Testing Our Mettle

by Rex Pieper

Full Metal Jacket (V, 5.9, A2, C2)
East Face of Moro Rock
Sequoia National Park, California
Third Ascent. May 3-5, 1996

We were a party of 3; my regular wall partner and aid psycho, Keath Nupuf, myself Rex Pieper and, up to try for his first big wall, postal carrier, Jeffrey Thomas.

I had been drooling over Full Metal Jacket ever since I saw a picture in an old issue of Rock and Ice of David Hickey jumaring a beautiful, radically overhung, lichen-streaked wall. Keath and I had done several walls now and we were looking for a training route to get Jeff ready for a 3-man trip up Zodiac at the beginning of June. We planned to haul and bivy on the overhung face and work out the bugs in the 3-man system. Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park seemed the perfect choice. It even had a downhill approach AND a downhill walk-off on a paved trail. What could be better?

Having driven from Los Angeles the night before and bivied on top of picnic tables (the only dry option) at the deserted, soggy campground, we were eager to get rolling. The first order of business was to check in with the rangers and secure our bivy permit... an unusual request, I had discovered during my umpteen phone calls earlier that spring. From the Climbing Ranger's description, many parties have attempted the route without success. He can't recall a single ascent in at least 5 years. This news is a bit baffling...and slightly intimidating, but we're not backing down. We're here to do the wall, reputation be damned!

We planned on hauling pigs and portaledges...mostly so Jeffrey could experience the "Big Wall Thing" before he got up on the Big Stone. Our attack plan was to fix the first pitch, bivy at the base and then blast off to spend one night on the wall.

The crux of day one was humping our loads past the barricade (the road was still closed for the winter and not scheduled to open until a week later) and down the 2 mile trail to the rock--or so we thought. From the end of the road a faint trail heads downhill to the base of the wall.

However, the approach was anything but casual. Instead we found ourselves gingerly descending steep, bullet proof dirt covered with loose blankets of pine needles. With the full pigs, portaledges and all the assorted crap a Party of 3 tends to accumulate, we were begging to take a wild ride down the gully. We all knew that all it would take was one slip and we were dead.

An hour or so later we finally hit the base. Our commitment was final in our minds. No way in hell were we humping these loads back up THAT nightmare! After resting awhile and eating some lunch, I suggested we that free climb the first couple of pitches of Moro Oro, "since we are here and they look classic," but my partners vetoed the idea. Jeffrey really wanted a shot at his first "real aid pitch on a big wall." The topo said Pitch 1 was only A1. His role on this trip was that of cleaner while Keath and I swapped leads. He wouldn't have a chance to lead unless we gave him one here.

I thought "Ok, we've built in the extra time...why not. " So Jeffrey racked up and began the first pitch. The route begins with a 50 foot cruise up a 4th class slab to a dead bush under a roof-like overlap. To the right of the base of the overlap, a pair of A-frame cracks shoot up the technicolor wall.

Jeffrey Thomas cleans Pitch 1 as Keath Nupuf hauls

Belaying in the shade of the cliff was quite comfortable as I watched Jeff begin the real stuff at the base of the overlap. The dead bush had its own ideas though. Immediately Jeff's aiders and daisys became entangled in the dry branches. Keath and I laughed uncontrollably as we watched the newbie thrash a little. We shouted friendly put-downs to Jeff about him and his technique. But he didn't mind, he was having fun.

The crack beneath the overlap took mostly medium nuts and cams and Jeff was making pretty good progress until he encountered a crumbly section that began where the apex of the two A-frame cracks met the overlap. A hook, then a cam hook got him a little further. Some more shaky gear and he was nearing the end of the crack system. His whining about the quality of his pro made the pitch sound more like C3. What was up? He wasn't THAT green.

At the end of the crack he ran out of options. After two hook moves in a row there was nothing but a micro-thin expando flake that he said was sure to blow if he tried to use it. He was getting kinda gripped. I wondered if we had sandbagged our friend and gotten him into a potentially dangerous situation. He tried everything he knew. Still nothing. To make matters worse the pro below him looked pretty bad. But yet he went for it. Scrapper all the way...he placed a nut behind the flake...only to come flying off as the placement exploded! I guess his last piece wasn't as bad as he thought since it held a 25 footer! He jugged back up to his high point without much comment from the peanut gallery.

