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!
It is little appreciated today that the completion of the protection revolution at the ‘Gunks preceded Ray Jardine’s introduction of the “Friend”—the first camming device—by about six years, the Tri-Cam by eighteen, and that by the time of the publication of Doug Robinson’s “The Whole Natural Art of Protection” in Chouinard’s 1972 equipment catalog it was virtually over.
In 1966 I returned to the ‘Gunks after a move from New York City to Boston and an absence from climbing of about four years. I went down with an interested friend from work and, as I drove along, I wondered whom I might greet among my old “Appie” friends at the Uberfall and whether they still hung out at Schleuter’s Mountaincrest Inn.
The changes in the area and the climbing scene were surprising and substantial. The highway had been repaved and considerably widened, permitting parking on both sides along a new metal guardrail. There were many more cars than I had remembered and, at the Uberfall, a pickup truck full of climbing gear (mostly ironmongery) was parked and presided over by one Joe Donohue who had a small business going and who collected fees for and looked out informally for the property interests of Mohonk (later the Trust, and later still, the Preserve).
But what seemed most astonishing was the total disappearance of the former influence of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Uberfall was bustling with activity but nowhere did I find a single Appie friend from four years earlier and what is more, with very few exceptions, I never, ever did. The turnover was virtually complete. Soon I made an effort to meet and establish myself with the Boston AMC climbers. Among them then: Wes Grace, Bob Chisholm, Harold Taylor, D Byers, Bob Johnson, and Bob Hall and thus began a period of many, many years of coming often to the ‘Gunks.
The after-climbing conviviality had moved from Schleuter’s to the bar at “Emil’s” Mountain Brauhaus at the bottom of the hill, and the comforts of the inn had given way to camping out on Clove Road just beyond the second bridge over Coxing Kill. Above some open rocky slabs there was room for tents among the trees at a place that came to be known as Wickie-Wackie after a small sign on the main road advertising a bar farther down the clove. But we gave up this area in 1970 after I had a large tent stolen. Not long after that Mohonk prohibited camping there and gave the AMC, still a more or less coherent entity, permission to use the area around a small abandoned farmhouse off US 44. For many years thereafter we crashed there at the “AMC Cabin” until the Mohonk Preserve finally reclaimed it as an historic site: the Van Leuven farm.
Mohonk had also established permission for limited tenting near the Steel Bridge in an area which came to be known affectionately as Camp Slime. Years later John Ruoff, Emil’s nephew, was horrified to learn from me that “Slime” was Emil’s spelled backward.
Although there was a continuing AMC presence at the cliffs the old Club restrictions were gone. One led what he felt he could negotiate safely, and confidence in the rope was increasing. Goldline still ruled in 1970 but climbers were gaining experience with the new strong and resilient kernmantle rope introduced in the fifties in Europe and which now was gradually replacing it here. By the end of the sixties slings of knotted quarter-inch Goldline had been replaced by nylon webbing, and the bowline-on-a-coil waist tie-in was giving way to safer and more comfortable home-tied Swiss seats of the same material.
Shoes had changed to designs made by climbers specifically for the sport. There were now imported RDs, PAs, and EBs eponymously initialed by their French makers: smooth rubber soles with canvas or suede tops—greatly improved over sneakers—and Kletterschuhe for edging and friction. Royal Robbin’s bright blue suede RRs (what else?) came along in 1971.
At first, from the point of view of the cliffs and the protection, the climbing seemed to me pretty much as it had been in 1960; leaders carried and hammered in the occasional soft iron piton where it was deemed needed and, often as not, the second left it behind–they were hard to remove and soft iron was cheap. Resident pins tended to remain in place, as before, although some were beginning to show signs of age.
Joe Donohue had newer stuff in his truck; stuff forged by Chouinard in California and developed largely for the burgeoning aid routes in Yosemite. He stocked “angle” pitons made from hard chrome-molybdenum steel, in form like the softer sheet steel Norton Smithes of the fifties that preceded them here. The arch of the angle spread slightly, spring-like, on driving for a quick solid grip, but the grip was easily broken by a few side-to-side whacks administered by the second. Pretty easy, but–importantly–these new pins weren’t so cheap so that increasingly seconds were loath to abandon them.
