How do you FA?


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christoph benells

Trad climber
Tahoma, Ca
Topic Author's Original Post - Jun 2, 2016 - 08:01am PT
I did one once, well it probably wasn't a first ascent since it is right next to the base camp, but rarely ascended and we had no info, nor signs of other climbers on it. So a first for us!

I know guide Alan Rosseau has done some similar climbs on this face.

Anyway, WI3, 5.8, 70* snow, 1400'

I saw and looked at the line for several days, imagining a way up it. It was easy and well within our abilities so it was NBD.

How do do an FA near your limit?

Tips, tricks and strategies you use?

Tell me some of your FA stories!

Ice/Mountain FA's seem easy to spot (not necessarily climb)compared to big alpine rock climbs, because you just follow a white line up the mountain, trying to stay out of danger.

Most interested in::::

Sport Climbing FA's (how did you spot the line, find where to put bolts etc.)

ALpine Rock onsights ( how did you find your crack systems that connect? did your fist crack you saw from camp end up being an off width? etc?)

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jun 2, 2016 - 08:14am PT
I feel that I have always climbed better on FA's than I have in other situations. I got into climbing many years ago because I wanted to explore and get to places where no one had ever been.....climbing provided this in a microcosm.
Some reasons why alpine FA's bring out the best in me:

Preparation.....trips are planned in advance and require time and money which you don't want wasted by not being mentally and physically prepared.

Joy of discovery....I get super motivated at the prospect of being on terrain on this crowded planet where no one has been before.

Problem solving....FA's nearly always present unanticipated problems which are fun and motivating to unravel and overcome.


State of fugue and disbelief
Jun 2, 2016 - 08:17am PT
Start out by not using it as a verb

The Good Places
Jun 2, 2016 - 08:34am PT
I don't always put shitty, dull-ringing drilled angle summit anchors in powder rock, but when I do, I use a river rock for a hammer.

Trad climber
greater Boss Angeles area
Jun 2, 2016 - 09:03am PT
By complete accident.

It's happened at least twice that I can remember. Finish a climb, check the guide book(s) wondering "what the F was that?", and see nothing there's been reported.

They're still un-reported. Lets the next party have same fun we did.
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Jun 2, 2016 - 09:43am PT
I feel that I have always climbed better on FA's than I have in other situations. I got into climbing many years ago because I wanted to explore and get to places where no one had ever been.....climbing provided this in a microcosm.
Some reasons why alpine FA's bring out the best in me:

Everything what Jim mentioned here.

When I got into climbing, I was more of a scrambler, than realized technical climbing is more of a challenge and I ALWAYS wanted to explore places where no man have gone because you don't know what you gonna find. Which is kind of awesome since I am very curious. :)

With technical climbing at some point you run into the fact that either you can climb a grade, you can't climb a grade or it is a coin flip. So at times psychologically you put too much pressure on yourself with thoughts about the crux, the runouts on the route or whatever else that makes it challenging. On NEW routes, for the most part, I am able to keep my mind clear of expectations and concentrate on problem solving and trying REALLY hard. I think I climb my best, most of the time, on new routes. My partners tell me so. While leading some pitches I did an FA of I was shocked that I onsighted them with all the extra gear and at times while drilling bolts from sh#t stances. Like I would be afraid climbing the pitch with the perfect rack beta and without having to drill, as I expected the thing to feel much easier.

I usually research possible trips with options in mind. Are there any established routes on the wall? Would they be fun to repeat if I don't find a new line that seems possible? How pretty the area is and is it worth a haul? How solid does the rock look? Who would be a good partner to go there with? Most important of all is to go with people you like being around, those who are more than partners but friends, bring some smaller nuts/offset cams, maybe a larger cam. A boltkit is a must if you gonna climb a dome without an obvious crack system. Don't have a load of expectations as you may end up not climbing. But if the partner is fun to be around and the area is beautiful, it is worth taking the climbing gear on a backpacking trip. Backpacking itself is cool too. Can take you to some really remote places.
rick sumner

Trad climber
reno, nevada/ wasilla alaska
Jun 2, 2016 - 10:07am PT
Just talking crags here, not alpine or remote big walls.

