The Yosemite Triple

I heaved myself onto the big ledge, nicknamed the Sheraton Watkins, and immediately started making a chaotic pile of cams and slings, frantically shedding gear. I was covered in sweat and couldn’t control my breathing. Off came my helmet and sun hoody, but the cool air on my skin just made me feel nauseous. Jordan looked horrified, wondering if his partner was about to collapse into a broken mess. 

“I just need a minute… I’ll be good to go”, I choked out between haggard breaths.

We’d been on the move for 20 straight hours, had already covered roughly six thousand feet of vertical granite, and only had another thousand feet to go. The late evening sun was slanting orange across the face of Half Dome, just a couple miles away. We’d been on that face a few hours earlier… glad to be done with that one! Now we were midway up the South face of Mt. Watkins, the final wall of the mythical Yosemite Triple.

The Yosemite Progression

Yosemite Valley has always been the biggest arena for rock climbing in the United States. Successive generations of amped-up young climbers, eager to prove themselves, have let their imaginations pull them to ever bigger and more elaborate goals.

Just reaching all of the elusive summits initially provided ample challenge. From the 1875 ascent of Half Dome to the 1934 summit of Higher Cathedral Spire, the cutting-edge climbers of the day planted the flag on every hard-to-reach pinnacle.

While these summit hunters would search for the path of least resistance to their goal, the next generation instead sought out the steepest and blankest faces. 1957 and ’58 saw an imaginative leap with the first ascents of the Northwest face of Half Dome, and the massive Nose of El Capitan, respectively. Now the glory went to the climber who could chart a path up the most imposing wall.

Frost, Robbins, Pratt and Chouinard atop the North American Wall of El Capitan, 1964. photo by Tom Frost

With the accumulation of technique, emphasis on physical training, and ever-better equipment, by the 1970s no wall could be called unclimbable. Another imaginative leap was required to give the new generation a way to make their mark. In the spring of 1975 two major climbs showed two paths forward.

Astroman and the first NIAD

Free climbing is the challenge to ascend a rock with the strength of your fingers and toes alone. Of course you can use your knees, elbows and other body parts too, but you can’t pull on pitons or stand in webbing ladders like climbers always had before. Ropes and protection equipment are still used, but purely as a backup to the climber’s strength and balance. This new style felt so revolutionary that when Bachar, Kauk and Long first pulled it off on the “East Face of Washington Column” (which had been a classic for 16 years already), they felt justified in re-naming the route “Astroman” to show a new era had begun.

In addition to style, speed has always been appreciated in climbing. But the first “Nose-In-A-Day” created speed climbing as a game with it’s own rules and potential glory. Bridwell, Westbay and Long fired the starting gun by boldly racing up the Nose, Yosemite’s undisputed King Line, in just 15 hours. Before them, no team had ventured up into that massive granite desert without plenty of food, water, and shelter, all laboriously hauled up on ropes. It’s still common for “wall-style” teams to spend 3 or 4 days inching up the wall and camping on ledges, though now they share the route with plenty of lighter NIAD teams.

These two new disciplines continue to keep climbers busy, with new FFA’s (first free ascents) and FKT’s (fastest known times) still dominating headlines and instagram. But a further twist was added to the speed climbing game by Bachar and Croft in 1986 when they climbed both El Capitan and Half Dome in one day. The bigwall linkup concept wasn’t immediately obvious; most climbers relish the return to flat ground after a difficult ascent. Pizza and beer are probably the only things you would want to “link” after either of these heroic climbs. But so honed and full of energy were these new stone masters that no single mountain was enough.

Croft and Bachar after the first Nose-HD linkup. photo: Phil Bard

Birth of the Triple

Dean Potter was the Dark Wizard. Insanely talented and driven, he was the singular figure pushing Yosemite climbing forward at the start of the 21st century. Every story I’ve heard of Dean features him screaming, whether at his partners or the rock itself. But he is also inevitably described as spiritual, artistic and brilliant. When he became obsessed with breaking all of the known speed records in Yosemite, he found his “secret weapon” in Timmy O’Neill.

Timmy and Dean after breaking the Nose Speed Record. Photo by John Dickey

I called up Timmy to ask him about the spring of 2001, when he and Dean were undoubtedly fastest granite-climbers in the world.

Their first successful Yosemite Triple began with the Regular NW Face of Half Dome, then the pair rode a “tandem Schwinn” down the valley to the Sentinel and free soloed (climbed without ropes or protection) the famous Steck-Salathe route. After descending they biked across and finished with a lap on the Nose. All this was fueled by their signature mix of “Coca cola and viking-sized cinnamon rolls”.

That insane mission upped the ante on the linkup game, adding a major formation to the classic Croft-Bachar double. But of course they dreamed bigger still. 

“You’re eating Grade VI’s for breakfast, so you decide to make 3 meals of it… breakfast lunch and dinner” -Timmy O’Neill

A climb’s commitment grade reflects the difficulty and length of a route. You might climb a Grade II before lunch, but a Grade VI usually requires 2-4 days of intense effort. That had all changed with the speed climbing revolution however, and now Dean and Timmy could contemplate pairing a massive bigwall with each meal of the day.

The team settled on the South Face of Mt. Watkins as the third course for their proposed Triple Grade IV day. Not visible from most tourist overlooks, Mt. Watkins gets far less attention than Half Dome or El Cap, but it presents just as demanding a challenge. The approach alone, including miles of bushwacking and nearly a thousand feet of scrambling, is enough to keep the crowds away. The climbing is spectacular, slashing diagonally across a mostly blank face that just gets steeper as it goes. With a solid two thousand feet of climbing and intricate aid sections, Watkins fit the bill for the third leg of a truly mega trio.

Mt. Watkins, as seen from Half Dome.

But as Timmy recounts, once they had envisioned their ultimate linkup, the challenge just grew in their minds:

Once they did finally get going though, they really flew. They began with Half Dome, which they hiked up to early in the morning. Both men had climbed the route many times, and their experience showed. Dean, however, wasn’t impressed with their performance:

Clocking in at two hours and change, they had missed the route’s speed record by about 15 minutes, but had set a blazing tempo for such a marathon day.

They next moved up valley to Watkins, and here they did set a new record, “around 3 and a half hours” Timmy remembers. From the top they made the quick hike to the road where Dean’s van was stashed and then booked it down to the base of El Cap, where they slowed down dramatically…

Climbing in the dark wasn’t new to them, but since they’d blitzed the first two routes they must have let off the gas a bit. Then about halfway up their dream day was nearly derailed:

They finished the Nose in 9 and a half hours, a relaxed pace for the two fastest climbers in the Valley, but it was good enough to wrap up the first Yosemite Triple in 23 hours and 15 minutes.

Now the bar was set: if you were a true granite master, you could complete all three of the biggest walls in Yosemite in a single day.

I was a sophomore at Northville High School in suburban Michigan in 2001, and I can’t say that the news reached me there. But 7 years later, when I made my first pilgrimage to Yosemite as an authentic dirtbag, the Triple was securely established in Valley mythology as the pinnacle of stone mastery.

Over the next decade, the new generation pulled off even more impressive versions of the Triple. Free (Caldwell and Honnold 2012), solo (Honnold 2012), even faster (Gobright and Reynolds, 18.5 hours in 2018). My friends Dave Allfrey and Cheyne Lempe also completed the Triple in 2014, rounding out a short and distinguished list of Valley hardmen. Of course I wanted to try it!

Me and Timmy

The Cost

In June of 2016, my friend Brad Gobright and I completed an El Cap Triple, climbing the Zodiac, Nose, and Lurking Fear routes in 23 hours and 10 minutes. This had been Brad’s idea and I was reluctantly pulled in, thinking there was no way that I could climb that hard for that long. My arms would fall right off! Brad set our tempo though, and all I had to do was follow his (insanely run-out) leads. On my lead blocks, which included the more aid-intensive pitches, I just had to keep the rope moving upwards and give the “Adorable Crusher” a quick chance to rest.

