In sum­mer 2018, I crimped the side of a thin crack at Area A at Colorado’s Mount Evans. I ga­s­toned a ghost hold with my right hand, smeared my right foot, and stood up, launch­ing my­self up the iconic

Seurat, one of Colorado best alpine boulder prob­lems. How­ever, I wasn’t sure if I’d truly sent. As with so many things in climb­ing, there were nu­ances to the prob­lem—such as the start­ing po­si­tion used on the first as­cent—that re­si­t­u­ated my ef­fort in a larger con­text. Namely, “Who makes the rules of climb­ing?”

In 1995, the Fort Collins–based climber Ben Scott hiked in to the Chicago Lakes on the flanks of Mount Evans and be­gan es­tab­lish­ing prob­lems on the area’s clean, white, gran­ite boul­ders. He started Seurat, named for the late-1800s pain­ter and in­ven­tor of pointil­ism Ge­orges Seurat, with his right hand in the crack and his left hand palm­ing down. The way I climbed the crack, with my hands in a dif­fer­ent se­quence, made for a more dif­fi­cult start­ing move; how­ever, it also al­lowed me to skip a hand move once I got go­ing.

Later that night, I polled 944 of my In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, ask­ing if my as­cent counted. 75 per­cent agreed that it was “2 le­git to quit,” while 25 per­cent felt it was “in­valid salad.” A few days later, I re­turned to the prob­lem and tried Scott’s orig­i­nal start, but failed higher, at the crux. I spoke with Scott about the prob­lem af­ter­ward. “If you can’t fully stand up for your whole ex­pe­ri­ence or ac­com­plish­ment for do­ing it the orig­i­nal way, then you’re just look­ing for a lit­tle boost to your ego,” he said.

While Scott’s state­ment drew a hard line, he had a point. Many climbers who talk about their as­cents do so be­cause they want val­i­da­tion. But of­ten­times their need for val­i­da­tion eclipses their need to tell the en­tire truth—to be ac­cu­rate and hon­est when re­count­ing the par­tic­u­lars of their as­cent. Climbers have de­fined what terms like “send” mean: The Climb­ing Dic­tio­nary’s first def­i­ni­tion is “to free-climb with­out fall­ing, ei­ther as a red­point, flash or on­sight.” Rep­re­sent­ing oth­er­wise or fail­ing to cor­rect a misconception is to lie by omis­sion, spread­ing mis­truths that of­ten catch up to you in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. The way past this is to rep­re­sent the facts with an as­ter­isk, to clar­ify your as­cent. I’ve spent the ma­jor­ity of my climb­ing ca­reer in Yosemite, where the as­ter­isks are many and the lines get murkier than where you started with your hands on a boulder prob­lem.

In 1988, Todd Skin­ner and Paul Piana made the first free as­cent of El Cap­i­tan via the Salathé

Wall. How­ever, their as­cent had a few as­ter­isks. In spots, they did it in a style in which one per­son freed a pitch and then the sec­ond ju­mared, so they didn’t each free ev­ery sin­gle pitch—though all told, each climber be­came one of the first hu­mans to free-climb such a large por­tion of the Big Stone. How­ever, they also climbed the orig­i­nal aid line, free­ing the dif­fi­cult nine­teenth pitch, a 5.13c flar­ing, pin-scarred crack that most de­tour around to­day via a 5.11 of­fwidth. The sec­ond free as­cent of El Cap­i­tan came in 1993 when Lynn Hill freed the Nose. Then Hill set a new stan­dard for style in 1994, free­ing the

Nose again, this time lead­ing ev­ery pitch free in a day—a high­mark that in the quar­ter cen­tury since has only been achieved on El Cap by less than 25 peo­ple. So, should all other climbers who want to free El Cap now be held to this stan­dard: lead­ing ev­ery pitch free in a day? Sim­ple logic would dic­tate that the an­swer is “No”—few will be skilled enough.

