I can assure you that any roped free climber, regardless of experience or ability, on a serious and committing friction lead has known the fear to which my title refers. This subject comes to mind in the wake of Daniel Duane’s recent brilliant piece in the New York Times  on Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of Freerider on El Cap. In it are evocations of the primal fear of having to trust the shoes while the hands are essentially useless, and of the fatal urge to lean in toward the false comfort of the cliff face.
A climber can easily sense any small increase in steepness which might lead to a slide:
“It still felt really insecure and I still always felt like the feet might slip,” [Honnold] said …
According to the Web the coefficient of friction of a climbing shoe sole in contact with various rock surfaces varies from 0.9 to 1.1 and is often higher if the surface is particularly rough. For my purpose here I will use a coefficient value of one.
This means, for example, that a shoe vertically loaded on a featureless forty-five degree slope has a friction resistance just balancing its tendency to slide. In this case there is no margin for error and to lean in from the vertical, however little, without foot slippage is virtually impossible. Slopes steeper than this are theoretically unclimbable by stepping-up alone, although there are steeper ones (on the Big Stone and elsewhere) with unusual roughness, or that yield to dynamic techniques, or to raw courage.
Desperate dynamic moments entail stepping up faster than the feet slide down, but have no place in controlled free soloing. Nor are we considering slopes with tiny ledges, or scoops, or places where the hands can do anything other than lightly kiss or even leave the face. Even roped, the friction leader has scant opportunity to set protection owing to a general featurelessness of slabs.
More commonly one is on a lesser slope, say of thirty degrees, as is typical of our own White Horse Ledge in New Hampshire. Here the geometry is more forgiving although it takes real conviction to be convinced of it. In this case one need lean in from the vertical only fifteen degrees for the feet to give way.
Amazingly Alex learned to control the fierce reluctance to stand free, in effect, putting his hands in his pockets and tip-toeing to the next haven a dozen steps above.
Two-thousand feet above the Yosemite Valley floor!
In the early seventies I had been climbing in the ‘Gunks off and on for fifteen years and, having been a cautious venturer, had just recently been getting into leading the “sixes.” Such classics as “Disneyland,” “Middle Earth,” and “High Exposure” were behind me and so, one day with Sam Tatnall in 1973, we happened upon “Travels with Charley”—a 5.6 in Dick Williams’ new 1972 guidebook.
The left-facing corner on the first pitch seemed hard—and perhaps that should have told us something. However, I made it safely to the belay and brought up Sam.
The next pitch was steep and ended in a rising traverse up right, around a corner, and out of sight. It looked ominously as though there might be nowhere to stand in balance along the way. But heck, five-six? What could possibly go wrong?
The face was steep! Jugs up to the traverse but I was nowhere really in balance as I struggled with protection; years before SLCDs and still longer before TriCams.
At the traverse it was a relief to see a small Chouinard angle securely placed at its outset. I clipped, called down to Sam, took a deep breath, and set out. I wasn’t half way across when I realized my arms weren’t going to hold out. I shouted “Coming back!” followed almost immediately by “Falling!” The pin held. And I got my feet out just in time to swing safely into the wall. Sam came up, took the lead, and confidently did the traverse without stopping to protect it. I followed and just barely made it to the end. I had to un-crimp my hands at the belay.
The next year, having led more sixes and a few sevens, I found myself again at “Travels,” this time with my friend and uncommonly skilled climber Steve Angelini. The idea was that this time I would successfully lead the traverse. The pin was still there but when, inevitably I fell, my feet weren’t right and I banged my knees. Steve effortlessly did the lead and I followed with difficulty.
Then, in 1980, in Dick William’s new guidebook: “Travels with Charley”, 5.8. And, in subsequent volumes: 5.7+R and even 5.8-R! I guess the pin must long be gone.
Finally, sometime in the late seventies, I was yet again passing by—looking for “Gaston” with my friend Wes Grace. Yes! There was a guy just beginning the “Travels” traverse. I touched Wes on the shoulder and said “Hey wait, watch this.” We were not disappointed.
Although Cannon Cliff had been pretty well tamed by then, forty-some years ago, we Boston folk still viewed its distant 1,000 foot face with some measure of mystery, and respect. Indeed, Cannon was not without a reputation for danger. In 1968 a Dartmouth climber had been killed as a result of rock fall, and earlier two inexperienced boys had famously died of exposure—benighted on the cliff.
We ventured north maybe once a year—often later in the season; the wisdom being that the icy stresses of the previous winter had to be given time to relax.
