Establishing ‘Ground Up’ First Ascents: Part 3

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

Now that we’ve found a line and gathered our gear, it’s time to start rock climbing. Remember, there’s no knowing what challenges the rock may throw at you. Loose stone, difficult or impossible-to-predict climbing, and tricky path-finding are always on the menu.

On top of that, there are many different styles you can use to establish a new route, and how you do it will come down to your personal desires. We don’t have room to go over them all here, so the following scenario will be viewed from the perspective that the route we’ve chosen to climb is accessible to others, is a quality route worth repeating, and that we want to leave it in a state so that others may enjoy climbing it after us.

First, I always make sure I have a good idea of where the route will lead, where I might establish temporary or permanent belays, and how I’ll get back down. Will I be able to safely walk off from the top, or will I need to establish rappels? Will I be able to rappel the route, or does it wander so much that I’ll need to establish a separate rappel route?

Before I leave the ground, I always make sure my belay is as safe as possible. Remember that rockfall incident at Zion National Park (see Part I)? It was no miracle that none of our ropes or other gear were damaged. Before starting up the first pitch, we purposely positioned all of our equipment so it was out of the immediate drop zone from the route. This could be under a roof near the base, or just a distance away from the leader’s intended path. Whether you’re just leaving the ground or leaving a hanging belay on pitch 13, always consider how your belayer and equipment can best avoid being a target for loose rock.

Our harness is weighed down with tons of gear, we’re tied into the sharp end of the lead line, our tag line is on the back of our harness with a locker, both ropes are stacked, and our bolt kit is ready to be tagged in case we need it. Time to climb.

Let’s say the first pitch has been easy-going up a solid crack that accepts protection well. However, about 80 feet up, the crack peters out and becomes a seem for a body length before opening up again. What do we do?

1 | Risk taking a big fall by free-climbing through the seam and hoping we can get more good protection in the next crack.

2 | Aid-climb through the blank section using hooks, beaks, etc.

3 | Add bolts until you can get more natural protection again.

The answer will differ every time depending on the situation, and the above isn’t necessarily the order of operations. The benefit of being able to free-climb past this runout section is that you can save a lot of time, and you can always go back and place a bolt on rappel afterward. Major drawbacks include the fear factor and even a safety concern depending on the length of the runout, the quality of the gear, and the shape of the wall. It’s not uncommon to commit to a runout thinking it will be over soon, only for your next good piece of protection to be another 10 meters above.
It can be difficult switching from free-climbing mode to aid mode, but sometimes you can just aid through a short section and get right back to free-climbing. Depending on your skills or tolerance for danger, the section in question may not even be possible to aid through. That brings us to bolting.


How you decide where to place a bolt comes back to personal preference. In general, you want your bolt placement to be in solid rock, within reach for clipping in sequence (if a free-climb), and on a section flat enough for the hanger to sit flush with the wall.

In this scenario, my goal would be to reach as high as I could while standing on a ladder off my last piece of pro. The higher I can get, the more spaced out each bolt will be. If I can cover a lot of ground with each bolt, I can greatly reduce the number of bolts I need to place. Among many, two main factors will limit your reach for the bolt placement. The first is your pro. If you’re on a bomber piece of pro or even a bolt, you can stand tall for ages. However, if you’re bolting from a hook placement, your movement may be limited.

The second is what kind of drill you’re using. With a light hammer drill, you can max out your reach. You’ll have one hand to steady yourself while the other holds the drill. Even if it feels very strenuous, that’s ok, as it shouldn’t take more than a minute to drill a hole with a hammer drill. When doing this, however, it can be difficult to confirm your entry angle. This may leave you with a crooked hole and a bolt hanger that doesn’t tighten down because it can’t lay flat against the wall.

Alternatively, if you’re using a hand drill, it is much harder to get the same reach, as you’ll need both hands. One hand holds the drill at a 90-degree angle to the wall and rotates after the other hand hits the end of it with the hammer. Imagine an ancient Egyptian chiseling out a stone tablet but standing on a precarious stance on the side of a mountain. Luckily, instead of intricate design, we’re just driving straight into the wall. Because the technology is so rudimentary, some think that there’s no technique involved. However, one can make hand drilling up to 50 percent faster with proper technique and practice.

To start a hole, we need to create a small divot. Do this by rotating the drill back and forth about 90-degrees clockwise and counterclockwise, giving the drill fast, light strikes with the hammer each time. Once you’ve created a divot deep enough that the bit can’t bounce out, you’re ready to move on.

Next, transition from rotating back and forth into to a continuous clockwise motion. Also, instead of rotating 90 degrees, rotate about 15 degrees after each blow of the hammer. This boils down to about 6 hammer swings before you’ll need to readjust your hand in order to continue rotating the bit clockwise. These hammer swings need to be strong and deft.

Continue this process until the bit stays in the hole without you having to hold it up. From this point on, don’t take the drill out of the hole until the line you’ve marked with a Sharpie is all the way in the hole. This is most important for softer sandstone when just having the bit loosely bounce around in the hole can wallow out its diameter. Leaving the bit in place leaves the rock dust in place and keeps the bit from damaging the hole.

Once the hole is deep enough, you’ll want to give it a thorough cleaning. No matter what style of bolt you place, a clean hole is important for installation.

We were able to navigate the rock climbing on our first pitch of ground up new routing, but where do we stop? On established climbs we usually just stop climbing where the topo says, but we need to decide where belays will be. Typically, large ledges will dictate the beginning or end of a pitch, but any good stance will do. If there’s no obvious place to stop, I like to climb until I run out of rope. Once I’ve run out of rope, I’ll build a belay and hand haul our gear using the micro traxion while my partner follows the pitch.

Rinse and repeat this process all the way up the wall. Depending on your style and size of the wall you may or may not fix ropes on each pitch of the route. When possible, I prefer this method as it allows for quick retreat from storms and is great for putting the finishing touches on a route.


Before we go out spraying to everyone about our new route, we need to consider the effect it could have on the area. Not every community is welcome to climbers and not every environment can handle the impact that comes with being loved to death. This is especially applicable if your new route actually does come to be considered a classic.

If you do decide to share your route online, Mountain Project and The Crag accept user-generated content. They do a good job of allowing you to share as much or as little information as you want. This can be a nice way of keeping the adventurous spirit of an area alive in the digital age while still leaving breadcrumbs. One drawback with these websites is that you are essentially giving them rights to any photos you upload.

Another great place to share you route is the American Alpine Journal. The good folks at AAJ have been documenting the most significant first ascents across the globe since 1929. They don’t accept just anything into their hallowed pages, though. Most routes that make the journal are at least 5 pitches long and are noteworthy in their difficulty, inaccessibility, or creativity.

Going Up, Going Home

In addition to the prerequisite skill, gear, and effort, you’ll need to have your head screwed on tight, and you can’t be sure that it is until you’re actually there on the sharp end going ground up. Nothing outside of the real-time experience can prepare you for that moment.

Imagine you’re in Felipe’s shoes after accidentally sending that torrent of rockfall down and hanging helplessly from a single hand jam during his first ground up experience. Do you think you’d have the mental fortitude to continue pushing the rope up the wall after such a close call, or would you be shook?

When the time comes to leave the ground, it won’t take long to discover if you’re cut out for going ground up or better off going home.