A long, runout 5.9 Trad Route at Tollhouse Rock
According to the guidebook, Balls 5.9R has a reputation. I remember seeing it in the old Haymond guide when I first started climbing and was always intimidated by it in the nearby route The Headwall. Who names a route "Balls" anyway. I always assumed it hinted toward a test of manhood and when I first started climbing I'm not sure mine had fully matured into a pair that were willing to go up there and run it out on the steep terrain where it lay. The route was put up back in 1976 by arguably some of the lesser-known pioneers of the early Tollhouse era, Krist Jensen, Larry Fielden, Dave Cehrs and Mike Brennan. Shamefully, in over 20 years of calling myself a Tollhouse local I had never actually ventured up onto that middle "headwall" part of the rock at all. Above the massive arch in the middle of the face lie routes with heavy reputations like Balls, Brains 5.9R, The Swallow 5.9R and The Headwall. I grew up climbing at Tollhouse rock and always had quite the respect for the longer, more run-out 5.9 routes. Over the years I have tended to stay on the more pedestrian routes. Free and Easy, Elephant Walk, Art Baker Memorial, etc.... And my experience with some of the more runout 5.7's like Falling Star, Nuts and Bolts have reminded me that if I go up on one of those routes on lead I most likely going to fall off and lose a pound of flesh.
"This climb is a strong 5.9 in the old school tradition. It requires solid granite face climbing skills. Put up in an age when mistakes carried consequences. Enjoy!"
Well it just so happens that ol Mark Hudon rolled into town as he often does this time of year. I immediately start scheming knowing that he had just come off of Freerider (5.12d 34 pitches) on El Cap and would be the perfect rope gun for a mission up onto one of the prouder steep faces at our beloved T-House.
I immediately text Macronut....
By 6:45am we are racking and ready to get our hands on some Balls.
The approach is windy and chilly, the sky full of smoke, a nearby wildfire sets an ominous mood. We start out in puffies and shells
After about a 20 minute downhill scramble we find ourselves right underneath Balls, we are hot and sweaty from the hike but it feels good to actually rack up and get ready to lay hands on Balls for the first time.
The first pitch is quite stiff.
Macronut styles it and arrives at the belay panting.
The second pitch is 5.7R but Macronut takes off like he's in heat. Balls definitely has him excited!
The gear for the route is simple. Eight quick draws and one green fingy sized Camelot. At least the bolts are solid.
It feels so good to be up on Balls after reading about it for over 20 years. Tollhouse has always been such a special place. The rock is warm and the air smells of Manzanita and Bay Laurel. Peregrines dive from above, cattle moo in the distance, the entire San Joaquin Valley spreads out below. Farmland stretches for miles and beyond that the high and rugged peaks of the sierra call out begging the local Tollhouse climber to come and imbibe on the fountain of adventure that waits among her craggy ramparts.
We lowly Fresno denizens can reach world-class slab climbing in under an hour and fill our cups with adventure before heading back to work with a breakfast burrito in our gut and a chalk residue on our hands.
Here's Mark tiptoeing up to the second belay anchors.
We make it to the third pitch and here's where things start to get hairy.
Slick stemming moves right off the belay put Macronut immediately into a compromising position. Mark straddles his belayer and Balls has its way with both of them. I have to look away. It's no fun watching your partner, a man you have known and cared for for so many years get absolutely taken advantage of. Mark grunts and groans as he moves over Adam..... And I honestly can't tell if he is wincing or smiling. Either way, it really makes me uncomfortable.
The third pitch does not disappoint. It heads up a sweet little arch with a small green Camalot ( The only gear on the route) then steps left to a bolt and fires up a really steep(for Tollhouse) headwall. Mark is cool as a cucumber and floats it like an 80cent bobber on a trout pond.
The hardest part of the pitch smacks you in the face right near the end. I was breathing harder than a fat guy in a hot yoga class when I reach the anchors but what Adam did to me next is absolutely unforgivable. As he near the belay, he was gassing out and literally reached up and grabbed me by the ankle. Sure, he was scared. Sure, he was excited. But it was deliberate and uncalled for and I felt absolutely violated.
A threshold has been crossed in our friendship and at this point in the climb I'm not sure we can continue together. From this point on I choose to clip into Marks anchors and sit on his side of the belay ledges. I stop talking to Adam and my body language shows that as soon as we get off of Balls things are going to be different between us.
We gather at the last belay and the tension between us is tighter than a Camp 4 slack line. Balls is definitely getting to us. Fortunately we only have one more pitch of 5.7 runout slab between us and the summit and we have The Hudon to lead the way. Mark has to delicately pad about 20 feet off the belay to the first bolt then another 40 feet to the next one. It doesn't look terribly hard but it doesn't look terribly easy either. "Just step up and trust your feet!" echoes downward from above as Mark knows I might struggle with this pitch.
I'm still feeling hurt that Adam used me as a human hand hold back on the last pitch and my anger gets the best of me as I leave the belay. I find the perfect left foot hold and bear down on it with all of my weight.
The pitch turns out to not be a giveaway and I'm really glad we have Mark with us. I would have definitely fallen off of that thing.
Adam cruises the pitch, literally walking up it. And I hate him for it.
Dogs bark in the distance, a military chopper flies back-and-forth fighting the fire below us and to the east, A cool breeze blows through our hair and a peacefulness settles back into the relationship between old partners and friends.
It looks like we might just do all of those things today.
The last pitch is 5.2. Storm clouds swirl in the distance. Surreal plumes of evil smoke billow up from the fire below. "I got this guys....." Sometimes you just have to step up and pull your weight. I grab the rack, bravery and confidence filling my veins. Balls May have gotten between us but it will not get the best of us.
We are a team. There is no me in TEAM. Actually there is, but you have to rearrange some letters. Whatever. I will sacrifice my own personal safety and put away the demons and do my share of leading today.
I forge onward to the summit and am soon straddling the ancient whitebark pine that symbolizes the end of all advenures that this way cometh.
Adam and Mark embrace, their manliness and musk filling the air around us. Balls has given us a handfull. But we had our way with them. Three dudes, eight draws and one green Camalot. Balls was no match for us. In the end, I'd say Balls was fantastic but next year I'm voting we go check out The Tetons.
Thanks for tuning in Supertopo. Stay stoked out there and check your knots.
Until next time,
Postscript: Any innuendo implied, percieved, understood or noted in this trip report is nothing more than a figment of the reader's immagination or inclination. This was a trip report about three men and a granite rock climb and the friendship between them. Any such innuendo or misunderstanding in the text is the sole responsibility of the reader.