Aside from some classic route descriptions published in Appalachia  before the War, Bob Hall’s detailed typewritten pages of 1967 were then the only available guide.
After one had climbed some of the reasonable routes like Lakeview, Wiessner’s, Old Cannon, and Cannonade, and had savored the airy exposure of the Whitney-Gilman, it was time to venture into more challenging territory. We looked to Sam’s Swan Song  as the next serious climb to do.
And so, in the early seventies, Tom Hayden and I went up to give Sam’s a try. We switched leads. The first pitch fell to me, next the short hand traverse on the third, and the long rising traverse right on the fifth. Tom led to the “Cow Pasture,” and I gingerly ascended a notorious rotten section above that ending below a steep jam crack. Tom led the crack—it was hard. I’m sure I yelled for “tension”; at the top my fingers cramped into useless hooks refusing to straighten. That eighth pitch seemed to have been the crux and we negotiated the final three or four to the top with no trouble. Great climb! At the top was a screw-top glass jar containing a register and a stubby pencil. In the very bottom was a scrap of paper closed with a clip enfolding a small joint . Its note read “To get a little higher.” Sadly, we had no matches.
A year or so later I went up on Sam’s again, this time with my friend Townsend Barker. The idea was that in swinging leads I would get to lead the pitches I had followed with Tom. And so it went to top of the rotten seventh pitch. I had just reached Townsend and tied in when, with a clap of thunder, the darkening skies opened loosing a torrent of cold rain which soon became hail—bouncing down the cliff and filling the cracks in the rock with little white marbles. The weather on Cannon comes in from the blind side. Soon we were soaked and shivering. To keep spirits up Townsend filled the moments with a long, inane shaggy-dog story at the end of which, and without much thought, we agreed that we’d best go down.
Townsend had a brand new, three-hundred foot bicolor rope. Two rappels, the second from the Cow Pasture, got us to the top of the rising traverse. We tied in to fixed pins and Townsend began pulling the recovery. In the middle of its “slither” phase the rope suddenly stopped coming. He pulled. Nothing. He pulled harder. Nothing. We pulled together to no avail. Townsend reached into his pocket and pulled something out—his knife. “Wait!” I said. “Let’s try one more time.” Against being unbalanced if the rope came suddenly free we tied into everything in sight. And we PULLED! Sproing! It gave way and a shoe-box sized rock hurtled, whispering softly by us to disappear crashing and banging below. As Town coiled the rope for the next throw I happened to look back out over the valley. “Town! Look!” And there below us was our reward—a magnificent double rainbow silhouetted against the green dark of the valley trees.
What next? The prospect of rappelling more or less sideways down the rising traverse was not appealing as, at forty-five degrees, it would have been hard to resist a strong side pull. Maybe we could have down-climbed it on belay somehow protecting against swings; and perhaps we should have.
Straight down the face was blank as far as we could see but there was a hint of a stopping place a long way down. I made sure I had the means to re-climb and started off. I went a long way, walking from side to side, and by the time I could see the rope ends I became concerned. Nothing was in sight. But, a little farther, a little farther, and—relief—there was a small ledge with a corner that would take protection. Only a foot or so of rope remained.
The protection there was good and two or three more rappels got us safely down to the top of the talus below.
Again, in 1976, I found myself up on Sam’s, this time as two ropes of two. It was our combined New York and Boston AMC Labor Day weekend trip. I had the lead rope seconded by a young woman whose brother led the second.
The climb went well and in pretty good time we reached the bottom of the penultimate pitch beyond which was one of class four scramble. And then (damn!)—it began to pour. There was wind and the rain was freezing cold. The squall passed fairly quickly but those without rain-wear got wet. I turned my attention to the next pitch which is steep and somewhat featureless, and has the unfortunate characteristic of offering hand and footholds that are largely upside down. The pitch was running wet. I traversed left and right seeking a way to get started and eventually concluded that I wasn’t up for it—not a good mindset for a leader.
The second rope declined to take the lead and we made the decision, probably too hastily, to go down. It was late. We might better have waited the hour or so needed for the pitch to dry. The young woman was shivering. Before starting the climb we had failed to do a thorough check on personal equipment and the result was that I was the only one with a headlamp. We realized then that we would be overtaken by darkness.
At dusk I reached the top of the rising traverse but the others had to set up and descend to me without a light in the pitch dark; a testament to the skill of climbers who know what they are doing.