Walk to the base and pick a line, sight unseen if a new crag, previously spied if a climbed on crag. No preinspection on rappell or toprope to preserve the thrill of discovery. Start at bottom-point A and finish at top-point B. Preferably in a single push, but often an exchange of lead or a second visit. Place all natural gear if adequate, but don't be shy of slamming a pin or bolt if insecurity threatens.

Jun 2, 2016 - 10:18am PT

When I was young it was a lot like you as far as mountains go. Hike into an area, look around. Start dreaming. Pick the most interesting line. Get up early enough to not get avalanche'd off in a midday avi and climb. We used to call that "climbing". Didn't call it "doing FA's". In fact, the line might have been done previously despite not being in a book. (pre internet:-) So we didn't record them. It was all about the movement, the partnership of the rope and the day. Once you were down, the memory would be enough. As I've aged I've given up mountains except for hiking to find some solitude on occasion.

For rock climbing, if bolts might be needed or if the rock is loose, will do a top down approach to clean. Once I've weighted the rope, I figure it's fine to do a toprope lap and will mark the bolt spots with a piece of chalk so that it is in a good place for those who follow. If there appears to be pro and no loose rock I like to do it ground up on sight. Unfortunatly that usally yeilds a poorer quality line. Last time I have a poor memory of that kind of thing few years back before I was injured I was ground up, had a series of sh#t pro in that would have ripped, and wound up with a 50-90 lb block chunking off into my lap as I was spread out in a stem. It came close to taking me off but I was barely able to flip it off me (it was resting on my tiein knot). The belayer, who was down around the corner and invisible so as to be safe, claimed that the block almost hit him. This route goes @ 5.10ish is all but as I have not been back to clean off the rest of the stuff and once my belayer became the follower he was freaking at the loose stuff I hadn't pulled off and gave everyone a poor report about it. Route has not been repeated that I'm aware of and I'm sure I probably couldn't get up it these days or if I could, wouldn't want to even try it.

Best way to do a bolted route top down is to have several folks all toprope it with different colored chalk marking the best bolt locations. This has led to so real nice routes that folks don't feel are under bolted or over bolted and get climbed a bunch. Of course, some locations have a history that frowns on that kind of "trickery" and I would not ever do that in a place with that ethic.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Jun 2, 2016 - 10:29am PT
I've never done a top-down first ascent, so I have no advice there. What Jim d., Vitaliy and Rick said describes, in large part, why I like climbing unknown lines. (I use "unknown lines" rather than first ascent because often I have no idea if someone was there before me, particularly early in the season if there are no marks in the snow or ice or scars or permanent anchors on the rocks).

To me, the best part about climbing remains discovery, and the less previewing, the better. Not knowing whether, or how, the route "goes" is an experience you often forfeit with a top rope.

That's just my personal preference. I'm also usually too lazy to publicize what I did, but that's partly because of ego concerns; nothing I did first set any new standard. Anyway, that's how I've done first ascents. It sounds like you've found a style that works for you.

Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Jun 2, 2016 - 11:13am PT
Best way to do a bolted route top down is to have several folks all toprope it with different colored chalk marking the best bolt locations. This has led to so real nice routes that folks don't feel are under bolted or over bolted and get climbed a bunch. Of course, some locations have a history that frowns on that kind of "trickery" and I would not ever do that in a place with that ethic.

+1 It makes a lot of sense for the best placement.

FAs can be different from one to another. It could be a ground up long, hard, bald line. It could be a well protected top down sport route at a crag. Or a headpoint free solo with one bolt in 140 feet of sustained 5.11 crimping. You can go for a long adventure climb with a friend on one day, than return to add bolts because it turned out to be very good and you think adding pro to RX sections will allow other people, those who are not as dumb or skilled as you, to enjoy it.
Up to you the author of what you are seek from every line you try or do. As with repeating lines, you can choose slabs, offwidths, bouldering, cragging, long moderates, ice, whatever..every day can present a different challenge. SOmetimes getting up from the bed is the crux. LOL

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Jun 2, 2016 - 11:27am PT
One foot after the other....
norm larson

wilson, wyoming
Jun 2, 2016 - 12:39pm PT
Get very familiar with other routes in the area to get a sense of what's been done before and how it was established. That seems to get overlooked these days. You don't want to add protection bolts or convenience belays on an established route.
On new trad lines, always carry a nut tool when leading. It's amazing how much dirt is in cracks even in an alpine environment.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jun 2, 2016 - 12:41pm PT
Or over the other.

