Scorched Earth

by Brent Armstrong

Scorched Earth VI 5.11 A4+
El Capitan, Yosemite, CA
July 2000 (5th Ascent)

The Summer of 2000 was a bit of a renaissance for me. Finishing summer school in Colorado I blasted out to Yosemite for a month of mayhem, and fun. Getting off the bus I had an eerie feeling, no ride waiting. Mr. Pig and myself began to feel a bit uneasy as several unsavories began circling, looking to see if Mr. Pig or I was worth rolling. A blue Chevy rolls up and out pops my chica of many seasons. With visions of El Cap meadow romps rolling through my mind, and pornoledge adventures on the big stone I breathed a sigh of relief. I SHOULD HAVE TAKEN MY CHANCES WITH THE UNSAVORIES!!! My lass wasted no time in letting me know that she was done sharing her life with mine, and that she wanted her half of the rack RIGHT THEN! How could this be???? We were supposed to be frolicking and climbing in America's premier vacation climbing destination.

With four hours of sleep I restuffed Mr. Piggy, grabbed ALL of the rack and wall acutrements, and cast off into my new life. An onsight that I wasn't mentally prepared for. What do all climber boys turn to when women have shunned them??? The Captain!!!!!

My solo of the Shortest Straw would have gone completely smooth, except for one thing the ex forgot to mention. She had kicked my ledge off of the Washington Column Slabs. The darn thing was completely warped and end tubes tacoed and bent. The Earth has probably witnessed few tirades like the one I threw in the darkness on the 5th pitch, if you happened to be on the captain at this time I apologize. With my crafty cold chisel, and MacGyver like ingenuity I rigged my home for the next month and completed my ascent.

Luckily, my cousin, and badass wallrat, Mark Santurbane had shown up my second day on the wall, and harassed me from the talus. Explaining my new life with 800 feet between was quite amusing and brief, but we communicated all that was important... See you at the deli when your back on the X-axis. (He climbed the Zodiac in under two days with a partner he had never met, and a rack that wouldn't get you up the Nutcracker without wetting yourself.)

Over King Cobras, many lies, and frozen burritos we caught up and baited each other with the sickest carrot we could toss at each other. We had time for one wall together, and between the two of us nothing was out of the realm. I like adventure and mystery, he likes hard shit, with BIG falls. Nightmare on California Street seemed to be getting tossed around a lot, but both of us are around 5'9", and the first ascentionists are much taller, and those guys like doing things like top-stepping and drilling rivets at maximum extension to mess with the little guys (well that was our excuse that day anyway). We ended up settling on a little known, or repeated route between Native Son and Aurora....SCORCHED EARTH!

Scorched Earth had been on my mind for years. I kept a copy of an old Climbing Mag on my crapper with an article on Robbie Slater (proud brotha). He and Randy Leavitt had raced Walt Shipley and Troy Johnson (as they put up Native Son) up to "The Golden Pillar". 5.9 A1 on the Native Son (left) side, supposedly 5.11 A4 on the Scorched Earth (right) side. Plus, there were all sorts of rumors surrounding "extensive trickery" on Scorched Earth like a 15 foot cheater stick to hook with and other nonsense. The route sat for 10 years on El Cap with no repeats. Then a fella named Chris Kalous drug some guy up the second ascent, Eric George soloed the first half, supposedly Warren Hollinger had climbed it, and that was it! RAD!

I soloed and fixed the first two pitches as Mark continued to ferry loads to the base. The route started in earnest on the third pitch. Marked A3 on our topo I trembled as I began hooking directly above a very sharp looking block. This pitch was mildly proud, and kept my attention until the first bomber stopper was placed, then some C1 and a bunch of rivets brought us to the 4th pitch, and crux "Big Brother". I had seen Mark lead some of the gnarliest pitches I would ever want to see. In the Fisher Towers of Utah I watched him try to bring Democracy back to life, and place rows of heads in mud, in the Black Canyon I had watched the scrappy bastard fight through nonsense that would melt the minds of lesser men. I was not too worried as I handed him the rack for "Big Brother."

Mark cast off on a couple cams that my stop him from yarding onto the belay if it all went tits up, or it could have just ripped a chunk off the flake and knocked some sense into me. Neither happened and the next thing I knew he wanted the cheater stick. RAD!!! Then a leftward traverse on God knows what kind of rotten rock brought him to a few heads....survey says: "Wouldn't look good for your well being to rip the pitch just before the first rivet." He clipped the first one, big sigh of relief, pasted copper to a second, then cast off on A3+ hooking to the anchor. Our bivi that night was oozing greenish spooge on me as we celebrated passing the two pitches of the route that concerned us the most.