Once again he looked for a way past the final 15 feet to the belay. Now with the flake gone there was even less to work with. Darkness was approaching, so Jeff fixed the haul line to the lead line, and rapped off. Even though Jeff had little aid experience, that A1 pitch looked hard. We thought, "No wonder this route has had many suitors but little success. If this pitch is A1, then what is the A3, 5.10 crux pitch like?" I was the most interested in that answer, it was slated to be MY pitch.

The night was soon over and at 5:30 my alarm went off and I was rousing the boys from the sleep of the dead. Jeff wanted nothing more to do with the pitch and offered the lead to Keath. Eager to go, Keath racked and jugged the fixed line. After a few minutes he led thru the hook section and came to the spot that had stymied Jeff. A long time passed. There was nothing, no hooking flakes, no holes, no placements and nothing to free climb.

Jeff shouted, "I told you so! It's blank!"

"Maybe if we had a 15' long cheat stick...just go for the anchor." I said.

We didn't have one and Keath refused to use one anyway. So after a LOT of heated discussion, Keath placed a rivet to get past the move. Keath was quickly at the anchor--a shitty-looking bolt with faded red webbing and a couple of mediocre nut placements. Keath began to haul, Jeffrey went back up to clean his C2 lead from the day before and I jugged the free rope to the top of the first pitch.

Rex Pieper on the narrow ramp of Pitch 2

Pitch 2 is free and traverses up and to the left. I readied to lieback up a narrow ramp then friction out along the edge of a big overhang and back up the corner system. The first 50 feet are supposed to be 5.10+. Once again this route seemed to be sandbagging us. I've climbed 5.12 slab and this sucker was HARD. Maybe it was because I had my helmet on. I joke that it saps my strength like Kryptonite. It IS the same shade of green!

The initial 50 feet were up a very smooth slab, which was also lichen covered, steep and no wider than 3 feet! Thankfully a crack in the dihedral took good medium cams and nuts. I did a little full on aid until the angle backed off a bit, then a little french free. The route forced me out onto the widening ramp for some 5.8 friction to reach a fixed knifeblade in a blocky section. There wasn't anything else to get in for pro so I clipped a scream-aid to it and continued on.

From the KB, the holds sent me out onto the lip of a big drop-off. 30 feet of 5.7 friction led up to a guano covered jug. A solid, large Friend took my mind off the potential major 60' whipper onto a rusty KB (which itself was 25' out from my last good gear!). Whew!

David Hickey above the fixed knifeblade on Pitch 2
during the First Ascent. Photo: © Rene' Ardesch

Classic 5.9 jams and good, but sparse gear got me to the ledge at the top of 2.
Just as I was inching towards a wedged block to place nuts for my anchors, the haul line snapped tight.

"Slack! I screamed to my partners 160' below.

They replied, "You're out of rope!"

In disbelief I thought, "What?!?!"

My mouth however just said, "Shit."

I didn't know this then, but static lines shrink with age. Keath's 165' static line had become 7 feet shorter. After a lot of long-distance shouting I got the rope I needed and set the complex anchor. I don't know what they did, but to this day they will only say that it sucked BIG-TIME.

I was dying of thirst, but there was nothing to do but suffer. The nut anchor I had worked for fixing the line, but I needed to place a bolt off to the side to haul from. I got in a marginal 5/16" button head and backed it up with a small TCU in some flakey, horizontal seams.

I began to haul as Keath jugged the free line. We got the pigs up and settled while Jeffrey cleaned my lead. Unfortunately for him the pitch traversed and there was no way I could protect him due to it's runout nature. I expected him to free climb the traversing sections, but he wasn't expecting to free climb so he didn't have his Scarpa's on. His method for cleaning this pitch was to just pull a piece, take a pendulum-fall, jug to the next and repeat the process. Yikes!

