John William Middendorf IV:
Extreme walls, American style
Cameron M. Burns
When John Middendorf and Xaver Bongard summitted Great Trango Tower
on July 28, 1992, the conclusion of 18 days of difficult and exceptionally
dangerous climbing, their names became household words among climbers.
Nearly every major mountaineering publication carried news of the pair's
achievement and it gave Middendorf and Bongard a place in Himalayan - and
world - mountaineering history. It was, possibly, the most difficult wall climb
But for the then 32-year-old John William Middendorf IV, it was just the
culmination of half a lifetime's worth of training for his ultimate goal: to climb the
world's most extreme cliffs, and do it in impeccable style. And, with his eyes set
on Patagonia, Baffin Island and other areas, Middendorf is just hitting his
"He's certainly in the forefront of what's going on right now," concedes Jim
Bridwell, an American wall climbing legend and friend. "I think he's trying hard
routes and doing a good job on them, certainly in good style. I recognize his
But life wasn't always a challenging for the son of a New York investment
banker and a nurse - a guy who grew up the perfect nerd and was even bullied
by other kids at school.
In fact, there were times when Middendorf wanted nothing to do with big rock
faces, and even feared their looming bulk and the awesome natural forces they
Born Nov. 18, 1959, in New York City, young John William grew up in
Greenwich Connecticut, with three sisters and a brother. When he was 11, the
family moved to Holland, where they lived for 3 years. Upon returning to the U.S.
in 1973, the family moved to McLean, Virginia. Although he would later make
extensive cragging trips throughout the East Coast, young John's first
experience rockclimbing came when 14-year-old John was shipped off to
summer camp in Telluride, Colorado.
Ice, snow and rock climbing, and other mountain craft were all part of the
curriculum. Dave Farny, the instructor, taught his students not only to climb, but
how to exist in the mountains. Minimal impact was practiced religiously, and
the lessons would have a big influence on Middendorf in later years.
Middendorf returned twice in the following years, guiding teens younger than
At age 15, he began top-roping at Carder Rock and Great Falls. Middendorf
got better and better. He did trips to Seneca, the Gunks, when he was 15 and
16. At the ripe old age of 17, he headed off to Yosemite for his first wall climbing
"When I was a junior in high school, I went out to Yosemite one summer
and climbed Half Dome, Washington Column, the East Buttress of El Cap,"
recalls Middendorf. "I'd been climbing for three years. I got pretty serious about
Although there were a lot of young climbers in 1976, there weren't a lot of 17
year-olds cruising Half Dome.
"There's just awesome long walls everywhere in Yosemite. I knew right away
that's what I wanted to do," he recalls. "All I'd seen before that were small crags,
and all of a sudden I'm looking at these 2,000 and 3,000-foot cliffs and I'm
going - wow!"
Middendorf completed high school in 1977, a straight A student. "I was a
nerd," he recalls. "I wasn't athletic at all. In fact, I was always getting beaten up
by the bullies."
He then attended Dartmouth College for two years Studying engineering
there, Middendorf became involved with a group of eastern climbers that
included Neil Cannon, Thom Englebach, Steve Chardon, and Ted Johnson.
By the age of 19, in 1978, Middendorf was climbing 5.11, not bad considering
the top grades of the day were only 5.11+.Middendorf also got into ice. He and
Englebach made several ice excursions in the northeast, including solos of
several classics at Huntington's Ravine on Mt. Washington.
"They were way over our heads, actually," Middendorf remembers.
After two years at Dartmouth, Middendorf transferred to Stanford University near
San Francisco. Weekends were spent on jaunts to Yosemite Valley. He
graduated with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, with
For most summers during college, Middendorf worked on his career,
getting jobs in engineering, and honing himself for a career under flickering
flourescent lights and wearing slide rules in his shirt pocket. However, in 1981,
during his third year at university, Middendorf took 6 months off to go on a
cragging tour of Australia. The choice to climb over preparing for an exciting
career in the world of engineering was a harbinger of things to come in the
young man's life.
