What Would Earl Wiggins Do? An Ascent Into The Maelström (5.11 R/X)

“There happened to me an event such as never happened to mortal man — or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of — and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul” ~Edgar Allen Poe, Descent Into The Maelström 

I’ve been repeating the routes of desert pioneers, such as Jimmy Dunn, Jeff Achey, the Ruckman brothers, Stewart Green, Steve “Crusher” Bartlett and Katy Cassidy for years. The more recent routes I have sought out, however, such as “Stand and Deliver” (5.10 A0) on Merrimac Buttress outside of Moab, Utah have told the story of a particularly tortured soul — the late Earl Wiggins (1957-2002). Wiggins hailed from a school of American desert climbers who established a minimalist style – the “rope and the rack and the shirt on our back” — an approach which characterised the golden age of Seventies American rock climbing.

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Earl Wiggins and Steve Cheyney 1977 Photo: Stewart Green

Wiggins routes are unlikely, creative and intimidating lines with descriptions such as “offwidth nightmare” and “leaping mantel.” And I often stagger away from his grueling “adventure climbs” with an appreciation for his bold vision and a renewed disdain for 4″ cracks. Two weeks ago I limped away from the first free ascent of his Entrada masterpiece “Stand and Deliver” (whose 2nd pitch remained unfreed and unrepeated for 30 years until my ascent) directly to the hospital for a tetanus shot after gouging my leg on an rusty fixed pin of Earl’s from 1988 which left me with a perfect baby angle shaped scar.

This Spring I have focused on establishing routes that would appeal to Wiggins, and so I began my ascent into the Maelström. I recruited offwidth legend Jay Anderson as my partner for this disturbing adventure. Jay, from a generation of climbers who were accustomed to wide cracks without pro (yes there were offwidths established before 9″ cams) has a particular affinity for run-out, dark squeeze chimneys.

Jay and I successfully established the gruesome three pitch route ground-up, bolting on lead in the scary, soft and crumbling Entrada sandstone. Although the first pitch was moderate (5.9+ offwidth) the calf-locks felt desperate as holds exploded beneath us. The 2nd pitch (5.11a) was my style — an elegant, and jagged 7″ crack from which I emerged into the maw of the Maelstrom.

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Onsighting the elegant 2nd Pitch of “Ascent Into the Maelstrom” Photo: Savannah Cummins
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Bolting on Lead in the Maelström Photo: Evan Wisheropp

In fact, the second pitch opened up all the way to the other side of the buttress through a tunnel that funneled 50 knot winds back at us. I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread that I hadn’t felt since working in the Bering Sea as Jay vanished into the ominous chimney. Jay was only able to place one piece of pro on the 100′ pitch. I was relieved when he eventually emerged from the darkness as I had been obsessing about rescue scenarios thinking he had become a human chockstone.

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Jay emerges from the Maelstrom  Photo: Savannah Cummins

Emerging from the Maelström I was reborn. No longer did the wind and sand swirl round me and fill my ears. I stepped out onto the summit of a world familiar but only vaguely remembered… out here the sun still shone, the cactus flowers bloomed. Here there were colors instead of darkness, here there was sky, sunlight, and up, and down. ~Jay Anderson

Our new line is a worthy tribute to the late Earl Wiggins — loose rock, ominous passages, 50 knot winds and 5.11 offwidth that bring the words of Jeff Achey to mind: “features 5.11 offwidth prepare to die.”  But, I wasn’t completely satisfied with our unlikely masterpiece. I decided to establish an alternative final pitch by climbing out the final wildly Bombay offwidth roof rather than through the 100′ squeeze. And so we returned a few days later and as I climbed into the abyss once again with my drill, blue Big Bros and a 12″ cam I said at length, to Jay — “this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelström.” And that’s where the real story begins.

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Climbing into the perilous abyss // Photo: Evan Wisheropp

To be continued….

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