Todd Swain: Developing In The Mountains


Long-time Mad Rock athlete Todd Swain is a seasoned developer and guide writer. Swain writes to us about an adventure in the Sierra Nevadas:

Two years ago I spied a wall in California’s Sierra Nevada that looked like it may hold some new route potential. The cliff appeared to be 5-600 feet tall and steep. While it looked climbable, it seemed to have some blank sections that were going to require a bit of effort to overcome.



Fast forward to summer 2014, when the two year old idea came to at least partial fruition…

Prior to an actual attempt on the wall, I hauled two loads of gear (including my M5 shoes) into a basecamp in a huge talus field. Each load took 5-6 hours round trip and both ended with me being soaked due to thunderstorm activity. With gear in place, my wife, Donette, our friend, Jon, and I headed in for an attempt on the wall. We each had big packs, as the plan was to spend several nights camped at the base to try and push a new route as high as we could before needing a rest day (or two) back at home.

After a false start up two pitches along a very scary flake system (5.10+ and 5.8 X), we found a better way. A good corner system with nice jamming (5.9+) lead to a belay stance. The next pitch began with a good finger crack up a steep wall (5.10). When the crack ended, the fun began.

Over the next two days, a combination of tied off pitons, hooks and other tricks got in a number of bolts and us to a hanging belay. More trickery got us half way up the next pitch before the rain and hail arrived. A quick retreat down the wall, found us at the base soaked but looking at patches of blue sky. Up we went again, to make a bit more progress before we ran out of daylight.

After a rest day, Jon and I hiked back in and continued upward. It was slow going. While the wall was climbable, getting adequate protection proved difficult. Loose flakes and thin, dirt filled cracks required considerable cleaning to make upward progress. At the end of the third day on the line, we rappelled to the ground under blackening skies.

Back at our basecamp in the talus field, we each had Thai curry soup and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Shortly after finishing dinner, the skies broke loose, forcing us under a large boulder to stay dry. That night we hunkered down in our sleeping bags under the boulder. The night’s sleep was about as enjoyable as a trans-Pacific flight in coach.

The next morning we crawled out of our hole (literally) to find more black clouds. Ever the optimists, we went back up on the wall. No sooner did we reach our high point, then the skies opened up with more rain. We descended to the base, but this time there were no patches of blue sky, only more rain. By the time we got back to basecamp, it was pouring and there were nearby claps of thunder. Given the bleak outlook, we decided to head for the car. The three hour descent was made in pouring rain and hail. In places, the hail accumulated several inches deep. When we reached the trailhead, the car thermometer read 46 degrees. A short drive from the trailhead we reached home, where Donette had a pot of homemade chicken soup and fresh baked biscuits waiting for us.

Two days later, we left the trailhead at 5am so that we could maximize our day on the wall. By the end of the day, Jon had made it to the top of the third pitch. This achievement was not without some drama, however.

Near the top of the pitch the face blanked out, requiring a short bolt ladder. Jon freed all but one move by the top bolt. Standing in a sling in the top bolt, he then climbed up on small rounded holds. Shortly thereafter, off he came, and having almost the entire 70 meter rope in play, the rope stretch helped assure the fall was a long one. Another try got him to a sloping stance, where he was able to get in a gear anchor. I followed and drilled an anchor, which luckily was finished just before the rain and hail began. We rappelled down and spent another uncomfortable night huddled under the boulder.

The following day was still murky, but we went back up on the climb. Jon was able to free the section at the top of the third pitch (5.11+). After I reached the belay, he started up the next pitch, which began with a section of 5.10 off-width. The crack was in a corner that overhung in both directions. Luckily, we had two of the large, green Camalots with us and they, combined with Jon’s grunting and panting, got him to the top of the crack. The hail and rain returned shortly thereafter, causing the now tired team to descend the route and head home yet again.

Jon had to return to work, but we’ll hopefully get the route finished before winter…