"They hadn't seen a lot of Americans over there at that time. Maybe a handful,"
he recalls. "So, I got good, royal, treatment because they all wanted to sandbag
the Yank. I was in the newspaper over there: 'Visiting American Comes to
Climb at Our Local Rocks' and it was Arapiles, which is of course now known
as one of the best crags in the world."
Middendorf returned to the states, graduated from Standford, sold almost all
his climbing gear, bought a motorcycle, then toured the country doing job
"It was going to be my last little stint," he says of the motorcycle trip. "It was
like, OK, youth's over, gotta go work. I could climb working as an engineer, but
up to then I spent a lot of time living in Joshua Tree or Yosemite, and I really
knew that is what I loved the most was to spend an extended period of time
climbing. It's all climbers' dream, I imagine. And, I realized that doing that and
working a 9-to-5 job were two mutually incompatible things. So I basically said
climbing will be a part of my life, but I've got to buckle down and become an
Yeah, John. Sure.
After one interview in Santa Barbara, for what sounded like "a pretty dull job,"
his next interview was in Ohio. On a whim, he decided to spend a week in
Yosemite, before motoring out east, where he'd no doubt buckle down and
become part of middle America.
Middendorf knew a few climbers in Yosemite from his college days. He
stayed a while, climbed a little, and, in his own way, said good-bye to America's
Just as Middendorf was preparing to leave California, Werner Braun planted a
seed in the young engineer's head.
"He suggested to me I get on the rescue team. There were a couple of spots
open," says Middendorf. "It was February of 1984. I ended up getting on the
rescue team and ended up staying for two and a half years."
So much for the proverbial corporate ladder.
It's easy to drift into some sort of ambivalence in Yosemite, where each day is
strung together between visits to the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria and hours in
campsite procrastinating over routes and thumbing through the guidebook.
One wall climbed makes exceptional fodder for putting off another. Call it a side
affect of the Valley syndrome, call it the doldrums, but in Yosemite, even if you're
motivated, it's easy to just hang out.
Not so, for John William the fourth.
His 2 1/2 years in the valley, from 1984-86, produced a remarkable resume of
wall routes, traditional free routes, solos and, most importantly, first ascents.
"I did at least 12 walls every year, I climbed El Cap every month of the year, I did
almost 40 walls in that time," he said. "I must've climbed with 100 different
people while I was there. I was fucking motivated."
His partners included some of the nation's best, and most famous, climbers:
Braun, John Bachar, Walt Shipley, Scott Cosgrove, Dave Schultz, John Barbella,
Mike Corbett, Steve Bosque, Rick Lovelace, and Alex Lowe to name a few.
"Werner Braun was my main mentor when I was in the valley for sure," said
Middendorf. "He's got a really pure attitude about climbing. That rubbed off a
Although the Atlantic Ocean Wall (VI, 5.10, A5) on El Capitan, (first climbed with
John Barbella in 1985), was a noteworthy achievement, Middendorf sees the
route as something of a consolation prize after just missing out on Lost In
"I had done 15 El Cap routes, but I really wanted to do a new one," he
recalls. "And I had a few picked out, but they kept getting stolen, like Lost in
America. I was really pysched to do that line. I had made a map and everything.
I remember I told Charles Cole about it, because we were buddies at the time. I
borrowed his telescope to look at it. He come over and looked at it and said
'yeah, that's a good line.' A couldn't find anyone to climb it with me, so I was
going to solo it. Back then, I tell you, it was really hard to find wall climbing
partners. There just weren't many people who wanted to do hard routes. So I
soloed 'Never Never Land' as training. I got back, and Charles met me in the (El
Cap) Meadow, and he said: 'I've got some bad news for you.' I knew exactly
what he was talking about."
