Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Last Ascents

There's a very interesting story in the new Climbing (249) about the recent instability of the famed Leaning Column, a 30-foot pillar that bridges two walls of Devils Tower's distinctive hexagonal corners on the Durrance Route. The 81,000-pound column of phonolite porphyry apparently now can be moved several millimeters by a climber standing atop it. The Durrance Route, pioneered in 1937, is the Tower's most popular summit route, with more than 1,100 ascents a year, according to NPS records. It's the easiest route to the top and has been the target of countless novice climbers who've made the long trek to northeastern Wyoming to tackle the six-pitch climb. My wife tells a funny story about psyching up for the route as part of a Colorado Mountain Club group; they had heard about the so-called Jump Traverse high on the route, and after arriving at the Devils Tower campground the night before their climb they took turns practicing standing broad jumps to see who should get the lead. The Leaning Column seems certain to disappear one day soon, and though the route will still be climbable a bit of history and the foundation of a lot of memories will be lost.

I've often wondered about the last person to climb such formations just before they toppled: the Gendarme at Seneca Rocks, the summit ridge of Mt. Cook in New Zealand, the Old Man of the Mountains in New Hampshire. Could someone have known he was making the last ascent of a climb before it fell off? Did it squeak or rumble threateningly? Has anyone ever made more than one last ascent? Now that would be weird!

My vote for the next climb to fall is the Cobra (a.k.a. ET), a little formation in the Fisher Towers of Utah with a 5.10+ route up it (seen here in a great Kennan Harvey cover shot). You have to do a hard face move on the Cobra's neck, then pull up over the summit cap on jugs. The whole 8-foot-wide caprock is just sitting there, balanced atop a slender column of partially petrified ancient riverbed, tilted at an alarming angle. The rappel anchor is on the uphill side, but still.... I did it once and that was enough. When a couple of friends climbed it a few years ago and asked if I wanted to do it again, I said, "No thanks. I'll just take pictures." Whoever gets the last ascent of this one may well be making his own last ascent.


Anonymous said...

One of the most famous features to fall off a climb was the rotten log on Yosemite's Royal Arches. I believe I was one of the last 50 people to cross this famous feature.

I have wondered how stable the top of Ancient Art is. I've walked past the Cobra but it looks too scary!

Anonymous said...

Over a month without an entry... don't you love us anymore?