And so here I was, yet again, at this spot facing a rappel into the void, but this time at least knowing pretty well that it was possible. The one problem might be if our ropes were not as long as half of Townsend’s 300-foot bi-color. If we had cut the rope that day I would never have known about the crucial ledge. And so, again making sure that I could re-climb if I had to, I started down in the dark. The headlamp beam (four D-cells) was pretty strong but faded out almost completely only eight or ten feet away, the ropes below vanishing into gloom. I went slowly, again walking from side to side peering down and sincerely hoping that what I had remembered was right.
Eventually I could discern the knots in the rope ends, but where were the ledge and crack? The knots were so close it seemed impossible that they would not be in sight. I paid out another couple of feet; end-knots now only a few feet away. Will I still be able to reach them when my weight is off? I think maybe to walk a bit farther to the right—and, suddenly, there it was! I had to stretch down to get my footing. There was not room for four here so one had to rap the next pitch before the others could begin their descent. It was slow going; we left gear behind.
Across the valley below there were lights at Boise Rock , among them police red and blue flashers. A distant bull-horn burst into stentorian sound echoing off the cliff and the distant peaks.
Not knowing whether to turn the lamp off for a bit and back on twice in succession, or to leave it on and turn it off twice, we blinked it more or less randomly and continued on.
We were met at the bottom around midnight by a New York AMC welcoming party who had delayed their long drive to New York to struggle in the dark for the hour it takes to climb the talus to bring us hot coffee and lights.
In July of 1981 I went with my Australian dear friend and climbing partner Ian Armstrong to the Tetons for two weeks. We warmed up on Baxter’s Pinnacle the first day, and then went up to do a two or three-day ascent of the East Snowfields route on Owen. Unaccountably I had new and surprising difficulty on this climb; Ian had to carry my pack most of the way to our first bivouac, and we failed on the route the next day because I was so slow on the ascent and totally exhausted by our retreat from the base of the East Prong, our highest point.
We thought it was lack of proper altitude acclimatization, but on a subsequent “test” backpack to the summit of Table Mountain again I had excruciating difficulty on the descent. I booked an early flight home leaving Ian to finish out his two weeks with Eric Engberg, Larry LaForge, and Bev Boynton.
In August Ian had returned and we agreed to go up on Sam’s. We swung leads. Above the Cow Pasture I remember grabbing the bottom-most of a stack of dinner plates which teetered ominously but did not fall. The climbing seemed easy enough; perhaps my problem was the altitude after all.
However, scrambling down the Whitney-Gilman walk-off couloir was something else—and it certainly wasn’t the altitude. I could hardly take a downward step; lowering my weight on the quadriceps was painfully tiring. It must have taken me more than three hours to make it from top to bottom.
A week later I learned from my physician that I suffered from Graves’ Disease, an excess thyroid imbalance leading to hyper-metabolism and a gradual wasting of the body’s large muscles. Fortunately there was medication to correct it and I spent the winter in the gym to regain my former strength.
The crack was petering out. What, thirty feet below, had begun as a tolerable protection “eater” now had become so thin that I could “get in” nothing larger than almost my smallest wire nut. It slipped into a little vertical crevice with rounded granite flanks about eight feet above my last pretty good piece. A few feet above the steepness relented a bit, but there the crack ended in a fine line that vanished at eye level into the featureless upper reaches of the quartz monzonite dome. We were in the high California desert in the Hall of Horrors at Joshua Tree National Monument. Our climb was “LicketySplits,” a 5.7 on which I had found it difficult enough to reach my present stance. From here up it turned to steep friction with no further protection.
I ventured a step up the slab, hands palming the rock seeking out non-existent crystals or pockets. Unaccountably my foot held. I tried another step, and another, and I began to feel almost secure until arriving at a point where the slope steepened again, almost imperceptibly. I tried another step—and froze. I looked up—eight feet to the final roundoff. And down—twelve feet to the little stopper and twenty to my last good piece. I felt pretty sure that I didn’t dare make the next few moves. The barely possible down-climb or the potential forty foot fall seemed unthinkable. What to do?
Calling down to my belayer, Pat Stebbins, I shouted “I don’t think I can do this next bit. And if I can’t I’m in real trouble.”
“Can you belay me up to there?”
“No, not a chance. No anchor here possible; I really don’t know what to do.”
After some further exchanges and long silences Pat called up. “The folks on the next climb can drop you a rope when they reach the top. Is that OK?” Swallowing my pride I replied, “Sure. That would be great!”
After a few long minutes a rope-end snaked its way over the bulge above me and I gratefully tied it in to my harness.
