Tribute to Ammon
big wall climber
In the 1990s, things were changing fast in the bigwall realm, zooming to another level. I remember when Flying Brian told me of some of his first ascents in Zion, the lines and the times were phenomenal. True minimum impact climbing, moving fast on free and aid, climbing at a high standard with sizable racks of gear on the shoulders. In Yosemite, new teams pushed speed-nailing to new heights, some were of (my) 80s generation, like Steve Gerberding, who pushed it first, followed by a new generation of younger climbers like Ammon and Ivo (there are lots of people who could be mentioned here).
Speed climbing El Cap came in three waves, after the initial first one-day of the Nose:
1980s: Mostly free routes like the Nose-in-a-day were being done frequently (and competitively), linkups were becoming mainstream, and feats like Steve Schneider’s roped-solo one-day of the Nose (21.5 hours) in 1989 were testpieces of continuous concentration of upward progress.
1989: The first wave of big Yosemite “in-a-push” nailing routes, inaugurated in the spring of 1989 with Werner Braun, Kevin Fosburg, and Rick Cashner's ascent of the Zodiac in 19 hours. During this period, most of the big walls that could be climbed by a reasonably fast team in 3-4 days, with moderately hard aid, were getting done in a day. I had tried some of these in the mid-1980s, with a 36-hour ascent of the Shield (w/12-hour bivy on Chickenhead in t-shirts), but it wasn’t yet time. Some of the records in this period are still archived here.
Hard nailups in a push. Ammon was certainly one of the boldest practitioners of this dark art. Without even having seen his videos, it was pretty clear what he doing was on another level, as he and his friends were doing one-day ascents of routes that normally took a week or more, and recalling the days of short-circuiting on hard aid that would be another level if climbed fast and fearless of falling.
We are talking about complicated, strenuous leads, using the entire assortment of a gigantic rack, and progress managed by efficient teamwork (the belayer is not just sitting there, both climbers are in active roles of rope and gear management). Walt Shipley and I were a good team in this respect, both engineers and proud of it; he complimented me on my engineering efficiency during our seven-day ascent of the Kali Yuga on Half Dome in 1989. In complete fear of getting caught in a late-season storm, I was in first ascent speed mode and was able to climb my leads—usually full rope stretchers—in two maybe three hours each.
Climbing these intricate aid leads often becomes zen—a puzzle after puzzle of moving effectively upward. Time stands still, yet it was not uncommon for these hard leads to take some climbers 8-10 hours or more. Faster means higher levels of concentration—two or three hours of continuous non-stop focus and constant movement, often in gymnastic positions to gain every inch as efficiently as possible—can fry you— “I’m too fried to lead another pitch today” was often said in the late afternoon. On the Sheep Ranch with Xaver, eager to get to the Cyclop’s Eye ledges for the night, we speed-climbed the four connecting Sea-of-Dreams pitches in a half a day. I found myself taking a 100-foot whipper onto a rivet after stepping up on an untested hook, with a flake the size of a wedding cake peeling off with me. A sub-two-hour pace on those leads is not really sustainable without taking on more risk, but most importantly, a mindful rationalization of that risk, something easier to say (or to write) than to do.
On his many first one-day’s and in-a-push ascents, Ammon polished off El Cap’s tricky A4+ pitches in incredibly quick times (Ammon followed the tradition of never claiming A5); his and Bryan McCray’s sub-one-day ascent of Atlantic Ocean Wall in 2004, a route that took me and John Barbella over a week to climb a couple of decades before, boggled my mind. I never got a chance to hang out with Ammon, but I would have liked to see that glint in his eye when asked about certain, specific leads, or hear the stories of some of his close calls, so imaginable in their telling. And boy, would it have been wild to climb with him!
Condolences to all family and friends.
Fast bigwall climbs in the 1990s and 2000s will be part of the Volume 3 bigwallgear.com series.
In the 1980’s the “medium” big wall routes (Grade V’s) were getting done in fast times, Mike Corbett, Rick Cashner, and myself were prime players. Lost Arrow Direct and Liberty Cap were my best first “in-a-days” with various partners, though I also had records on the routes like the Prow, Chouinard Herbert on Sentinel, west face of El Cap, regular route on Half Dome, and a few other obscurities in the mid-1980s (Nose record with Schultz on the winter solstice—all in daylight was the goal on the shortest day of the year—was subsequently claimed by an untimed prior ascent that year). We actually were not interested in records, but in clocking maximum vertical mileage in daylight hours. One needs to remember that headlamps were crap in those days, night climbing was feared as the best headlamps were only marginally reliable for 3 or 4 hours per 4.5v battery (the size of a pack of cigs and heavy), so packing in as many pitches in the daytime was the main game.
Great content, John. I wish I could read/hear more about your big wall stories as well.
March, 2000: My partner Michael and I were on the Salathe, and there was one other human on the whole formation -- Ammon, soloing something on the right side.