It was approaching evening again and we were only 2 pitches up. What was the deal with this route? It probably wasn't the route, but us. We weren't moving like a well-oiled machine--more like a rusted, piece-of-crap. Jeff was having a hard time getting into gear and it seemed to throw off Keath's and my timing as well.

Keath began to climb the Pitch 3, fish hooks flying, as he raced the fading light. Streaked with green and orange lichen and speckled with black diorite inset stones, Pitch 3 is one of the prettiest pitches of the route. It overhangs about 45-50 feet and checks in at C2. The walls on either side of the crack are covered with tiny, loose flakes (potato chips) that would come flying down the wall as Keath's feet brushed them. They would hit the small slab at the beginning of the pitch and ricochet into my chest and face. I was pretty glad I had a helmet on--Kryptonite and all.

Darkness found Keath 80 feet up at a wide flare and he was out of cams in that size. He fixed the line and retreated to our bivy. The portaledges were set up and we settled in to watch the full moon rise over the Sierra as we ate our cans of Chef B.A.D. (Boy-ar-dee).

Mr. Thomas' first Big Wall bivy

BAD is a good description of the dreams I had that night. For some reason, the lack of good anchors on this route took hold of my deepest fears and magnified them. All night I tossed and turned. My mind wouldn't stop reminding me of tomorrow's Coming Attractions: The "Big Air" jumar--which originally brought me here and the A3 crux. Fear of the unknown began to eat my mind. Neither prayer nor alcohol stilled my mind. After shivering all night in waves of cold sweats, I finally drifted into an exhausted slumber just before dawn.

I awoke to a churning gut. Chef B.A.D. had become Chef WORSE. My intestines were moving fast to rid themselves of last night's "delicacy." It would be my lot to be "on the run" for the rest of the wall. Thankfully, we had brought the large poop-tube...I would be using it often.

I tried to stomach a quick breakfast of fruit cup and bagel as I gazed across the canyon towards the Fin and Castle Rock Spire. It was very peaceful on this deserted side of the rock. Only the three of us and a pair of falcons. They weren't nesting, but instead spent each night on a different ledge on the wall. It is quite a sight to see a falcon step up to the edge of a ledge, ruffle his wings and swoop down for a day of riding the thermals....truly amazing.

Keath leading Pitch 3 (left) and Jeffrey and the "Pig Train" at the top of Pitch 2 (right). Notice Rex's shadow--he was 45 feet out from the wall!

Keath finished his lead up the dihedral, ending with a short rivet/bolt ladder to a cramped, slabby station beneath a radically overhung roof. Jeff organized the pigs to haul as I readied to lower out for the jug of my life. (There's a photo of this Big Air Jumar, in a 1988 R&I). Suddenly, I heard something slide off of the ledge and bounce down the face below.

"Oh Jee-eeeefffff," I said. "You just dropped your hammer." He couldn't believe it. He had just set it down on a big ledge and didn't think twice about the possibility that it might have suicidal tendencies. The hammer did, and it jumped. I was pretty mad and knew that Keath was going to be angrier...it was HIS hammer. At least I still had mine in case we needed to place any more anchors.

I was really pissed and declined Jeff's offer to lower me out. I didn't need any help from a big wall gumby. Anger had replaced the fear from the previous night. But anger also took my mind off of what I was doing. I underestimated the lower-out length, lost control of the line and received a blistering rope burn on my fingers for my stupidity. I was taking a beating on this wall. But now I was hanging 45 feet out from the wall with quite a bit of exposure (300' of rock and about 900' of ravine). I slowly began to jug the free line with my fears echoing in my head. I prayed that the belay anchors were sound, that the edge the rope was running over was round and that I wouldn't think too much about what I was really doing. However, the jumar was straightforward and the fear quickly disappeared. I arrived up top and together Keath and I struggled to haul our load over a rounded bulge from the slabby belay. He got to work out some of his anger over the dropped hammer during our haul-fest.