Randy Leavitt and Greg Child were on the route. In vain, Middendorf hiked to
the base of the wall and began taunting the pair, trying to psych them into giving
"I was like: 'Hey, you guys. You guys having fun up there? It's pretty hot isn't it?'"
The taunting didn't work, and Middendorf had lost his prize.
"Then I did the A.O.," he laments. "It's only like three-quarters of a new line. It
joins New Jersey turnpike. The true prizes are fully independent routes."
Still, for a consolation, the Atlantic Ocean is a striking climb, taking an
uncompromising line, and a couple of big roofs, before joining the New Jersey
Turnpike, 15 leads up.
And Middendorf did get to put up some now coveted classics, most of them
toward the top end of the scale. Autobahn (V, 5.11c), for example, which takes a
wild line up the southeast corner of Half Dome, was climbed with Charles Cole
and Rusty Reno. Middendorf led the crux pitch, mandatory 5.11+ freeclimbing,
that earned him some criticism for not making the lead aid-climable.
Regardless, the climb was labeled "brilliant, a five star route" by Climbing
Magazine in 1986.
Another big tick for Middendorf was the first winter ascent of "Zenyatta
Mondatta" (VI, 5.10, A5), with Walt Shipley, in 1985, one of the more difficult
lines on the big stone. Shipley, who bailed off after a few pitches because he
feared bad wether, then returned, says Middendorf was the driving force behind
While Middendorf's mid-1980s sojourn in the Valley produced a raft of
traditional free and wall routes, some of which have since become hard
classics, it was probably speed climbing where Middendorf and his various
partners made their biggest mark.
Speed climbing is something much more difficult to track than normal firsts
ascents, and often, goes unrecorded altogether. During his Valley years,
Middendorf managed to pull off the first one-day ascent of the direct route on
Lost Arrow Spire in 8 hours with Dave Schultz; the West Face of El Cap, in four
hours; the Northwest Face of Half Dome, with Hidetaka Suzuki in 7 hours;
South Face of Washington Column in four hours, and Astroman and Rostrum
in a day with John Bachar. Middendorf and Schultz also had what was probably
a record time on the Nose, 10 1/2 hours, climbed on the winter solstice, the
shortest day of the year. Other parties had faster times, but had used fixed
ropes in the process. Middendorf and Schultz did not.
In fact, one of his earliest climbs in the valley was a speed ascent of
Hockalito - Mescalito with the Hockey Night in Canada start - in 1984 with Alex
Lowe, in just 3 1/2 days. It was one of Middendorf's first nailing routes, and the
pair sped up the cliff in what was likely record time.
"Even my first big nailing routes, I knew I kind of had knack for it," says
Middendorf. "Plus I was climbing with great partners, too. But I really felt like I
could push the wall climbing aspect of climbing. I was doing a lot of these
routes in fast times. But I wanted to push it to wall climbing. I really wanted to
do the Zodiac in a day because I knew that would go."
While high-speed wall climbing was somewhat popular in the mid-1980s,
it wasn't that popular, and Middendorf had a hard time finding a partner for the
In 1985, longtime Valley resident Mike Corbett expressed interest in doing the
Shield in a day. It wasn't the Zodiac, but Middendorf had no choice as Corbett
wasn't up for a one-day ascent of the Zodiac.
The pair left at midnight, and managed to climb 24 pitches, to Chickenhead
Ledge, in 17 hours. They had just a few hundred feet to go.
"It was like 7:30 at night," Middendorf remembers. "It was getting dark. We got
the headlamps out. It was a really cold and windy day that day, and we didn't
really bring many warm clothes. In fact, I had a t-shirt and a pair of Gramiccis.
Mike was wearing about the same. We weren't prepared at all. We were
prepared as if we we're doing the Nose in a day, which was a mistake. To do a
long aid route in a day, you want to bring a couple days worth of food and warm
One of the party's two headlamps was broken, and with enthusiasm waning,
the pair decided to camp out. That night a storm hit. The climbers shivvered all
night. At 3 a.m., it started raining, sleeting and then snowing.
