The first ascent of The Central Pillar of Frenzy


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Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 11, 2008 - 10:46pm PT
The first ascent of “The Central Pillar of Frenzy.”

The great thread Steve Grossman started for John Long's "The Royal Scam" got me to dust off the bits and pieces of the stories of the first ascent of the CPoF.

The ‘official’ history, which I restate from my Middle Cathedral Commentary published Mountain 52, Nov/Dec 1976, is straightforward.

“In the late 1960s, Tom Higgins started the route by attempting the Chouinard Pratt free. Jim Bridwell and Roger Breedlove climbed the first two pitches on a reconnaissance in 1972. The following year they returned with a full rack of nuts and two knife-blades. They were stopped on the eighth pitch by unprotected climbing. Later in the spring, Breedlove and Dale Bard traversed on the eighth pitch to the Bircheff Williams route. In 1974, Gib Lewis and Tobin Sorenson nailed the pitches straight up to the U-shaped bowl. Bridwell, Billy Westbay and John Long climbed those pitches free in 1975.”

So how did the "Central Pillar of Frenzy" get two finishes?

In the spring of 1972, the rescue team all rode down to the El Cap meadow parking lot on a false call. Whoever was climbing the Capitan didn’t need a rescue, and we were all more or less milling about, waiting for someone to tell us we could go back to camp. I had sweet-talked the manager of the Ansel Adams gallery into giving me a steep discount on a pair of Leitz binoculars, on a lay away plan, with immediate rights to use. They were only 8 power, but the clarity of the image and the light gathering ability were outstanding, and I was getting really good looking at rocks.

Since Peter Haan had set me on a path to master climbing and first ascents the prior year instead of continuing my efforts to master the art of the poseur-—another story--I was combing the cliffs looking for new stuff to do. With the almost magical capabilities of my new binoculars, I had spied the nearly invisible crack system left of the "Chouinard Pratt."

That day the light was perfect for studying Middle, so I turned my back on the aborted rescue on the Captain and stared at the new route. Bridwell was standing next to me, and I offer him a look. He turned around and took the binoculars. I carefully draped the sling over his head-—you don’t want to be dropping objects with magical powers.

Through the lens, the 2-5 pitches stood out pretty plainly. You cannot really miss the straight-in cracks, but somehow they had lain dormant. Even Pratt had climbed the corners of the "Chouinard Pratt" several times to add a direct finish through the U-shaped bowl, and somehow he never wandered off to the left to have a look-see. Neither had Tom Higgins on his attempts to free the "Chouinard Pratt." They probably didn’t have Leitz binoculars.

After Jim had his look-see with my new binoculars, he put them down. He didn’t see the point either.

“So what do you do after that?” He asked, skeptically.

“Climb to the U-shaped bowl and go off the Cat Walk,” I replied. “That’s where all the other routes between the East Buttress and the DNB go.”

Jim looked again and it hit him. Jim has surprisingly adept body language. You could almost see him estimating the rack, placing the protection, and setting the belays.

Then he instantly put the glasses down.

“Stop looking,” he whispered. “Others are watching us. Don’t look.”

Of course, I looked.

There was Ray Jardine, following our interest and gaze.

A few weeks later, Ray and Rik Reider climbed “Paradise Lost” in the blank spaces between the “Powell Reed” route and the “DMB.” It was Ray’s idea, and he summed it up by stating, “I got us into trouble, Rik got us out.” This route was the first of what would become the new wave of Middle free climbs. It was more noteworthy then than it appears now. I think that neither Ray or Rik had done much hard climbing--5.10--at that time and certainly not a long new route.

Anyway, it was a good thing he didn’t have cool new binoculars like mine to see deep into those cracks to the left of the "Chouinard Pratt," otherwise we would all be climbing the “Lost Pillar of Paradise.” (Now that would be a stupid name, if you ask me.)

In the fall of that year, when we all returned to the Valley, I asked Jim to come with me to give it a try. Unfortunately, although Jim and I were good friends, I don’t think that we had ever climbed together, and Jim just assumed that he would do all of the leading. He was probably concerned about my competence and his safety. Jim was climbing at a high standard, creating new free-climbing dimensions. He was also not too keen on repeating routes, so there was a big gap. Just two years before, I could probably only climb 5.9 competently. So we had never climbed together.