Pitch 4 was mine. Overhung and only 40', this was the only nailing on the route (A2). A couple of tcu's and a #1 Camalot lead to a funky, flare. I awkwardly thrashed to place a Perrin wedge nut in it and it's still there for all I know--'cause the retrieval cable broke when Keath tried to clean it. (Thankfully it was HIS. Because I hate losing MY gear.) From here, two long Bugaboo placements led to a #1 Lowe Ball (originally the 3rd and last pin placement). The placements were pretty good, but judging from the pristine quality of the placement, there had been only a couple of ascents prior to ours.

The Lowe Ball got me to a rivet ladder with ancient, sunbleached webbing tie-offs slung on some of the z-macs. This wall gets very little sun, so they had been here for many, many years. I cut some of them off with my knife and continued on. I quickly reached the belay and was happy to finally find a couple of 3/8" bolts!

I set the haul up and fixed a line for Jeff to jug. Looking down from my lofty perch I got a great view of Jeff as it was his turn to lower out over the big void. His eyes got HUGE as he swung out 20 feet from the wall. I shouted down to him that that is his reward for taunting me during MY turn!

Jeffrey jugging up to the top of Pitch 4, while Keath watches

The sun began to sink towards the horizon. So instead of heading off onto the crux pitch, we took the more sensible option, we bivied. Here was why we had come up here and hauled all this junk...a total, free-hanging portaledge bivy. Right above a small roof, our porta-city sat with nothing below us but air, all the way to the ground. Jeff was having a blast. The moon rose and we discussed if we would ever get off this thing. We had planned to top out that evening, but we were only up 4 of the 8 pitches! We looked at our food and water and began to seriously limit our consumption...just in case.

The next day dawned and now Keath was sick as well. Apparently whatever stomach bug I was afflicted with, had now infected the community water jugs. It looked like the pipe bomb was going to get a workout.

In spite of my physical condition, I was mentally psyched. Thankfully I was psyched UP--not OUT. The Crux: 5.10, C3, nuts. That's all the beta we had on this pitch. We had no idea if the 5.10 was protected with anything more than shaky C3 nuts. Since I am the strongest free-climber of our team, I had drawn the short straw. The unknown was mine to face.

Rex leading out on Pitch 5 with Keath belaying

Pitch 5 began with a long rivet ladder up an overhanging, chicken-headed wall. There were a few times I had to tie-off the "gargoyles," just to make things interesting. I arrived at a small bulge and could see a crack veering off to the right. Here is where the C3 was supposed to be. Instead of thin, tricky nutting I found an ancient fixed #1 head. I gingerly bounce tested it, slung a scream-aid onto it and mounted it. Next, I began to fiddle with a funky stopper in a flare off to the side at the start of the right diagonalling crack. I finally got it slotted and tapped it in from the side to seat it with my nut tool. Time to "Test Market" it. :::Bouncie, bouncie:::

"Bomber!" I shouted.

I stood on the nut and slung a small horn. The next placement was a bombproof #1 Camalot.

"C3?!?" I thought, "What was the deal with this route? This was only C2. Ok, if the nut and head blew I was falling on rivets and z-macs, but it was overhung...nothing to hit." I just didn't understand.

Some 5.8 moves led up the lichen-choked crack to another tied-off horn. A little 5.9+ hand-traverse led to some C1 or 5.10+ and yet another tied-off knob. Two more rivets to a bolt and then some tricky 5.8 for 15' to another bolt. From there, 20' of 5.9 steep slab led to another horizontal crack. I hand traversed and aided along this for another 10-15 feet looking for a suitable belay. I had to garden a lot of lichen from this crack to find the placements! I'm not talking about centimeters...it was an over an inch thick in places!

Finally I reached a wider section and filled it with everything I had left (1/2" to #3 Camalot). Jeff came up and when he saw my face he said that I looked like I had been battling a forest fire. The black lichen I had scraped off to make placements had become airborne and mingled with my sweat to coat my face in black, ashen streaks.
I set Jeff up to haul and he began to haul the thinning pigs as I grabbed what was left of the rack and led off again. Keath was cleaning the last pitch and would send me up gear if I needed it.