Next day I cast off onto the steepest pitch I have climbed on El Cap, it is even in height to the "Wing" on the Native Son. It was so cool to see the bag swinging that far out from the wall. If we had wanted to go down the only way would have been to jump. Somehow Mark was catching all the pitches with the cool names and the next was no different. He cast off the belay to try and chew on "The Poison Pill". He cruised it with nary a whimper, as I cleaned it I couldn't help but notice that portions of the Pill are not long of this Earth, and are sure to cut loose at some point. Another cool hanging bivi. We were in the same spot that the picture of Robbie Slater was taken on the first ascent. I hate to pat myself on the back, but sometimes when I am in the middle of something wonderful, like realizing and climbing a route that had been so "out there" for so long in my mind, I get this warm fuzzy kind of I'm proud of my evolution type feeling.

I awoke the next morning to a crispy thin flake, that liked cams, but also liked to flex A LOT! Lucky for me there were two rivets before the beaking began. I ran into the "Red Tower" pitch on Aurora and jaunted up to its belay. From here our topo showed A1 over head. Mark jugged up and we both agreed, what we were looking at was not A1. As the mind does in mild crisis situations we made our surroundings fit the topo we were looking at. We somehow convinced ourselves (More importantly Mark, as it was his lead) that if we had been putting this route up the natural line was a 50 foot free traverse to the right (plus we saw a fixed RURP). Do we sound like fools yet??? Mark cast off, but decided the thing to do was hook straight up. As with any partner you climb a lot with, you can tell much by the inflection of their whimpers. For the first time in many years I could tell Mark was very close to riding something nasty to my anchor. He down hooked quickly and cast off on the 50 foot traverse to a fixed head. Top stepping the head, and looking at a fall that would shake even Dan Osman up, he coolly slid a hook up the wall blindly with his hammer as he was too short to reach the placement. Then he began pasting more copper and hooking mank to an anchor with bail slings on it. My only thoughts as I cleaned it were "Modern A4, no chance of survival if it all went bad". Mark cruised. Dead ended by what we figured was a remnant from Eric George's Golden Blade variation, we decided to not rap and waste the lead, but to press on into the unknown.

The next morning I sedated myself as Mark drilled 4 rivets in virgin territory leading to a head/beak seam. ZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Next thing I know Mark is looking eye to eye with me, and 5 copperheads are dangling. My man Mark, charges back up, repastes the metal, drills one more rivet (our last), then calls up for the cheater stick. I was initially excited, I figured Mark was close enough to Aurora to clip a fixed head or some tat. WRONGO!!! This next sequence is almost beyond description. Mark hooked two natural hooks above the rivet, made a full extension cheater stick hook move, one more hook, ANOTHER full extension cheater stick hook move, and finally a 1/2 extension cheater stick hook move. All onsight on new ground. He covered that 50 feet rather quickly, but shit man!!!!! Mark is a proud brotha, and sailed through this looking at another monster screamer. The rewards of a lead like this are known only to those present to witness it. You reading this now are the only one's we have shared this with. If you ever meet Mr. Mark Santurbane of Bozeman, Montana, buy him a beer and ask him about this lead.

I couldn't let this impressive display go unmatched, so I cast up the awfully wide looking "Leavittator" pitch. Let me say, it may be 5.11 off width up high, but at the bottom it is some VERY shaky beaks and blades, gradually growing through all size of cam. The sun flew lower, and I lowered off a 5 camalot to finish the lead the next morning. This bivi is at least 250 feet out from the start of the route, so rad.  In fact, one of the most magical spots I have ever spent time on this Earth at. Mark and I laughed and down played the days events.

The wide pitch fell by the wayside, and I will say this for it, by the time you get to the nailing in the middle of it, you are glad to be on KB's and not in that damned slot. Mark killed the last pitch of Scorched Earth quickly and we met back up with Aurora. I don't remember much about the rest of the route, but I do remember our last morning. We awoke, Mark lead off on A3 hooks, I stayed in my sleeping bag and belayed. He laughed at me and told me he was in there, and to snooze on. By the time he clipped the anchors I had the pigs all packed. That just kind of describes the vibe we had going. I have climbed many walls in many places, in pushes, slowly, easy/hard...whatever. But, I have never had one go more smoothly than this time I got to spend with my friend and cousin Mark. It was SWEET ASS SWEET!

Sadly, this was the last wall Mark and I have climbed together. These days we seem to enjoy frozen fingers, and alpine glow to King Cobras and sunshine when we get together. Nightmare on California Street still beckons, but neither of us is growing any taller (is that still a valid excuse HA!). I ran a lap after this route up the Sea of Dreams with two guys I had never met before, and believe me that was quite the antithesis to the "no worries vibe" on the Scorched Earth. That Summer I threw myself at some of the coolest routes I could quantify doing at the time in attempts to leave the old life behind.

I learned a couple really great things though that summer: You don't think about the chick that dumped you while your hooking, hard aid isn't that hard, the women of the YCS are easy pickin's, and the Captain never says no to a date.

Rack: Many heads (40?) all are fixed as of our ascent, pins for Aurora pitches, couple beaks, all hooks, cams/stoppers to as BIG as you can find. Tube chalks or big ass balls.

home | topos & beta | photos | trip reports | links