Stones and mud-clods
whistled past my head as Mark Smith worked above me trying to find solid
"rock" which might hold a placement. I huddled under a small
triangular roof and marveled at the variety of buzzing and hissing
noises made by the falling debris. I also marveled at how much of the
small stuff drifted down my neck and funneled into my hammock.
Occasionally, Mark dislodged a sizable mud-pack which broke into several
large pieces. These big chunks screamed past and cluster-bombed the
trail, 500 feet below me, raising impressive clouds of dust. It was just
another day on the worst sandstone in
Climbing, #132 and #133, had featured articles describing Intifada as, "Perhaps the world's most severe aid route". Tales of A6 (a new rating), rotten rock, death anchors, and the thrilling prospect that the leader could pull the whole house down including anchors, had Mark and I itching with curiosity. Jim Beyer's climbs seemed the ultimate in aid-climbing difficulty. We echoed Greg Child's question, "Were his routes as extreme as he claimed?"
An eleven hour drive
brought us to
Next stop, Eric Bjornstad: author of Desert Rock. A guidebook author seemed like a good source for a topo. He too had a very helpful attitude, but stated that Beyer wasn't very good about supplying topos to his harder creations. While he couldn't give us any information (other than, "the east face of Cottontail"), he had some words of advice for us: "If you haven't climbed sandstone before, a Beyer route isn't a good place to start. His routes are the hardest in the world, and you'll really only have three options. You'll either ruin the route to bring it down to your level, you'll be disappointed in your own abilities and quit, or you'll end up dead." We assured him that we refused to do the first, and dearly hoped to avoid the other two.
A sense of impending doom pressed upon us. Many very credible people were backing Beyer's routes. Intifada could well be the death-route it was cracked up to be.
Mark and I had decided before making our journey that we were committed
to doing the route, no matter how hard it might be. We had talked at
great length about possible death-anchor configurations and how we might
improve our chance--without drilling. We had decided that if we had to
risk death-anchors to do the route, we would take whatever risks were
required. We wanted to see what A6 was really like. We were honestly
willing to die to find out.
Mark and I had decided before making our journey that we were committed to doing the route, no matter how hard it might be. We had talked at great length about possible death-anchor configurations and how we might improve our chance--without drilling. We had decided that if we had to risk death-anchors to do the route, we would take whatever risks were required. We wanted to see what A6 was really like. We were honestly willing to die to find out.
As we left Bjornstad's home, his words rang in our ears: "You guys will probably be disappointed." We pictured ourselves driving home in defeat, or being driven home in a box. We still knew very little about the route, but it already had the consensus of extreme difficulty.
Next stop, Kyle Copeland: quoted in Climbing #133 regarding Beyer's climbs, and local climbing guide. Eric had told us how to find Kyle, and explained that he would be our most likely source for a topo. Kyle seemed very suspicious of us. He asked lots of questions about our backgrounds and our intentions. When he found that we had almost no sandstone experience, he was aghast: "So you think you're going to go up and do Intifada as your first sandstone climb! Don't you think that's a little bold?" I guess this was supposed to shame us into tucking our collective tail between our collective legs and driving straight home. Our response was, "Yes."
Kyle didn't want to give us any information. Only when we repeated what
we had already heard and read did he agree that Intifada was the only
route on the East face of Cottontail tower. Kyle stated that Beyer
rarely made topos of his routes, thus he couldn't help us in that
regard. We left, and the air was heavy with the Wings of Steel syndrome.
Kyle didn't want to give us any information. Only when we repeated what we had already heard and read did he agree that Intifada was the only route on the East face of Cottontail tower. Kyle stated that Beyer rarely made topos of his routes, thus he couldn't help us in that regard. We left, and the air was heavy with the Wings of Steel syndrome.
We both spotted it at the same time—a small rotted sling about 70 feet up an orange arch! A lower-out sling? Somebody's aborted first ascent attempt? A bail sling from Intifada? We couldn't tell, but it was a start.