Starting the clock on Zodiac, the first route of our 2016 El Cap Triple

In November of 2019, Brad slipped off the end of his rope while descending from a limestone bigwall in Mexico. He bounced off a ledge and fell all the way to the ground. We lost him forever.

While Brad wasn’t speed climbing at the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the Yosemite culture that killed him. The confidence that comes with “eating grade VI walls for breakfast” replaces the fear and respect that used to surround these steepest cliffs. Brad and his partner were simul-rapping, they didn’t set the rappel rope to its middle mark or tie back-up knots in the ends. They pared back the clunky redundancy we’re all taught as beginners, and then one quick mistake was all it took for the whole system to unravel.

miss ya bud

In May of 2018, elite climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein fell a thousand feet while simul-climbing on El Cap, leaving their children without dads. The previous October, Quinn Brett fell while going for a blazing quick ascent of the Nose. She was so far above her last cam that it was a ledge that finally caught her fall, 120 feet below. While she’s alive and more adventurous than ever, her adventures are mostly now on a wheelchair and she might never walk again.

Mash Alexander Art

These losses and others, expert climbers at the height of their careers suffering catastrophic accidents, could not be ignored by anyone paying attention. We all had been telling ourselves that climbing wasn’t some crazy adrenaline sport, that we were more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the cliff, or that only beginners made mistakes. But we also all know that, in pursuit of ever faster times, or as a result of comfort and complacency, we cut corners and take unnecessary risks. The risks might be tiny every time, but they add up. And the cost is staggering.

Climbing is a Team Sport

I met Jordan Cannon through my girlfriend Sandy, who described him as young and sweet, and insatiably stoked to climb anything with anyone. We decided to rope up for the first time on the West Face of the Leaning Tower, one of Yosemite’s mini bigwalls, in the spring of 2018. While our first route together was a blast, it certainly left some room for improvement.

Jordan and I after our first route together

On the second pitch of the climb, battling up into the wet and slimy crux, Jordan slipped and came flying off the rock. His nearest cam pinged out of the rock, and though the next piece did hold, what really stopped his fall was my right leg. He had whipped all the way back to me at the belay and swung in like a wrecking ball, with my right knee taking the brunt. I was sore for a week! 

Falls happen, no big deal, and I was able to continue up the route on adrenaline and ibuprofen. We cruised smoothly through the rest of the climb, not quite pulling off a clean free ascent, but moving well and having a good time. On the rappel, however, we got caught by a surprise rainstorm. In a rush to get down quickly, I didn’t notice when our tag-line blew around a corner and wrapped itself around a loose flake. While Jordan waited in the rain above, I sketchily swung and pulled myself over to the flake and freed our line. Again no big deal, but somewhat embarrassing for a Yosemite veteran.  

On the hike down though, all snags were forgotten as we excitedly rattled off our lists of dream climbs, and we both hoped that this new partnership could enable us make them real.

Two weeks later, Jordan was climbing on El Cap when Jason and Tim fell. He was one of the nearest witnesses to what happened, and though we didn’t talk about until a year later, I knew that he was shaken to the core. Neither of us had the heart to scheme up big adventures for a while after that.

Life also provided more practical challenges to our partnership. I was working too much to feel truly fit, and Jordan was launching his career as a professional climber, climbing all over the West and never lacking for partners. But as 2021 began, we got back in touch and committed to the goal that had been at the top of both our dream lists: the Yosemite Triple.

But Why?

At this point, you the reader must be wondering “Wait, what?! Didn’t their friends just die doing this stupid sport? They’re going back!?!?”

The truth is… we never seriously considered abandoning our climbing goals. Why?

the physical experience of flowing smoothly up the rock

the razor focus of leading

the strategic puzzle of piecing together a mega day

the honest fatigue of pushing your body to the limit

the shared laughter at the absurdity of the situation

the all-day movement across a landscape, like the sun and the moon

the giddy joy

the spontaneous whoops from the summit

the friendship forged by challenge

It’s obviously not a rational calculation. It’s an existential poetry, a home-spun philosophy for living.

But How?

For us, the decision to keep climbing, and to keep trying bigger and harder things, was an easy one. So now the question was how to do it as safely as possible. Here rationality comes back into play, and as a team we decided on a set of shared principles:

  • It’s not always about the speed record. Competition ratchets up the pressure to cut a bit further, do without one more piece of gear, simul-climb one more pitch, rely on luck rather than redundancy. Our goal was to finish all three climbs in a 24 hour day, which we knew would be enough time if we moved efficiently, but more importantly our goal was a come down safely and have a good time.
There are so many perfect swimming holes along the route, we made time for a couple good dips during the linkup
  • We decide on our approach ahead of time, and hold each other accountable while we’re climbing. For example, while simul-climbing it’s crucial to have at least two bomber pieces on the rope at all times. Easy enough to say, but when we get to that long rambly section of Half Dome, gear is sparse and the climbing is dead-easy. We could have just adapted on the fly, rationalizing that we didn’t really need two pieces if the climbing was this easy. Or we could just slow down, put out a bit more rope, and allow the leader to climb all the way to the next good piece before the follower continues.
good healthy van meal while we talked strategy.
  • We carry a bit more gear. Equipment has gotten so much lighter just in the 20 years since Dean and Timmy’s first Triple. There’s no excuse not to bring that one more cam that makes the difference between a death defying run-out and an exciting but safe lead. On the Nose, we brought stacks of extra ‘draws and ‘biners so that we never had to skip a piece of fixed gear. For Watkins, we knew that the final handcrack pitches would come at the very end of our long day. Though just 5.10, we tossed an extra #2 and #4 on the rack to make them a bit safer.

plenty of extra clippers. Thanks CAMP for all those superlight Nano ‘biners!
  • We gave ourselves plenty of time to scout the climbs. We did the Nose together a few weeks ahead of time, and then in the week before the big day we climbed Half Dome and Watkins (on different days). This allowed us to go slightly heavier and slower on the practice mission, and decide what strategy/gear would best balance safety and speed.
packing up gear atop Watkins after a practice mission
  • We recognized the role of luck. No matter how much you prepare, bad luck can always hit when you least expect it. So of course having redundancy in the system can help, preventing small mistakes from spiraling into catastrophes. But more than that, you need to accept that much is outside your control and make sure the goal is worth the objective risks you’re accepting.

Jordan was the perfect partner for this approach, since we share the nerdy love for planning. We spent hours refining the rack, scheduling our practice and rest days, plotting out where we would simul and where we would short-fix, coordinating our gear stashes with the friends that volunteered to help out, and generally indulging our obsession for the details.

All that was left was to actually do it!

After a few minutes on the Sheraton Watkins, I’ve gotten my breathing under control. Despite the thousands of vertical feet and many hard miles behind us, my eyes are wide and thoughts sharp (Thanks certainly to the copious amounts of sugar and caffeine). I pick up the chaotically strewn cams and ‘biners, and organize them onto my harness. Jordan shares the last few sips of water, and now I’m ready to climb.

My lead block begins with a railroad track of twin splitters, angling up the face. It feels amazing to have the rock under my fingers again, after I had jugged the last few pitches. Jugging felt frantic and rushed, I needed to get up to the anchor as quickly as possible to free the rope and put Jordan back on belay. But now leading, I feel unhurried, and I just enjoy the texture of the perfect crisp granite.

After a few pitches the light fades, and our headlamps shrink our world to a glowing orb of white. The movement comes without any thought, just reach from hold to hold. Balance, lock off, high foot, rock up, twist my fingers in a crack, reach up and clip a piton.

Jordan simul-climbs behind me, and we anticipate each others’ moves. When he reaches a crux, I clip a micro-traxion to a bomber piece and thread the rope through, so that it will lock tightly when Jordan pulls down. This way he can quickly pull through the steeper sections without slowing to find the tiny holds, and then we both continue moving when he’s back on easier terrain.

