This past Sunday afternoon (Aug. 11) my friend Manuel and I did the supposedly 3rd and 4th reported ascents of Stage Fright on Airation Buttress at Cathedral Ledge. All the gear were placed on lead. With great relief I can say that the gear was not tested with any significant falls, neither on the ascend nor on previous attempts.
First of all, for those who are interested, the gear we used were (in order of placement):
#1 C4- red
#9 BD stopper- blue
#5 Metolius ultralight stopper- black
#1 Metolius mastercam- blue (or: green Alien) **
#5 DMM peenut **
#1 Metolius offset mastercam – blue/purple (body weight?!)
0.4 C4 – grey (optional)
0.3 C4 – blue
**These two pieces were absolutely essential for us; the only reasonable protection for the entirety of the crux section. However, we did not test them with any falls from above. On the previous attempt, I fell from just below after clipping the peenut and it held well- placing these two pieces were strenous at first.
Overall, I toproped the route 6 times (over 3 weekend afternoons) and Manuel twice (2 afternoons). I first learned about the line a few weekends ago after linking Rapid Transit to Airation, and toproped it with my friend Perry after doing Airation. It sparked my interest immediately because the moves were unusual (especially for a shorter person; I’m 5’8 ) and really very very good. I have background in modern dance, so these things are somewhat valuable from a personal perspective. My friend told me afterwards of the story of Hugh Herr’s FA, and jokingly asked me whether I’d lead it. I said: Maybe!
After finding no gear beta anywhere, I started asking online (MP and here) about gear, but finally just borrowed a few ballnutz and took my entire rack on a rappel to figure it out myself. I couldn’t convince anyone else to try and lead it with me at the time, so I took the time to brush the route and just put it in the back of my mind. It was also consistently seeping, with 2 critical holds being always very wet. I finally managed to convince two friends (two very strong German crushers) to TR the route with me the next weekend. Manuel and Till both flashed it on TR - Manuel, who is my height, used my beta while the taller Till did some boring stuff. Despite their effortless TR flash, they weren’t convinced about leading it and I wasn’t very psyched about doing it alone.
The biggest logistical problem, however, were with the two very wet holds, especially the one that marks the end of the crux, as a slip from that hold at that height would not be so good. I found better gear beta on the subsequent rappel and was seriously considering leading it. But the weekly rain kept the two holds stubbornly seeping. For two weekends, I drove up from Boston, left a fixed line above the route and rappelled down in the morning to stuff paper towel and cotton balls into the wet holds, hoping that the morning sun would dry them and thus making it leadable in the afternoon. It was not working so well.
The first 3 TR’s were to find/tweak my beta. On the 4th TR I did the route clean and on the 5th go, I TRed while placing gear (not clean). This was Sunday of Aug. 4th and I decided to try and lead it, seeing that the holds were the driest that I had seen. However I did not feel very psyched, and fell soon after placing the peenut . I found that it was very strenuous placing the peenut first and then the Green Alien, for two reasons: 1) the wire of the peenut was sitting in the shallow crack where I needed to place the Alien, and 2), the Alien stem was too wobbly to place in what was already a very strenous over-the-head balancing placement). I decided to use the much stiffer blue Metolius mastercam instead and place it before the peenut.
On Saturday morning of the 10th, I rappelled down to find the route disheartenedly more wet than I’d ever seen. This was my last weekend in Boston before flying back to Europe for school. Perry told me that it rained a lot on Thursday and Friday. I stuffed cotton balls and left the fixed line overnight. On Sunday morning, I rappelled down again to replace the soaked cotton balls with fresh paper towel, not expecting too much. Instead I went and got my butt kicked in the Cave area. Some time over the course of the weekend, Manuel had a change of heart and wanted to lead it with me. Realizing that I had a partner to share the experience with, then I got really psyched!! At 2pm we went back to check the route, and it had dried significantly (although not as dry as the previous weekend). I replaced the paper towels and in generally just tried to dry the route as much as I could. I deemed it acceptable to lead in this condition.
Manuel and I both TRed (his second, and my sixth) it once more with gear – he was solid and I was flailing; feet that never slipped were slipping and crimps that felt good before did not. We hydrated, ate and waited for the rock to cool down a bit more. We put our packs over the protruding tree roots at the base. (My other friend Jorn very concerningly took out his banana and avocado, so they wouldn’t get squashed in the fall. Perry generously offered to go up Airation and take pictures.) At 4pm, Manuel led it first – solidly, with some small grunting at the top. (I had never heard him grunt before; amusing but not very encouraging for me!) I sat around, rehearsed the moves in my head and sat around some more until I felt ready. Although I had done horribly on the last TR, I knew the moves well and I knew I could execute them well, as long as I could shrug off the pressure and climb with my body and not my head. I roped up and climbed it in complete control. Normally a grunter, I didn’t make a sound. I only came back to full awareness on the top 5.10 crack section, as I realized that I had forgotten the foot placements and was trying to find them, while having only the highly questionable offset Mastercam between me and the Peenut way down there. I let out a hearty shout when I reached the ledge.
Overall, this has been a great learning experience, both for the body and for the mind. The cleaning and drying were tedious, but I have to say it enriched the overall experience of the climb. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process and have all the respect for Hugh Herr and all the crazy ones out there that do hard sketchy trad! This climb is less than a number grade from my hardest sport redpoint, so for me adapting the mental acuteness was the biggest lesson as well as the best reward. It really is a very nice route with beautiful moves, so I hope it gets many more repeats. As far as the grade goes, it felt like a solid 12c R for me (or is it 12d? not sure); someone tall may find it slightly easier. The R rating is assuming that the peenut and mastercam hold – which I am fairly confident about, but again, not directly tested with a fall from above the gear.
Some people have questioned my motives behind doing climbs like this (not the first time for me). Not to be wordy about my feelings, I love trad as well as sport climbing, but the logistics and the head game behind routes like Stage Fright really bring these experiences closer to what climbing used to be – bold, adventurous, precise, minimalistic, and lastly of course physical. This package is really good for the soul; hard to come by nowadays, so not to be missed when the opportunity presents itself. It blows my mind what climbers were achieving 20, 30 years ago with the equipment they had, so to experience a fraction of what they experienced (albeit with much better gear and safer outcomes), is truly invaluable.
I should mention that my friend, Manuel Brunn, who’s a Scarpa and Metolius sponsored climber from Germany, learned to trad climb 3 weeks ago. He’s a crazy one. And my name is Fan Yang, and I greedily claimed the First Asian Ascent (FAA) of this route. Needless to say, Manuel was heartbroken and imploded with envy when he learned that the other two ascensionists were Caucasians like himself.
P.S. I will post some pictures when Perry gets them to me; he's a notoriously lazy bum among our friends.
P.P.S. Thanks to everyone who sent well wishes - it could only have helped!