The first ascent of Beaking In Tongues, spring 1997, with Dave Levine.
Above: The 700-foot-tall west face of the Oracle.
The Oracle is intimidating. But, nothing intimidates Chip Wilson. So, in early 1996 Chip and I climbed Harvey Carter's Fantasia, which ascends, via 17 pitches, some crazy climbing and lots of bolts, the right skyline—the only route to the summit at that time. But just look at that west face! It was Mike O'Donnell who suggested to me that there might be a line there. Was he hallucinating or visionary? Only one way to find out! Chip and I drove over from Boulder, hiked in with huge packs loaded with ropes, gear, and newfangled Birdbeaks, tiny hook-shaped pitons developed by Juhn Middendorf. I'd used a few of these on Jim Beyer's Jagged Edge, they were futuristic and sticky. What's more, my Jagged Edge partner, Bill Roberts, had sadly succumbed after a long battle with cancer, so I'd inherited an extra dozen or more to add to my own collection. A vertical seam began six feet up but quickly vanished behind a muddy veil. Beyond, god only knows what was hiding. I placed three or four Birdbeaks, stalled. The cliff loomed above, blocking out the sky, making me feel very small. Chip declined to try, so we backed off not twenty minutes after leaving the ground. We silently coiled ropes, packed bags, gliding back to the truck over deserted landscapes, not wanting to touch anything or speak: the awkward walk of shame. What ever else we did that weekend is forgotten but one thing I do know is that as soon as I was a few hundred miles away, safe and comfortable at home, that cliff, that climb seemed much tamer, sunnier, friendlier. Self-deception? Delusion? Honest appraisal? How does one know? Time and distance might not change the reality but it can change the perception. A year later, Dave Levine and I were lured to the desert on a random, freakishly warm February weekend and camped in the Fishers, no particular goal in mind. Perhaps now, I thought, with the Oracle relaxed and slumbering in the midwinter silence, now was the time for a return to the Big Project. Dave was psyched; we hiked in.
I had no expectations, no worries, not much thought at all. I tapped those same Birdbeaks into the same tiny creases, moved upward into the mud curtain and kept going. Not a single aid bolt was needed—what a dream! After a while, placements became deeper, more secure. Evntually at a place where the crack opened up for perfect A1 placements I leaned out right and placed a couple bolts and belayed.
Above, the view looking down beneath my feet on pitch 1.
Above: Dave Levine cleaning pitch 1
He'd heard about the mud in the Fisher Towers so made sure to bring the essential protective equipment: swim goggles.
He stormed up the next pitch:
Which followed the same, singular, amazingly consistent crack. Again, no aid bolts were needed or placed. Before he finished the pitch we were out of time and left for home, leaving ropes fixed for finshing the lead the following weekend.
Above: Dave Levine finishing pitch 2.
The next weekend was cold—duh, it was February—and the combination of winter weather and north-facing aspect would haunt us the rest of the route. Pitch 2 ended where the crack jogged left; he leaned rightward to place a pair of bolts as much out of the way of falling debris (or falling climber...) as possible.
Above, me cleaning pitch 2. Green object on the ground is my sleeping bag. I belayed from it—yes, it was that cold—then jettisoned it.
It was to be my turn next. There was some pressure, too. I'd placed no bolts on pitch 1, Dave had placed none on pitch 2. There were several hundred more feet to go, who would crack first and place the first aid bolt? Certainly not ME, I thought!
Above: me, pitch 3.
Pitch 3, depending on one's outlook, could be described as the worst pitch in the entire Fisher Towers. Or one of the finest. The crack was full of mud and dead insects. It felt like a rich seam of fossilized cake mix, hardened in place amid ancient walls. Sometimes the dirt was harder than the "rock" on either side. Other times it felt like nailing the filling of some giant Oreo cookie, the filling like mush. Memory is blurred by time but it seemed like I spent parts of three days toiling here. Or was it three weeks? I do recall, vividly, one spot where there was a football-size chockstone wedged deep in a section too wide for any of the cams we had. Its edges were uselessly crumbly, as were the walls to left and right. So, lost for options, I excavated a passage all the way behind it—seemingly hours of labor—and threaded it with a long sling.
The rope ran out just as the crack died into a useless deadend at a fat, horizontal band of solid rock. Placing belay bolts, I smiled to myself, yelled out loud, Dave hollered back. I was thrashed, wasted but exhilarated. This pitch had been the most exhausting and filthy I'd ever led. And still no aid bolts! Above looked bleak. What a great place to stop! Unspoken was the obvioous question, OK, Dave, what you gonna do now?
Above: Dave Levine at the belay atop Pitch 2.
Below: Me, at some point during the Pitch 3 campaign.
Cleaning Pitch 3 took many hours.
Above: Dave Levine cleaning pitch 3.
As determined as I was to not place the first aid bolt, Dave, behind his quiet smile, was equally resolute. Above pitch 3, the magnificent crack we'd followed for over four hundred feet finally petered out. Intermittent creases wandered ever more sharply left. I'd stopped where the routefinding became far harder, but on the bright side, the rock was much improved. Birdbeak time again! Dave carefully placed one after another in tiny seams, working upward and left, never knowing if where he was heading was going to pan out.