My lead block brings us to a narrow ledge, and in the dark it’s hard to tell where on the wall we are. Again the cracks angle off to the left, and Jordan takes back the lead. We had already decided that here, rather than continue to simul-climb, I would switch back to jugging each pitch. While this is slower than simul climbing, I knew that I would be too tired to continue that delicate dance. I needed to slide into the back seat and just let Jordan focus on leading.

His headlamp shrinks as he swims off. He finally finishes the long diagonal traverse that defined the middle of the route, and now laser-straight cracks lead us directly to the summit. For me these last pitches are a blur of burning biceps, dry throat, and dark timeless rests. I jug as quickly as possible, get Jordan back on belay, and then turn off my headlamp to conserve battery. The rope just keeps snaking upward as he climbs, but we can’t see or hear each other.

I haven’t looking at my phone in hours, I have no idea what time it is. I know we need to reach the top by midnight in order to achieve the 24 hour goal, but this seems irrelevant compared with my need for water and sleep. I just want to lay down.

A cheer rings out from above! Jordan must be at the top. As soon as the rope is fixed I click on my jugs and frantically pull myself up the rope. Cramping elbows don’t matter, and my heartrate would be concerning, if I could slow down enough to hear it.

Sam is there at the last anchor, a good friend who had hoped to shoot some photos of the climb. Obviously we were too late for that, it’s been dark for hours, but he shows no trace of disappointment as he high fives and hands over a precious water bottle.

We coil the rope and slog uphill, it’s a long way to the top of this darn mountain! But as we crest over the last steep slap, there’s more headlamps and cheers ahead. Four more friends pop out of sleeping bags and jump up to welcome us with hugs. Not only have they all hiked in to celebrate with us, but they brought pizza and beer!

Another hour of excited story-telling, shoving folded slices of pizza into our mouths, and squeezing limes over cold Modelos passes before we finally turn off all the headlamps and lay down. With the stars so close you could touch them, not a breath of wind to disturb the quiet, and friends sprawled all around on the smooth granite, our day feels complete.

photos by Drew Smith

Max, Sam, Jordan, me, Rhi, and Drew give Half Dome a group hug. Mark had to hike out early, but he joined us for the summit party too!
Me leading the Great Roof. 3:36am
Jordan biking across the Valley. 7:15am
Me leading the Rock Scar pitch on HD. 11:09am
Bear on the hike to Watkins. 4:06pm

We didn’t slow down to take more photos on Watkins (the ones above were from our practice run a few days before), but we topped out at 11pm, wrapping up the Triple in an even 23 hours.

Jordan’s hands. 8:29am, the next day
Me in a hammock. 3:35pm the next day

Climbing and Flying

Movement over the earth has always been the goal. Meticulously crawling up sheer vertical faces, rapturously running over the next ridge. About a year and a half ago, I decided to try and learn a new way of moving across the world: paragliding.

Thanks to the generosity, mastery and stoke of my friend Jeff Shapiro, I went from complete novice to certified paraglider pilot in two fun-filled weeks. The gentle mountains above Missoula Montana, and the broad soccer fields in town, were a welcoming and forgiving place to learn my wing, launch into a favorable breeze, arc silently through the invisible currents, and drop back to earth without breaking any bones.

Last summer, in the Alps, I teamed up with a new friend, Jonny Baker, and began to combine paragliding and climbing. Jonny lives in Chamonix and has an irresistibly positive and encouraging spirit (he also throws a great party!). After a quick morning flight on a borrowed ultra-light wing, he invited me to ride the lift up to the snow covered peaks just above town and do my first true mountain flight. Soaring off the Aiguille du Midi was the wildest thing I’d tried so far with my wing, and for the entire 20 minute glide back down into the valley I was smiling so wide my cheeks hurt. But my heart was also racing and I couldn’t escape the feeling of relief when I touched back down.

I hadn’t arrived in Chamonix expecting to combine flying with climbing, at least not right away. I figured that this would be at least another year off, and I’d just need to focus on the basics for a while. With the help of Jonny though, I convinced myself that mountain flying, given smart preparation and conservative decision making, could be a safe prospect. (this worked out okay for me, certainly with a bit of luck. I wouldn’t necessarily advise others to follow this accelerated progression)

Our first real climb and fly mission was the Gervasutti Pillar, a long 5.10 rock spur on the flanks of Mont Blanc. Jonny and I bivied below the route the night before, and then climbed the route at first light. Though it was our first time roping up together, we worked well as a team and efficiently simul-climbed the 25 pitch route in under 4 hours.

We had planned to spend most of the day on the rock, and then launch our gliders from the sub-summit (Mont Blanc du Tacul) just above the route. But having reaching this sub-summit by 10am and with perfect calm weather forecast all day, we opted to continue the hike up to the true summit of Mont Blanc. A light northerly breeze easily inflated our wings, and we giddily cruised out into the clear alpine air.

The week before, I had spent three days on the “Chamonix Skyline” traverse. Endless exposure on sharp granite spires, and equally endless route-finding and complicated rappelling. Now from the glider, I flew along these spires, crossing back and forth along the breadth of the traverse three times. A consistent updraft from the sun-warmed valley gave us effectively infinite airtime. I spotted each the bivy sites I’d used along the traverse, and even waved to climbers as they inched their way along.

Bivying along the Skyline traverse, a week before I’d be back on the glider

A few weeks later, Jonny and I again flew of the highest point in the Alps, this time after climbing “Divine Providence”.

Later in the summer, Jonny and I spent a week in the Dolomites. A first visit for both of us, flying here was definitely more challenging. Simply figuring out which routes might be fly-able, what sort of conditions they’d require, where we might be able to land, and how to carry our gliders (hauling v carrying in packs). Rolando Garibotti was invaluable with very generous and detailed beta. Over that week we managed to climb and fly off:

Sognando di Aurora (5.12c), on the Tofana di Rozes
Fidele (5.7) on Sass Pordoi
Baci da Honolulu (5.12c) on Piz Ciavazes… though we actually had to walk down after climbing, due to high winds. We climbed back up a via ferrata and launched from the top the following day (:
Ottovolante (5.12a) on Torre Brunico

A few closing thoughts on the sport of “climb and fly”:

This is far from a new thing. The pioneers of paragliding were mountain lovers that often combined climbing with flying. For example: in 1988, different teams flew off both Mt Everest and Cerro Fitz Roy.

As a sport though, paragliding is still quite young and seems to be increasing in popularity and accessibility. New lighter weight wings make more ambitious multi-sport adventures a possibility.

I’ve been flying a single-surface wing, the Skyman Sir Edmund (20 sq meters), which weighs 3.5lbs. I use a Nova Montis harness (0.7lbs). So the whole package is 4.2lbs, and fits in a 20 liter backpack.

This wing is rated up to 220lbs, so for me at 170lbs I have plenty of capacity for carrying climbing and bivy gear.

Lastly, I want say that I still have mixed feeling on paragliding. While I had an amazing experience last summer, and those epic days will stay with me forever, I know how quickly things can go wrong. Alpine climbing alone has it’s share of objective hazard, and one should be very careful about adding an aerial element. In the short time that I’ve been a paraglider pilot, I’ve already lost two friends. Both were far more skilled and experienced than me, and both had been extremely generous in sharing their love for the sport.

Cody Tuttle
Casey Bedell

Both of those men loved life and loved what they were doing. Nothing worth doing is risk-free, but deciding which risks are worth taking is the key. Be safe out there!


A Eulogy for Brad

as delivered on January 25th 2020 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orange, CA

Today I’m going to tell you the story of one weekend, or mostly just one very long day, back in April of 2013. It was just one of many many days that Brad and I spent together, but it’s one that I remember clearly and one that I think really showed what kind of man he was. 