The pair struggled up the last three pitches, still managing to do the wall in
under 36 hours, probably the fastest ascent of the Shield at that time.
"I think, in a way, that route was a pioneering effort," muses Middendorf. "Even
though it wasn't the first one day ascent of a nailing route. It wasn't until like 5
years later that people were teaming up to do these nailing routes in a day.
"Now I'm too old for that kind of stuff."
RESCUE ON THE SOUTH FACE OF HALF DOME
Remarkably, in March, 1986, Middendorf quit wall climbing altogether.
He had been climbing the Harding-Rowell route on the South Face of Half
Dome, with Steve Bosque and Mike Corbett. The trio were three days up on the
cliff, one pitch above the Cyclops Eye, when a wild storm hit. It turned out to be
one of the worst in Yosemite history.
Because of the physical nature of the rock, in a storm, the South Face route
becomes one of the rock's larger water drainages.
"It almost killed us. We had a two-foot waterfall pounding down on us for a day
and a half," says Middendorf grimly. "Our portaledges couldn't handle it. They'd
fall apart on us on a regular basis. And it was freezing cold water. We were
soaked, and it lasted for about 30 hours, all through the night. Then it started to
get cold, and started snowing and sleeting on us. It snowed like 5 feet on the
ground. But on the wall it was snowing like five feet a minute because of the
way the wall was, long-angle. The rock was basically covered with a four-inch
sheet of ice. There was just no way We couldn't move. Our ropes were just
solid chunks of ice."
To make matters worse, the trio was continually buried by avalanches of
snow and ice cascading off the rock.
"It seemed like hundreds of pounds of ice," said Bosque, a longtime Valley
expert himself, remembering the event. "I'm sure it was."
Although about 3 dozen rescuers worked two days getting to the top of Half
Dome in miserable conditions, the trio was plucked off Half Dome by a
"Storms are always really nutty. A bad storm on a walls is really scary," says
Middendorf. "Because you're so helpless, and you can't move. Even if there's a
ledge a few feet away it could take you hours to get there. Those are the most
frightening, wild times. There are places where you're trapped.
"That actually scared the shit out of me, because we came so close to dying. I
came down from that, and basically, I didn't climb another wall for 3 1/2 years
"It changed my life, too," added Bosque. "It was a pretty close call. That was
quite the epic for us. The thing drew on itself out for several days giving you
time to ponder."
At one point, shortly before the rescue, Bosque and Corbett thought Middendorf
was dead. Slumped over in slings with snow quickly covering his body, Bosque
and Corbett were certain Middendorf "had left us." Middendorf hadn't. He was
just sleeping. Bosque, trying to figure out Middendorf's condition, stepped on
him, waking him up.
"He was really hard core," recalls Bosque. I think he even had tennis shoes
on. He was so calm during the whole thing."
The South Face route should have been Middendorf's 40th long route in
Yosemite. But as it was, the event affected Middendorf so deeply, that it was a
key factor in his decision to quit Yosemite in 1986, and move to Ariziona.
"I was doing all these routes, and was feeling a little bit invulnerable, I think,
like I could withstand any kind of storm," Middendorf says pensively. "And no
matter how hard the climbing was I could fire it off in fast time. It seemed like
walls were cake, like I just had them wired. I still don't feel like I've mastered
them, but back then I did feel like I'd mastered them.
"Then I got hit by this storm and I felt so helpless, nearly died, and that was it."
GO EAST (TO FLAGSTAFF), YOUNG MAN
By 19 86, Middendorf was ready to leave Yosemite.
"It's tough to say the reasons," he recalls, adding that the Half Dome rescue
was just one of several factors. "I just knew it was time to move on. I was more
ambitious than just in climbing, and starting a business was a good project."
The business Middendorf decided to start - with the help of a small
inheritance - was A5.
"I realized there was no gear around for wall climbers. There were no good
hammers available, there were no good portaledges. It wasn't being made.
