The rain subsided at 4 AM August 14, 2011. By 5:30 the clouds broke, allowing a full moon to illuminate buttresses of green and red patina covered granite. Below them, tinted snowfields led to mounds of boulders. Between the talus were patches of rough grass covered in yellow blooms. Water trickled its way from the snow, through the rocks and meadows, in an attempt to make it down to the Great Salt Lake. For the moment none who had made the 5,000-foot elevation gain from the valley floor were awake. Although it saw its first technical ascent over 40 years ago, climbers are proving that Lone Peak Cirque still offers adventure high above the sprawl of Salt Lake City.
“That pecker’s like a bolt,” Nik Berry proclaimed. It was now 8 AM in the Cirque and as a handful of climbers were rousing from sleep, Nik was explaining how he’d protect the crux pitch of an aid route on the summit of Lone Peak. An aid climb usually requires the placement of gear into the rock, which the climber then uses to assist with upward progress. Nik was working on eliminating the assisted points from this route. He continued by saying that a pecker piton, wafer-thin and less than a centimeter deep, supplemented with micro cams and stoppers would be enough for the A3 rated pitch. None of that gear is rated for high fall forces. Standing in the morning sun, listening and sensing that it would be short work for Nik, the climbers believed that the pecker just might be as good as a bolt.
It’s easier to picture Nik Berry hanging out with Michael Cera than it is to see him red pointing big wall free routes, but this Salt Lake native is talented and motivated when it comes to the rock. Before getting sucked entirely into climbing, Nik was known to run 85 miles a week during the summer months and snowboard all winter long, but that was a couple of years ago. In 2010 he free climbed “Goldengate”, “Freerider”, and “The Salathe” ledge to ledge, on El Capitan in Yosemite. Then, looking for something more than repeating existing free climbs, in the spring of 2011, he did the first free ascent of “Lunar Ecstasy” in Zion. Add to the list hard ice and mixed routes along with red pointing 5.14 and you could say the past couple of years have been very productive.
In July 2011, becoming bored with sport climbing and looking for a bigger experience, Nik lugged a huge gear-filled pack up to Lone Peak. Once there he attached a 90m rope to the top of the main summit and rappelled down to investigate the aid route “Wonderwall”. First aided in 1978, the 600-foot line was finally getting some free climbing attention. Immediately Nik saw possibilities and went to work cleaning and figuring out the moves. Another trip down to the valley and then back up with another day of cleaning and rehearsing, he along with prolific climber Ari Menitove, were ready to lead it from the ground up. It was August 14.
Nik led the first shady pitch. Already established as 5.9 he set up an awkward belay at the beginning of the A2 dihedral. Next, Ari cast off on the second pitch. Through lie backing and technical stemming, he passed the difficulties freeing it at 5.11c. Sunlight now bathed the wall as Ari belayed from a ledge at the base of the third A3 pitch. After a short break Nik started up. Placing a micro-cam and a nut along with clipping the pecker, he was at the first crux. He moved his left hand into a gaston. Then, as he flexed to raise himself up, POP! The hold peeled from the wall. Ari closed his eyes as Nik fell onto the pecker. It held.
With the hold now gone, Nik set about trying new sequences that would lead to a no hands rest above. Around his fifth or sixth fall the pecker finally ripped from the seam. Ari stepped in as Nik bounced, catlike, off the back of the ledge.
Dangling a few feet below, Nik quipped, “I guess peckers are not bolts!”
In the summer of 1989 another Salt Lake bred climber named Merrill Bitter, who’s been climbing hard along the Wasatch for over three decades, set out for a similar undertaking in the cirque. His sights were set on free climbing the “Question Mark Wall Route”, aka “The Beckey Route”. First climbed in 1962 by famous climber Fred Beckey, this route is a gem of Lone Peak. Though The Question Mark Wall stands lower than the summit it makes up for its lack of height by a pronounced steepness and its shady aspect. Beckey’s three-pitch route goes straight up its center. Rated 5.7 A1, it took Merrill four trips from the valley floor, to aid, clean and figure out the first pitch. Merrill concluded his venture by red pointing the crux pitch at 5.12b. His partner that day, Stuart Ruckman, on-sighted the second pitch, freeing it at hard 5.11 and they both enjoyed the final pitch, 5.7, to the top.