After an eight-hour investment of squints behind binoculars, we felt reasonably sure we knew where the route went. Where Beyer had driven pitons, mud was missing, leaving visible scars. The scars gave us a sort of "climb by the numbers" route. We knew we had to start here, climb over to there, then eventually up to there, etc. We were baffled by the last pitch, however. It appeared to be one of the better crack systems of the route, and ended right on the ridge where Brer Rabbit goes up. We turned again to our trusty Climbing #133, page 139, "He summarizes the delights of the last pitch as '38 hook moves, a crux of stacked blade tips in rotten flakes, and a lunge to the summit.'" "Now where in the world does he put those 38 hook moves," we wondered. We also knew that Beyer’s new A6 rating demanded such a poor anchor at the start of the last pitch that any fall mid-pitch was virtually guaranteed to zip the pitch and then the anchor on the way by. But we saw big cracks and features all the way up to Brer Rabbit. And Bred Rabbit had bolt anchors. So where could the "death anchor" be?
We spent an entire day on the local boulders, playing with the most extreme aid placements we could conjure up. We hooked and headed and nailed and bird-beaked. The sandstone was remarkably resilient. Dinner plate sized, one inch thick sheets of dirt would expand and expand as we drove blades behind them. These blades withstood even hard bouncing. But, overdrive the pin just a little, and the entire sheet would flake off. We learned exactly how much to drive a pin to get the best placement without breaking the rock, but we also prayed to not be confronted with such flakey horror on the climb. Nevertheless, our aid-bouldering efforts reassured us that we could engineer our way up sandstone. We geared up to lead the next day.
I won (lost?) the coin flip which netted me the first lead: It appeared to require copperheads up a rotten seam facing a ground fall from 40 feet up. "Oh luscious," I thought, "Just what my two bad ankles need!" My only comfort was that I secretly believed that this would arrange the lead sequence to give Mark the last lead—the supposed A6 death pitch. Of course, we had half-jokingly quizzed each other, "Would you rather be the belayer at a death anchor, relying on the leader to not rip everything out, or would you prefer the sharp end, where at least you control your own destiny?"
I reached up and planted a copperhead in Beyer's first blown-out trench. We were surprised to see a line of trenches all the way up the seam, so it appeared that trenched heads in blank seams was the ethic in use on the route. One trenched head after another, many of them surprisingly good, took me to the orange arch, the rotten sling, and several pin scars. Taking this to be the anchor, I buried some good pitons and slung these together with a couple of nuts and Friends. This was a good anchor--provided the huge block which formed our anchor crack didn't decide to cut loose on top of us.
Several things about the pitch impressed me. First, many of the heads were very good. Some of them could be expected to hold falls. Second, Beyer must be a tall man, because he seemed to have at least six inches of reach on me judging by the distance between his trenches. Finally, because of Beyer's reach, I couldn't always reach his next trench. Amazingly, this proved to not be the problem I had feared it might be, because I found natural hooking which got me past these out-of-reach trenches. I realized that, on the first pitch at least, Beyer had bypassed natural hook placements, and had used the drill instead to trench heads which weren't needed. We rated the pitch A4. Had he hooked everything that was available, instead of trenching, Beyer would have had an A5 ground-fall pitch. Instead, Beyer appeared to have "brought the pitch down to his level".
The second pitch was outstanding. Beyer had used a line of stone inclusions which led from the orange arch across an overhanging area, ending in a tension traverse from a slung inclusion. As Mark slung the first imbedded stone he observed concave pockets which had obviously held other inclusions. These pockets were very shallow! The stones weren't help in place by much. The "Cobblestone Alley" traverse was exciting, but not technically difficult. We rated this pitch A3+.
At the second anchor,
Mark encountered our first major difficulty: a wasp's nest. Pounding
pitons four feet away from a wasp's nest gave Mark a bigger adrenaline
pump than had the pitch. A quick trip to
The third pitch revealed new points of interest about Beyer climbs. After a short section of tied-off blade tips I was able to reach a mud-choked crack. We had quickly learned that the mud produced by each rainstorm would flow down into the better cracks and choke them with sandy residue. The resulting mud-packs had to be removed to even see the configuration of the cracks. In this case of this crack after the blade tips, a little excavation revealed two excellent stopper placements. Given the evidence which placements leave on sandstone, it was obvious that Beyer had not used this crack. Baffled, I tried to figure out how he had gotten by the section without using the quite good crack. Then I saw it. About a foot below my stoppers was a blank corner without even a hint of a seam. Right in the middle of the corner was a perfectly round four inch deep hole. Drill marks on one wall of the corner and two grooves down one side of the hole told the story: this was a drilled angle. Why had Beyer drilled an angle within reach of a natural stopper crack? According to Climbing magazine, this climb was supposed to have no drilled protection or anchors! The previous climbing had been merely A3+; certainly not something that should scare one into drilling. Using only my A1 stoppers, baffled, I climbed on. Further up the pitch there were two additional drilled angle holes in blank rock, as well as at least four other highly suspicious looking pin scars.
