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The Jolly Roger, June 22-July 1, 1997

By Nathanial Beckwith

[A little historical note: 2nd ascent - Xavier Bongard (solo), 3rd ascent - Brad Jarret (solo), 4th ascent - Janez Jeglic and Miha Prapotnic, 5th ascent - Aishan Rupp and Odd-Roar Wiik, 6th ascent - Nate Beckwith and Grant Gardner. There was much press that the 5th ascent filled in several drilled holes. We didn't find any such evidence that this occurred, not that it would make a big difference in overall difficulty. We found only about 1-2 drilled hook placements on the infamous 4th pitch. A climber known as Simon attempted the route after the 5th, so it is uncertain to us what actually occurred. The epoxy may have been removed. He bailed after pitch 7. Two bolts on the 6th pitch were chopped, with one replaced 2 inches from the old hole. This is a frivolous and poorly located bolt. It is uncertain which of the two belonged to the FA. We didn't make any modifications or add any holes to any pitch or belay. We cleaned several heads and deadheads, leaving less than 10 fixed heads on the entire route. We climbed what was there, leaving a challenge for future parties. That was the most important thing to me. NB 8/97]

And so I sit here over a month after completing the climb. Much of the feeling has faded in my 9-5 life. It seems everything had slipped in the days before I left. I've learned that much energy is tapped unconsciously in the weeks before a big route. I arrived home to a big mess with little capacity to deal with it. But now I have some time. I feel an obligation to write some stuff down.

The Jolly Roger was put up in 1979 by Grossman and Cole. With 60 meter rope-stretching A5 leads, rated X freeclimbing up to 5.10 and minimal to no enhanced features and unnecessary holes, the route was way ahead of it's time. It has seen about 5 ascents. There was quite a legend surrounding the route. I was hopelessly attracted to it.

I faintly recall an animated children's show I saw when I was young. A boy in the story stood by his mentor looking over a valley. It was necessary that the boy go into the valley and pass through several rites of passage. There were beasts, walls, trap doors and flying beams of light and projectiles that had struck down many. But there was one last rite that had vaporized many of the best. It was simply a mirror that reflected back the inner self.


I arrived in the camp IV lot late in the afternoon totally psyched to be back in the Valley. I feverishly wandered around trying to find something I had left behind 9 months ago. I was hoping it was still there. I wanted familiar faces. After finding a note from my partner, Grant, at the Camp IV kiosk, I went off to find him. The Center had moved due the floods. I knocked hopefully on his bus. The door opened. A lot had changed in both of us. Grant had been through a year of college. I had been working a full-time job. Only the summer before we were both climbing bums with no obligations. There was a lot of energy as we shook hands. It was pretty clear what we had both come to do. The rest of my life dropped away as we went through our little introductions.

I crawled out of my van the next morning. It was cold. Grant and I began throwing our racks into a pile on the blue tarp. It had been awhile for me. The whole process felt very mechanical, but I knew what needed to be done. After getting some last minute misc. gear, we headed off to get some pitches fixed. I felt bad about planning to fix up to 9 pitches, but it seemed silly to drag bags and bivy right next to the Salathe fix lines in the name of commitment. We were to spend the next few days sport aiding. There was no pressure to reach any particular point. We could just zip down the fix lines almost any time. This was nice.

We arrived at the base, supposedly to make the 6th ascent of this route, and there was a line to get on the first pitch. Pitch 1 is the left side of Little John, a popular base route. Things moved a little faster when the leader in front of us took a fall and broke some bones. His partner seemed to have it covered. I took off up the pitch, too focused to allow myself to engage in his situation. I pulled the rope up too high as I mistook our rope for an exact same one still on the ground from someone else. I ended up trying to lower it back to the ground through the pieces. A bunch of it was left stuck and coiled up in a crack. Neither of us noticed this. Just as Grant figured it out, after jugging half the pitch, the coil broke loose and Grant went for a 25 foot head-first Jumar fall with a heavy pack on his back. He smashed his heal and lost some major skin. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet. I questioned the rope, but Grant seemed to think it was okay. It was too close, and on the easiest pitch of the whole route, but it was good something like this happened early without major consequence. Reality quickly set in.

Grant took an A4+ lead off the top of Little John, and I took the next A3. There were some scary free moves leading to a blind piece that I had to test very carefully (by feel) lest I go for a 60 foot swan dive. Only 3 pitches that day, without hauling. The aid was time consuming, although on that day we had spent time racking and waiting in line. We left all our gear and zipped back down to the Valley.

We got an earlier start the next morning. First up was the infamous hooking pitch. Very thin it was. Grant hiked through the runouts. At one point in the pitch he hooked a small nubbin deep in a crack with a Fish hook, then hammered the hook to set it. It was the best piece in the pitch. It looked pretty rad. Next pitch up was some A1 to a 5.10 7+" crack. It was pretty clear I wasn't going to be able to aid the wide section. The #5 made no contact with the walls of the crack. I was facing a 30 foot runout above some slung choss. The #5 sat a little above the slung choss providing the approximate security of a #1 head. I zipped the entire rack back to the belay and put on my free shoes. I wasn't sure I could do it. I slotted in and went beyond the point of no return. I passed out on the ledge above darn glad I hadn't trivialized the pitch with a bunch of big bros. This was one of the most exiting pitches for me.