Finally, we were getting to use the 3-man system as it was meant to be used! Pitch 6 began with following the same crack for 30' of 5.8. Once I reached a bolt, the pro became a bit sparse as I tried to figure out the route. My topo just had an arrow after the bolt that said, "Proceed up for 2 pitches, 5.7 R." I hate it when they do that.

As I continued up I began to wonder if I would find suitable anchors to hold the hauling system and our party of 3. This route had been put up siege style with fixed lines and climbed without hauling. Did the first ascentionist, E.C. Joe, just run it out on easy terrain, wedge himself in a corner and belay his partner up? Doubt once again bounced around in my head as I continued to gingerly pad up the unprotected friction.

Fifty feet out from the last bolt I ran across another diagonal seam/crack and was able to get some gear in. Again I danced up the blank slab for another huge runout until I heard a faint voice shout, "15 feet!". Thankfully I was almost to a small corner system at the base of a ramp. I was only able to get in two medium friends for anchors. It would have to do.

It was late afternoon and we still had 2 more pitches to go. Time to put it in high gear! Jeff came up the fixed line and again Keath was cleaning. We had a hell of a time hauling the bags up and over the bulge of the slab to our very low angle stance.

Things were working pretty well now. We finally had a system that worked. I led, Jeff came up and we hauled for awhile, I then led off again and he hauled while belaying me with the Gri-Gri. When Keath arrived they finished the job.

Pitch 7 was another very runout pitch 165', 5.6 R/X (no pro) that passed a big ledge littered with old beer cans and assorted tourist trash. No wonder we hadn't seen any trash at the base, the wall was overhung enough to dump it all either here or way down in the ravine below. I continued to climb above the ledge and finally anchored into big cams in some blocks about 120' from the top.

Keath took over for Jeff who was beginning to suffer and jugged the free line to meet me at the top of pitch 7. We were out of water now, and were getting really dehydrated. The fact that Keath and I were suffering from dysentery didn't help any.

The last pitch was more runout, devious, 5.7 friction (I was getting used to the reality of a 200+ foot fall) up to a corner system to the right of a big summit block. This corner went pretty quick and soon I was scrambling up to the top. Big Friends under a huge boulder set everything up for our top-out.

I shouted to Keath that the rope was fixed and stumbled the last few feet to the summit. My job was almost finished. Now I had to run (literally and figuratively!) down the trail to the top of the gully we had descended days earlier. There we had stashed an extra gallon of water. Luckily, before I headed off, I met a young, German tourist. He offered me the last of his orange juice, which I didn't refuse. I thanked him and told him that if my friends arrived, to let them know I went for the water.

Slogging down the trail was weird. I was off the wall, but my partners were still fighting for the summit. I also realized I had led all but 2 pitches of the wall even though Keath and I were supposed to swap leads with Jeff as the cleaner. This wall had been a strange one.

I found the stashed water and headed back up. My body definitely didn't like this...I met Keath at the top. He had come up dragging a haulbag. Apparently that was the system they were using, each was ferrying loads to the next station as I led ahead. I gave him some water and descended the fixed line to get another load. Jeff came up and I sent him on ahead after giving him a little water (ok, A LOT!). We ferried out the loads as the sun went down.

Lights began to twinkle in the valley below as our German friend snapped some summit pics. We packed our bags and began the hike off. We arrived at the base of the stairs to find a ranger waiting.

Apparently one of our wives (who will remain nameless--but it wasn't mine and Keath was single at the time), was worried because we were a day overdue and called the rangers. The ranger we had met days earlier had offered to hike to the top and see if he could contact us, just to ease Mrs. T's mind. However he wasn't too worried about us because he had talked to a birdwatcher earlier that day and found out that we were moving, but slowly. Based on our rate of progress, he guessed that we wouldn't top out that day. I think we surprised him by blasting the last 4 pitches in a day after spending 2 1/2 for the first 4!

We were sick, tired and a little parched, but we had had a lot of fun. We had achieved what we came for. Jeffrey bagged his first wall, we had 2 spectacular bivis on a pristine cliff and we were ready to head for Zodiac in a couple of weeks. But that is another story...

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