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
Jun 2, 2016 - 01:08pm PT

Mostly all been said, except details. So here's two...

Top down sport climbing with a runout should never be done. It's anathema to sport climbing and going top down to perfect the clips. TD is hard work if done right and takes time, unlike most TD equippers.

If a first ascent is done as a "headpoint free solo with one bolt" that too should never be done. If soloing an FA as a headpoint (aka rehearsed), don't just add one bolt if a leader at the grade wouldn't be able to lead it.

Trad climber
Wolfeboro, NH
Jun 2, 2016 - 01:13pm PT
Haven't done a 1st ascent in probably 15 years, but always did them ground up, with no previewing of the route. I never even considered rapping off to "check out" the route 1st.

I liked the aspect of exploring the unknown. Much what Jim D. said.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Jun 2, 2016 - 01:28pm PT
This FA scenario, and others similar to it, have worked in lots of places.

This account is based on one very like what is described.

My Little Northside Gem

You have a climb in mind, but the approach is confusing.

You and your partner, who you just met that day, are not sure where the climb starts.

In bumbling about in the boulders and beating around in the bushes, you come upon a lieback crack screened by vegetation. It's not got pin scars, and there are no signs it's been climbed.

It looks pretty straightforward, and you're eager to get your name in the new guidebook, so you convince your new ally that you are wasting time looking for the long-winded 5.9+ you'd originally planned to have a whack at.

You offer him the lead, knowing he'll likely decline, as he's not so skilled as you, or so he says. (This part is a mind game. Like Liar's Dice. You're hoping he'll say, "Come up," meaning, "Show me what you've got, Stud, on this completely unknown flake."

You rack only stoppers with some hexes and your trusty Moac. It simply flows at a mellow, well-protected rating of (tentatively) 5.7.

There's a good-sized bay tree (or oak, take your pick) at the end of the crack at a good stance. Son-of-a-gun!

You eagerly bring up your second. When he's off belay and tied in, you point out the possibility that this steep wall over here at the end of the ledge looks easy, if a bit unprotected, but you have no bolt kit. He doesn't like it, but it's his turn to lead.

He gets on the sharp end, takes a long slug of water, and leads the steep part like Comici, hanging out his buns and sort of posing, but he's in good form and he's found a jug handle hidden from your stance. He pulls up and around the bulge, gone from sight, but yells back that the chickenheads abound up there.

It goes quickly and it's no time at all before you join him on another, steeply-sloping ledge more than adequate for a belay.

Looking up, the angle lessens and a bitchen friction slab is all yours. You find it's no harder than what you've done on GP Apron and a horizontal seam takes bomber pro--the trusty MOAC and a #3 wired Stopper. It's good for the run-out, on which you must avoid scree and sand as the angle relents.

Coming to the top of this you find manzanitas which offer stout anchors, not to mention shade. You check for snakes, of course. It's really warm up here. The lucky sod who follows you gets a small stone to the head from the rope's movement. Your attention was on lighting that fag, not on where the rope was running.

He arrives rubbing his head. You offer him a fag and tell him how awfully sorry you are, but that lizard tripped over the rope as he scrambled across the slab. He buys that (you hope, but you can see the skepticism in his eyes).

And up there, to the right in back of you, lies the route you'd come looking to climb. Maybe later, but now we gotta get down. There is an easy but steep rappel to the left, followed by talus-jumping and a sprint for the van, a race to the deli, and the spray can begin.

It's getting harder to find things to FA this way, or something like it, but it's the most adventurous of all.

I think Rick Sumner would agree with part of my tale, minus the icky-puffs.

Vitaly's way is good, though.

Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Jun 2, 2016 - 02:02pm PT
Top down sport climbing with a runout should never be done. It's anathema to sport climbing and going top down to perfect the clips.

I share your opinion, even though I have heard of someone TAKING OUT a bolt(s) from an established route because they were able to add a pin instead to make the route "TRAD" while pinkpointing it on pre hung gear after top roping the sh#t out of it.

