In the summer of 1996 Dave Nettle and I made the first ascents of The Forge III (5.11) on Blacksmith Peak and Astrohulk IV (5.11+) on the Incredible Hulk. I wrote the following piece that winter and promptly had it rejected by several publications including my own fanzine-The Vertical Cannibal. Rereading it now, sixteen years later, I would be a little embarrassed to post it on this blog in its original form, so I did some editing. But my “writing style” does reflect how important these High Sierra routes were to me at the time, and they still remain two of my proudest climbing achievements.
Nettle and I were talking about it again. It’s the same conversation we have at potluck dinners and coffee houses around Tahoe. This morning, just before dawn, Nettle is reciting a list of candidates from behind the wheel of his meticulously kept Subaru wagon. His tone suggests that he hasn’t given the idea much thought, but we both know better. “Maybe Angels Wings, Mt. Chamberlin or Mt. Hale” he says, wiping coffee from his equally kept moustache with a neatly folded 7-11 napkin. A rush of cold air fills the car as I open the door and dump the remains of my coffee onto Highway 395 South. The roar briefly drowns out one of Dave’s favorite tapes-BTO’s Greatest Hits. “What about that thing we tried last year on the Incredible Hulk?” I ask. “Yeah that could be it,” he says. “It’s big enough, steep enough and probably hard enough. At Bridgeport we head west. The morning alpenglow is just beginning to catch the crest of the Sawtooth Ridge. “I guess it depends on if we can free the big corner at the top,” Nettle says, staring straight ahead at the jagged ridgeline that extends upward from year-round snowfields. “Could be just what were looking for,” I add. “A long, hard Yosemite-style free route high in the backcountry. The “Astroman of the High Sierra”.
But today’s mission doesn’t meet the criteria. At only eight or so pitches, the Northwest face of Blacksmith Peak simply isn’t big enough. A week ago we checked out a new line from a nearby ridge and now were returning to give it a go. As we rack and pack in the Twin Lakes parking lot, I notice dark clouds building over Matterhorn Peak and the Dragtooth. I think about mentioning this to Dave, but he’s to busy cleaning muffin crumbs from the seat of his car with a whisk broom.
Inspired by the building clouds, we complete the approach in less than three hours. As I foot-pack a stance in the snow at the start route, Nettle extends his closed hands palms-down, like the start of a chess match. I choose the left hand that reveals a small stone and the first lead. After a bit of on-lead cleaning and a traverse right to a ledge, the first two pitches go at easy 5.10. Next, Nettle leads a sustained, splitter 5.11 finger crack to a sling belay where he places the only bolt of the route.
The sky is utterly black as I lead around a small roof and the first thunder of the day rattles the wall. Is it my imagination or is the rope buzzing against the wall from static electricity? Above Blacksmith Peak, lightning and thunder explode simultaneously making it difficult to focus on the grainy rock and thin protection ahead. Our dream of a first ascent on this remote peak is beginning to fade. Just out of reach, a small alcove looks like a good place for a belay but rope drag from below the roof is making it difficult to move. I shout into the wind for slack and then stack enough rope onto a chest- high sloping ledge to make it-hopefully-to the alcove. Thunder prompts me to step up onto a small black knob. Now that I’m fully committed and can just creep my chilled fingers on to a skin-piercing flake at the base of the alcove. The pile of rope lays motionless at my feet and I start to question my unorthodox methods. SNAP! The knob breaks and my feet paddle around on the grainy rock as I hurl myself into the alcove. A full-leg-press mantle is required as the now taut rope conspires to rip my harness and pants off and pull me backwards off the wall. Hail has started to fall as I build a belay and bring Dave up.
At the next belay, we decide our safest option is to sit out the storm on some small ledges. After moving all the metal gear away from us, we sit shivering silently in our rain gear as hail coats the talus below like the first snowfall of autumn. An hour later, the worst of the storm has moved just enough to the east to allow for a sprint to the top. I then lead a full rope length of damp, rounded and near vertical 5.10 fins of granite. At least I’m not shivering anymore. At the belay I scan the wall above for a line to the summit ridge still 300 feet away. “It looks like you have your work cut out for you,” I say to Dave as he arrives at the belay. But with some sporty simul-climbing, we reach the ridge in one very long “pitch,” and then scramble to the top accompanied by frequent thunder, lightning and intermittent rain. I crouch low on the lightning-rod summit block to sign the register. “Hey Dave, what should we call this thing?” Nettle, seeing no reason to stand on the summit in a thunderstorm is busy preparing a rappel. “I was thinking,” he says in the same tone that suggests he hasn’t given it much thought. “Seeing how we forged our way up, how about The Forge?” (photo first pitch of The Forge)