The next pitch contained the crux freeclimbing of the whole route. The difficulty wasn't just the grade, but the lack of protection and nature of the fall. There is a 100 foot section of no pro slopers with a very real mantle at the top before you get a bolt. There were plenty of things to hit down below. This was Grant's pitch, the only pitch on the route I didn't really care to lead. Grant took the runout and froze in the middle of the mantle. I thought I was going to get hurt even trying to stop the fall. I had sewing machine leg as Grant slowly reached back, chalked up and finished the move. I zipped up the aid rack and he proceeded to finish the pitch through some more A4+. The next pitch is no-pro free to the Heart Ledge. The difficulties ended after about 35 feet of wet 5.9. Fortunately, my shoes seemed to stick okay. It was getting late. We were happy with our high point, 7 pitches up. We stashed the gear and again zipped back down to the Valley. It was time to pack the haulbags.

We moved slow the next day. There were a lot of things to prepare. I also needed some mental time. Here is something from my journal that day:

"So little do I write during the experience. I'm on the roller coaster. ... I've changed. I've let go of something ... Deep depression and fear of dying on this route, mixed with strong feelings of happiness - sometimes bringing me to tears. The cold mornings, then the heat of the afternoons. It's taking a slow toll on my body and mind. Big, big route. Grant falling on Jumars, then sending and A4 pitch. Entropy? .. no. Center. Feeding the soul...? Hmmm.. Today my soul is a growling lion in a cage looking for a hunk of bloody red meat. "

There was an incredible sense of power and synergy I felt with Grant. He was octaves above anyone else I had ever climbed with. I wanted to quit my job just so we could perhaps run off and climb stuff that I could never do with any other partner. My time in the Valley wasn't enough.

The emotional roller coaster ride ended the morning we committed to the wall. There was a solid feeling of steady state interrupted by small fluctuations of anxiety before hard pitches. I lost track of the days. My whole life had been simplified to the here and now of the wall. I lost track of the mornings, just laying on the ledge taking in the sweeping granite and empty space. Then there were the timeless afternoons sitting on the ledge, eating, listening to CDs, watching Grant lead, cleaning the pitches, slowly solving the route foot by foot, pitch by pitch, day by day... each sunset a peaceful closure. It seemed everything that was important to me in life, and in my climbing, was being acted out and left with a sense of peace and completeness. There was absolutely nothing else in the world that was more important than what I was doing. For everything that climbing meant to me, I was on my true journey.


During the 5 minutes that Aishan had spent with me telling me about the route, 2-3 pitches stood out in his memory. The 6th pitch had shut him down during an attempt in 1995. Fortunately, that pitch was behind us, or at least behind Grant. The crux aid was supposedly to be found on pitch 17. "If you fall from this pitch....you'll break every bone in your body..." I stripped down the rack to 2 hooks and a few draws to start and put on my free shoes. I would zip stuff up only as I needed it. Almost ready to give up the lead, I asked Grant what he thought. He was very willing to lead it. I couldn't give it up now. We had been alternating the whole way. This is the way a partnership should be, and it was my turn. I felt very light as I left the belay, like I was bouldering. If not only the crux, it is easily one of the most beautiful pitches on the route, right behind the Golden Doubloon, an extremely steep A5 pitch leading out of the Heart on Beaks. I crept up on hooks from partial free stances. Things quickly got interesting - a few rotten aliens, then a blade to 25 feet of freeclimbing. I zipped up more hooks and some tape. Leaving behind 3 taped hooks, I moved into a shallow seam for 18 consecutive #1 and #2 heads. A few more bad pins and I arrived at the belay to end a 5 hour lead. We spent the night there completing yet another 2 pitch day.

We topped out under a threateningly low and dark cloud ceiling after about 8 days of climbing with 5 nights on the wall. I was very happy. The sense of accomplishment was not so much in the climbing, but in learning about the legend that we had come to find the reality behind.

Something happened up there. I guess it wasn't too particular to the route, my partner, or even the time. Taking this true journey has had some sort of lasting effect that even months later I am still confused by. I've always tried to remain true and pure to my real loves in climbing. Maybe my experience on this route was an outcome of that.

I guess if was to project or try to predict what lasting effect this would have on me, everything would be positive. But I am left feeling distant, disconnected and a little bitter. If what I experienced on the wall was true and complete, then why should I have to deal with all this other crap in my life? Back at home with my friends, I felt I was seeing them through glass. I wasn't really there. Only a cutout of a part of me I didn't really care about or feel I needed was sitting there at the table, trying to apologize for the missing other half. Ironically, that other half was desperately seeking understanding and companionship. Maybe I was protecting that part, for risk of having my experience trivialized through the inherent failure of complete communication between human beings. I found myself very alone.

I continue to believe that we as human beings are alone in this universe. There will always be parts of me that can't be shared, parts that I am left alone with. I believe our truest and most complete connections are with nature. Ever pure and wise in its ways, our natural world has a sense of truth that passes easily and naturally into the human soul, as our soul is a part of nature itself. They often communicate without us even noticing. We have the winters where life is frozen and cold, and we have the springs with budding roses. Each must be absorbed. There is importance in the mystery of it all. I easily breath in the air on the summit of El Capitan, looking over endless landscapes on which I have traveled. For the moment, I find peace in the reflection.

Nathanial Beckwith - Boulder, CO

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