[1] Finding that Cliff to Develop

This story is the first a part of a series on Route Development. Click on this tag to see all.

Route/Rock/Crag/Cliff development, is the unsexy cousin of the super fly First Ascent everyone wants a part of. The first reaction people have with route development is whether it is top down (you clean first, spec out the route) or bottom up (true plunge into mungy reality). If you’ve ever climbed anything that was bolted on lead, you know which approach does better routes… I really liked this quote, “There are two kinds of route developers… One that bolts a couple routes and does it bottom up. Another who bolts a ton of routes and does it top down”. (queue the Mountain Project Flame Wars)

I had been curious about development and the large hunk of rock north of the main mammoth road so while CORVID was locking down all the popular climbing areas… I went out to scout the rock. Originally, Sadie, Piton “Adventure Sausage” Skiles and I went out on a brilliantly sunny day and bush whacked our way up braided animal trails to the middle of the climb.

As we got closer I started worrying that the rock was looking pretty crumbly. Eventually, 15m from the cliff after finishing a battle with Manzinita, Sadie and I say it at the same time. “Look’s kinda shitty”. However, I’ve been to several places where the rock looked shitty but was (or what was left was) solid.

I started pulling on rocks and finding things crumbling off as I searched for cracks. I noticed that while a lot of stuff did crumble, what remained was really solid. I am on the heavy side of climbers so I’m a pretty good litmus test for holds. Walking across the nose to the left side, I found some cracks and felt that with a bunch of trundling we could get this cliff into climbing shape. 

It was very hot up there so after noting a road closer to the rock, we walked back to the car. The ground was very loose and rocky with amble flecks of obsidian from some past volcanic explosion. Not the best for dogs.

The next day I came back I was geared up for development. I had my initial list of equipment:

  • Gardening hand-clippers that could ratchet 
  • A static rope
  • Ascenders and aiders
  • A couple pieces of gear
  • 40m of webbing
  • A wire brush
  • Beat up gloves

Eventually as I learned what worked and didn’t I’d change this equipment selection to a bunch of other tools. (I’ll go into more details on tools in another article)

On my optimistic first day of cleaning I did find a closer parking area and I began trying to find the best way up to the rock. This involved getting stuck trying to connect / widen some animal trails that lead through a manzanita patch. Eventually I had to take my backpack off as I battled for an hour clearing a path through 40 ft of brush.

Finally I said, enough was enough. I wanted to do rock-development out here, not trail development. So I lightly used the clippers and focused mostly on getting to the wall. This approach I’d have to iteratively improve and document 4-5x before it was easy enough to follow and find so that I didn’t make mistakes or have to shore things up when walking uphill towards the cliff. 

Finally reaching the wall for the first time, prepared to work on it… I started looking for the way up. I very foolishly decided to climb a weakness in the wall that looked easy.  This was foolish for one, because even though it was easy climbing… any hold could break in this completely untested area. For this reason, down climbing would be hard if I got in over my head. My original plan was walking around to the top, but I got greedy.

I made my way up the future 5.4 route on jugs with dishes of mouse poop to a corner just before top out in a crack currently occupied with some large bushes. While solo’ing, in an awkward position, I had to take out the clippers to clear my way so the branches didn’t throw me off balance pushing my backpack. Eventually, I cleared enough out and was able to heavily brush off a few dirty holds for a dirty top out. 

Each route felt 1-2 grades harder before a heavy cleaning. So this future 5.4 would feel more like a really dirty 5.6 until I finished with it. I was now on top of the tier of rock. Looking around at some bushes, a pile of loose gravel leading in a 20 degree slant up towards the top of the crack section. Despite finding dishwasher-sized boulders, I found myself a little sketched with them as an anchor since many of the boulders could move and the volcanic rock was something like 2x lighter than granite per volume.

The tier on top of the 5.4

So I strung 30 ft of webbing around the top of a pillar into a mega anchor. I used this to fix my static line and descended the cracks to investigate if they were worth while and start the cleaning. What I found was a 4’x 20’ crack that connected the two crack routes behind a pillar. Incredibly, the entire section was pretty much filled with a mouse nest. 

Piece of bone found in the Mansion Mouse Nest behind the pillar

The first day I was swimming in mouse poop as I tore out the mouse nest, feeling a little bad about the possibly active home I was destroying… Eventually I would bring a ski-pole up here to get deep inside of the crack to finish cleaning out the crack.

What it looked like beneath me after the first day of cleaning.

I brushed really white holds from poop deposits to little effectiveness and ended my day only depending the static line once after spending four hours.  Often I’d find that 3-4 hours of continuous cleaning, only meant going up/down the line two times. It was hard work and I ended my first day unclear whether this place was worth all the effort.

Need more visuals? Watch this short documentary about the development of Storybook Cliff.