Bruce Carson's hammerless solo of Sentinel West Face,1974


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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 7, 2007 - 12:55am PT
A classic adventure by the father of hammerless aid from Mountain 33. Pity that he left early on Trisul. This account inspired me to step out there myself! Edit- the ascent was completed in July 1973 not 1974. All the more impressive with no half size Stoppers or wired hexes on the rack!


Truckee, CA
Sep 7, 2007 - 02:21am PT
Hey Steve, thanks for posting these great articles.

When I was an adolescent, I was so psyched on climbing and I ate up every word i could read on it, you keep taking me back to that time by posting these classic articles from those days, the ones that were really inspiring.

Are you going to make an appearance at the Facelift/Sushifest? It would be great to see you.


ps. I did check out the story of those monks. Totally cool thanks.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 7, 2007 - 10:23am PT
Peter- I can't make the Facelift this year but should be down in the Valley once the rains set in up my way. Glad you are stoked about the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei. I thought of you immediately since we share a movement aesthetic.

Dave Anderson was also a gem whose warm smile and antics have long been missed by those of us that knew him. One gal in Tucson thought that he was a national treasure...or cute...or something.

The Eye of the Snail
Sep 7, 2007 - 10:53am PT
Wish he'd said a tad more on the expando pitch. Equalized nuts for the first piece, yipe! The rest of the pitch was a "romp"?????

If I got my details right, Coonyard led that pitch on the FA, which was funny because Frost was the nailer and YC was the grovelling specialist. So of course Frost ended up on the Dogleg with one wood block for the 100' or whatever it is. Went up about 12 feet, got yeller, put his block in and then ran it to the chains. Which of course there were none.

I'm sure the story was exaggerated when I heard it. All them dads could do every sort of climbing.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Sep 7, 2007 - 11:05am PT
Thanks Steve.

A real blast from the past. I remember that the world would be put on hold in '74 whenever I got a new issue of Mountain.
I would pour over it endlessly, and one of the most inspiring articles was the one above which prompted me to do a whole series of hammerless wall solos.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Sep 7, 2007 - 03:27pm PT
"metal softly joined with rock" Nice way to put it.

Thanks Steve! I had heard vaguely of this climb, but somehow missed ever seeing this issue of Mountain. Or knowing the date. I did know from Chouinard that he and Bruce had done a close to clean ascent of the Nose, which was way impressive. Now I see that this climb was a month before my hammerless ascent of the Regular Route on Half Dome, which I always thought was the first clean grade VI. Guess I was wrong.

Seems like we were playing the same clean game. Bruce mentions clipping a pin in the expando pitch. He doesn't say whether he used other fixed gear. But he does talk twice about building totally clean and omnidirectional anchors. Ken Wilson's note at the end says "he relied almost entirely on nuts for the aid climbing."

On Half Dome we clipped one fixed pin for aid -- Galen did -- in the Zig-Zags. I couldn't believe he did it. Didn't even know it had happened until I jugged up to it. I was so pissed. We had been really careful to be squeaky clean up to there. Didn't touch any of the fixed pins (though we used the bolt ladders). We built every one of our anchors entirely of nuts. Clean-aided around every fixed pin. And then Galen goes and clips a fixed pin without even giving Dennis or I a chance to clean-aid around it. Tainted our ascent. Aargh!

But then Galen's article for National Geographic was the reason we were there, and it also provided the publicity leverage that helped our climb to slam-dunk the clean climbing revolution.

Interesting that Bruce mentions as strategy choosing a climb where "there was no need for special nuts smaller than the No. 1 Stoppers and Copper-heads that we had." On Half Dome, Galen had already chosen the climb for his article. Dennis and I were the clean enthusiasts, but we had no say in picking the climb. We had pitch # 22 to deal with, the old A3 pitch. Thin shallow nailing. But we also had help. Prototypes of Frost's ingenious Crack'n Ups, which looked like hooks -- litle upside-down anchor-shaped things with a nut taper ground on both ends. Dennis led it beautifully; his main difficulty was reaching past all the fixed knifeblades and RURPs to find an open piece of crack where he could place them.

Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Sep 7, 2007 - 05:18pm PT
Nice remembrance, Doug.

I remember when you guys were up there. Of course it was a big deal and having it published by Galen in National Geographic made it very important in the general adoption of clean climbing.

But I also remember thinking at the time it was pretty natural to do all clean ascents and that the regular route on Half Dome was probably as good as any to try an all clean ascent on a really long route--it would just take longer to figure the thin aid pitches and multiple directional belays. But that was the observation of a free climber-ówe climbed much shorter free routes all clean but I used a mix of nuts and pins walls I did at the time.

What was your sense while on the route? Was it hard to get it to work or just time consuming?



Mountain climber
Sep 7, 2007 - 06:22pm PT
Perhaps you know, didn't Bruce also make an ascent of the East Ridge of Alpamayo in the Blanca of Peru? I have lusted after that line but never had the stones to get on it. If you've seen you'll know why!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 8, 2007 - 10:22am PT
Superchicken had a very understated career but did a lot of inspired climbing! You are hardly the first to come under Alpamayo's spell. One Italian climber called it "the most beautiful mountain in the world."
'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Sep 8, 2007 - 11:20am PT
Sure do love reading these classic accounts of great climbs! Does anybody ever even climb this route any more? I don't recall ever seeing nor hearing of an ascent in the last ten years. Is the route any good?

What a proud ascent though, eh? Buddy hitchhikes there in the heat of summer, and sends it mostly clean. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, it sounds like he used at least one if not a few fixed pins on the expando traverse?

Doug, thanks for writing about that National Geographic article. That article was very formative in me wanting to climb big walls, though your article on the Camp 4 scene is possibly the best ever written, the one describing the naked bodies and canted wine bottles. Someone ought to post that one up here.

I appreciate you describing exactly how you managed a so-called clean ascent, because I have always wondered about these things. So many routes on El Cap that have had claimed clean ascents would be totally impossible without fixed pins and fixed heads, and therefore the clean ascent claims have always seemed ludicrous to me. Many El Cap belays rely solely on bolts - building a clean anchor would be impossible unless you did it in the middle of the pitch. It sounds like you did achieve your goal, except for the one minor transgression, and I appreciate your confession. It is good to read about people searching around between the fixed RURPs and heads to try to find a clean placement.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 8, 2007 - 11:47am PT
The language gets a bit muddled historically when you come to the concept of clean vs. hammerless. I propose a new term to clarify things a bit. Clean means that no hammer was employed by the leader to set or enhance any placement. Hammerless represents clean climbing taken to a higher level of commitment and, consequently, adventure. Climbing a route without hammering any placement or using any non-drilled fixed placements(pitons,heads,etc) should rise to the level of spotless. Another layer of challenge to aspire to in clean climbing. Clean and spotless! DR?
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Sep 8, 2007 - 01:53pm PT
Hi Roger,

A pleasure to mix it up with you again, even virtually.

I also remember thinking at the time it was pretty natural to do all clean ascents and that the regular route on Half Dome was probably as good as any to try an all clean ascent on a really long route

I totally agree that the Regular Route was the best bet for an all clean -- er, spotless -- ascent. And it turned out to be. I was thrilled to be in the Valley in June to honor the 50th Anniversary of the FA, where all three of those guys told stories and showed slides. Jerry Gallwas made one of the best comments: "There was never any doubt in my mind we would make it." That's exactly how we felt about climbing it clean.

Hennek and I knew we could do it. We'd been climbing hammerless on nearly everything we had done for years, including FAs. Galen wasn't as sure, but just because he hadn't been focusing on that game and honing his skills. So he asked that we put a hammer and pins at the bottom of the haul bag, more as a career backup than anything. He needed to bag his first big National Geographic assignment.