The fourth pitch led Mark sideways across the wall for forty feet on hooks and heads: another A4 pitch. Every hook was a claw in a deep pit. These were VERY "enhances" hooks. The anchor consisted of Friends in a perfect crack and a huge slung horn. We wondered when the death anchors would appear. Beyer’s A6 rating required at least two of them in a row, and we were about halfway up the wall, having found only bombproof anchors so far.
On the fifth pitch the first bat hooks appeared. There were two bat hooks going across the wall. From the second bat hook, I could easily reach a pitiful, sloped horn, which I slung. As I weighted it, the sling skittered down the slope, abrading the rock surface, and then it caught on a small ripple and held. I realized that my fresh abrasion marks, which had scraped off small crystals on the slope, were indication that nobody had used this horn before.
Second-looping this horn enabled me to reach an excellent crack, which took a perfect Friend. As I stood on the Friend, I was shocked to see a third bat hook hole on the face beside me. Hadn't Beyer stood on this horn as well? Hadn't he seen the horn? Why had he needed another bat hook to reach the crack? All the way up the route so far, we were finding heavy-handed use of the drill right next to perfectly good natural placements. Was Beyer counting these bat hooks as "hooks" and using them instead of good placements in order to artificially inflate the supposed difficulty of the route? Then why trench bombproof head placements next to natural hooking? We just couldn't figure it out.
My curiosity grew as I arrived at the anchor. There were two pin scars within a foot of each other. But the excellent part of the crack was at least six feet long. I was able to construct an anchor that could not pull under any conceivable force. Why had Beyer used only two pitons? Was this his idea of a "death anchor"?
On the sixth pitch Mark encountered the most technical climbing of the route so far. The fear of strings of blade tips and small heads was relieved by the occasional buried piton or good friend. More bat hooks appeared. We rated this pitch A4+, feeling that you might go up to fifty feet if something pulled, although the risk of that seemed relatively low. The sandstone was surprisingly resilient, and the heading was actually amazingly secure! We had found in our earlier aid-bouldering that alumaheads could be made to stick in totally blank corners on this sandstone, so Beyer's trenches provided locker placements.
On the seventh pitch, Beyer adopted some new tactics. Cleaning his alumaheads, he yanked the cables right out of the heads leaving worthless blobs of aluminum in his trenches. We had brought along a nail punch to get in underneath these blobs to pry them up and out. But from below, usually in awkward positions, many of these were simply impossible to remove. I had to dig new trenches in a few spots to get past some of his blobs, because he had trenched heads in such a wide-open "corner" that nothing would stick without the trenches. Left-behind, worthless blobs are one of my pet peeves. When you're cleaning a pitch, you are certainly in a better position to clean those blobs than whoever does the climb after you. If you can't get a head out without destroying the placement, leave it! Cables do rip out while cleaning; and in that case, take the time to remove your own blob. Seeing all the blobs that were so buried that the cables ripped without the head coming out made me laugh at the line, "...use of aluminum heads in soft rock.... provide all the security of walking on thin ice in a heat wave" (Climbing #133, p.139). Perhaps the "heat wave" was relative to absolute zero! We felt that the heading was extremely secure--certainly better than the strings of #0s we have seen on El Cap.
But, there were more of Beyer's "special" tactics in store. At the end of one copperhead seam was a blank area about eight feet across before another seam started. This was almost identical to the fifth pitch where Beyer had used his first bat hooks, so I started looking for the holes. Nothing. I went up and down my aiders carefully searching for some hint of what Beyer had done. Nothing. Dismally I turned my attention to the only feature I could reach on the entire blank section: a tiny flake. "No," I said to myself, "There's no way Beyer hooked that! Even good flakes lower down have been deeply modified or ignored." I took the nail punch and reached over. Rooting the tip of the nail punch around the top of the flake revealed the truth. In the wall behind the flake was a deep quarter inch hole--packed with sand!
