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,
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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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