Straight Lost Arrows were also of chrome-moly, stiff and more easily removed than their predecessors. Joe had thin “knife blades,” too, for fine cracks and the RURP (“Realized Ultimate Reality Piton”): a mere chip of steel for aid climbing via incipient fissures. Earlier, in 1961, Chouinard’s Bongs had arrived—the final expression of the angle concept; large pitons—some fat enough for three-inch cracks that rang with deep authority when driven: “Bong, bong!” Not long after their introduction the steel version was discontinued and replaced by light-weight hard aluminum.
Gradually we updated our racks—replacing the old soft iron with the new, pricier hard stuff. My view, shared at the time by most, was to leave the occasional newly placed pin behind as a modest contribution to the general weal. Why take it out if the next one along could clip it? And so it was with shock one spring that we looked down from our stance midway up the cliff to see an approaching soloer methodically removing and racking chrome-moly. He had amassed a useful collection. It turned out to be Dick Dumais who, when challenged on this shameless lack of proper public spirit, countered that he was merely assembling his rack for an imminent trip to Yosemite.
There was, in Yosemite at first as the sixties advanced and soon at the ‘Gunks and elsewhere, a growing awareness of looming disaster—the actual destruction of the cliffs; of the cracks and small features that made climbing in any form (free or on aid) possible at all. The continued placement and removal of hard steel was having an ugly erosive effect even, we heard, on durable Yosemite granite. Piton cracks widened, even to the point where some crucial pin placement was no longer feasible. Some incipient cracks had become fingerholds.
Already locally we noticed new areas of tinted rock, long protected from the elements, where a sizeable flake had been pried off from behind; large and widening pockets, especially in horizontal cracks; and a great diminution of the fixed pin protection that had been taken for granted for years.
Voices were heard in favor of reducing piton use by adopting a suspect British tradition. The Brits had a history of eschewing pitons, not so much owing to an adverse impact on the cliffs, but simply as not really very sporting. They had become used to girth hitching slings over chicken-heads and jamming sturdy knots into vertical cracks. They filled their pockets with small pebbles to be wedged like natural chockstones and slung; and those who approached their routes along railroad tracks picked up stray machine nuts for the same purpose. Later they bored out the abrasive screw threads. Thus, the “nut” was born.
But the coming revolution was as yet unforeseen.
Early aluminum nuts began to appear; at first as curiosities and then gradually with suspect experimental value to augment placements where pitons weren’t feasible. Nuts manufactured specifically for climbing first appeared in England around 1961. Most resembled little Chinese take-out boxes, tapered on four sides. Others (Clogs, 1966) were made from hexagonal bar-stock cut to various lengths and drilled for bails. As the seventies dawned many variations appeared (Troll Big-Hs, Forrest Titons, Clog Cogs). Racks of pitons were more and more seen interspersed with the aluminum intruders. The small ones had braided wire bails and the large required knotted Goldline or webbing laboriously forced through the often inadequate holes provided. The wires seemed OK but the cord and webbing wanted to be as thick as possible.
Another insult was noticed. After its introduction by John Gill, gymnast’s chalk had come widely into use and some complained of the unsightly white residue left behind on once pristine and unobtrusive hand holds; although many tacitly admitted that clues were welcome as to where previous fingers in desperation had sought a home.
Piton use continued unabated. However, a consensus was building among the environmentally conscious toward the absolute necessity of abandoning reliance on them before the cliffs were chipped to pieces. The result was the “Clean Climbing” revolution.The lead was taken by John Stannard (of Foops fame) as it was in the West by Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Yvon Chouinard, and others. Stannard began the publication (1971) of a newsletter, The Eastern Trade, devoted to the conservation of the cliffs; educated climbers by taking them up the routes with nuts; and collected old steel angles to be cadmium plated, painted a distinctive gray, and placed as permanent “residents” where all agreed they were necessary. I believe that some can still be seen on the cliffs today.
Climbers “town meetings” were called and supported by Mohonk; letters written; votes taken.
And so climbers began, tentatively, reluctantly to try nuts. Very few were falling on lead and so it was a while before safe falls on nuts became common enough to begin to engender real trust. They didn’t work well in parallel-sided cracks, and especially not well in the horizontal ones that abound at the ‘Gunks.
And then, in 1971, two game-changing events occurred: the ever innovative Chouinard came out with Hexcentrics, and the All-Nut Ascents blank book appeared on the counter at Dick Williams’ (new in 1970) Rock and Snow shop in New Paltz.
Because of their eccentric “hexagonal” cross-section Hexcentrics began, sort of, to solve the problem of the horizontal crack. Rotation of the shape tended to jam it in the same way that the modern (1990) Tri-Cam does so well.