I tried to duplicate any natural action which could have deposited sand in that hole. Loose flowing sand would not collect there. That section of wall was completely free from mud flows; it was some of the best rock on the route. Lower down on the route, not a single hole was filled in this fashion, even in places that were obvious mud flows. There is simply no way that hole could have naturally filled up. The only way I could get sand to stick there was to mix spit with dirt and pack it in with my fingertip. Every hole from there to the top of the climb was packed with sand. So, now we were playing a new game: try to find where Beyer went, while following a sabotaged route! This added much frustration and many hours to the rest of the climb as we painstakingly avoided adding holes to the route, while trying to figure out where Beyer would have drilled (and then filled).
Before we arrived at the seventh anchor, it had been the basis of many hours of discussion on our part. This would obviously be the last anchor on the East face. This must be the scene of the fabled death anchor. How bad would it be? How bad was the climbing above it? When I got under the small triangular roof, there were Beyer's usual two pin scars. But there was also a perfect Friend crack, a textbook stopper crack, and a beautiful blade crack. Before long I had an anchor consisting of many kinds of placements in three different cracks. I was thinking, "If you've got to worry about this anchor blowing, you've got no business being a climber!" The stage was set for the final pitch. If we were going to be risking ripping out an entire pitch, this would be the one.
Mark headed out under the triangular roof. His first placement, a #1 T.C.U. held initial body weight and then pulled when he had been on it for a moment. This fall onto the top anchor placement verified its integrity: it didn't even twitch! Putting the T.C.U.s to the back of his rack for now, Mark moved up on angles, as the scars revealed Beyer had done. One locker pin followed another. So far this pitch was shaping up to be A2. A straight-up shallow angle popped, rudely depositing Mark onto the next lower piton which held. Well, a fall from forty feet out on the pitch doesn't rip the pitch!
Finally, out about seventy feet, Mark came to a copperhead with a lower-out sling on it. Some work with the nail punch unearthed a deeply modified hook. Moving onto that, Mark's nail punch revealed the next hook. From there Mark could climb onto the ledge system leading left about twelve feet to the Brer Rabbit anchor. Our topo-less, connect the dots approach had succeeded in getting us up where Beyer had clearly gone on the East face.
We simply could not believe that was it! That was the whole route? The last pitch was only A3+! Nooooo, we weren't buying it. Where were the 38 hook moves? Where were the death anchors? Where was the A6? Where was the "thin ice in a heat wave?" We were convinced we must be missing something. Perhaps Beyer hadn't ditched the route into Brer Rabbit. Perhaps he hooked to the right up the ridge beside the bolt ladder. We believed that such a "pitch" would be the outer limit of contrived, the ridge being within 4 feet of the Brer Rabbit bolt ladder. But, the route had been amazingly contrived in many ways so far. So….
Mark spent over two hours looking everywhere--with his nail punch--to find any evidence of where Beyer had gone. By now we knew what to look for: drilled angles, trenches, sand-packed bat hooks, and deeply modified flakes the holes of which had been sand-packed. Nothing. Finally, in desperation, Mark tried to hook a very small natural flake. His voice betrayed his frustration: "Rich, there's just no way he hooked this thing. You know what he's been hooking on this route. I've looked everywhere, and it just looks to me like he ditched it into Brer Rabbit. But that can't be right because this pitch just isn't anything like the descriptions of it--and it's only seventy feet long anyway. If he weren't filling his holes, at least we'd have more certainty we aren't missing something, but I just don't think he went this way. After this flake, there's nothing! It's totally blank after this."
Mark hung a hook on the flake and stood on it. After two minutes, as Mark hung there trying to find another sand-packed bat hook hole, his natural flake gave up the ghost, shipping Mark back from whence he had come. This fifteen-footer was held by a straight-up-driven copperhead. Well, if you fall from halfway up the pitch, you can't rip it out!
We had a long discussion. With no topo, and with Beyer filling his holes, we simply didn't know what to do. Mark was now convinced that Beyer had not hooked the ridge. We decided that to be certain we had done the whole route, we would head back out right onto the face and go for a large mud-flow crack which lead to the next terrace higher on the ridge, which had another bolt anchor of Brer Rabbit. That would about run out the rope, and would give us every chance to find some evidence of where Beyer had gone.