That changed a little the next couple of years, but we largely had different climbing circles, and I was gone much of the time guiding. Other than the four first ascents we did together in Yosemite-—three were my projects, one was his--we didn’t climb together much.

Part of the issue with climbing with Jim was that you eventually needed to break away to do your own climbs. He was such a good climber and so charismatic, and such a good teacher, that at some point we all needed to cut the cord, so to speak, to stand on your own.

Jim also was developing the skills to play the impresario, organizing which routes to work on and organizing the rope guns to get up them. I think all of us had to find a way to feel like we were fully responsible for our own new routes. The trick was to do it without upsetting the communal flow. A year or so later, we simul-climbed the "Yawn" in the Meadows. I had led up into the roofs and traversed under them almost to their end. Jim followed and led the next pitch that starts up the big, obvious corner. When the rope became taunt, I could not see him or hear him, so I undid the belay and let out some slack. The rope pulled up, so I started up, expecting that he had set a belay. When I climbed around the roof and into the corner, the rope stretched up 165 feet to Jim, standing in a jam crack, with one or two pieces clipped between us. Once Jim reached the top, he put me on belay. Jim had spent a good amount of time following the first pitch studying the roof and crack system that runs out to the left. This became the “Wailing Wall,” an early 5.12, which he climbed either that same year or the next. But, as I said, that was a year or two after the first time we started up the cracks to the left of the "Chouinard Pratt."

On that first attempt in the fall of 1972, we climbed the first two pitches. On the second pitch, those great cracks were full of dirt and grass, and there were large hummocks beside the crack, my light gathering binoculars notwithstanding. Jim was flailing away, cleaning the cracks, knocking the hummocks off, getting pumped, and cursing. With all the dirt and grass, he was working very hard. As second, I had the benefit of relatively clean cracks and found lots of footholds that had been under the hummocks holding the dirt in place.

Jim looked down and asked, “What are you standing on?”

“Uh, big edges, really big edges, right next to the crack,” I replied. Of course I said it in a tone that tried to make it sound like Jim was blind, or daft, or so devoid of face climbing skills that he didn’t bother to look, but he knew I was joking and just laughed at the ironies of being first.

I also proposed the name of ‘Central Pillar of Frenzy’ standing on those big edges. Jim was sort of cool to the idea. His look was a combination of perplexity and gently rebuffing an obviously stupid idea. I persisted and explained that it was sort of a pillar type feature and that it came from the “Central Pillar of Freney” on the Grand Jorassas, which I think are in Paris, England. There had been an article about the climb in one of the winter issues of the "Mountain Magazine." Also I had no idea how to pronounce French, so Freney became frenzy.

Then I finished the pitch. It was still early in the day, so we rapped off. Jim was imparting to me the time-honored tactics of a Valley Hardman in the early 70s: never miss an opportunity to put off until tomorrow what could be done today.

The next spring we returned with our rack of nuts, no bolts and two knife blades. We had the new religion of clean climbing, and we were learning the art of the heroic gesture. Although it sounds obvious today and was probably obvious by the end of the 1973 season, starting up a new route on Middle with only two knife blades and no bolts was high commitment. Everyone has done the first five pitches of the CPoF, so we can skip to the sixth. Above that point the climbing changes completely and becomes more distinctly Middle in nature: thin, overlapping flakes, small corners, smears, tiny edges; hard to protect; combination climbing-—normal climbing in Eric Beck’s terms. The next two pitches worked out well, and we had high hopes that our gamble was going to work. But on the 8th pitch, Jim tried it several different ways and finally backed down, saying it needed bolts. So we rapped off.

I took my Lietz glasses back to the meadow and from other perspectives and with other lighting searched for a way past the high point. I noticed the black diorite intrusion dike that arched up and left, then down, connecting the top of the 7th pitch with the "Kor Beck" corners. An honorable escape.

