First ascent /fərst əˈsent/
The first successful, documented attainment of the top of a mountain or the first to follow a particular climbing route.
Lane’s body shivered as another cascade of orange and black dirt showered down upon us. Some 50 feet up, Felipe hung by a single hand jam as football-sized stones, which only moments ago supported his weight, dislodged from the crack. Lane, who was on belay, had taken one directly to the back of his helmet.
We remained huddled together at the belay until the torrent of debris subsided. I risked a peek up to see that Felipe had managed to pull himself together and build an anchor in a section of the crack that wasn’t falling apart. I took over the belay and lowered him back to the ground. Miraculously, no one was critically injured and none of our gear was damaged. But our relief quickly dissipated into silent dread. The sun was still high and our weather window was only open for a few more days. If we were to ever summit this mountain, one of us would have to tie back in and push past the unstable rock. This was Day 1 of our ground up first ascent of New Ewe (5.11+, 1,450 feet, 11 pitches) in Zion National Park.
So why are you here?
If you’re here because you already have some experience and this really sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to spend your time, money, and maybe even your life on, then welcome. If you’re just curious to learn more about the tools and tactics that go into new routing, welcome. If you’re dreaming of the glory that comes with logging a first ascent or the fame that comes with seeing your name in a guidebook, I still welcome you, but with a degree of caution.
Although reaching a new summit is indeed a notable achievement, fame and glory rarely follow. Many climbers, myself included, first get into new routing seeking some level of recognition amongst our peers. Many of us become so thirsty for it that we begin to believe the first choss pile we come across is destined to become the next local mecca and we, the discoverers, will be the gods of this new playground. In reality, these routes are rarely repeated. Completing a first ascent is indeed amazing, but our bias can make us blind to the lack of value in our effort.
Over the course of 7 years of new routing, my passion for first ascents has matured from fame-seeking to experience-seeking. With that evolution, higher-quality first ascents and life-changing experiences followed. Like all things in life, our intent guides the quality of our experience and the product of our passions. So, please, before you utilize any of this information, ask yourself, why? Why am I aiming for a first ascent? What do I really hope to get out of this experience? Is your answer worth taking a rogue stone to the face?
This guide is far from comprehensive. It’s a compilation of skills and techniques given to me by my mentors which I’ve personally honed over literally 3.5 vertical miles of first ascents across Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and the Midwest. Even if you read every single word of this 3-part series, do not expect to be able to close your laptop and suddenly be able to venture into the vertical unknown. As you’ll read, most of these niche skills are built on the back of existing rock climbing craft. These words are no replacement for in-person instruction and are only meant to be a supplement to proper mentorship.