By 2013, I’d already known Brad for four years. We had met in Yosemite Valley, had bonded over a shared obsession for the sport, and a shared place on the rebellious fringe of respectable society. Even though Brad was working seasonally there, the crowded and commericalized valley didn’t really feel like a world we fully belonged in. On rainy days or rest days, we would hunt around for a quiet place to use the wifi, cook a simple meal, and plan for the next big mission. But on the clear days, we climbed up out of the busy valley to the sheer faces above, savoring the freedom of the vertical world.

In 2013, I was living in Colorado and working intermittently, and Brad was passing through Las Vegas, probably on one of his never ending roadtrips. I  wanted to escape a snowy wet spring in Boulder, and so it only took a quick phone call for Brad to convince me to fly out and meet up for a few days of climbing in the desert.

After he picked me up from the airport, of course in his little white honda civic hatchback, we quickly left Vegas and drove east. Our destination was a few hours distant, but Brad insisted that we make a stop along the way in the Virgin River Gorge. The interstate highway curves between the narrow limestone walls, so tight that even from high up on the cliff the sound of heavy trucks downshifting can drown out the shouts of your climbing partner. Those bulging walls of grippy brown and white rock do however offer some really fun climbing. When Brad heard that I’d never climbed in the VRG before, he instantly decided that we needed to make a stop. Even though we had to finish the drive that evening and had big plans for the next day, he couldn’t resist the chance to show me around a place he knew well.

I don’t even think Brad wanted to climb anything that afternoon, and probably needed a full rest day anyway, so he was entirely motivated to hit this highway-side crag so that I could get out and stretch my arms in the sun, and shake off the snowy Colorado winter. 

I recently found some random video clips from this weekend trip, saved on an old hard drive, and I was watching through them the other night. There’s one clip from that day, where Brad’s propped up my camera on a rock while he belays out the rope to me. I’m a fuzzy little dot crawling up out the frame, grappling on the underside of a bulging belly of rock. Brad is watching intently and shouting encouragement… right up until the moment that my rubbery fingers finally fail and I come swinging off the wall. Then he breaks out laughing and my spidery figure comes dangling to a stop on the rope, and over the wind I can hear myself laughing too. 

That was Brad. Climbing was home for him, and he always wanted to have his friends over. Whether he was sharing beta with a beginner, in preparation for their first big lead, or listening around a campfire as others told stories of yesterday’s epic, or supporting a good friend on their long term project, his passion always showed through. Climbing was just the air he breathed and what made him smile everyday, and he wanted everyone else to share that joy too. Brad gave off enthusiasm like sunlight, but still he never seemed to run low on energy to pursue his own, very lofty, goals.

After I had a chance to try, and fall off, a couple of the Virgin RIver Gorge’s best pitches, we hopped back in his car and continued on the road. Winding up onto the red sandstone tablelands, we followed the course of the river up towards its source on the edge of the  Colorado Plateau. Dark green pine forests covered the mesas and moutains ahead, and then our destination came into view. The valley narrowed, becoming a gap more deep than wide, flanked by walls of every hue fom pink to purple. These walls, of Zion Canyon, were our true destination, and Brad had big plans for us.  

The first of those old video clips that I took next day, which I don’t think I’d ever gone back and  watched until recently, shows Brad at the wheel of his trusty civic, casually eating a banana and drumming along to the White Stripes on the stereo. Through the windshield, the towering white-capped peaks at the entrance to Zion are just catching the first rays of sun, and the clock on the dashboard says 6:02am. Our packs, which were piled atop the heap of clothing and gear on the backseat, had both been carefully loaded the evening before, and so on this morning all we had to do was boil up some instant coffee and drive a few minutes to the trailhead. 

The next clip shows Brad with his pants rolled up to the knees, wading across a shallow river. Each careful step is braced against the strong current, and his face obviously shows how cold the water feels in the chilly morning air. Above us stands our first objective for the day, a climb called Sheer Lunacy. We were quickly geared up and climbing, steadily pulling our way up a thousand feet of beautiful orange rock. Our cold fingers and arms quickly warmed to the task, and it felt like we just flowed up the rock without even stopping for a breath. A short while later we popped out on the flat rim atop massive canyon, with the river just a dark strand far below.  

In the next video clip, we’re walking along the rim trail in the bright mid morning sun, looking for the way back down. Brad looks at the camera and says “well, I think we can definitely do three…. Four’s gonna be hard though.”

The thousand foot high walls of Zion are considered by most climbers to be “bigwalls” and parties frequently spend multiple days scaling them, sleeping on small ledges or those cute little hanging cots. Even for an experienced team, simply ascending one wall of the massive canyon and returning back down in the same day is a huge objective. But on that phone call a week earlier, when Brad was laying out his plan, he proposed that we try and climb four different full-length routes in the canyon, all in one day. I remember being… hesitant. While I definitely love a nice full day of climbing, I thought four big-walls sounded like at least one too many. And he didn’t pick the easiest ones either, proposing four of the park’s most famous and imposing lines and insisting that we climb them all in a pure “free-climbing” style, without pulling or resting on any of our gear.

But now there we were, with one route complete and a lot more daylight remaining. If our fingers held out, we definitely had a shot. Up next was the most difficult route of the day, Moonlight Buttress. For me, simply getting up that one route, in the rigorous free-climbing style that we both were striving for, was not a sure thing. I had spent a long winter working, and pulling on plastic in the climbing gym, back in Colorado. I doubted my own fitness on those relentlessly smooth fingercracks, and I feared flaming out and spoiling our goal. 

Brad knew that, but he had confidence that, if he took the lead, we could both make it up together. So after a quick snack back on the sandy canyon floor, we again tied into the rope and launched upwards.

On “Moonlight” Brad was at his best. The route cleaves an otherwise blank column of rock, with geometrically perfect corners and cracks splitting the orange overhangs. From a tiny belay perch halfway up the wall, I hung in my harness and craned my neck back, eyes on Brad. I was belaying out the rope for him as he stepped lightly upward, nothing in his posture revealing the actual difficulties. He moved smoothly up the rising, arching crack, which curved out at the top like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. 

Once he finished the crux pitch, it was my turn to follow. I grunted as I climbed, lurching from hold to hold and savoring even the most meager foothold for a quick rest. I hastily removed all of his carefully placed protection equipment, thankful that he had taken the tougher job and forged the path first.

The sun was high in the sky when we crested the canyon rim for the second time, finishing the Moonlight Buttress. We had managed the most difficult part of the day and were still climbing in our intended style, with no slips from either of us. But sweat had soaked through my shirt, and my forearms cramped from dehydration. We found our way back down into the canyon and thankfully soaked our feet in the same river which, just a few hours earlier, had felt far too cold during our early morning crossing.

To get to our next route, we hopped on the park shuttle bus and rode a ways deeper into the canyon. A pre-recorded narration played over the bus’s PA system, talking of plants and geology and whatnot, and eager visitors pressed their cheeks to the windows to look up and try to see the sky above the canyon walls. We splayed out on hard benches in the back, enjoying a moment of horizontal slouching down here in this air-conditioned tourist world. 

Our next route was called Monkeyfinger, and Brad was clearly nervous. At this point we were far from fresh. And, though the first two routes were technically harder, we had both actually been on them before and knew the intricate sequence of hand and foot placements that would unlock the most difficult sections. This next route, however, was new to both of us, so we would need to read and react to the rock, intuiting the best sequence on the fly. Failing to apply just the right pressure through the toes, or to hold enough tension in the core, or simply failure to endure the building fatigue in our forearms could easily spit us off and wreck the day. 

“Oh man” Brad let’s out “This might be ugly, I really hope we don’t have to come back here next year to try this again”. 

That was Brad too. He shared his doubts sincerely, and was honest about his weaknesses. He didn’t try to bluff his way through difficulty, but rather reached out for support from those he trusted.