Dennis and I were so certain that we tossed out the iron. We really wanted to follow Messner's ideal about not "carrying your courage in your rucksack" which loomed hugely over the climbing world at the time. Kind of interesting, because he was referring to never using bolts, and it was clear to us in the Valley that never, ever bolting was a "nice try" kind of idea that related well to the Alps but just flat didn't apply to our often truly crackless terrain. But it was easy for us to take the inspiration from Messner and apply it to leaving behind the hammer. We knew we could do that, and it wasn't even that hard. Three days on the wall were more to slow down for photography than extra time going clean. The only pitch where cleanliness slowed us down was reaching between fixed iron on that "old A3."

Speaking of bolts, it didn't occur to us to even think of it as a taint on our clean ascent to clip up the bolt ladders, even though that was the only iron we touched.

We deliberately went out of our way not to touch any fixed iron and build all-nut anchors, to prove the clean point. With the publicity leverage National Geographic gave to it, making that point was a huge success. I can't count the hundreds of climbers over the decades since who have come to me to say that they were inspired by that climb.

But day by day since then I use what's there. If a fixed pin appears, I clip it or build it into my anchor. The purpose of pro is to be safe, and anything fixed is not damaging the rock any further if I clip it.

So when I do the Regular Route on Half Dome again, I won't bother doing it as squeaky clean as we did then. The point has been made, and in the Valley remnants of the Iron Age are eveywhere. In fact, I'll probably take a hammer next time, just for route maintenance purposes to tighten FPs used daily by climbers who no longer have a clue how to tell if a fixed pin is any good.

Steve, I like that we're clarifying here what clean and hammerless really mean. Here I've used "squeaky" clean to honor your idea while still sidestepping the definitions. Pondering your ideas. I'll get back to you.
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Sep 8, 2007 - 02:12pm PT
Bravo. Nice comments Doug.

When I read Pete's post it occurred to me that what we were trying to do in the 70s with all clean ascents has become more complicated to describe today, as Steve and Doug have both commented on. I certainly second Doug's position that clipping bolts was 'allowed' on all clean ascents in the middle 1970s. I think that what has changed is that at that time, bolts were pretty much only used on blank sections and the arguments were about how much blank rock could you bolt and still call it a route. Now there is an added dimension that bolts show up willy nilly on belays, next to cracks, for comfort, for sport, for rescues, etc. We didn't have to put up with such complications very often.

There was another element about 'natural' protection that was focused only on not creating pin scars--in which case fixed pins were okay. But this meant carrying a hammer to reset them which in turn meant replacing them. It also meant leaving gear. Doug and Dennis stayed away from this gray area since it did not make their point.

I don't know what Galen's motivation for clipping a pin on the zigzags would have been. Maybe Doug should refer to it as the Warren solidarity clip--sort of like a purposeful mistake being woven into fine Persian rugs so as not to offend God's right to perfection.

All the best, Roger

PS: Where is Dennis these days?
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Sep 8, 2007 - 02:51pm PT
It's nearly impossible to get modern climbers to understand how we played the clean climbing game with only passive pro, because the world changed forever a scant five years later when the first Friends came out from under Ray Jardine's coat. It's not really their fault. Why not pull the trigger of a cam as soon as the pro gets a bit dicey? I do.

The ease of climbing clean took such a profound leap in 1978 that everything before that appears as though shrouded behind a veil. I have the same trouble trying to explain how well we backcountry skied on skinny tele skis driven by leather boots. From a modern fat-board, plastic-boot perspective, how can they relate? How anyone would physically do those things seems so mysterious as to cast doubt on the actual accomplishments of our generation.

Climb a grade VI with neither a hammer nor a rack of cams? Ski 45-degree gullies on nordic-looking toothpicks?

Easier not to think about something so baffling. The ultimate value of historical threads such as this may just be to shine some glimmers of light on how we crawled out of the Iron Age.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Sep 8, 2007 - 03:38pm PT
Steve I disagree with your terms.

To me "Clean" means using only nuts and fixed gear. I suppose that a tapping tool is OK for cleaning only.

"Hammerless" takes it a step farther. No hammer even for cleaning (even "in the bottom of the pack").
Its a further level of committment just as third classing to fifth classing.

