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Mason Earle: Battling the Cobra—King of The Cracks

Monday, August 14, 2017
BD Ambassador Mason Earle is a crack connoisseur. From Indian Creek to Patagonia, Earle has jammed his way to the top of the world’s stoutest splitters. However, one line, and what many claim to be the “king of cracks,” had continued to elude him. Despite one-hanging Squamish’s famed Cobra Crack several years in a row, Earle couldn’t quite seal the deal. So he took a five-year break. But … this summer, Earle returned with a vengeance.
Summer 2011

Alex Honnold and I were both poised to send.

I had been climbing with Alex a lot that season, and we were getting close on the infamous Cobra Crack—an iconic 5.14 granite splitter that reigns as one of the hardest cracks in the world.

I was up first. I climbed to my highpoint for the tenth or so time, and by the grace of all the angels in heaven I stuck the left hand bump. I set the left toe hook, and as I went to bump my right hand to the final lock, I lost a couple inches of tension.

Images: Eliza Earle

 I willed my arm to grow … but to no avail. Once again I took the big ride.

Alex stepped up to bat after me, and he knocked it right outta the park, sending the line in his signature, controlled style.

After a couple more unsuccessful days up at the ‘bra, I stormed out of Canada in my family’s old Volvo station wagon. I had put all my chips on sending that season, and leaving empty-handed really hurt. It was a failure that I was unable to see in a positive light. I resented the Cobra for beating me, and I didn’t come back to Squamish the next summer, or the following four (excluding a short work trip). I always knew I’d return to try the beast, but dammit, I was going to come back with an army of power and endurance to make sure the deed got done.

The Beginning of a Crack Addiction

I became obsessed with crack climbing in October 2006, during weekend trips to Indian Creek. I had already been climbing for six years, but the Utah cracks stole my heart. The desert—with its silken red stone, and unrelenting cracks. Climbs that can send your fingers into the fourth dimension of pump, and pain.  After a few seasons climbing in the Creek, I began to scheme up bigger plans. I had sent many of the desert’s hardest routes, from finger cracks to offwidth, and I thought of myself as a well-rounded climber, despite the fact that I could barely climb 5.11 anywhere else.

Desert crack was my “gateway drug” to the rest of climbing.

Enter the Cobra, king of the cracks. The rock, the line, the beta, and the history of this Squamish testpiece were legendary, not to mention the massive whippers from the crux. The Cobra called to me from pictures in the mags, videos, and stories from my climbing heroes.

I first made it up to Squamish on Canada Day of 2009. I was psyched to climb big routes on the Chief, but I mostly wanted to attempt the Cobra Crack. I knew everything about the route—Didier Berthod’s legendary undercling mono, Nico Favresse’s exotic inverted beta he used to make the second ascent. The heroic sends, the failures—and all the rest of the Cobra Crack lore.

I excitedly got to work on the route, putting in sessions to learn the moves, and find my personalized sequence. I was drawn deeper into the route with each bit of progress. I think it was my third day on the route when I finally did all the moves, the mono having been the final roadblock.

Like any hard crack, there are subtleties to each jam. With dialed beta I was able to one-hang the route after a couple more days. At this point my lack of fitness began to show, however, and progress flat-lined. The rest of my efforts on the Cobra that season saw me no further than the mono. Frankly, I just didn’t have the endurance. I had arrived up in Squamish that season having never even sent a 13a sport route, and now it showed.

I spent the next summer in Squamish, but instead focused on really learning how to climb. I got mileage on hard sport routes, techy granite, and longer routes on the Chief. I hopped on the Cobra a few times, but didn’t dedicate my season to it.

I headed back up to Squamish again the following summer of 2011. I had an open mind about the Cobra, and hiked back up the steep trail to see how it felt. I quickly blasted by my old highpoint, and fell on one of the final hard moves. I was hooked again, and confident that this was the season, so I went all in. I took a couple rest days, did some light climbing, and headed back up. I fell at the same move, at the end of the crux. I repeated this cycle thru July, and into August, repeatedly taking the massive fall from the end of the crux.

The closest I came was that fateful day with Honnold, and eventually I had to leave Squamish empty handed.

Spring 2017—The Showdown

The time felt right. During my years away from Squamish I grew as a climber, and even established a 5.14 crack of my own in Utah. Returning to Squamish filled me with excitement, for the Cobra and all the other amazing rock climbing. I got on some of my nemesis boulder problems below the Chief, and was pleasantly surprised at how much stronger I felt. It was time to visit my old friend.

During my 2011 efforts I was fighting a dragon with my bare hands. Returning to the Cobra six years later, I was hunting deer with an Apache Helicopter.

Looking up at the route I worried that some of the beta might have escaped my mind, but as soon as I pulled on I immediately remembered every single hold. The locks were flowing as if I had been on the route the day before.

After a top-roping session, I sent the Cobra Crack on my third lead of the trip. As it often happens, my rope got stuck in the crack as I ascended the final 40 feet of easy climbing. Logan Barber (fellow Cobra projector) and I had agreed that if it came to it, we would untie and solo the last bit.

“If you fall off the 5.10 bit after sending, just cut the rope,” Logan had joked.

I continued, however, with what seemed like 40 pounds of rope drag as the cord slid through the crack, and luckily made it to the top.

More than anything I was relieved to be out from underneath the dark Cobra storm clouds. Still, a part of me is bummed I won’t get to climb on the ol’ Cobra anymore. It truly doesn’t get any better, and it was an honor every time I got to take the legendary whip from the crux.

Mason Earle adds his name to the “send plaque” beneath the Cobra.

—Mason Earle

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