Starting up Monkeyfinger, our third long climb of the day, we chose to share the burden of leading, alternating who would go first and who would follow behind on the rope. I took the initial sections, struggling with my swollen forearms and stiff fingers, as if the dial of gravity was being gradually turned up. Brad swung through and took the lead for the feared crux section, and he disappeared up a crack and over a bulge above. The rope inched up hesitantly, and I knew that Brad must be at the toughest part. Though I couldn’t see or hear him, the rope between us communicated his subtle movements, and I could tell that he was fighting. Up, down a bit, then up a little more. He was digging deep. Then the rope sped up and progressed smoothly again, and soon I heard Brad give a celebratory yell. A few more sections of easier climbing followed that, and before long both Brad and I were sitting on the ledge at the top of the climb, feet dangling into space and gazing out over the canyon… like we owned the place.

At this point, this had already been an all time classic day, one I could be proud of forever. But as the sun sank behind the canyon rim and the air took on the chill of evening, I also knew that we weren’t done. I mean, I wanted to be done, we had just climbed three of the best routes in Zion and our campsite was just a short drive away, stocked with beer and potato chips. We had already earned those beers, I thought! But… Brad’s goal was to climb four walls that day, so we descended back down into the canyon with purpose and efficiency as the light faded.

A quick shuttle ride, I think it was the last bus of the night, brought us back to his car at the trailhead. Our 4th route, Shune’s Buttress, was just uphill in the dark. Before we began the approach, we laid out our equipment in the parking lot and I even busted out my little camping stove for a quick round of instant coffee. 

In my video clip from the base of the route, Brad is tying his shoes by headlamp, about to start up the route. I ask what time it is, he says he has no clue. Neither of us had brought phones or watches, so it didn’t matter if we ended up climbing until the sun rose again. I don’t remember much of that last route, and evidently didn’t shoot any video, so all I have are a few images, fuzzy and dreamlike. Twisting sore fingers into the cracks until the pain numbed away, seeing Brads headlamp sweep across the dark red wall above, hearing our metal gear scrape against the sandstone. My feet were screaming from being crammed into tight climbing shoes all day, and my eyes threatened to shut every time I stopped moving. 

In my last video clip from that long day, we’re back at the base of the route, having finished and descended. While I excitedly narrate to the camera the insane feat we’ve just completed, Brad is quietly sorting gear by headlamp. He had known all along that we would finish, and so at this point there really wasn’t anything more to add.


I believe that everyone needs heroes. We need to look up and see someone above us, striving. We need our heroes to aim high and pour their hearts into their goals. We don’t need our heroes to be perfect, because no one is perfect, and we need our heroes to be honest. We just need them to take daring risks, and scraping through with skill and style.

Brad was a hero for me. We shared a sport and a passion, and we grew into our climbing careers together. We cheered each other on past milestones and near-misses. But I never set my sights as high as I did when I was climbing with Brad, and his humility, talent and dedication should continue to be goals for all of us to live up to. 

Brad was never trying to change the world. We all know that climbing is arbitrary… and even selfish. But I do believe that in living his life truly, to the very best of his abilities, Brad has left an indelible mark on the world.

There were many days like the one that I’ve just recounted, Brad and I roped together far above the ground. Most were easier, a few were harder, but still no image remains as vivid in my memory as the crux of Moonlight Buttress, our second route from the day. The rope is curving up and away, along that beautiful finger crack that arches out at the top like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. The small figure above seems to be stepping lightly up the sheer walls, with each step pulling a little more rope through my hands. May you all feel this connection to Brad, high above, beckoning us to keep climbing.

image: “November Comes to Zion Canyon,” Gloria Miller Allen, Watercolor, October 2010 NPS photo

Forbidden Peak, West Ridge

Every year on July 8th, I thank my parents that my birthday comes during the best season. The days are long, everyone is on vacation, and the snow is melting in the high country.

For this year, I climbed on Washington’s best granite bigwall, the Liberty Bell. My friend Blake Herrington has been one of the most active climbers on this wall, freeing many old aid pitches and establishing new lines. We climbed his route “Live Free or Die”, avoiding the very thin 12c crux but enjoying tons of sustained 5.11 face and cracks.

liberty bell
The Early Winter Spires, near Washington Pass. Liberty Bell is the rightmost formation, and the steep East Face is just left of the sun-shade line.

Blake Herrington

After rapping the big face (it goes quickly with an 80m rope!) we had a lunch of pesto pasta and split an IPA before heading back up. We climbed the first half of “Liberty or Death” into Liberty Crack for another quality granite excursion up to 12a.

Good stone

Satisfied with our no-falls day, we polished off a few more beers and some decadent walnut brownies while waiting for our friends to finish the mega-classic “Thin Red Line”.


I slept in lazily the next day, and then drove east along the highway 20. Once I got a bit of cell service, I pulled up a weather forecast and saw rain coming the following day. In order to maximize the week, I should definitely make that a rest day, which meant rallying to get in a climb this afternoon! The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak is on the hallowed “50 Classic Climbs in North America” list, so I turned left in Marblemount to head up into North Cascade National Park.

A gate blocked the road about 3 miles short of the trailhead. Not to be deterred, I parked and pulled out my bike.

After my lazy morning (and midday river swim), it was now 2:45pm. My “fast and light” mountain missions are usually self-imposed challenges, but today I needed to move quickly to avoid the dark and the rain, both of which would arrive around 9pm.

The final 3 miles of biking were incredibly steep, but luckily the worst parts were paved. The humid jungle air had me drenched in sweat by the time I arrived at the trailhead. I tucked my bike in the woods and began running up the trail.

Repairing the road, I’m guessing it was avalanched

“Running” would be generous though. This was an unofficial climbers’ trail, and in the verdant PNW such approaches can be rugged. Heavily overgrown and covered in fallen trees, I spent half the time semi-crawling and the other half hurdling over logs. At least it was short, and I soon arrived at an idyllic meadow called Boston Basin.

Since I was onsighting, and hadn’t taken much time to study the beta (though had it saved on my phone), I stopped to chat with some climbers lounging at their camp. “You’re going where? Right now?” they asked with concern, “You know that’s a technical climb, right?” I assured them I’d be careful and thanked them for pointing out the trail before jogging off across the green meadows.

Nearing the base of the route, I encountered another friendly climber, who pointed out the steep snow tongue that led up to the ridge.

Getting the beta

My strategy of approaching so late in the day paid off with good pliable snow conditions, a boon on the steep couloir. My aluminum strap-on crampons and short aluminum ax were minimal but sufficient to feel secure.

I stashed my snow gear and made sure my running shoes were dry before scrambling up the ridge proper. Perhaps a dozen other climbers were descending the mountain, so I had to carefully step around their ropes. Some were a bit chilly, but most were stoked at having climbed such a beautiful peak. All were casting nervous eyes to the clouds that had already begun to envelop us.

The rock climbing on the ridge was spectacular! The dark granite was worn white on the high-traffic path, and the holds were all clean and friendly. Big square cut jugs and perfect jams marked the way. An apparently blank section provided the crux, but my outstretched fingers found a deeply incut lock, and I pulled through with a whoop.

By the time I reached the summit, I was in the clouds and the wind swirled. Time to let gravity do the work and hustle back down!

I again passed the traffic jam of descending climbers, who’d barely moved. Hitting the soft snowfields below the peak, I found ideal conditions for skiing and pretended to make some turns. I stopped to chat with a friendly pair of climbers who snapped this shot:




Roundtrip time from normal trailhead: 4 hours and 54 minutes


7 miles and 5615′ of vertical gain, from normal trailhead


SCARPA Neutron 2 GTX runners

CAMP XLC Aluminum Crampons

CAMP Mini Gaiters

CAMP Corsa Aluminum Axe

Rab M14 gloves

CAMP Sky Carbon trekking poles

CAMP “Skin” Skimo race pack/vest, 15L

0.5L Water bladder with Katadyn BeFree filter cap

2x Granola bars

Phone, headphones



Mt Stuart, Complete North Ridge

stuart 4 from Scott Bennett on Vimeo.


The North Ridge of Mt Stuart, in Washington’s Cascades, is one of the all time classic alpine rock routes in the country. With over 3000′ of high quality granite arching up the most prominent peak in the area, the route is deservedly popular. I love alpine romps, and have been light on my feet lately, so I decided to attempt the speed record.