Nobody made it. Forrest used to make some stuff, Chouinard used to make
But by 1986, there wasn't a whole lot available.
"I first made a big wall hammer, that was my only business at first. It was
an engineering project: getting the blueprints made, finding a forger to make
them, and getting handles, figuring out a way to mount the handles. That was
the only thing I did. I moved to Flagstaff and was doing this all out of an
apartment and I was using a friend of mine's shop in town to do finish work on
the hammers. I got those going, and started selling those. I made 550
hammers and sold them all."
Throughout 1987, A5 blossomed into a full-blown mail order retail outlet,
which was discontinued when Middendorf moved the emphasis from rock gear
to sewn equipment in 1988.
Eddie Whitmore, a well-known eastern climber, and desert climber Kyle
Copeland, both sewed for A5 in the late 1980s.
"In the first couple of years it was hell," recalls Middendorf. "1988-89, I
remember those years, they were just hell. Basically, everybody said there's no
way you can make a big wall manufacturing company work. Nobody had any
faith that there was a need for anyone to make high-quality portaledges and
haul bags and big wall climbing equipment. Everybody was pessimistic, and it
wasn't like I was going to find investors."
Middendorf didn't prove the naysayers wrong overnight. It took two years of hard
toil before the business was breaking even. Middendorf spent most of his
inheritance making A5 go.
"I sunk a lot of money into the business," Middendorf said. "It was tough. It
really sucked, actually."
However, most great stories do have a happy ending.
By 1989, A5 had begun to make a little bit of money. In 1991, A5 did about
$75,000 in sales. In 1992, that number went up to $100,000. By mid Oct. 1993,
A5 had done $125,000 and was well on its way to grossing $150,000. A5 has
blossomed enough to employee eight full-time employees.
"It's looking really good," Middendorf said. "It's still hard to keep up with
demand. That's always been one of our biggest problems."
THE DESERT YEARS
Moving to Flagstaff opened up a whole new world for Middendorf: the desert.
Flagstaff sits close to most of the important desert climbing areas: Zion,
Canyonlands, Navajolands, etc. And like Wyoming's Wind Rivers, the Colorado
Plateau offers probably more unexplored climbing potential than any other area
in the country.
Except for an ascent of Castleton tower in 1980, Middendorf hardly knew the
area. In his first desert year, with Bandito climber Stan Mish, Middendorf picked
off the last major unclimbed Sedona spire, the Mushroom, a six-pitch prize.
"I liked that sandstone stuff," says Middendorf. "It's really similar to wall
climbing in that it takes a lot of commitment. To get up a three or four pitch
desert route it's got the same essence of commitment as you do on a 10-20
pitch route on granite. Sandstone's amazing. It seems like half the number of
pitches is an equal experience over granite. My main fire is doing big faces, but
the training you get on those desert climbs is unbeatable because it's so
alpine. It's the same techniques you use on big wall routes. You've got to be
proficient at moving from free to aid and back to free again, at a high standard.
Plus you're always doing it with a ton of gear on."
Over the years, Middendorf has been able to climb about 35 spires, about
20 of them first ascents. Some of Middendorf's firsts have been true desert
prizes. The Bear, for example, which he climbed in 1991 with American legend
Jimmy Dunn, was the biggest unclimbed formation in the Monument Valley at
But undoubtedly Middendorf's biggest contribution to desert climbing has
been in Zion, where he climbed about 15 walls, half of those firsts.
"It's much more challenging than Yosemite," he says. "Because even if you
have a splitter crack - like Lost arrow size.
In granite, that would be A1, no problem. But in Sandstone, it's almost
automatically A3 because if you have to start doing a bold section off even a
good section of Arrows, you can't trust the Arrows to stick in sandstone. You
don't have pieces that will hold a 30-40-footer. It's much more challenging than
BACK TO THE VALLEY
After the rescue on Half Dome, Middendorf stayed away for three years. Finally,
in October, 1989, he returned, and immediately set about resurrecting his
superb Yosemite wall career, climbing four major walls in just five weeks.
