The Wind River Range of Wyoming is truly a wilderness. Although, only 6 hours from my home in Boulder Colorado, the remoteness, serenity, and sheerness of it has you thinking that you might be in the Alaskan backcountry. I first experienced Mount Hooker’s siren call in 2015 with a crew of true adventuring brethren: Mike Pennings, Hayden Kennedy, and Whit Magro. On that trip, Mike and I teamed up and succeeded in nabbing two free ascents of Hooker’s North Face via the “Jaded Lady” (5.12a) and the “Hook Line and Sinker” (5.12). Both of those ascents left me thinking of the potential still left on the 2000 foot North face.
Almost exactly two years later, I found myself showing Maury Birdwell, one of my best friends and favourite adventure climbing partners, pictures of a line I spotted that split Mount Hookers’ North Face in the same manner the Nose splits Yosemite’s El Capitan. The features that captured my imagination for free climbing were the same features that captured the imagination of Royal Robbins, Dick McCracken, and Charlie Raymond for the first ascent of a grade six big wall outside of Yosemite Valley in summer of 1964. And so it was, regardless of the outcome, we would try our hand at free climbing the 1964 route.
Annotated with a rich history of our sport’s boldest and most prolific first ascensionists, Mount Hooker is one to be attempted from the ground. With the evolution of modern sport climbing and ease of route development from the top down, venues such as Mount Hooker and The Black Canyon of the Gunnison have become some of the last hold-outs to the new age of route development. Maury and I agreed that if we were to attempt a new free project on this great face, we needed to attempt it in our best style; from the ground and with as few bolts as possible, only in areas that would be free climbing variations to the 1964 route.
Our first day was tremendously successful. In six hours we had climbed 3 pitches up to 11+ and only need to add 2 bolts to protect some very bold free climbing that deviated around obvious pendulums. I was beginning to think that we might have time to establish two new routes in the 12 days we had given ourselves. The second day things slowed down as the route began to steepen. A beautiful corner perched underneath an overhanging red wall had a real question mark at the top of it. It appeared that where the corner ended and became overhanging, the continuing crack being incredibly thin might be too hard for free climbing. After an hour of inspection and cleaning, Maury pieced together an amazing sequence through a miraculous face hold that faced in just the right direction to gain a seemingly blank arête. His creativity bypassed the thin crack all together and brought us to the zone we were most nervous about, an overhanging series of REALLY thin and steep corners.
The next day, armed with dozens of knife blade pitons, beaks, and the smallest peckers, I went to work nailing my way up the red headwall in my approach shoes. When I reached the top I was dubious that this part of the wall would be free climbable. Against my advice, Maury opted to follow the pitch attempting to free climb it before we had a chance to clean it with our steel brushes. Scuffing almost all of the boot rubber from his climbing shoes, Maury thought it was going to be likely 5.13+ if even possible. I figured it best to try the pitch a bit later in the day after some good brush work and in the sun. We decided to push higher establishing another pitch of amazing 5.11 rock climbing and gaining around the halfway mark of the route.
Returning to the question mark below, I clipped our brushes and cleaning tools to my harness, laced up my rock shoes, and smiled as the sun began to creep onto our stressful situation. Lowering into the pitch I knew we were going to have our hands full. A few key features presented themselves right away, and I could tell that likely the route would come down to around 5 feet of climbing. Having watched Maury closely hours earlier and having chalked and scrubbed a few key palming holds, I had unlocked a very difficult stemming sequence that felt about as hard as the stemming crux of Yosemite’s Free Rider.
The days all seemed to be blurring together. Each morning we would “commute” the 45 minutes to the base of the wall, tap into our favourite iPod playlists, and jumar to our high point. The whole process was starting to feel all too comfortable, right up to the point where I noticed a bolt falling out of my gloved hand. It was headed right at Maury; 80 feet below me where there was little he could do to protect himself. It struck him perfectly on the bone of his elbow, and from the way he screamed, I thought for a second I broke my best friend’s arm. It was a tough day for morale as he was reduced to belaying, and as I was blanked out on a very difficult lead through an imposing roof. The totality of the experience was building. We had 300 feet of a very steep wall ahead of us, and the features weren’t lining up as we had hoped.
I began to get creative, swinging around like a circus act, looking for holds and the best way to proceed. It all came down to a roof encounter that I thought at first wasn’t going to link. Demoralized and broken from a 10 hour day of leading, I felt a sloping hand hold that the eye couldn’t even see. Out of almost divine intervention, all of the pieces came together and we had ourselves a bottom to top free route.
Extending our trip another day, Maury and I set off at 8am to try and free our route in entirety. Certain parts felt surprisingly harder than we expected while others felt surprisingly easier. Maury casually sent our first 5.12 corner to arête pitch leaving me to lead the steep beak protected crux pitch. We committed to not adding bolts to the 1964 aid effort and we left the pitch entirely fixed with nearly all of our pitons and beaks. Having clipped 6 beaks and a stopper, I was staring at the crux of the route. My mind didn’t even consider the nature of the fixed gear and whether it would hold a fall or not. My mind went into stillness as I was wholly committed to freeing the pitch. Several screams, desperate foot smears, and difficult pulls later, I was at the belay with the pitch that once seemed impossible, free climbed below me.
The mood changed as Maury followed. He pieced together the difficult sequencing perfectly. Without falling, he reached the belay and we both exhaled as the stress levels subsided. A pitch of 5.11, three 5.12’s, and several hundred feet of 5.10 guarded the top. Methodically we worked our way up the wall to one of the last cruxes. It was Maury’s lead, and we were both feeling the fatigue from a lot of trying hard. I shouted as loud as I could “COME ON” as I watched his foot peel off the wall and his body begin to cartwheel out of control. Miraculously, he caught a crazy side pull edge and reeled his foot back onto the wall.
Completely exhausted we pulled out of the realm of the vertical and burned into our memory’s the sunset views of the mountain range surrounding us. Maury looked at me and said, “That is for sure the coolest thing I have ever done.” I then realized that Maury’s only ascent of Mount Hooker was via our first ascent, and I smiled.
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