degree overhanging flare.

When I get a good fingerlock midway, I take my right shoe off and throw it in the sand dunes and continue with the taped foot. That was a very important move to recruit power–and throwing my shoe as hard as I could recruited power and got me psyched. [From here], it’s purple and green Camalots, and every move except for one I can jam my right foot in.

ALP: What was the anchor like? Were you concerned about its integrity because of the soft rock?

ME: For the longest time, I had a two long 3/8-inch bolts in there [but that made me nervous], so I put in an enormous 1/2-inch by 5- or 6-incher.

I placed fifteen pieces on the send. The first piece off the ground is a No 5 Camalot, which you place out of a bush. You have to do a full-on offwidth move to place the next piece of gear. If the bush wasn’t there, you couldn’t do the first move.

Then there’s a thin spot at half height, which is the hardest move on the route. The route jogs right and closes down for a bit, and you have to do a huge reach.

ALP: Any last thoughts?

ME: I’m hoping that [Alex] Honnold gets on it. I think he could do the thing–I don’t know how quick, but quicker than me.

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