“Abandon hope all ye who enter here…” ~Dante
Editor’s Note: We’re excited to announce that Pamela Pack will be an instructor athlete at the 2014 Red Rock Rendezvous.
First ascents offer the possibility of leaving a legacy; they tell the story of the first ascentionist’s vision, passion, and inclination to venture into the unknown. Second Ascents can offer something magnificent as well. It’s like being the first person to be let in on a secret. Take Jihad, a 5.11d in Vedauwoo, Wyo., described by the notoriously fearless “King of Vedauwoo,” Bob Scarpelli, as one of the scariest routes he’d established. Until my ascent, it had gone unrepeated and unattempted for 25 years.
I spent the last seven summers in America’s offwidth Mecca—Vedauwoo—seeking out Scarpelli’s ruthless collection of offwidths. My small stature and hands are almost always a disadvantage on Scarpelli’s routes, whose fists are bigger than 4” Camalots. The additional challenge makes his routes particularly alluring. Over the years I had repeated many of his grueling vertical test-pieces, including the infamous sandbags Big Pink and Worm Drive as well as his wicked (and rarely repeated) invert style roof—Squat and Trip Master Monkey. However, in the summer 2013 I was told that one Scarpelli masterpiece had mysteriously remained unrepeated; I sought out Jihad. This route has spectacular and unique geometry. It is a sixty-foot, right leaning, overhanging crack on the North Corner crag in Upper Blair. The menacing crack begins as a squeeze chimney roof that quickly transitions into an offwidth, and finally finishes with a steep flared finger crack. From the ground I could see that Jihad was not going to be a casual climb despite the seemingly innocuous grade of 11d.
However, I suspected that that 11d rating was one reason the route had waited patiently a quarter century for a repeat. Generally, offwidth ratings in Vedauwoo have been kept within a closed system with a rich history of wicked sandbags. In the late 1980s, Scarpelli rated all of his hardest offwidths 11b, and by modern consensus these routes are often considered 5.12. Meanwhile, Scarpelli explained Jihad’s 11d rating to me as meaning: “Don’t bring your weak shit here,” and went on to remark: “I remember Jihad as a route that at some point you quit climbing and start trying to stay alive.”
My initial excitement dissolved into a feeling of impending doom the first day on the route…
Because we could not see into the crack to determine gear, I racked up with an unlikely combination of cams from 6” to Aliens. But before I could get into the gaping maw of the offwidth roof I had to climb another, steeper 10 feet up a slippery, lichen-covered slab around the corner. It would be impossible to place gear on the first 15 feet of the climbing, and if I fell I would land on Pat and then slide 30 feet down the slab. I spent half an hour at the belay in limbo, debating whether I could overcome my unease. I had just decided to rap off when a group of climbers appeared below me and one yelled up: “Hey nice work on the Forever War!” – a route I had established the summer before in Vedauwoo. No longer able to hide behind anonymity, I decided I would rather be in the ominous unprotectable squeeze roof than suffer the humiliation of lowering off a Scarpelli route in front of a crowd.
When I first looked at Jihad from the ground, I surmised that the roof would be a “casual belly crawl,” but from my new vantage point at the belay the initial squeeze appeared perilous. I stepped off the belay onto the treacherous slab and crawled into the roof. It was flared, dark, slick, and creepy. I awkwardly squeezed my body through the first ten feet of the slick over-hang. I turned my head to the left in the desperate hope I could place gear and quickly discovered I could no longer turn my head in the tight passage. My chest was stuck, and I tried to control an instantaneous sense of terror. I exhaled deeply to get my chest to fit through the dark passage while battling not to slide out. After what seemed like an eternity of groveling, I was discouragingly only eye level with my belayer. I finally managed to crawl out from the roof and inhale; immediately I began hyper-ventilating due to the tremendous effort it took to make progress through the roof. I fought back tears and swore at Scarpelli for crushing my ego and soul. The mystery of Jihad’s dormancy was unravelling.
The route did not ease up past the squeeze. It constricted to a four-inch crack, and I fought to get the #4 Camalot off my harness without sliding 15 feet directly onto my belayer. (On a later attempt, I unhappily noticed another belayer drop his Gri-Gri and put his hands up—whether to spot me or protect himself I am unsure.) I desperately placed the #4 and made a long strenuous reach to a jug in front of me. I grabbed the jug, dropped my feet out of the crack behind me, and kicked my right leg over my head to bypass the constriction. I ended up awkwardly resting on my back in the squeeze again. I looked back, and my cam had fallen out of the odd, undulating crack. If I had fallen, I would have landed head first on the slab. I had the feeling I had crawled into one of Dante’s nine circles of hell and had come out the other side seven years later.
After another 15 feet of desperately brawling, my onsight attempt of Jihad came to a heart-breaking end with a fall in the final few feet. Despite having climbed cleanly through the crux offwidth, I fell at the last section of traversing fingers, just too crushed from the brutally physical offwidthing to make the transition into the delicate flared finger crack traverse.
Weeks later (after a month of Rabies injections from an earlier bat bite on the route), I regained the courage to return to Jihad. This time I climbed slowly through the roof and the offwidth trying to remain calm, relaxed, and efficient. As I approached the last few feet, I locked my left knee into the crack sideways. I have never given up on a route until I completed it, but I knew, in that moment, if I did not send Jihad on this attempt I would abandon it unwilling to face that horrifying offwidth roof again. I paused, focused on my breathing, and successfully climbed though the final few feet. I clipped the anchor, and exhausted, lay my head on the slab.
In a long career of climbing hard wide cracks, Jihad was one of the most fierce that I have encountered, requiring a myriad of techniques—chicken wings in an overhanging roof squeeze, sideways calf-locks, a foot-over your head style invert, sideways hand-fist stacks, and flared fingers. It’s exceptional in that it is both physically brutal, but also requires tremendous wide crack artistry. As the last of Scarpelli’s legendary offwidths in Vedauwoo to have gone unrepeated, achieving the second ascent meant I was the first to read this enigmatic passage in the collection of wide cracks that comprise Scarpelli’s autobiography. I can imagine no greater tribute to Scarpelli than to have solved the mystery of his perilous climb — a final chapter in Vedauwoo history and the beginning of a new era in which we build on Scarpelli’s legacy.
“To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,
And Following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
through a round aperture I saw appear
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”
~Dante, The Inferno