Cirque of the Speed Climbables

Proboscis gets first free ascent ... on-sight ... in nine hours

From Climbing Magazine #208 Hot Flashes, written by Jonathan Thesenga (*).

Amid the Northwest Territories' typical funk of drizzly weather that had spooked every other climber into taking a forced rest day, Jonathan Copp, partnered with Josh Wharton, climbed the 2200-foot Southeast Face (V 5.10+) on the Cirque of the Unclimbables' mega-classic Lotus Flower Tower in 4 hours 26 minutes. Yawn. This was Copp's least impressive tick during his five-week stay in the Cirque, during which he and a revolving door of partners bagged a handful of major first ascents and first free ascents, all done in a committing one-day, speed-ascent style.

After waiting out an initial two-week storm, Copp, 27, and Tim O'Neill, 31, rallied from their basecamp in Fairy Meadows to the 1800-foot southeast face of Bustle Tower. On the far left shoulder of the wall the duo blasted the first ascent of Don't Get Piggy (V 5.12a) and freed the 200 feet of aid on Club International (V 5.11b), each one on-sight and in a day. Both of these routes followed similar systems of prominent cracks and corners on steep, Diamond-esque stone yet their cruxes were decidedly different — Don't Get Piggy's was a splitter finger crack on the 6th pitch; Club International's was a 7th-pitch face traverse where the first ascentionists Sean Isaac and Andreas Taylor had pendulumed.

After O'Neill left, Copp and Wharton, 22, made the best of another two-week storm and scoped out a new line on Lotus Flower Tower's impressive neighbor, the seldom-climbed, 2800-foot Parrot Beak Peak. Once the weather broke, the pair jumped on their new route, intending to, as Copp recalls, "work out the Beta on the first few pitches." However, their intentions quickly — and boldly — changed when they breezily on-sighted climbing they assumed would be difficult. Amped from the days of basecamp festering, the pair decided to keep going and gun for a one-day, first ascent, even though they had only one liter of water, no food, no stocking caps, and wore lightweight shirts, a decision Copp would later regret: "We were psyched, but freezing. I wore my extra shirt around my head like a turban. I guess you could say we got a bit over committed." Twelve pitches up, the pair realized they were crossing into that gray area between boldness and recklessness and rapped back to basecamp.

A few days later, the pair (appropriately equipped and dressed this time) summited Parrot Beak Peak via their Pecking Order (V+ 5.11) in a day with no fixed lines or jumaring, establishing the wall's second overall route and its first free climb. They encountered four pitches of 5.11 corner and face climbing in the wall's upper reaches, including a "strenuous, spicy section," as Copp lightly calls it, of sopping-wet, ice-choked crack.

Knowing the weather could crap out at any moment, the pair rested for only a day before tackling their biggest objective of the trip — on-sighting a one-day, first-free ascent of the Grade V Original Route on the 2000-foot southeast face of Proboscis. First climbed in 1963 by Layton Kor, Royal Robbins, Dick McCracken, and Jim McCarthy at 5.9+ A3, the route has a crux 5.12 pitch that was toproped by Nancy Feagin and Barry Blanchard in 1997, but no one had yet led the pitch clean — and certainly no one had attempted to climb the entire face in a day.

Leaving their Fairy Meadows camp at 9 a.m., the pair hiked up the valley, over the snow- and ice-covered col that separates Proboscis from the rest of the cirque, and blasted through the first three pitches of moderate climbing. The pace slowed ever so slightly on the next three crack leads: a wet 5.10, a sustained 5.11+, and the 100-foot pitch of 5.12. "It was by far the best climbing of the trip," says Copp. "Like a steep version of the Lotus Flower Tower" — forgetting to mention that the pitch's dicey protection of junky TCUs and dinky nuts combined with stout runouts made it one of the trip's spookiest leads. Once those cruxy pitches were dispatched the pace picked back up and the final seven pitches of 5.9 and 5.10 were over in a blink. Incredibly, a mere nine hours after leaving the ground the pair were taking summit photos atop Proboscis, having proudly raised the standard on light-and-fast free climbing in the area.

(*) Reproduced with permission from Climbing Magazine, #208, Dec 15, 2001, p. 32