On August 19 of 2015, Colin Haley and Andy Wyatt ran the route car-to-car in 6 hours and 45 minutes. This time had impressed me for years, even more so because they carried a rope, light rack, and at least one helmet.

I decided to go ropeless, having climbed the route before and finding the two short sections of 5.9 to be very secure crack climbing. Of course this is a compromise in safety, but one with which I felt comfortable.

On July 1st, I did a walking recon of the route, hiking in from the Leavenworth side. I climbed the route and descended down the Sherpa Glacier on the east face. Despite having brought an ice ax and crampons, I still found the steep icy descent to be fairly slow*

Knowing that Colin and Andy had set their record approaching from the other side, via Ingalls lake trail, I decided to go for that route. This would allow me to descend the Cascadian Couloir on the mountain’s west side, which is mostly scree with only a short section of snow. I decided to forgo crampons and ax, feeling ok with my trekking pole self-arrest ability (not actually recommended).

The penalty for this easier descent, however, is an extra 2000′ of uphill on the way back to the trailhead, as one must run over Long Pass.

Anyway, I won’t give a narrative account, since everything went smoothly and is therefore a pretty boring story.

Here are my splits:

Trailhead 8:47am

Lake Ingalls 9:53am (1h 6m)

Goat Pass 10:50am (2h 3m)

Base of route 11:16am (2h 29m)

Upper Gendarme 12:33pm (3h 46m)

Summit 12:50pm (4h 3m)

Trailhead 2:44pm (5h 57m)


And here’s what I brought:

SCARPA Spin RS Running shoes

wool socks

running shorts

tank top

silly trucker hat


Rab Pulse sun shirt with hood

Rab Windveil windbreaker

CAMP Full Protection shell pants

SCARPA Maestro Mid rock shoes

chalk bag

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra running vest/pack, 8.5L capacity

CAMP Sky Carbon trekking poles

Katadyn BeFree screw-on water filter, with 0.5L bladder

2 bars, a pack of clif shot blocks, a chocolate chip cookie and an apple

Gopro Session 5

Phone, bluetooth headphones


*I do think that someone could smash this speed record by approaching from the north side, since it’s more direct and doesn’t have the extra pass to run over on the way out. The trick though is gonna be getting the Sherpa glacier in the right conditions, nice soft snow with all the crevasses and ‘shrunds filled in. My friend Blake Herrington, Leavenworth super-local, thinks you might find these conditions during a sunny warm spell in June, and someone comfortable on snow could boot-ski down very quickly. I look forward to somebody proving him right!





Rainier Infinity Loop

Mount Rainier was probably the first mountain I ever saw, though my mom can’t remember exactly. Sitting on her lap, face pressed to the airplane window, I think I can remember seeing the seamless blanket of clouds, suddenly interrupted by the shining icy dome of the great mountain. Of course, I was an infant, travelling for my first time from our home in Michigan to visit my mom’s friend in Seattle, so this is certainly more imagination than faithful memory. But I’d like to imagine that, from then on, I was set on my course to seek out the mountaintops and regain that perch above the clouds.

above clouds

Last Friday morning I set out on a journey that took me up, down, around and through those clouds, climbing and circling the great icy mountain.

Called the “Infinity Loop”, the idea is simple: complete two ascents of the mountain, traversing over the summit and descending the other side each time. Around the base of the mountain runs a giant loop trail; use this to return to your starting point after each climb. By first returning counter-clockwise, then returning clockwise, you’ll end up covering the entire trail and circumnavigating the mountain.

infinity drawing


I started my Infinity loop on Friday morning, June 22nd, at 3:23am. Departing my van at White River trailhead, I ran up the Emmons Glacier route. This direct line up the eastern flank of the great mountain begins at 4200’ elevation in a lush river valley and ascends over 10,000’ calf-burning vertical feet up snowfields and glaciers to the crater rim summit at 14,411’. Having scouted the route with my friend Nate Smith a couple days earlier, I knew that the snow was in great condition and the crevasse crossings were solid, so I felt comfortable moving solo and unroped. I wore running shoes with strap-on aluminum crampons and carried trekking poles. On that first climb, with all the energy and excitement of this huge challenge ahead of me, I moved constantly. I reached the summit after 5 hours and snapped a quick photo without breaking stride. The descent down the south side of the mountain went by in a similar blur, running and sliding down the steep snowfields to reach the trailhead at Paradise in another 2 hours.

Clouds filling the White River valley

first summit selfie

The day before, I had carefully assembled all of my gear for this multi-day adventure: 4 different sets of clothing, shoes, and packs. I had one kit for each leg: 1st climb, 1st run, 2nd climb, 2nd run. After the 1st climb, I ran down trails from Paradise to the junction with the Wonderland trail, where I had hidden a duffel bag in the woods. Here I changed clothes and swapped out my climbing pack for a lighter running vest.

All the shoes. From left to right: 2 pairs of Scarpa Neutron 2 GTX (for both running segments), Scarpa Neutron G, and Scarpa Ribelle boots (for the first and second climb respectively).

The first run was the shorter section of the Wonderland, curving around the southeast corner of the mountain and covering about 30 miles back to White River. After a long descent down to Box Canyon, I climbed up ridges and through high valleys before reaching Fryingpan gap, the highpoint of the Wonderland trail at ~6700’. Here the trail was completely covered by snow, making navigation tricky. I was lucky to have footprints to follow for most of it, and my phone’s gps was handy when I felt lost.

snow ohanapecosh
Deep snow in the Ohanapecosh River Valley

The Wonderland trail highpoint, Fryingpan Gap

Like the first climb, the first running section felt amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling. My legs were powerful and precise, my lungs seemed bottomless, and with each signpost I was surprised by how much mileage I’d covered.

I reached White River and my van by 7:30pm on Friday evening, having completed roughly 50 miles of the challenge within the first 16 hours! I was feeling great and rewarded myself with a long break at my camper van. I took a shower, made a hot meal, massaged and iced my feet, and laid down for a quick nap. When my alarm went off at 10pm however, I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof. Always eager for an excuse to stay in bed, I turned off the alarm and closed my eyes. It wasn’t until 3am that I next awoke and checked the time, and thankfully the rain had stopped. After frying some eggs and making a pot of coffee, I grabbed my 2nd climbing pack and headed back out.

It was déjà vu, heading back up the same trail I’d done the previous morning. Except instead of bottomless exuberance and a healthy trot, I felt heavy and slow. Little jolts of pain accompanied every step, and I began to feel nauseated and feverish too. I sat down after a couple miles. It was much colder this morning, and I bundled up in my puffy coat and felt sorry for myself. The van, with heater and comfy bed, was just back down the trail. I’d already climbed the mountain, and really enjoyed it. What was the point of going out and suffering now? The contrast between the purposeful drive of the previous morning and hazy indecision of today was obvious. Putting off the decision, I stood up and started trudging uphill. If I was gonna bail, I’d procrastinate first and walk a bit further.

From that point, I just focused on each step and tried to forget the immensity of the mountain ahead of me. 8 hours later, I was on the top again. 3 hours slower than my first climb, but not horrible.

crossed legs

crossed legs 2
My slower pace on the second climb allowed for more photos (:

Descending, I felt re energized. It was all downhill ahead of me, just a bit of trail running and I’d be done. This was quite optimistic.

second summit
2nd summit

descent trail
The descent trail

Back at Paradise, I decided to celebrate being done with the climbing by sitting down for a big meal at the visitor center café. Greasy pizza, a chicken Caesar salad, blueberry cheesecake, and iced coffee all hit the spot. Yum (: With wifi and comfy chairs, I really enjoyed the visitor center rest stop, and it was hard to leave.


