Mountain Online - Features and Regulars
Clean Ascents in the Desert Canyonlands
     Cam Burns

Clean climbing (done without the use of hammers) has long been a tradition in the American West. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, clean ascents were the rage in places like Yosemite Valley and Eldorado Canyon, where hardcore local climbers, concerned about the condition of their local crags, made the often-time difficult transition from pitons and hammers to nuts and hexes.

Although first clean acents are still made in the Yosemites, it is the American Southwest deserts where the clean climbing tradition has seen a major upsurge in recent years.

While many of the desert's prominent formations - such as Standing Rock, in Momument Basin, Canyonlands, Utah - already go clean, the past year has seen an explosion of first clean ascents. The most noteworthy being Shark's Fin on Monument Basin tower. In October, 1996, the Original Route (IV, A4) received its first clean-aid ascent by Rock & Ice editor Dougald MacDonald and partner Dave Goldstein.

Desert legend Earl Wiggins led the first ascent in 1986, with brother Art and then girlfriend Katy Cassidy accompanying him on the climb. Shark's Fin's first ascent was unique, as the Wiggins team decided to climb the most difficult line on the tower, a 300-foot overhanging prow. In 1992, a team consisting of the late Rob Slater, Jim Bodenhamer, Tom Cotter and Bruce Hunter climbed the opposite prow on the tower, a slabby ramp dubbed the Fetish Arete (IV, 5.10, A2).

MacDonald and Dave Goldstein's ascent was the third ascent of the Wiggins-Cassidy route and the sixth ascent ever of the unique tower. The pair reported much "inventive" gear, and a two-hour battle through the final overhanging section of the route.

The two climbers gave the route a clean aid rating of C3, in which C replaces A.

In the nearby Fisher Towers, MacDonald and Goldstein also made a clean ascent of Jim Beyer's classic route Phantom Spirit, on Echo Tower in September, 1996. The pair speculate the route might have had a previous clean ascent.

Phantom Spirit, originally rated IV, 5.9, A3 (six pitches), was climbed solo by Beyer in 1986 and climbs the east face, just left of the North Chimney. It has long been hailed as Beyer's easiest route in the Fishers - a real contrast to the majority of his desperate testpieces - and saw numerous repeats, especially since Bjørnstad mentioned in the 1988 guide book "Desert Rock" that Phantom Spirit includes "minimal hard climbing."

Meanwhile, in Zion National Park, Jeff Hollenbaugh and Dave Penney made an all clean ascent of the Linus Platt - Brad Quinn classic Lunar Ecstasy (previously rated V, 5.9, A4) on Moonlight Buttress this spring.

Hollenbaugh reported that done clean, the route requires "no tricks." Many clean ascents now being done in the U.S. require the hand-placing of pitons and specially adapted gear. Although Hollenbaugh and Penney carried pitons with them, they used only wired stoppers and RP nuts, Lowe Balls (thin sliding nuts), and several smaller tricams.

Hollenbaugh reported that Hugh Banner's effective offset stoppers were key to the route. The pair carried dozens, along with three sets of RP nuts.

Hollenbaugh and Penney climbed the route on April 21 and 22, fixing three pitches on their first day. They rated the hardest clean aid sections C2+.

Perhaps the biggest news circulating about Zion, however, is the first clean ascent of the popular 9-pitch route Desert Shield, by Mark Bennett and Kevin Lawlor. Traditionally, the first six leads of the Desert Shield have been done clean, but pitches 7, 8 and 9 have generally required some hammering.

In early November, Bennett and Lawlor were able to clean up the remainder of the route over a several day period.

And, while on the subject of Zion National Park

The biggest new route in Zion in recent years fell to Baffin Island ace Warren Hollinger and Cam Burns in mid-October.

The pair climbed the first major route yet done on the West Face of the Mountain of the Sun, via a line called "Eye Shadow" (VI, 5.9, A2+, 16 pitches with 200 foot ropes). Eye Shadow climbs the lower 1,000-foot buttress on the west face, before ascending broken ledges for 400 feet to the final 800-foot headwall. The route was named for a prominent round "eye" which lies on the upper headwall.

The route lies left of the outstanding John Middendorf-Paul Turecki route "The Tao of Light" (VI, 5.10, A3, 17 pitches), which climbs the southwestern corner of the Mountain of the Sun, following a line where the west and south faces meet.

Hollinger and Burns spent 6 days working on the route, and drilled only 13 holes for the ascent. They drilled another half dozen or so during the descent, for abseil anchors. The climb was the first time Hollinger had ever climbed on sandstone.

Although there are numerous short, one-pitch climbs along the foot of the Mountain of the Sun's western and southwestern faces, "Eye Shadow" and "The Tao of Light" are the only routes that climb to the summit.

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