Will Gadd: Return to SendWednesday, September 7, 2016
It was the winter of 1996, and, not for the first or last time in my life, I hung dejectedly on the rope and muttered, "I need bigger arms." I'd just fallen off, again, and was starting to doubt if I had the strength in my arms or head to ever climb 150 feet of overhanging rock and ice in Vail, Colorado. Helgi Christianson and I had bolted a line that connected dripping drools of ice out overhanging rock, in the same general area as Jeff Lowe's Octupussy. Jeff’s line was the first radical free-hanging icicle route I'd ever seen, and it had blown the lid off my, and the world's, mind in regards to what winter climbing could be. Now we'd bolted something that was a huge leap into the ridiculous according to most ice climbers, and everyone, including the route, seemed to be making fun of our feeble efforts to climb it.
I'd grown up ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies, New Hampshire and Colorado but had written the sport off as a dead-end in my early 20s. I wanted to climb hard, but the only way to make ice climbing harder after a certain point is to make it more dangerous. After nearly killing myself riding ever-thinner pillars and gearless smears under tottering seracs, I quit and jumped on the high-energy sport climbing express for a few years, which taught me how to truly climb at a decent technical level. The Lycra of the era was a true crime, but so was a lot in the ‘80s.
But then Octupussy happened. An icicle dangling in space. It was like the dreams I'd had of climbing icicles on my house while I was learning to climb ice in high school. Clearly it was the coolest form of climbing ever—the dream was real! I quit sport climbing and scrounged some fresh tools. The future was clear: Go climb icicles, and climb the rock with our tools to get to the icicle. Simple.
All images: Kennan Harvey
We quickly learned the craft of running our rope carefully so if the icicle broke we wouldn't die, sharpening our ice picks to work on rock and the best way to tape our wrists so the nylon handcuffs that attached us to our tools wouldn't repeatedly saw our skin to the bone. We called our sport mixed climbing, and Jeff Lowe invented a grading system for it. But it had nothing to do with the traditional alpine mixed climbing I'd learned in the Canadian Rockies. This new game was demanding on more than my calves and mental fear circuitry; it was dynamic, and the ice climbing on free-hanging icicles was another level above anything I'd ever dreamed of.
Helgi and I wanted to call our route Amphibian, after the evolutionary leap that allowed animals to live in water or on land, but neither of us could figure out how to manage the supernatural pump we found when tool steel met rock. We desperately over-gripped our tools, terrified that each creak of shifting metal on rock dust or mud would send us plummeting. Then the inevitable happened, and we discovered that on really steep terrain you could fall off safely. Nothing but net! Our grip relaxed a little, and soon we were climbing halfway up Amphibian before falling off.
We invented an entire new way of using ice tools, first stein pulls, and then inverted stein pulls where I ripped the head off an ice ax while pulling on it as hard as I could with both feet planted on the wall. Tools evolved, as did we. And all the while, we were learning to relax our grip, little by little, getting farther and higher. I've had a lot of fun climbing in the last 30 years, but little approaches the childlike joy of unfolding the huge box of mixed climbing movement.
Finally I learned to relax on my tools just enough to send Amphibian. I remember the joy of a wobbly tool placement into the thin ice smear at the top, and looking down between my heavy boots with traditional crampons on them, seeing nothing but air for 150 feet. I wasn't any stronger than I had been, but I had learned to relax, open my hands and my mind, and to stop thinking so much.
Helgi and I rated Amphibian M9, as it was a lot harder than Octupussy, M8. It was the first consensus M9 in the world. The next winter I climbed a magic route on half spray ice in Iceland, Brennivin, which I rated 9+, as it was a lot harder. I returned to Colorado after Iceland, and I climbed Reptile, which followed the edge of huge horizontal break across some of Vail's steepest terrain to join the Fang. I called that M9 too. I come from a tradition where you rate a route with the lowest grade you can say with a straight face, not the modern "Instagrade" of the highest grade you can say with a straight face. Brennivin was the first M11 in the world, although I rated it 9+, because it couldn't be much harder, could it?