For Jonathan Knight, a key member of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, “The Beckey Route” was a different journey. It was the summer of 1996 and he had just arrived to the base of the route after hiking up from the valley. There, he was greeted by friends Kim Csizmazia, who had just red pointed the climb, and Chris Harmston.
“They handed me the gear sling, stacked in the order that Kim had placed it, not that it helped because I had no idea where each piece went, then told me to go for it.” Jonathan thrashed, thrutched and trembled his way through blind placements, suspect rock and run outs. Eventually he found himself at the anchor of the pitch. He was the first person to have flashed the climb, doing it without falling on the initial go.
Following this feat Jonathan became a major contributor of hard routes in the cirque. “Dirty Harry” 5.12a, “Lonely Mountain Challenge” 5.11c and “Rareform” 5.12c, are just a few of the routes he has helped establish. Then in 2010 he ushered in a new number grade to the Cirque when he red pointed “Interrogator” at 5.13a.
Having only lived in Salt Lake for five years, Shingo Ohkawa has wasted no time putting his mark in the local canyons as well as the Cirque. First visiting Lone Peak in 2007 he has spent an enormous amount of time there and helped contribute nine routes, his favorite being “Da Black and Gold”. After a couple of seasons up there, Shingo along with another Salt Lake climber, Zac Robinson, did a repeat aid climb of “Wonderwall”.
Rolling away from the typical slabs of the summit it took on the vertical south face of a corner for its third pitch. Rated 5.9 A3, this four-pitch route required knifeblade pitons and RURPs (Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons), thick as a dime and millimeters long, making it one of the more daunting routes up there. Starting late, struggling with route finding and after taking a fall onto a cam hook, they topped out beneath a full moon.
“The appeal of Lone Peak is that with such a monster approach you feel like you should be far away from civilization,” Shingo related, “but then you top out and see the surrounding metropolis and realize how close you are… It’s really cool.”
After this Shingo went about pitching “Wonderwall” to strong local climbers as a possible free climb. While he saw the potential he also knew that it would take a massive amount of work.
By mid-August 2011, Nik Berry had to decide how to protect the third pitch of “Wonderwall”. Speaking with several people including Shingo, he chose sawed-off knife blade pitons; only slightly larger than peckers. Back in the Cirque Nik hammered the pitons into place then spent hours rehearsing the moves. After spending hours working the crux in the sun the skin on his fingers was shredded. If he were to have a chance at sending he would have to climb the granite while it was cool, before the sun arrived.
At the end of August Nik returned with fellow climber Rob Duncan, who he had partnered with in Zion, to give the route a second go from the ground. They rose before dawn and climbed the first two pitches with minimal light. At the ledge, the base of the crux pitch, just past eight, Nik had less than two hours to free it before the sun arrived. After days of cleaning, practice and several brutal approaches, it came down to this.
Nik cast off confidently from the ledge. He dispatched the lower crux without difficulty then hooked his left foot over a black diorite chicken head and pressed his right shoulder into the off set seam. From this awkward stance he managed a no-hands rest that allowed his arms to recover. Making the next move his foot popped off unexpectedly causing him to fall before reaching the second crux. He returned to the ledge disappointed and pulled the rope. He and Rob could see sunlight moving across the cirque getting closer to their climb. After a 20-minute rest he tried again. Back to the chicken head and then with focus he made it to the second crux. Once more it was his feet. This time they wouldn’t stay put on the smooth granite and he fell. Back to the ledge, the sun creeping even closer, Nik led back up. He set his feet precisely, giving them a slight twist to help the rubber bite. This time they stayed in place when he moved up. On his third attempt of the day, just before the sun arrived, Nik Berry finally climbed the pitch free. Rob then romped up the rust colored 5.8 corner pitch to the summit, concluding the first free ascent of “Wonderboy” at 5.13c R.
The past winter when Fred Beckey was asked about Lone Peak he replied, “It’s a long walk!”
This summer, during the approach as you leave the sweltering Salt Lake Valley and are hiking through fields of lupine, flax and buckwheat, just about the time you catch your first glimpse of the granite walls that are peppered with alpine firs and your legs are quivering beneath the load on your back, consider that Beckey also had this to say about the Cirque, “it’s a beautiful place… [with] quality rock… [and] there’s still potential up there.”