The common thread
“You know, David, according to our original plan, we’d be in Alaska now, freezing our butts off,”
Conrad muses, while we enjoy the mild
temps of the desert on a ledge high
above the canyon floor of Zion.
Cars are prohibited in the National Park, but shuttle buses drive around the loop. The visitors exit the bus at the pullout, gaze up the vertical sandstone walls rising up from all sides, get back in and continue to the next pullout, and then, usually, to the next National Park. Conrad and I, on the other hand, have been here for a while.
Conrad Anker is an American climbing- and mountaineering legend. In 1990, the year I was born, he and his mentor Mugs Stump had visited Zion to make the first ascent of the still notorious Rodeo Queen on the steep Streaked Wall, a face as blank as if cut by a scalpel. It’s difficult to think of an area in which Conrad hasn’t left his mark in form of a new route.
We had never met in person, but we had been in touch a couple times over the last years to exchange and discuss ideas. At some point, we decided to go climbing together.
Alaska was an obvious destination: Three or four weeks on these endless glacial tongues would be enough to climb a couple alpine routes and to really get to know one another, and then, in the future, we could maybe go on an expedition together in the Himalayas. In the end, our calendars were already too full for a spontaneous trip to Alaska, and we ended up meeting in Zion National Park.
Right after shaking hands for the first time, Conrad suggested that we climb the most classic route in the area, the Moonlight Buttress.
He would belay me and I could try to on-sight the route. But I was not that interested in the 100th ascent of this route. Instead, I felt like a new, unclimbed line would be much more in accordance with our climbing DNA. If we ended up finding a common thread, it would be the passion for first ascents.
In the early nineties, back when I was running around in romper suits, Conrad had tried a big wall on the Temple of Sinewava. He and Doug Heinrich had climbed five pitches before the difficulties of the wall had forced them to retreat. While rappelling, one of their ropes had gotten stuck and the route remained unfinished for more than 20 years. We planned to complete the route and remove the rope.
While we sit on this ledge high above the valley floor, Conrad sums up the situation: “We’ve done the first five pitches now. Will you lead the next one?” I just nod, hang the cams, nuts, and pins onto my harness and get ready to start up into virgin terrain. In the meantime, Conrad begins to organize the rope mess at the anchor. I start climbing.
With all kinds of trickery, we make our way upward. Because we are only focused on the first ascent, it doesn’t matter to us whether we aid or we free climb.
At the beginning of the seventh pitch, the crack we have been following disappears for a few meters, and Conrad is forced to drill a bolt ladder. Power drills are illegal in the Park, and he thus has to toil away, placing bolt after bolt by hand. I belay Conrad for several hours until we can finally follow the system of cracks and dihedrals again.
We name our new route Latent Core – a pun that refers not only to the rope that was left and the long unfinished state of the route, but also to a hero of American rock climbing – the late Layton Kor. His most famous first ascent, the South Face of Washington Column in Yosemite Valley, also involves a short bolt ladder to pass a blank spot. While Conrad placed one bolt after the other by hand, he thought of Kor, who spent even more time standing in his aiders while drilling on the bulletproof granite.