Vail set the world grading system. People would come and do a route at Vail, then go back home and put up more mixed routes in their own chossy, steep, frozen terrain, shooting for the crystal lure of an icicle at the end of the drytooling. The mixed scene exploded in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but Vail was always the Haj for mixed climbers.
Coming back to Vail again, I felt the same stirrings of psyche and nervousness as I had decades earlier. Sarah Hueniken and I had our eyes on a more modern route, Will Mayo's P51 Mustang, rated M14-. It's a monster traverse that starts on Reptile, cruising all the way across the Vail Ampitheater to finish on Amphibian. Mayo's line holds true to geology and draws a clean horizontal traverse for more than 60 feet. There's a rock rail that you could almost hand-traverse for most of the distance if it weren't clogged with frozen mud. It even starts with a pitch of ice, which has defeated some suitors before they even reached the route.
As I started the Mustang, I realized I was on the same holds I'd used almost 20 years earlier for Reptile. I didn't even have to think about the next hold—my tools knew where to go, like a Ouija Board giving the desired answer. With a few quick figure fours, a revolutionary move when we first started doing them and now seen as cheating in some circles, I was hanging below where Reptile went up, but looking all the way across the cave to the goal of Amphibian's ice.
After 30 minutes of scratch and sniffing, I was at the end of the Mustang. I climbed the ice pitch again and started the lateral figure four dance. In 60 feet, the Mustang gains maybe 10, but you're hanging straight off your tools 90 percent of the way. That can be pumpy—unless you have Gecko Mode.
Sarah Hueniken was the first person I’ve ever seen who can enter Gecko Mode at will. Two years ago she reached a point where she could basically last forever while hanging in space on an ice tool, cycling between a figure 9 and 4, breathing, shaking each hand alternately. She’s been known as the Gecko ever since. This kind of strength would have been incomprehensible to me while working on Amphibian, but after seeing Sarah do it, I realized the trick was the same one Helgi and I learned on years before: Relaxation. It takes training, but Gecko Mode is accessible to anyone who can train meaningfully. Still, to get to Gecko Mode, you've got to mentally chill out.
As I climbed across the Mustang, I realized I had finally found Gecko Mode. At the halfway point of the route there are a few upward moves, and I got pumped. I racked, placing my secondary points on little edges like a heel hook. A few minutes of racking and it was back into Gecko Mode, figure 4, 9, relax…. Suddenly I was at the end of the traverse and realized my tools were exactly where I'd placed them almost two decades earlier on the finish of Amphibian. Two first ascents almost 20 years ago were now connected by a modern climb--it's like a time warp where parts get mixed up. I remember being so damn pumped at the top of Amphibian on the FA, but at the top of the Mustang, I took the epic jump into space with a howl of psyche.
The next day, I belayed the Gecko as she did a couple of burns and then hiked the Mustang in a 45-minute endurance effort. I asked her how pumped she was, and she just smiled. The Gecko's force is strong. M14-, or was it? What makes a route M14, or 15, or 10? Do grades matter? I think they do. We all want to progress, to learn, to get better. To compete with our friends. To talk smack. To spray on social media. Grades are necessary for all of that.
But clearly mixed climbing grades are in need of a radical re-write. After a certain point, mixed routes come down to their single hardest move, or set of moves, and there is often little difference between M12 and M14 beyond the grade and hype. Until something changes, my plan is to relax my hands and mind and enjoy the beauty of questing upward into the sky toward an icicle, connecting ice dots into a line. I’m going to enjoy getting savagely pumped on huge moves, training until my hands literally split and bleed. Because that is real. As always in climbing, everything but the climbing is noise.
A huge thanks to Will Mayo for his energy, dedication, and long-term psyche—that is real. Also to Dave Roetzel, Rich Purnell, Stanley Valisalv and the many other Vail climbers who understood the idea of steep mixed climbing and turned a blank ampitheatre into one of best mixed crags in the world. I hope to return before another 20 years passes.