Again I found my hidden duffel bag and swapped out clothing, footwear and packs. My running vest for this final section was much heavier though. Not only was this section of the Wonderland much longer, over 60 miles, but it also was more remote. With many of the trailheads and roads on the west and north sides still closed for the winter, I’d be very committed. I packed my satellite phone, which I’d use to check in with a friend who would monitor my progress and start a rescue if I got into trouble. I also had to be prepared to survive on my own though, so I packed extra clothing, plenty of food, and an extra phone battery so I wouldn’t run out of podcasts.

One way in which I kept my pack light, on all the running sections of the Infinity, was by carrying very little water. I used a 12oz flexible bottle with a built-in filter, so I could scoop up water from the abundant streams and waterfalls that lined the trail.

water bottle filter

Nothing else to do now but run around the mountain. I did that for the next 30 hours.

Some highlights, lowlights, and disorganized thoughts:

-At the beginning, I passed by many open roads and trailheads, and I had lots of company on the trail. I waved to families picnicking and kids building rock towers in the creek. I came here with my family when I was 12 or so, and I have great memories of hiking with my three little brothers.

-Around midnight, I was running through a thick cold fog in a valley. After a long winding ascent, I popped out above the fog layer and was treated to an unforgettable view. The sky above was crystal clear and the moon was 2/3 full. The mountain glittered white, and far to the west the lights of the big cities twinkled. I could see the Puget sound snaking down, and the tendrils of fog creeping up all the valleys from the ocean. The air was warmer and drier than it had been, which was a relief. There was total silence, and no evidence of other people besides the far-off city lights.

foggy forest

-Around 2am, the desire to close my eyes became overwhelming. It was too cold to bed down for the night though. I had no bivy gear, and the cool damp air would quickly start me shivering. I had a lighter and firestarters, but in the wet forest it would be difficult to keep a warm fire going for very long while trying to sleep. So, I adopted a cyclical strategy: I put on all my layers, including waterproof pants and jacket. I would run/hike at full output until I was on the verge of overheating. Then I’d quickly lay down, put my head on my pack, and fall instantly to sleep. Maybe 10-20 minutes later I’d awaken chilly and get moving again. Another run would re-warm my body, and I could repeat the process. I got through the coldest part of the night in this way, and the sunrise was a relief.


-With the coming of daylight I was optimistic, and reestablished a quick pace. The whole Wonderland trail is characterized by steep hills. Circling the mountain, it climbs every radiating ridge and drops into every river valley. It’s tempting to try and average out a slower pace on the uphills with a breakneck pace on the descents. This took a toll on my knees and ankles though, and after one particularly steep descent (from Ipsut pass down to the Carbon river), my knees had swollen to the point of bursting. Despite icing them in the glacial river, I had pushed them beyond the point of recovery. I was unable to run on the remaining 20ish miles.

-I leaned hard on my poles for the next ~5000 feet of vertical, hiking up from the muddy Carbon river, past the snout of a big ugly glacier, and up to a gorgeous high meadow.

carbon glacier
Ugly Carbon Glacier

-Maybe it was the loneliness of 60+ hours solo, but at this stage I’d entirely switched from music to podcasts and audiobooks. I particularly enjoy the pop-physics book “Reality is not what it seems” by Carlo Rovelli.

-This is obvious, but circumnavigating a mountain as massive as Mount Rainier is really a good way to get a sense of its scale and multiple facets. The mountain would come in and out of view as I bobbed up and down between valleys and ridges. Each fresh view would bring new features into relief.

north side




-At 9:45pm on Sunday night, I reached my van at White River and finished the Infinity Loop. Total time 66 hours and 22 minutes.

Thanks for reading!

And thanks to Nate Smith for all the helpful beta and encouragement, and also keeping track of me.

-Scott Bennett

earth screen

Stats: I didn’t keep a GPS track of the entire journey. I tried record my progress with a phone app, but hadn’t practiced with this app and the recording would stop every time I lost GPS signal (all the time). So the image above is a reconstruction I made on Google Earth. I think it shows the elevation profile pretty well, but underestimates the total mileage by smoothing out the constant switchbacks. Based on my friends Nate and Sarah’s GPS track on the Infinity last year, and adding up mileages on maps, my best guess is 120-130 miles in total. If the Google earth elevation profile is roughly accurate, the loop includes 45,535′ of vertical gain.

No Record is Safe on the Edge

The "Naked Edge" follows the prominent arete in the center of this photo.
The “Naked Edge” follows the prominent arete in the center of this photo.

The competition is heating up for Colorado’s most coveted speed climbing record: the Naked Edge. A friendly rivalry, plenty of support from the community, and of course the crazy fun of the challenge have built this once-obscure pursuit into a (still very obscure) local institution.

edge record
A different sort of Edge Record

As recently as 2006, the record was a stately 1 hour and 38 minutes, measured roundtrip from the bridge over South Boulder Creek. Bob Rotert, a mentor of mine, claimed the record at 1:22, climbing with Dave Vaughan. Blake Herrington and I cut it to 1:13 in 2010, but it wasn’t until the powerhouse team of Stefan Griebel and Jason Wells got involved that the record dropped below an hour (49 minutes in 2012). I teamed up with visiting crusher Brad Gobright in 2013 and shaved a few minutes of that (44m). Stefan and Jason responded this year by dropping it to 40 minutes, but they weren’t satisfied until they’d tried again and set the insane time of 35 minutes and 1 second!

bob on the edge
Bob Rotert on a non-record, but still smokin’ fast, ascent of the Edge in 2010.

Brad, who grew up in Southern California and spent his formative climbing years in Yosemite, decided to spend a summer season out here on the Front Range this year. I suspect the Naked Edge record was foremost among his motivations.

Brad "Bradical!" Gobright on the Eldo classic "Musta Been High" (5.13R). Photo by Rob Kepley.
Brad “Bradical!” Gobright on the Eldo classic “Musta Been High” (5.13R). Photo by Rob Kepley.

On Monday, we cleared our schedules and planned to spend the entire day in Eldorado. Arriving at 11ish, we began up the Edge right away. A team of three was already on the route and enjoying the perfect, unseasonably crisp, June day. While initially frustrated that we were stuck behind a big group, we made the most of our time by repeatedly top-roping each pitch as we waited for the team above to advance. I think we each logged three or four laps on the crux pitches on that ascent! By 4:30pm, we were back down, having completed a typical 5 hour roundtrip.

Stefan and Jason race across the finish line earlier this year. Photo by Bill Wright.
Stefan and Jason race across the finish line earlier this year. Photo by Bill Wright.

As I mentioned, the competition for this obscure honor is very friendly, and we invited the current record holders Stefan and Jason out to Eldo to watch our attempt that evening. They excitedly obliged, and Stefan showed up in dress clothes straight from work! Word got around among Eldo aficionados, and by the time we were racking up about 20 people had gathered to witness the run. Only in Boulder would such an esoteric event draw a crowd!

Once everyone was in position, Brad and I strapped on our climbing shoes and walked to the designated starting line, in the center of the bridge. With a shout, we were off and running! Immediately, I felt sick, and contemplated stopping the race, resting, and starting again. But perhaps those were just nervous jitters; by the time I reached the rock and started climbing I was narrowly focused. We soloed the approach pitches up the “Ramp Route” (5.6), and then pulled out the short but exposed “Cave Pitch” (5.8) and up to the base of the Naked Edge itself.

Instead of my description of the climb, maybe author Steve Levin’s authoritative “Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide” will give a more objective overview:

Levin's Edge entry


Once Brad and I were both on the starting ledge, I uncoiled the rope and dropped it to him. He slapped on the grigri and I was off! Instead of stopping at each anchor along the route, in traditional style, we had opted to “simul-climb” the route. This meant that, once the rope came tight on Brad, he simply began climbing behind me. His body weight would provide me with a belay, if I were to fall. The danger, however, comes if Brad falls: I would be ripped off the wall and dragged down to my last piece of protection. To prevent this, we clipped a simple one-way camming device, a Kong Duck, to the anchors above the first pitch. The device allowed my rope to move upwards as I climbed, but would not allow the rope to move down, if Brad were to fall.