When we returned, Jim invited Dale Bard and Ed Berry. I didn’t understand why-—not that it wasn’t going to be fine climbing with Dale and Ed, but it would add time and seemed to be a complication. Jim didn’t give a very satisfactory explanation, and I didn’t press. I roped up with Dale, and we started up. I had not climbed with Dale before and was surprised at how nervous he seemed, given his newly acquired reputation for hard climbing. I don’t know how old he was, maybe only mid teens. I probably seemed old to him at 22. Jim and Ed came up second.

We were climbing faster than Jim and Ed and were soon a couple of pitches above them. As I was starting up the 6th pitch, Jim called up and asked which way I was going to go on the 8th. I shouted down that I was going to traverse off to the "Kor Beck." After a pause, Jim shouted up that he and Ed were rapping down, and he made a sarcastic comment about having a good time on ‘your’ route. I thought it was weird but shrugged it off.

Much, much later I figured out that Jim had invited Dale and Ed to be the rope guns to do the hard face climbing above the 7th pitch. It didn’t occur to him or me that any misunderstanding could be resolved by just talking about it. Neither of us had had the experience of long marriages and raising kids that gives one practice to just start talking. I would have been more than willing to let one of those immensely talented guys lead the 8th pitch and finish in the U-shaped bowl.

On the 8th pitch, I climbed up the corners and placed some protection—several crappy small stoppers slung together—then down climbed and started up the dike. At the peak, just before the crux, I stopped and placed a bolt. My feet would stay on the dike for about four taps of the drill, and then I would move them back to the top edge of the dike and continue drilling. Tap, tap, tap, dink, shuffle, shuffle, tap, tap, tap, dink, shuffle, shuffle…. Once the bolt was in, it was a quick move past the crux and around the corner to a belay.

When Dale and I got back to camp, everyone was excited about the new route on Middle. Jim and I were describing the new climb to a large group standing in a circle in the parking lot. We were going through the pitch descriptions, miming the strange music-less dance of climbers the world over, placing our arms and at least one leg into an imaginary space, fingers and toes placed just so, and moving all of the earth down a bit to show the progress we had made.

We rated all of the pitches except the first at 5.10. Amongst the group was Will Tyree who drawled, "That would make it the hardest free climb in the Valley. Maybe the whole world."

Will always spoke as if he were saying lines in a Western movie, with the scene set in a bar on a Saturday night, before the fighting began. He was from the Northwest, was really big and powerfully built, and had a habit of making jokes about doing the listener harm. At least we all hoped they were jokes. One year, Will worked as a lumberjack in the summer off-season. That fall he told us how strong and tough you had to be to be a successful lumberjack. Just to make the point clear, he waved his hand at all of us skinny regulars and told us he could take any of us, anytime. I don’t think anyone doubted it.

Anyway, Will’s comment gave Jim and me pause, so with a quick glance at one another and a nod, Jim down rated it to one, maybe two pitches of 5.10—the 6th pitch and my “The Chickenshit Traverse." (I didn’t mind the sobriquet since it was a good lead.) Consensus YDS rating in action.

The climb got lots of attention and many ascents. Jim Donini did an early ascent, and when he returned to camp, he asked if I had placed the bolt on the traverse, then sarcastically stated that he would have put it in sooner. I didn’t ask, but I am guessing that he climbed straight up from the belay to the bolt. That would be a scary 60-80 footer onto an all nut belay.

Everyone referred to the new route as Jim’s new route, which ticked me off to no end.

They were my binoculars forcryingoutloud.

I complained to Bev Johnson about it, but she shrugged it off and gave me a long “Ahhhhhhhhh,” with big doe eyes and a tilt of the head, which could be taken as sympathy or suck-it-up. Or a little of both.

I may have messed up Jim’s planned ascent of a direct finish to the route with young rope guns, but Jim would return two years later with John Long and Billy Westbay to climb straight up above the 7th pitch all-free.

A great irony of all these machinations is that only the first five pitches are ever climbed nowadays and every few years John’s The Royal Scam gets dusted off to everyone’s delight.