Then, from somewhere above, I heard “On belay!” and moved into the pitch. The moves seemed tenuous and scary but, really, not all that bad—I’ve stepped over harder. I felt vaguely as though I had cheated myself. A leader shrinks from the idea that he may not exhibit self-sufficiency in any difficulty. In this place, had we been alone, I am not sure what the outcome might have been. I suppose I would eventually have successfully braved the necessary moves—after all, only 5.7.
At the top a suntanned mountain veteran of about forty-five greeted me who introduced himself as Jim (“Bobo”) Burwick, longtime Exum Guide in the Tetons, on a busman’s holiday with friends from Jackson. He seemed reassuring and pleasantly dismissive of my embarrassment for having had to bail out of my precarious situation. He asked my age (then 66) and expressed a lively interest in old climbers who had been around for much longer than he had. He invited me to come over to visit him and his friends at Ryan Campground that evening. I did that and we sat around his fire under the stars, downed a few beers, and talked of climbing in the Tetons.
A Year Passes…
Outside Dornan’s store at Moose in Jackson Hole I tossed a bag of ice into the cooler in the trunk of our rental car and dropped the lid. For a fleeting moment, just before the lid slammed shut, I had a vision of the car keys lying inside on top of a sleeping bag.
Instant panic! It was Saturday afternoon. It was four-thirty at the end of our last day in the Tetons and we were headed south to Salt Lake to catch the plane the next day. It had been a good trip—we had climbed Moran and the East Snowfields route on Teewinot. Brian (Fulton) emerged from the store, bags in his arms, and all but dropped them when I told him what I had done. What to do?
On the pay phone at the door we called the rental agency in Salt Lake and they told us they could give us a key code for a local locksmith. However, “the guy who does the keys isn’t here yet; call again in a few minutes.” The nearest locksmith was in Jackson, twenty-five miles away. We called him. He would close at six. No. Sorry. Not open on Sundays. And, anyway, how could we get to Jackson without a car? Seized by even greater panic.
We called back to Salt Lake. Long, agonizing waits on the line feeding quarters into the phone outside the store.
The door to Dornan’s opened; a man stepped out and:
“Bill! How are you? Remember? Jim from Joshua Tree. What’s up? Is there some problem?”
“Well, um, yes there is.” And we explained our difficulty.
“No worry! There’s my truck and I’m headed in to Jackson. I’ll give you a lift and I can bring you back, too.”
At last we obtained the magic code and piled into the pickup. Jim rambled on volubly as we sped along telling us of his guiding here and sailing in the Caribbean during the winter months. I happened to mention that I had done the East Ridge of the Grand in ‘57 and Jim said, “I’ll bet that was hardly even the tenth ascent of that route. We can find out in Jackson.”
Just barely before six the locksmith promised us our key. While waiting Jim drove us over to the library, walked straight to a side room, then to a shelf, and pulled down a book: “Ascents of the Grand Teton” by Leigh Ortenburger. Phil Gribbon and I had done the forty-seventh ascent of the East Ridge route.
Back at Dornan’s we held our breath—the trunk popped open. “Bobo” Burwick had saved me again.
Occasionally the world of climbing, though we’ve always sensed it to be fairly compact, proves to be so small as to surprise us.
On Cathedral Ledge one morning, topping out on Toe Crack, I looked across to the second pitch belay on Thin Air with an eye to traversing over to continue to the top. But the route was pretty busy so I moved up and right into the chimney on Standard Route, either to wait out Thin Air or to rap down to do another climb. A couple of guys rappelling from higher up appeared and joined us in the wait. The wait proved long—there was a line at the bottom of Thin Air, and then climbers approaching from below in our own chimney and so—idle chat ensued.
Hardly a minute into our conversation one of the guys reached over to me and, indicating my rack, said “I have a wired stopper just like that one: booty from a climb I did this spring.” I was astonished and replied, to his equal astonishment: “And I know where you found it: on the top pitch of Knight’s Gambit at Ragged’s main cliff.” “Wow, right!” he said, “how did you know?” “Because that stopper was mine,” I replied.
The guys were indeed from Connecticut. My stoppers were unique because I had filed in them distinctive grooves to enhance their placement security. I recounted how, the year before, I had placed the piece. My second couldn’t get it out and, after having rappelled down to try myself, I couldn’t either. And so, I really hammered it in, thinking that it would probably be there forever.
That evening in the parking lot, as we were gearing down and cracking open our beers, a car drifted by with an arm extended from the passenger side window—in the hand of which was my lost stopper.