Documenting our climb, Eldo aficionado’s Bill Wright and Mark Oveson had climbed up to the starting ledge to shoot photos and film the first pitch. Bill’s report, as well as video, can be found on his blog.

telescope 2
Two photos, taken 3 minutes and 5 seconds apart, show me and then Brad at the same point on pitch one. These were taken with a point-and-shoot camera through a telescope! Photos by Clémence Bacquet.

Having practiced the route that morning, we felt comfortable going light on the rack, bringing just 5 cams for the entire 6 pitch route. I placed three of them on the first pitch, but for most of the route I just clipped the occasional bolt or fixed piton. While this allowed us to move quickly, not constantly stopped to place or remove gear, it also meant that falling was an unattractive option. Fortunately, most of the route is so steep and exposed that even a massive fall would likely hit nothing but air.

Between pitches 3 and 4, a large sloping ledge provides the first break in the routes steepness. Unfortunately, as I mantled onto the ledge, my rope snaked back into a crack. I didn’t notice until I was well into the next pitch, but suddenly I couldn’t pull up slack. My rope was stuck, and I was too! Brad motored up the easy ground on pitch 3, and quickly spotted my problem. He climbed up to the crack, and with much cursing and grunting yanked the jammed cord out of the rock. We were free and moving again!

Pulling around the arete onto the final steep headwall, my heart was racing and I couldn’t control my breathing. I hesitated for a second, thinking I should take a break and regain control, but then decided “Fuck it, I’ll rest on top”. My forearms burning from lack of oxygen as I laybacked up the overhanging crack, but within seconds it was over.

Another telescope shot, with Brad laybacking the final pitch. Photo by Clémence Bacquet.


Instead of building a belay on the sloping summit ridge, I simply began walking down the other side, still tied in. With the rope running over the entire mountain, Brad would now be protected if he fell on the final pitch. A minute later, I heard a massive cheer erupt from the road below, and then saw Brad pop up over the top. We would later find out that, from the moment I started on the Edge to when Brad topped out was just 16 minutes! We still, however, had the riskiest part of the challenge ahead: the descent! Over a hundred meters of exposed 4th-class downclimbing lay between us and the descent trail, and we slowed here to avoid the “cartwheel of death”. With my rock shoes still on, though, I felt agile hopping and scrambling down the immense slabs. Back on the trail, we picked up the pace and pounded our poor feet, not wanting to waste a second. I rounded the corner and the bridge came into view, with a big crowd waiting and cheering. Brad and I crossed the finish line together, and Stefan (the official timer) shouted: “under 30 minutes!”.

Brad and I reclaimed the record with a time of 29 minutes and 53 seconds. While Stefan and Jason congratulated us, though, I could already see the look in their eyes: they’d be back up there soon, and no matter how fast, no record is safe on the Naked Edge.

edge beers


“And yet we all have known flights when, of a sudden, each for himself, it has seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality… Where there has come premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.

Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran foul of the Black Hole region, off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then the night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, an hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom.


Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea.

 Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.”

-Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind Sand and Stars, 1939

As with my last post about Guillamet, I’ve excerpted a bit of this wonderful little book. I’m not sure what message I’m trying to convey with this passage, mostly I just want to share something beautiful. I can’t sufficiently praise this memoir, which remembers a lifetime of adventure and friendship in a style both haunting and celebratory. May we all lead lives so rich, and leave behind a memorial so timeless.

Jean Mermoz, the subject of the above passage and the namesake of a mountain in Argentine Patagonia, was a French aviator who lived from 1901 to 1936. He pioneered many air routes in Argentina and Chile, and is remember as one of the leading pilots of his era. Along with four crewmen, he was lost while crossing the Atlantic between Senegal and Brazil.

In the story that follows, Graham Zimmerman and I climb the Argentina Route on Aguja Mermoz. I instinctively want to make some self-deprecating comment here, about how our little adventures pale in comparison to the real explorers of days past. But I’ll refrain for now, and simply note that experience is subjective; there’s no objective metric of “adventure”; and anytime we set out to map the frontiers of our own abilities, we do so with the smiling support of our predecessors.


Graham and I called it quits on our single-push attempt on Fitz Roy, twenty minutes after leaving basecamp.

We’d left our tent in pre-dawn darkness, but instead of the refreshing bite of crisp night air, we set out through a strangely warm, almost soupy, atmosphere. Stepping off the bedrock of camp, onto the Guillamet Glacier, we sank into mashed-potato snow.

bw predawn

After gamely slogging a few hundred meters, we stopped to reconsider our plans. Ambitiously, we had dreamt of a long push up the California route on Fitz Roy. This would require much walking on the horrible snow, however, and the warm conditions might present objective hazards. We grudgingly decided not to fight with reality, and (in true Graham Z fashion) “re-stoked” for another objective: the Argentina Route on Aguja Mermoz.

Familiar with this zone, having climbed on the West Face of Guillamet a week earlier, we opted to use the Geordani Ridge to access the West Face of Mermoz. See my previous post about the various approaching options in the area.

bw giordani ridge

“Do you think the Wall of Hate is coming towards us?” Graham asked as we hung at a belay, a few pitches up Mermoz. To the west, thick clouds did indeed obscure our view of the next range and the icecap beyond. “I dunno, I’ll shoot some photos while you climb,” I answer, eager to see Graham off on the next pitch. I lined up Aguja Pollone in my viewfinder and snapped a shot. Thirty minutes later, as Graham neared the end of his lead, I framed the same shot and snapped again. Comparing the two, it didn’t look like the wall of clouds was advancing. Rather, it swirled and condensed, perhaps driven by the respiration of the Earth itself.

It seems to be a universal human proclivity, the attribution of emotion to non-human entities. We looked west and saw intention in those masses of water vapor; malevolence in the meteorology. Like all biases and blindspots, these tell us more about ourselves than the forces we stubbornly anthropomorphize.

bw pollone

Upwards we crawled, tracing narrow snow ramps and icy steps. Luckily, the frozen conditions held the loose and weathered rock together.

bw3 bw2

Higher, we swapped boots for climbing shoes and delicately navigated up a complex of flakes and cracks. Not having any beta on this route, we relied on old pitons to keep us on track.


Bw graham leading corner

bw piton
bw profile
As we gained the summit ridge, the clouds broke. The rock firmed up, and we rode the clean crest of this granite wave in high spirits.

bw graham on ridge bw ridge ridin

From the summit, Fitz Roy appeared briefly through the clouds. It seemed absurd that something so massive could come in and out of view so rapidly.

bw fitz

bw summit shot

While descending, we of course congratulated ourselves for “listening to the gods” and making the smart decision to bail on the Fitz Roy plan, accepting a smaller objective for a shallower weather window. Consciously, I know that the climate is a deterministic, insentient system; it’s rules are complex, but theoretically knowable. The ways in which our subconscious interprets our environment, however, draw on powers of observation and wisdom that are sometimes inaccessible to our conscious mind. These subconscious impressions are often communicated through emotion and feeling. It is not, therefore, irrational to have a reverence and respect for the “spirits” of nature, be they gods, ghosts, or Gaia herself. What we are truly acknowledging is the collective wisdom of ourselves and our ancestors, expressed though our common language of wonderment.


Huge congratulations to Graham Zimmerman and Mark Allen for their nomination for the 2013 Piolet d’Or! This is highest honor that we alpinists can bestow on our peers, and these fine gentleman are truly deserving. Good luck in France!!

My ideas about the conscious and subconscious, and the communication between the two, come in large part from the book “Incognito”, by neuroscientist David Eagleman. I highly recommend it.

Finally, I want to close this post by mentioning the late great Chad Kellogg. For all of us that dream and aspire, you were an inspiration. You will be remembered… you will be missed. There are many tributes out there, written by folks who knew Chad better than I did. Here’s a short but evocative memory from my friend Blake Herrington.