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Dec 11, 2008 - 10:57pm PT
Thanks Roger, great story about a well loved route... keep thinking I should go back and do it again, haven't been on it for a long long time.


right here, right now
Dec 11, 2008 - 11:00pm PT
A (big) boy & his route!
Mike Bolte

Trad climber
Planet Earth
Dec 11, 2008 - 11:39pm PT
excellent! nice story roger, thanks
Lynne Leichtfuss

Social climber
valley center, ca
Dec 11, 2008 - 11:51pm PT
Pretty special to meet Mr. Breedlove at the Nose Reunion. A thoughtful gentleman, well read literati, one who can translate the language into meaningful and compassionate conversation that makes a difference in peoples lives. Plus I hear he's a darn good climber. Peace, Lynne
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:06am PT

Hi Lynnie. Here is Roger and Bridwell at the base of the Cookie back in 1971 (viz. 37 years ago) Note that since this moment, Roge's Afro has been brought into control. (Side note, JB's everyday wear as well). We should have a Roger Breedlove Appreciation thread or DAY but most fear a massive server outage @ ST as the guy is so well-liked. Since then, since those days in the Valley, he has constructed a massive life, raised two amazing daughters (Alex and Linday) with his fabulous wife Marsha and continues to be the stupendous friend he always was and has amazing judgement.

I was awed spending the several days with him during the Nose thing. I picked him up at SFO at noon and we drove to the Valley directly. But you know, it was as if we had folded time and space (ref. Dune) because it seemed about 15 minutes later after talking " a bit" we were in the Valley in daylight, light enough to look up at El Cap to wonder "what were we thinking". As everyone else does from our pack. And pretty quick we hooked up with Ed Hartouni, "the lowly particle physicist" from Livermore.

I don't know a better-natured climber in all my 45 years of this. Klemens used to enjoy talking (affectionately) about Roger behind his back noting that when Roger spoke, it "was like he had discovered the secret to the Universe" (and we would laugh derisively, picturing "deer in the headlights" and stuff) but it has apparently turned out to be true. This man has lead a great life and obviously continues with it.

Oh, and one more thing: this has to be one of the all-time best climb-naming coups.


Trad climber
The state of confusion
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:10am PT
Great story, Roger.
And a super sweet route too!
Mighty Hiker

Social climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:17am PT
A nice story, and a lovely route!

I had hair like Roger's, but mine was auburn.
Lynne Leichtfuss

Social climber
valley center, ca
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:40am PT
Peter, what a great pic and one I don't think we've seen before on ST! Yeah, besides a Grate Family "the Dude" does other stuff like helping newbies like me survive on the Taco.

Story: about the first thread I ever logged onto was a Roger Breedlove, John Long et al thread about writing, authors and philo ....(Clueless me had no idea who these people were, except for JL) I entered a post....Ignored (pro cause I was an idiot :D) But Mr. B. emailed and 'splained the Taco to me and how to "go about the business".

The Largest thing RB did was write a metaphor about grieving in the most beautiful language and it was balm to my soul. And the dude didn't know me and didn't even need to take the time. But it was so powerful I have given it to others who have also lost the ones they love.

Yeah, guess RB is ok ..... but yo Dude....don't let it go to yo head. Per WBraun Bwahahahah Lynne

PS Love sie nombre, Central Pillar of Frenzy...!

Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Dec 12, 2008 - 10:12am PT
Thanks for that story Roger. A great read.

How 'bout some pics... everyone's gotta have pics...


Trad climber
boulder, co.
Dec 12, 2008 - 11:01am PT
Well that was a fun read. I really enjoy the historical context in these threads. Thank you for posting up.
Even though it was the late seventies when I did this wonderful climb it is one of the routes I remember clearly and fondly. The CPoF truly deserves "Classic" status.
Thanks again for the climb and the story.

I drink your milkshake!
Dec 12, 2008 - 11:04am PT
Roger's the best. He's an excellent dancer, too.

right here, right now
Dec 12, 2008 - 11:18am PT
The Devil is ALWAYS in the details:

“it came form the “Central Pillar of Freney” on the Grand Jorassas, which I think are in Paris, England”


“I had sweet-talked the manager”….. “into giving me a steep discount”……” on a lay away plan with immediate use.”

(sounds much like our corporeal lives in summary!!!)
scuffy b

On the dock in the dark
Dec 12, 2008 - 11:21am PT
I've only been on this fine climb a few times. It's pretty
popular, right? (i.e. usually occupied)
With Embick & Graber, in 77, we climbed 6 pitches, then rapelled
off. I think the 6th pitch is rarely climbed these days,
we liked it pretty well. Off-balance barn door aspects to it,
thin crack layback kind of thing.
The rappel was a bit off-line but not a problem.

Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Dec 12, 2008 - 11:35am PT
I didn't climb it until the summer of '96 and only then because we happened upon it when there wasn't anyone else around (shocker!). I remember getting to the top of the "usual" pitches and thinking, hey, that looks sorta doable up there. Then rapping so we could hit the bar. Still, bet it ain't no summer stroll up there.

Social climber
A prison of my own creation
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:30pm PT
Has anyone climbed the entirety of Central Pillar recently? A valley local told me you only climbed 5 pitches, you didnt climb the entire route.
the Fet

Knackered climber
A bivy sack in the secret campground
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:37pm PT
You know it's been said the "golden age" of Yosemite climbing ended in 1971.

But all these amazing stories make me think the following era was just as special. Maybe it was The Platinum Age of Yosemite Climbing. :-)

Trad climber
Dec 12, 2008 - 01:38pm PT
Yea, I was told that as well spyork. When I quickly fired back,"have you?" he COMPLETELY stumbled over his words.

Social climber
flagstaff arizona
Dec 12, 2008 - 02:00pm PT
oh my, but that is a fun route. best rock EVAR. starting the 2nd pitch, circa '77 or therabouts:

Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 12, 2008 - 03:48pm PT
Thanks for all the kind words, but….

Peter, you have got to be kidding!!!

Klemens made affectionate comments behind my back, about ME? Talk about getting a “Deer in the headlights look.” Right here in my office. He he.

Of course, as you can all see and I can attest, a firm grasp of the secrets of the universe starts with really good optics and spotting invisible cracks on obscure cliffs far from the road.

As I re-read (and edited) my recollections, it occurred to me that the CPoF is tied other firsts: John Long launching his writing career, Geroge Meyers launching his climbing picture book career, and, maybe, Jim launching his career as the Valley impresario. If my facts are right, it is something to ponder.

I think that The Royal Scam was John’s first major story. (Is this true, John?)

Geroge organized a photo shoot on CPoF with Rik Rieder soon after the first ascent, which I think was the first time he tried to set up a shot. This is the only shot I have. It was published as part of my Middle Comentary. (I’ll post it later from my computer at home.)

Jim climbed lots with lots of partners, some of whom were younger, but I think that CPoF may have been the first where his plan was to have the younger climber(s) take the crux lead. In 1971, Jim climbed “Outer Limits” with Jim Orey and climbed “Butterfingers” with Charlie Jones, but I think Jim took the lead in both. (?) In 1972, he, Steve Wunsch, and Jim Donini climbed “Goldrush” and he and John Bragg climbed “High Pressure” but I think that in both cases, it was a team of equals. If this is true, then it might explain why he didn’t tell me his plan on CPoF. Does this sound right to those of you who were around in 1971-1973?

Kevin, it is mindboggling that you climbed up that dike in the rain. It cannot be more that 1 ½ inches of slightly lower angle rock with otherwise smooth rock around it. I don’t remember any distinct features out there. Just shuffling along on top of the dike, trying to avoid a long pendulum fall back under the belayer.

As for folks who have only done the first five pitches, if you like ‘normal’ climbing on Middle, the pitches above the 5th are very good. I, obviously, have not done the direct finish or the direct start—I am circuitous kind of guy—but the 6 and 7 (and Chickenshit traverse) pitches are good climbing. I am sure that the direct start and direct finish are excellent but are probably very hard. They are also probably only protected in the 70s heroic style (sounds like an art period, doesn’t it).

It is interesting to note the variety of styles that come up on Middle. Scuffy noted hard laybacking on the start of the 6th. I actually remember climbing it the other direction, putting my right shoulder against the little left facing corner and chimneyed with my feet against nubbins to the left. Normal climbing as Beck called it. I climbed Beverly’s Tower on the Cookie that same way. Laybacking is too scary and hard. Of course there are tons of layback moves in those upper pitches but they are partial moves mixed into everything else you have to do.

Thanks all for the nice comments. Time to go.

TL,C Roger
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