The higher level YET that Doug refers to is "Hammerless, with no hammered anchors".
Doug, is it OK to use fixed nuts?
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Sep 8, 2007 - 03:40pm PT
what Galen's motivation for clipping a pin on the zigzags would have been

I don't think he did it on purpose, more like his mind was elsewhere. Probably on the next photo op. Reflecting back, I realize that was probably one of the few pitches he led. He was always under glass, as it were, behind the camera. Dennis and I swapped leads.

the Warren solidarity clip--sort of like a purposeful mistake being woven into fine Persian rugs so as not to offend God's right to perfection.

Nice description. I've been writing lately about those two on the South Face of Half Dome, drilling endless lines of Bat-hook placements.

It reminds me of the writer Jim Harrison saying that when he goes to a strip club he likes to look for the imperfections in the beautiful girls...

Dennis lives in Ventura, after a long stretch in Hawaii. He's a building contractor. A bunch of us went down there for his 60th birthday, including TM, Lauria, Frost. The Patagonia art department made a wall-sized blowup of him on the cover of National Geographic.

It was his birthday, but as I left he gave me a machine nut he actually picked up along the tracks of the Snowdon Railway in north Wales, which is where legend has it that the first machine nuts began to replace a pocket full of pebbles for clean pro. I put it on a sling-length chunk of hemp rope and hung it over my desk.


Sport climber
Venice, Ca
Sep 8, 2007 - 06:29pm PT
The ghastly thing about considering a solo of Sentinel W. Face is thrutching up those Dog Leg cracks, which are probably 10A and awkward whith the good jams way in the back of the crack - simple if you're in top shape and have a running belay, hellacious if you're roped soloing with the old methods.

DR's point is well taken as well - after pitons (basically 'after '71) and before Friends ('78??), protecting some of the harder Yosemite cracks (and elsewhere) was a task and on some routes you simply didn't fall.

Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Sep 8, 2007 - 06:55pm PT
All pretty amazing - solo, midsummer, first edition hexcentrics and stoppers, and one tube nut. The first hexcentrics only went to #10, and were longitudinally symmetrical - less versatile than the "eccentrics", which were introduced in 1975 or 1976. And only the #1 - #3 had (optional) wires. The stoppers were flat sided, went from #1 - #7, and only the #1 - #4 (?) had wires. The Chouinard tube chock didn't appear until 1974 (?), so perhaps he had a prototype, something home-made, or a Tieton type gadget.

At least there weren't any p'terodactyls nesting on the summit.
Doug Robinson

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Sep 8, 2007 - 08:49pm PT
Hi Anders,

The timeline in one of the classic Chouinard Equipment catalogs shows Tube Chocks introduced in 1973. I'm not surprised Bruce had one. We certainly had several on Half Dome. But they proved to be next to worthless in the flaring Robbins Chimney, a pitch I both wanted and dreaded. (It definitely fulfilled my expectations.)

You can see Polycentric Hexes too, on our rack in the photos.

You're right, Stoppers # 1-4 were wired. And all straight-sided, a shape I still prefer (they don't get so stuck). If you haven't tried them, get ahold of a set of Frost's straight-sided Sentinel nuts. They work even better with an increased taper reminiscent of the old British MOAC.
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Sep 9, 2007 - 12:20am PT
Thanks, Doug! We always got the new gear a little later up here, but when it did arrive, it was not only new and trendy, but worked really well.

If I remember, there were several varieties of hexcentrics in fairly quick succession, from 1972 - 1977 or so. Thick walled, symmetrical. Thick walled, asymmetrical. Thick walled, drilled holes. Then thin walls.

The addition of wires to medium and eventually larger nuts certainly made them more versatile - a soloist like Carson would probably really notice the extra reach. The earliest Chouinard hexes were all roped, even the #1. The specs said it took 5 mm rope, but it was an awful tight squeeze to actually get it threaded.

There was a sort of green revolution in climbing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mostly focussed on greening up the act of climbing itself. Epitomized by Carson's climb, your Half Dome climb, and others. I wonder if it's time for another more extensive green revolution, of both climbers and of climbing?
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