One of the highlights of that trip in Yosemite, was the first ascent of the "Kali
Yuga," (VI, 5.10, A4) on Half Dome, which he climbed with wall ace Walt
Shipley, one of the world's best wall climbers.
Shipley had been working on Kali Yuga solo, and by late October, when
Middendorf arrived in the Valley, had just pulled down the last of his gear to
await the spring.
"It was his idea to go back up on it," recalls Shipley. "I wasn't really all that
psyched on it having spent the previous month on it. It just wasn't working for
me. But, I remember he was all psyched on it."
"We were a little worried about weather, but when I was with John, right
away I knew I was going to do the climb. That was kind of a breaking point for
him. He hadn't done any walls since he's been rescued. I didn't know it at the
time, about the rescue. We didn't even talk about it. It wasn't any thorn in my
side, but I guess it bothered him. He was all psyched after we did the climb. He
was glad to get back into it with such a glorious route."
Except for two gear placements on Tis-sa-ack, Kali Yuga was an completely
new route on one of the world's most coveted pieces of stone.
It snowed on the pair on the last day, which, "put the fear of God into us" as
Shipley recalls because the climb then became a case of get off the wall or
face the consequences. The pair bivvied on top of Half Dome after topping out.
"I got up in the morning - his hair's all dirty, he hasn't showered in a week,
and his bags all covered in dirt and sand - and I go 'Man, this is the most
classic John Middendorf I've ever seen'." recalls Shipley. "He's not afraid to
sleep in the dirt, even without a pad or whatever."
Although the pair have had several falling outs, like a debate on the Kali Yuga
over where to place a bolt anchor, "he's actually really easy to get along with."
says Shipley. "He can be a little moody sometimes. We've done a lot of good
climbing together. A lot. John Middendorf's always has a really strong will to
continue with the climb and give it his all."
With a major prize under his belt, Middendorf was back in action.
"Basically, I came out of retirement in five weeks did the Kali Yuga, the Prow
in a day, the third ascent of the Sheep Ranch and a new route on Yosemite
Falls Wall, Route 66, all in five weeks," Middendorf recalls.
"I felt pretty back into it."
Since 1989, Middendorf's climbing career has been marked by a remarkable
alternation between big desert walls and Yosemite's granite cliffs.
In 1990, for example, Middendorf teamed up with American legend Jimmy
Dunn and repeated Dunn's 1972 solo route, the "Cosmos," and the pair added
a direct finish. It was Dunn's first El Cap climb in nearly two decades.
"I felt really confident up there with John," said Dunn. "It was great knowing
he was with me."
Then, also that year, Middendorf and Shipley also climbed a grade VI route on
the Abraham, one of the bigger features in Zion National Park.
And while he can freeclimb at top standards, Middendorf spends only a
small amount of his time on that side of the sport.
"He's actually a pretty good freeclimber," says Bridwell. He's sort of uncanny.
You don't think he's going to be a good freeclimber, but he's pretty damn good.
He's a really generous person. Real honest. The thing I like about him the most
- and I don't give a damn about how he climbs - is he's a really nice person."
Bridwell's comments point to something perhaps even more legendary than
Middendorf's ability to beak it out on desperate A5 horror shows: his
"Has anyone told you John's a really generous guy?" asks Shipley. As a
matter of fact, nearly every climber's first comments for this article about John
William Middendorf IV are on his generosity.
"He's really generous. God bless, John," says longtime friend Steve Bosque.
"He's one guy who really deserves it."
BOLTS, HEADS AND HOLES
In 1992, Great Trango highlighted a career that just keeps going up. While
his ascent with Bongard could easily justify the conclusion of an outrageous life
in the mountains, Middendorf sees it as a step towards other extreme walls.
