Establishing ‘Ground Up’ First Ascents: Part I

From roadside sport crags to back country big walls, Dakota Walz has established miles of new rock climbs across Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and beyond. Follow along in this 3-part series as he shares his secrets on the dark art of ground up new routing.

by Dakota Walz

First ascent /fərst əˈsent/ Noun 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.

Ground Up vs. Top Down

What does it mean to attempt a first ascent “ground up”? As the term suggests, you start from the ground and go up, but as opposed to what? Today, many routes are established “top down,” meaning one hikes to the top of a feature, rappels in, inspects the quality of the potential rock climbing, trundles loose rock safely from above, and places any protection bolts. In the past, this way of new routing was poo-pooed as bad style. Now it’s more welcomed, as it often provides the developer with more time to brush, consider best movement options, and comfortably install hardware. The end result is often a comparatively safe and enjoyable experience for both the developer and those who climb the route after them.

When we go ground up, we lose the luxury of knowing what challenges lie above. We risk running into loose rock, long runouts, movement that exceeds our ability, or our line stopping at a dead-end before the summit. The added challenge of casting off into the unknown with only your highly tempered rock craft to guide the way is what makes the ground up experience so potent.

Required Experience: Mileage

At the top of the list of things you’ll need is thorough experience on the type of rock you’ve set your eyes on. Being able to distinguish your strengths and weaknesses on all types of rock will give you a better idea of how you’ll perform on your new line. Consider how many routes you’ve on-sighted on granite, sandstone, and limestone. Then break those routes down by the type of movement involved (slab, roof, vert, techy, dynamic, etc.). Then again by traditional and bolted sport lines.

For example, if your intent is to put up a new desert tower, you should have many towers under your belt and be confident in how you move in that terrain. The experience of climbing a desert tower is vastly different from, say, a granite slab. Don’t expect the skills you’ve honed to translate seamlessly from one to the other.

In my experience, when establishing a new pitch ground up, it always feels at least an entire number grade harder than it does on any subsequent repeat. A number of factors come into play to create this bump, the main one being that the route will likely never be as loose, dirty, or dangerous as it is the very first time. Combine that with the fact that you’re on-sighting with a ton of extra gear.

A great example of this was on the first ascent of Apollyon (5.10+, 1,300 feet, 10 pitches) in Zion. I struggled through the 12-foot roof of pitch 3, narrowly avoiding falling off after every move. When I reached the belay stance above the roof, I was sure the pitch was solid 5.12. However, after returning to the route with the knowledge of the gear, movement, and danger factors, I found the second time to be closer to 5.10+.

Additionally, you should have experience in aid climbing. Most free routes I’ve established ground up required a fair amount of aiding before they were cleaned, rehearsed, and fully freed.

Know the Area

Being familiar with the area in which you intend to climb is important not just for the reasons above, but because the local culture, climbing ethics, and land management regulations will inform how your route will come to fruition.

It’s important for us to remember that the places we’re climbing aren’t just for climbers. What does the geography mean to other user groups? For example, if you’ve never climbed at Bear Lodge (Devil’s Tower), you may not realize there is a voluntary climbing moratorium every June to allow the Native peoples to practice their religious ceremonies.

Local climbing ethics can be divisive and can create rifts within the climbing community. Having a good knowledge of how existing lines were established is a great starting point for deciding how you’ll go about things. For example, some areas may have strong histories of only traditional protection being used, while other communities prefer very well cleaned and bolted lines. Ultimately, how you go about your route is your choice, but keeping local ethics and histories in mind is a great way to make sure that your new line is truly a contribution to the area and not a scar. Learn more about local ethics and history by talking with community leaders, purchasing a guidebook, consulting the visitor center, and searching the American Alpine Journal archives.

Finally, local regulations can objectively determine what you can and can’t do. In some areas, like Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area in Nevada, the placement of new bolts is strictly prohibited, meaning that the only bolting activity allowed is to replace existing bolts. National Parks that do allow new bolt placements ban the use of power drills. As a result, every bolt hole drilled must be done so with a hand drill.


Vision is something that is learned, not taught. At the end of the day, only trial and error will hone your ability to pick out a stellar line from the ground. With practice, I learned what color and shape of different formations tend to provide good lines. Sometimes even elevation and aspect can play a part. Study the classics of the area. What makes those routes great and what do they look like from a distance?

Next, get binoculars. Save yourself from hiking a mile uphill just to find out that sick wall is actually just an awkward boulder. Practice spotting potential bolted belays by searching for them on established routes. When you get good at spotting these on existing routes you can search for them on your potential new line before you commit.

Plan to spend entire days, weekends, or even weeks scouting for the line you want to commit to. If your wall is off so far that it would take an entire day just to get to the base, then take that entire day to check it out with a light pack and a pair of binoculars. Don’t be the person who spots a king line from a paved road and assumes they’re the first to see and want to climb it. Our team made this mistake in 2018, when we loaded up our haul bags to the brim with cams, ropes, bolts, hammers, etc., and bushwhacked up steep terrain for 5 hours, only to discover the route had already been climbed.

Part II: Ever wonder what kind of equipment is used on these kinds of vertical adventures? You may not be surprised that it takes more than a harness and chalk bag to make a first ascent happen. Dive into the nitty gritty of climbing hammers, drills, and more in Part II.