There is so much wrong with this scenario that I won't waste much time picking it apart, but it made me smile when I heard (entertaining, but a sad smile). But I personally want the pitch to be onsightable for someone trying it from the bottom. If I aided it, worked the moves on fixed line, I will add enough fixed pro (IF the pitch requires it) for a sane person to lead it without having the need to aid and top rope the sh#t out of the pitch. If I got an 11a move down so well that I can do it with a 30 foot runout (risking a 70 ft fall), I will add a bolt so that someone who doesn't know how to do that move won't have to take a giant fall if they f*#k it up. I also don't think the pro or adding a pin instead of a bolt makes the route trad. Trad is climbing things ground up, usually long routes, without previewing or any of the shenanigans like pinkpointing after working the route. I would call that headpointing on pre hung gear. Maybe I don't understand what trad means...English is not my first language, not trying to belittle anyone who has a different definition for the word. Maybe it simply means climbing cracks and placing removable protection in them? Definitions are not as important as the experience, which varies from one person to another...a friend got pissed at me one time because I said on FAs I prefer to climb long routes, start on the bottom and finish on some kind of a summit...someone will always be unhappy with what you say.

Trad climber
Monrovia, California
Jun 2, 2016 - 02:17pm PT
Maybe it simply means climbing cracks and placing removable protection in them?

Hi Vitaly. There are lots of traditional climbs with bolts protecting face climbing moves. Typically "trad" in this sense will mean the bolts were placed on lead, and that bolts were not used where natural protection would suffice.

Old school trad would limit the bolting on lead to places where the leader can drill from some sort of stance, without aid. Some climbers become incredibly good at this. A less traditional approach is for a leader to hang on a hook while drilling. This method can also be quite interesting.

So while all sport climbs are bolted, not all climbs with bolts are sport climbs...

the east
Jun 2, 2016 - 02:47pm PT

id dispute that alpine FAs are just about following a white line of snow to the top. at its most basic, sure, but beyond a degree it is about navigating up huge expanses of rock/snow/ice using a spectrum of skills, for days. when youre up there the route can take you way off from what you thought.
youre totally limited by what you can carry and on FAs of new peaks the descent ISNT about just hitting the regular route down

how do I FA?

hours poring over maps and digging thru weather records and laying away piecing it together.
i look into the language of the area, habitations, politics and access so i have a ballpark for the bigger picture.

i approximate a route based on how much gear we carry to the base, how long acclimation might take, what looks aesthetic and what times is available.
i usually like to have 2 or 3 potential ideas.

then i train for it, over maybe 6 months with small trips that feed into it.

then its visas, currencies, tickets, airports, baggage claims, jet lag, buying food and downloading a different culture.

approach is always a huge matter. with routes that start high like tibet i like to acclimate as much in towns before being dumped on a road side. achey breaky nights in a little tent are hell. literally. and hard to stay on top of.

then a few recon trips to gain height and data and settle in.

the sharp end is always a matter of shoe horning as much skill base into as little gear as possible. extra sets of wires and alpine aiders.

start by climbing as 'broadly' as possible, ie basic alpine, easy mixed etc, not straight into hard stuff if possible. just get off the ground and keep enough juice for later. start with direct lines but sacrifice fast if they take too much juice and be happy with a bit of wandering.

minimal f*#kery with exotic gear; i take lots of beaks and wires. never bolts unless theres a portaledge. i do take a small titanium hammer tho as its nicer over a long route than the hammer on an ice tool. useful for other sh#t too.

i like block leads so you can hit a groove thu belays, and when the changes come you get a good rest.
i find once on the route its a balance of following nice features and just bludgeoning up whats needed. without spotters or a lot of beta the 'line' draws itself within parameters of capacity.
on FAs of new peaks im cool to pull out of the first attempt and regroup, rather than blow it all on a single try thats over committed.
in tibet theres no heli waiting so margins need to stay good.

i personally dont focus on a summit, id rather a good climb. i know my best trips are those where i get as much right with solid effort as possible, surprising myself. the summit thing has never been an addiction, tho i like it after.

anway thats what i do - what i AM doing. 3 FA trips in the next 6 months, 2 on new peaks, one a winter north face attempt.

stoked. all else is just training.
the Fet

Jun 2, 2016 - 02:52pm PT
Lots of wisdom already posted.

I'll add get a mentor before placing a single bolt. It's often not just your life dependent on it, so you want to do it right. And hopefully the mentor helps you understand where to put bolts; as mentioned on a sport climb TR it if you can (may not be able to for very overhanging routes, but if you get to that point in your FA career you probably have a good idea of where the bolts will need to go) and pretend to clip at the chalk dots .
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