The book at Rock & Snow invited climbers duly to record “First all-nut ascents” and the result was a stampede to claim the prizes. The easy routes fell early and it was less than two years before the final, hardest routes were climbed “clean.” Actually, Royal Robbins had made the first ever recorded all-nut first ascent in Yosemite in 1966. He called it Boulderfield Gorge, although his clean 1967 Nutcracker Sweet is the one that became classic. By the end of 1972 the last open ‘Gunks route had fallen so that, at least among the skilled and the bold, the protection revolution was complete. Rock & Snow refused thereafter to stock pitons.
The next year Stannard published a list of all the new clean ascents with an additional rating: “a, b, or c” as a measure of the difficulty of protecting with nuts and fixed pins. Out of this grew today’s familiar ratings taken from the film industry.
All right then, OK for the bold, but we more timid folk were not so sure.
By this time our own tentative pure efforts had begun. I most associate this period with my climbing partners Sandy Dunlap, Tom Hayden, and Wes Grace—worthy nut-men all. We made our own “clean” ascents; my first, as I remember it, was Double Chin. “Clean” meant that we even eschewed the clipping of resident pins.
Stannard taught us how to “stack” nuts. That is, to place them in tandem with opposing tapers so that the extracting force on one caused the assembly to expand. I can remember a fascinated group at the Uberfall standing around Stannard as he worked a hydraulic jack to load a stacked set in a slightly flaring horizontal crack with an outward pull. The nylon sling gave way.
We practiced the stacking and figured out how to use two placements in opposition, each so situated as to secure the other from lifting out as the attached sling was urged upward by the moving rope, or to protect the one from being snatched in the wrong direction in a fall. We socked them in to the point where our seconds complained they couldn’t get them out. We became clever; we invited our seconds properly to admire our elegant placements before their dismantlement with the nut-pick. The pick, itself, a new development owing to the difficulty of removing jammed or hidden nuts in awkward positions, was often a homemade affair. We made picks out of kitchen spatulas and called them “nut hatches” and discovered the art of “gardening” with the pick to clean the mud and grass out of promising cracks. We mixed charcoal with chalk to dull its glaring whiteness and promoted it as “dirty chalk for clean climbing” (a lousy idea as it turned out because it sullied the beautiful, new kernmantle ropes). We modified our nuts by filing deep grooves in them and by epoxying the wire bails so that you could push on them to urge them out.
The three-nut belay anchor became our standard; we arranged equi-tension sling arrangements wherever possible.
In 1972 Chouinard came out with graded Stoppers and stacking became even easier. His improved Polycentric Hexcentrics showed up in 1974 giving us more confidence still in horizontal crack placements. Yet, we retained our doubts. For several seasons I climbed with a rigger’s energy absorption pack between my harness and the tie-in—the equivalent of the modern Screamer—it was supposed to rip three feet of stitches under a load of six-hundred pounds, but it never came to the test.
Increasingly the nuts seemed better than the pitons and, in general, placements could be found more often. Nevertheless, the 5.6 second pitch of SoB Virgin had to wait five years for the really small SLCD’s and, later, the Tri-Cam before giving up its long held reputation as a “death lead.”
Who knew that a big hex would fit the ceiling crack on Shockley’s and a smaller one go in behind the huge flake on CCK; that you could slot a perfect stopper over the bulge at the tops of High E and Madam G’s” and on the first pitch of Frog’s Head; and set a large bong endwise into the off-width on Baby? I remember getting a huge hex to stick before the desperate under-cling traverse left just off the ground on Moonlight. My first under-water hex gurgled into a solution hole on Whitehorse. When an old ring-angle pulled on Cannon it was the stopper ten feet down that saved me. And how many have clipped into the long-suffering resident wired stopper on Limelight before negotiating the delicate traverse at the top? Gradually we gained faith.
Nevertheless, while getting used to nuts, we climbed always with our hammers and a small supply of pins “just in case.” Occasionally we would clip a pin, but we had stopped placing them altogether. As Sandy recalls: “We climbed carrying pins and hammers for a long time,” until Tom said finally, “If we don’t leave the hammers behind we’ll never get any good at this.”
And so, one morning, probably around 1974, as we started out for the cliffs, I stepped back to the car, reopened the trunk and, after long hesitation, tossed my hammer into the back. I thought that it might be my last day on earth.
We survived the day; I never again climbed with a hammer at the ‘Gunks. Our own clean climbing revolution was complete.