It was very slow climbing. Before Mark could even see what kind of placement was needed, he had to dig pounds of dried mud out of the crack. Sometimes he had to dig more than a foot of mud-flow out of the corner just to see if a crack even existed. The sandstone that remained was extremely decomposed. It was a vertical beach! In many places the amount of mud was so daunting that Mark couldn't dig it out and simply drove a large bong straight into a mud-pack. The bong would be loose and finger-removable, but it would cam in place like a dead-man. The amount of debris Mark removed from that crack was astounding as I crouched under the roof for protection. Even the entertaining cluster-bombing of the trail far below got old as the hours wore on.
It took Mark twelve hours to cover that last eighty feet, which included eight hook moves--a third of the route’s total. Finally he pulled up onto the higher terrace on the ridge and clipped the two-bolt anchor of Brer Rabbit. It was clearly easy free climbing above that anchor to the summit. Beyer could not have pushed his aid route any farther. If he had headed back onto the face higher up, we concluded several things: such a route would be the most contrived, ridiculous thing we had ever seen or heard of; without a topo, and given Beyer's sabotage of the route, it would be hopeless for us to find where he had moved back onto the face; and given the radical modification Beyer was doing on the route, and the featureless nature of the east face higher up, any aid climbing higher on the east face itself would have to be even easier and more contrived than the climbing we had already done.
We concluded that Intifada had ended on the lower terrace, and that we had actually added half a pitch of new climbing to reach the upper terrace. We could find no evidence that Beyer had ascended Mark's half pitch.
I joined Mark on the terrace, and we just looked at each other shaking our heads.
An eighty foot rappel took us back to the lower terrace. From there we rappelled the West face, establishing a nice rap-route with 3/8" bolts. One-hundred and sixty-five foot ropes are needed for the rap-route, but it goes from the lower terrace to the ground in three full-length rappels. We drove home remembering Bjornstad's prediction. In a strange sense, he had been right: we were disappointed.
When we returned to
When we returned to
Later, after the Hot Flashes account in Climbing #136 appeared (Climbing opted for that instead of publishing the above article--we were the Mad Bolters, after all), Beyer reportedly stated that he had indeed headed back out onto the East face from the upper terrace and that the famous crux pitch of the route was in fact this last pitch. He reportedly stated that we actually had not done a second ascent of the route, since we hadn't done "all" of it, and thus we were not credible to comment on the route.
Since these reports have come to me second or third hand, I await Beyer publicly stating the true story of the last pitch. One thing is certain. The route is not A6 as advertised, since there is not a single "death anchor" on the entire route. No matter what the last pitch consists of, it appears that it starts from a bolt ladder or bolt anchor. Unless, of course, Beyer simply traversed out onto the face, set up some ridiculous, unnecessary anchor just for the point of having his "death anchor" (although even this would not resemble what was reported in Climbing magazine), and then did some (maybe) hard (albeit extremely modified) climbing to the summit.
Whatever he did for the last pitch, it would have to be, as Mark and I had concluded while standing on the upper terrace, the most ridiculously contrived artificial difficulty ever. The last pitch would have to basically loop away from Brer Rabbit's bolts for twenty or thirty feet, and then rejoin Brer Rabbit somewhat higher. This would be a quick loop back out onto the East Face, heavily modified, for the sole purpose of "picking up some more difficulty," when there is no natural reason to do so and (with Beyer's sabotaging) no natural way to determine where to start picking up Beyer's "features" on the East face. The fact remains that Intifada is not an independent line, and it does not even stay on the East face once the features lead inexorably to Brer Rabbit on the ridge.
The bottom line is that Beyer has not been forthcoming about this route; he has not publicized a topo, he has intentionally made it as difficult as possible for another team to follow his "features," and to my knowledge he has not been willing to go on record to set matters straight.
Whatever Beyer ends up saying about where the route ended up, nothing changes the facts of what we found on the route: deeply enhanced hooking, trenched heads, bat hooks, drilled angles, and a sabotaged route in the form of intentionally filled holes to keep people from figuring out what to do and make the climb seem harder than it is. Of these facts I am certain. Since Beyer doesn't publish topos of his "harder creations," and since he insists on doing his routes solo, he can essentially claim anything he wants about his routes. However, with some effort, much like revealing his sand-packed holes, one can discover the truth.
Some forum threads and related info about our ascent of Intifada can be found at: