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A Guide to Sanbagging Newbies and Sportclimbers on Squamish’s Grand Wall (5.11a)

A Guide to Sanbagging Newbies and Sportclimbers on Squamish’s Grand Wall (5.11a)

by JESSE JAMES ….

One of the most legendary multipitch excursions in all of Canada, the Grand Wall cuts a brilliant line up the cleanest sweep of granite in Squamish, an imposing face of steep corners and flakes. I run up The Grand at least once a month to re-assure myself of my manhood.

The Grand Wall is a fantastic afternoon climb for two seasoned trad climbers looking for a quick two hour workout on an awesome wall. It is no place for a newbie.

I thought I would introduce this tremendous route to my buddy’s cousin, let’s call him Pete. He was 20 years old, all muscle and radness, a lean and muscled warrior who practiced intense martial arts training for years. A hundred pushups? No problem. Fifty pullups? Easy peasy. I mean this kid was Bruce Lee. Shazaam!

We were going to run up The Grand, and eat breakfast while we simul-climb the Split Pillar. But there was just one problem: Pete had never touched rock before. Not even plastic. He might have climbed a ladder – once. This could be trouble.

I was a little worried about his belaying – as in, he had no idea how to belay. So we dragged up a mutual friend on a second rope. I would lead on two ropes, and use my trusty ATC Guide to belay both climbers up below me. Only problem was, the two ropes were so thin we weren’t sure they were rated for top-roping a second. Twins? Halfs? Who knows the differnece? And up we went.

The first two pitches of the Grand Wall are designed to keep pussies off the route. With seven bolts in 70 meters, and the first bolt a solid 10 meters off the deck, the slabby dyke gets your head warmed up for the main event. This is not the place for a 5.9 climber to show his stuff on lead. I considered peer-pressuring Pete into leading the first pitch (‘what are you, dude, some kind of pussy?’), but thought he might actually fall off, and die, so I canned the idea pretty quick.

After the first two pitches, appropriately called ‘Mercy Me,’ we hit a beautiful 5.10b traverse. Now was the time to test Pete’s headspace; the pitch can be terrifying for a weak second if the leader ‘forgets’ to place any pro, simply clipping the two bolts and being done with it. As I traversed rightward, I considered plopping in a bomber red Alien. Nah, I thought to myself. He’ll make it. And around the corner I went, fingerlocking my way to the top. The cool thing about this pitch is that the second can’t actually SEE any protection as the leader disappears around the corner; no gear, no bolts, nothing. Let’s put this guy to the test, I thought to myself. See what he’s made of.

On a previous ascent, I watched my relatively experienced second take a horrific pendulum fall on this pitch, and waited patiently for an hour as he ascended the line with a prussik. If Pete fell, I would have to rap down and help him up. He didn’t know a prussik from a hand jam. Perhaps due to his martial training, Pete kept his head together on the exposed traverse, struggling fiercely at the crux near the bolts, but otherwise cruising. I was mildly impressed; the gruesome pendulum potential hardly fazed him. Or maybe he was too much of a newbie to understand what happened to the human body as it bobbed and bounced off slab on a 20 meter pendulum whip.

After the first three pitches, we arrived at the base of the famous (infamous?) Split Pillar, a 5.10b splitter crack soaring forty meters skyward, dead vertical, imposing, awesome. I climbed the Pillar during my first year of climbing, when my ‘coach’ handed me a few pieces of gear and said; ‘Go for it, man.’ I tottered and squirmed halfway up the pitch when my foot unexpectedly popped out of the crack, catching the rope and flipping me like a pancake, sending me headfirst below the belay, where, upside down and mouth agape, I found myself staring into the bulging pupils of a terrified female climber at the top of the previous pitch. I blinked, composed myself. ‘Howdy,’ I said. And then I began yarding up the rope.
Recomposing myself at the base of the Pillar, I quickly fired up the route, and this time kept my feet in the crack, where they belonged. When my ‘coach’ got to the top, he told me that below him were two German girls guided by a local rock guide named Jeremy, and that my fall had frightened the ladies so much that they insisted on a quick retreat. Jeremy also chewed out my coach for sending me up such a route, clearly unprepared, with a minimal rack and no helmet, much less any skill.

A few weeks before the climb with Pete, I had brought my friend Paul, a solid 5.14 sport climber, up this same route. Paul could clip bolts, but could he do the man-dance on a trad route? I wasn’t so sure. He admitted the day before taking his first fall on gear – on Hand Jive, a Squamish classic at the Lower Malamute graded 5.10b. Same as the Pillar, except Hand Jive was a one-move wonder. Paul agreed in advance to test his mettle on the fearsome, gaping hand crack of the Split Pillar, so I made sure to bring a bare-minimum rack for the whole climb, six cams and a few nuts. Secretly I hoped he would take a ferocious whipper like I did years ago. Handing Paul the gear at the base of the Pillar, I told him solemnly; ‘Man, we don’t have much gear. You’re gonna have to run it out.’ He had never led anything above 5.10b, and you could probably count his total trad leads on one hand. Interesting, I thought. Going to be some action.

Paul started up the initial half-inch layback crack, and just kept on laybacking. ‘Jam it, dude,’ I shouted up to him. ‘JAM IT!’ Nope. I watched in rapt horror as he laybacked the entire 40 meter crack, pausing occasionally to blindly stuff in a piece of gear. (Mental note: find a crack climb that sport crushers CAN’T layback.)

And so I stood with Pete looking up at this beautiful line, knowing full well that he would be yarding on every piece of gear I placed. Like Paul, he had no idea how to jam. But unlike Paul, he couldn’t climb 5.14. I doubted if he could climb 5.9.

I wasn’t sure he could make it up the Split, or the Sword, and almost certainly not Perry’s. It wasn’t that his footwork was bad; he didn’t have any footwork. It was almost like he didn’t have feet. He was doing pull-ups on the 5.9 crimpers of Mercy Me. This could be bad, I thought.
‘Don’t worry, Pete, it eases up,’ I encouraged him, as he gazed upwards, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, at the ridiculous splitter in front of him. ‘Easier than it looks, trust me.’ And so up we went.

Pete was an amazing guy; no complaining, no bitching, no tears. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his experience, with no evident fear of heights. The exposure on the next pitch, the world-famous Sword (5.11a), was startling, but Pete was grinning ear-to-ear. Much stronger climbers than him have been reduced to tears at this point on the Grand Wall, suffering the humiliation of retreat. I asked Pete how he was doing. ‘AWESOME,’ came the reply. He was psyched.

Unfortunately, his body wasn’t responding nearly as well as his mind. In the middle of the Sword, as he pulled left onto the absurd exposure of the face, his fingers began clinching inward, like claws. It was some kind of hideous cramp. He couldn’t even open his hands. He had to pry his fingers apart with his teeth. Yes, his teeth. Betrayed by his body, Pete struggled on, somehow inching his way up the final lieback, desperately yarding on gear.

The next pitch, Perry’s Lieback (5.11a), is an amiable 5 minute cruise for me, but for some people this is the crux of the entire route. A stupendous number of bolts protect relatively easy but endurancy moves. For people who aren’t strong, this pitch can feel hard. Pete was not strong.

After more than an hour grovelling up the wide layback crack, he emerged from the abyss claws-first looking terribly haggard, his hands bunched up into quasi-fists, bloody, unsightly, useless. As he crawled up to the belay station, like some ugly avian lobster, I pointed to the ominous roofs above me; ‘Showtime,’ I said. ‘This is the crux, the meat, the real deal. Are you ready for this, buddy?’ I watched all of the youthful exuberance seep out of him, like a tire slowly deflating, as he turned pale with dread. ‘Oh, shit,’ was all he could muster.

Of course, we don’t pull the roofs on that pitch – it’s a casual stroll across the slabby ‘flats.’ I had to haul him up the rest of the route, yanking with all my might on the belay, appropriate punishment, I thought, for my foolishness in cajoling a complete newbie up this intimidating route.

The final pitch, called the Sail Flake, took at least an hour, with Pete constantly falling and swinging downward, then trying to climb the rope, Tarzan-style. As we traversed Bellygood Ledge, looking down at five hundred meters of air, I was concerned that Pete, in his depleted condition, might stumble on a third class move, dragging me down to oblivion. So I roped him up to his friend, then sprinted across the ledge to eat lunch and admire the view.

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About Jesse James

Jesse James is a Canadian rock climber, venture capitalist, futurist, philosopher, technologist, physicist, vegan, social activist, nutrition researcher, adventurer, writer and (sometimes) poet.

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