The con­sen­sus on how big-wall free climb­ing should be done is murky at best. At times, peo­ple toprope crux pitches. Or the climbers leave the wall to re­sup­ply, and then rap­pel back in to free the crux. Other times, peo­ple skip crux pitches—for ex­am­ple, how the Salathé gets climbed now, avoid­ing the 5.13c nine­teenth pitch for the eas­ier of­fwidth. Add in fixed lines that let you move freely about the wall and the con­tin­u­ous-as­cent de­bate, and sud­denly it’s more of a dif­fer­ence than the num­ber of pads you’re stand­ing on to reach the start­ing holds at the boul­ders. How­ever, what hasn’t changed is a need for clar­ity. There will al­ways be a need for clar­ity. In 2015, I sent the Freerider on El Cap­i­tan in a day af­ter 40 days of ef­fort spread over 4 years, lead­ing ev­ery pitch and free­ing the route with my friend Austin Si­adak ju­mar­ing be­hind with a back­pack full of sup­plies. How­ever, I have a few as­ter­isks. Af­ter fall­ing twice at 4 a.m. on pitch 6, a del­i­cate 5.11 slab on Free­blast that I climbed by head­lamp, I yo-yo’ed, leav­ing the rope clipped to my high­est bolt. I did the same on the first En­duro Cor­ner pitch, pitch 26. I fell at the crux and then low­ered, toprop­ing back to my high­point with the gear in situ. On the last 5.12 pitch, a short tra­verse on pitch 28, I grabbed the rope mo­men­tar­ily when I thought I was fall­ing—I didn’t want to whip any far­ther than I had to. Low­er­ing back to the be­lay, pulling the rope, and re-lead­ing the 40-foot pitch seemed ex­ces­sive. I had all the ex­cuses: At that point, I’d been on the go for 12 hours, with only 575 feet of climb­ing left to do. It was time to move on. I re­turned to a no-hands stance and then fin­ished the pitch. While my as­cent was less than per­fect, it was what I could do at the time. These as­ter­isks pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn, though. As notes of truth, they showed me just how I could make mas­tery of climb­ing more im­por­tant than the send.


In 2011, my girl­friend, Nina Wil­liams, grabbed a se­ries of crimps on Joe’s Val­ley’s black-and­grey Res­i­dent Evil Boulder. She moved through a dif­fi­cult se­quence, got a heel-toe cam in a crack, and topped out. She thought she’d sent the name­sake prob­lem. How­ever, un­know­ingly, she—as have many oth­ers—had started higher than the first as­cen­tion­ist, Stephen Jef­frey.

“I started Res­i­dent Evil so low that no poser could come along years later and say they added a sit start, try to re­name it, and claim the FA,” says Jef­frey of his 1999 first as­cent. In the mid-2000s, a tree grow­ing out of a jug at the top was re­moved and the prob­lem was ex­tended for a longer, al­beit eas­ier, exit. Jef­fery es­ti­mates that the way peo­ple do it now is V8/9, eas­ier than the orig­i­nal V10.

Ear­lier this year, Nina re­turned to Res­i­dent Evil. This time she be­gan on the lower holds; af­ter warm­ing up to the tiny crimps, she climbed as Jef­frey had, though she fin­ished on the dead-tree topout. Re­peat­ing the prob­lem from the orig­i­nal start dis­played her growth in climb­ing over the past seven years—she had im­proved on her style.

This past sum­mer, in Chaos Canyon in Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park, Nina pro­jected The Au

toma­tor, a 20-move V13. Af­ter six days of work, she climbed the ini­tial hard crimp moves to the dif­fi­cult red­point crux. She stuck the move, but as she topped out she looked per­plexed, like some­thing was off. Ear­lier on the climb, her back had grazed the pads, and she felt like she’d dabbed. In­stead of leav­ing the as­ter­isk, she rested for 30 min­utes and then re­peated The Au­toma­tor, one of her hard­est prob­lems ever, with­out touch­ing the pads.

As my strength has in­creased, so too has my de­sire to re­turn to Seurat and send it from the proper start. Watch­ing Nina re­move her as­ter­isks has in­spired me: It’s shown me that pro­gres­sion is some­times dis­played in style, in a push to make your best even bet­ter. Although I’m sat­is­fied with my ef­fort on Freerider, I’ve also taken what I learned on its pun­ish­ing slabs and cracks to ap­ply to fu­ture climbs. Per­haps the next time I free-climb El Cap, I’ll work it from the ground, or swing leads with a part­ner in a day, or I’ll climb it with no falls. Though the as­ter­isks are dif­fi­cult to ad­mit, and I wish they weren’t there—that I was climb­ing in the best style at all times—with­out those lit­tle dots, what would I have to im­prove on? In a sport where no­body, re­ally, makes the rules and where we rely on each other to be hon­est about our as­cents, I’ve come to see this as a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion.

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