"Sometimes in the valley it was hard to tell there was a higher standard to
achieve, because it's so easy just hanging out doing climbs that are below your
limit, but I like think there are higher accomplishments to be had," says
While he does give a tip of his hat in respect to climbers like Steve
Gerberding, Scott Stowe and Dave Bengston, who are breaking speed records
left and right on El Cap's hardest nailing routes, Middendorf does not believe
the future of wall climbing lies in Yosemite, at least not for him.
"That technique, climbing fast, only applies in places like Yosemite, where
you've got a lot of fixed gear and fixed anchors," he says. "To do the really big
wall challenges elsewhere, like in Patagonia, Baffin Island and Pakistan, it
helps to be able to climb 18-20 hours at a time," Middendorf agrees, "but the
technique of using fixed gear doesn't apply. It's obviously too dangerous a tactic
to use on a first ascent."
Also, on Great Trango, Middendorf and Bongard climbed "capsule" style, in
which they fixed only ropes above each hanging camp. They were committed to
the wall from day 1.
"That's what I've always been training for, routes like that in the big
mountains," he said. "It's like Chouinard said: taking the tactics used in
Yosemite elsewhere, which really hasn't been done too much."
While Middendorf has mixed views on retrobolting of established wall routes,
he adamantly opposes sieging, extensive artificial aid placements and similar
tactics, shas well as the use of power drills.
"The Nose has been rap-bolted now, from the top by Brooke Sandahl, but
that doesn't seem to bother me too much," he said. "There's other places, like
the first pitches of New Jersey Turnpike, which were like A4, serious. Dave
Schultz was trying to free them so he's put a lot of bolts in and has taken a lot of
the excitement out of those. I draw the line somewhere, like on the "Sea of
Dreams." Some people went up and bolted every belay. When Bridwell put that
up, he was trying to make not only the pitches difficult but the belays as well.
They were technically difficult to set up. I think it's bad to go up there and wham
in a couple of bolts. It's like Bonatti said, 'bolts are the murder of the
Bolts added to the Kali Yuga by Bill Russel and Pete Takeda during the first
ascent of their new route, the "Vodka Putsch,"which joins the last leads of Kali
Yuga, upset Middendorf.
"They added over 25 holes," says an offended Middendorf. "They bolted
around this flake that Walt freeclimbed, but the worst tragedy of that route is that
the last pitch - which Walt led - went completely no holes, and it overhung
probably 50 feet in 75 feet of climbing. It was sketchy A3 pins in these
horiziontal layers. It was really strenuous and really awkward. It was a
masterpiece. They shouldn't have been on it. They should have done some
other variation where they could've drilled their way up."
Chiseled head placements are the other major Yosemite trend, that
Middendorf doesn't like. While he admits, his new route "Flight of the Albatross"
on El Capitan, has about a half dozen chiseled head placements, it's a
technique Middendorf has used only twice, only in recent years, and doesn't
"I could see where it's applicable sometimes," he says. "But generally I won't.
The reason I have a problem with them is that they are easiest for the first
ascent team. And then it gets trashed for subsequent ascents."
"I think it's a bogus technique to use, generally," he says. "Manufactured
difficult aid climbing is just bullshit. Obviously, you can take any section of blank
rock and chisel head and hook placements and make it as hard as you want,
and that's not the name of the game. The name of the game is to find the
natural A5 climbing without altering the rock."
"I think that's what all climbing's all about, seeking natural lines," he says.
Certainly, with Great Trango, Middendorf and Bongard joined the ranks of the
world's best climbers focused on natural lines on big cliffs. That route,
incidentally, averages less drilled holes per foot than most "natural lines" -
including some of Royal Robbins' routes - in Yosemite.
"Great, really good achievement," adds Bridwell of the Grand Voyage, on
Great Trango. "One of the best achievements in the last decade. It's an
achievement that ranks up there with the South Face of Cerro Torre. And the
style was certainly impeccable."
"He's really gone a long way," says Shipley. "Especially with that Trango
Tower route. He's really accelerated out of the norm."