Above: Dave Levine, pitch 4. The "before" picture. Sexy swim goggles sadly abandoned for sensible safety glasses.
Some of the Birdbeaks were bad enough he did not clip them into the rope (see photo below). Meticulous care and patience paid off.
Eventually the line he was following was trending too much to the left and here he he stopped, tensioned as far right as he could, placed a belay in rock that was blank, hopelessly bare. He'd not placed a single aid bolt on his pitch. Beyond looked grim, but that was not his problem!
Above: Dave Levine higher on pitch 4. Below: The "after" portrait....
Next weekend we jumared the ropes, Dave all jolly and me all worried and gripped and grumpy.
At the belay there were no cracks, nothing. But, there was a shallow half-round gutter leading rightward. If I could place the biggest cam just so, it might hold bodyweight ... yes! ... then another....
Above: me, pitch 5. note sling on "spike"; the best placement on the pitch.
Thirty feet right was, mercifully, a faint vertical crack which I ascended until it petered out in yet another plate of dead-blank nothingness. I placed belay bolts and smiled for the first time in days. Over to you, Dave!
At this point, we were no more than 40 or 50 feet from the saddle behind the final tower of the Oracle. Dave was going to have to work up and right to gain this obvious and welcome spot, the first ledge—hell, the first foothold!—in 500 feet of climbing. Dave took over the lead and to my amazement—his amazement, too—actually managed to find a tiny seam for a Birdbeak that held bodyweight. Then another. And another.
Above: Dave Lavine, pitch 6.
Traversing on marginal gear is more harrowing than moving upward because it's near impossible to bounce test anything when each new placement is at arm's reach away.
Above: Dave Lavine, pitch 6, not so happy....
Dave traversed right into a faint groove, then upward. For the whole pitch, he placed only Birdbeaks, about a dozen in all. A tiny midway Alien in a horizontal was even worse than the Beaks. Cleaning was fast, Dave was wide-eyed with happiness and relief. Toward the end of the pitch, in a carefully planned act of desperation, he pulled up a long length of the haul line, tied off a load of pitons and tossed them over the saddle as a kind of counterweight. And then we were on the saddle! With sublime views out east to the Mystery Towers. And, we were in sight of the summit, just a couple hundred feet above. Thirty feet to the right, an easy-looking vertical crack bisected the final tower—we just had to get to this crack. Next day Dave wanted a rest. Me, not so much. I jumared and started rope-soloing the next section which, once embarked upon, was far more fiddly than it appeared. Dave, hearing plaintative cries wafting downward, eventually took pity on me and came up to belay and offer some support as I worked out a tortuous traverse, with alternating flakes and pendulums rightwards into that final crack.
Next weekend we arrived at the Fisher Towers with one aim, that there was not going to be another "next weekend" on this climb. The previous trip's reconnaissance paid off; I was worried about rope drag so set off tied into two lead ropes. I finished the rightward traverse clipping pieces into the first rope, then, after securing a few good placements in the vertical crack, untied from the first rope, dropped it, and forged upward clipping the second rope all the way to the top.
Of course the vertical crack was not so simple; it was dirty, loose, steep. And for a final flourish there was an overhang of the Moenkopi caprock, with a couple of obligatory, mind-blowing hook moves, hanging over 700 feet of empty space.
Above: Dave belaying at the saddle. Photo taken from the top of the final pitch.
The wind had been rising all day. There were clouds but no chance of rain. But the morning's annoying breeze metamorphosed into a tempest of Hurricane Katrina ferocity as I arrived at the summit.
Above: Dave Levine, cleaning the last pitch, with deliriously happy smile... from the sheer joy of being outdoors in a wonderful place. Or maybe at the thought of being almost done with this wretched ordeal. Note rope, trying to escape.
Dave Levine, back to swim goggles for the summit photo.
Rappelling in hurricane winds is always a challenge. We placed two bolts right above the saddle. Dave went first and I lowered out rope to him as he descended. I may even have lowered him, to ensure he could not lose control of the ropes, however much the wind threw him around. Midway he placed a piton, clipped the ropes in, continued thrashing in circles, sometimes down. it was not easy landing on the saddle since he kept getting blown 20 feet or more out from the cliff. On the plus side he was easily able to reach and clean the various lower-out/pendulum points on the traverse into the final crack. I followed with a firemans' belay. This made the wild gyrations safer though did not much ease the pounding impacts into the cliff each time the wind dropped. We reached the ground long after dark, very, very happy.
Looking back, 20 years later, I'm proud of what we did here. We never used the drill for upward progress. This is still the only route to one of these high summits with no holes drilled or enhanced for upward progress. Dave and I took the time to work with the rock, probing, searching. We worked with whatever the cliff shared with us, to move with respect and patience, and long hours at the base with binoculars. Beaking in Tongues is one of the best climbs I've ever done. Thanks, Dave. And thanks to the big, beautiful Oracle itself!