Monday, July 13, 2015

Bubbs Creek Wall - The Emperor Goes Free! :)

Over the last two years I spent about thirty days in the Bubbs Creek Wall area. I hiked over two hundred and twenty miles and drove much more then I would like to admit. This was the first time that I had a real "project" - a route with approximately 2,200 feet of climbing, eight miles deep in the High Sierra. A route with sustained climbing and a few cruxes ranging from 5.10 to 5.12 on every pitch. The roller coaster begun from attempting to put up a new route ground up and transitioned into a quest to free climb it. It turned out much more sustained then I wanted, but the incredible setting and quality climbing had me hooked. Encouragement from friends mixed with a little bit of obsession kept me returning no matter if a trip resulted in major progress or doubts of the line going free. Countless hours of battle against a self-created obstacle - so pointless, yet so rewarding.
The Emperor
Luke and I on top on the day we completed the First Ascent (2014) to the top of the wall. This guy has been encouraging me to push myself and believe that I can do things that are semi-delusional. Turned out lying to yourself could work quite well! Blank looking walls have holds and it is possible to gain results from hard work. Mr. Energizer - Luke Stefurak my hat is off and the only regret I have is not climbing the FFA together. Wish I could do it with every person that has helped me in this quest. First team free with the direct finish and every harder variation is a possibility for the future though! I don't think my light version of the Emperor would be enough for you anyway, you are too strong to be challenged by it!
Brian Knowles following the traverse on pitch 9 (2014) - "It is too blank to free climb!" We climbed five pitches (6--10th) in two days of hard work. Sent completely free 1/5 during those days. Two seemed impossible and one seemed like a hard 5.12.
Cristiano Pereira and I on top after climbing Ronin - Samurai Warrior. We climbed on The Emperor and the Sensei during the 5 days we spent at Charlotte Creek camp that week.
Caitlin Taylor following the traverse on pitch nine. We started and finished the route together. Watching her gain skills, maturing and growing as a climber is quite awesome. Even more awesome then me climbing this piece of rock. She went from single pitch sport, to doing 1,000 ft first ascents with me last year. In 2015 she helped me to free the Emperor. Even though I am sure she has gained many positive memories, learned a lot and seen even more, I still feel like I owe her a giant THANKS for helping me in my at times selfish plans. 
Pavel Burov enjoying the day on the wall. Similar story to the weekend with Brian. Full day on the wall and two new pitches. We knew one would go free. On my second attempt to top rope it I fell ONLY two times! :)
Don't know why I could not find photos of Daniel Jeffcoach on the wall but he was a vital part of the early stages of the FA. He is a very encouraging friend, a mentor who taught me to drill and invited me on our first real backcountry FA - The Siege on the Fortress in Castle Rocks. Can't say enough good about this guy, he is awesome to talk and to climb with!  
ENTERTAINING STORY: when I was climbing with THE Jim Donini in CO, I took an earlier flight back to CA. I arrived at 8pm. Why? Because I got in my car and drove straight to Kings Canyon.  I got to the trailhead after 1 am, woke up at 6 am, hiked in the 8 miles to the base of the wall so I could rope solo on my fixed lines. I worked out sequences, added a few bolts and cleaned a few cracks. That day I found a new variation to pitch four, which later allowed it to go free. It was a tiny step to free climbing the 17 pitch route, that was not even complete to the top at that point. Even though hiking out, driving home and having to be at work the next day f***ing sucked, I was damn happy with my decision to spent the day on the wall. Now that I think about it, I can't believe I was so driven and hooked on this thing...
When Alaina Robertson and I went up the route a week prior the free ascent, she encouraged me to work out the moves on the 9th pitch till I got them to work. It was too blank and I never got anything to work there no matter how hard I tried during the previous outings. Only Luke made those moves go while following the pitch in 2014. "I will belay you till you get them," she said, "this does not look as bad as the stuff you have climbed lower on the route." I don't know if I trusted that it was easier or was tired of flailing, but I figured the moves and sent the pitch from the belay that day. Turned out it was the last big hurdle and the 14th pitch was not as blank as I remembered it. Thank you for your patience Alaina!
Richard Shore leading the 11b variation to pitch eight. First day on the route in 2015. An ass whooping for me. Hopefully Richard liked climbing the first twelve. Even though we did the Nose in a day together and have climbed in Patagonia, we decided bailing after the first twelve would be much more fun then continue to the summit in the dark. Happy about decision and chomping on instant mashed potatoes back in camp. 
 This journey, significance of which I can't articulate with words, was a giant test to my patience. A mixed bag of challenges, emotions and little memories I won't forget. It was about the joy of hiking up a beautiful canyon and challenges of bringing up the big loads of gear. Finding the next stance to drill and taking a 40 ft fall when my foot slipped from the stance. The fun of figuring out that a particular move will go free with a subtle shift of my body and core tension. Twisting ankles on the approach. Watching the hammer bounce to the base after Daniel dropped it as he tried to drill the first bolt from a heinous stance. Taking over four hours to lead a single pitch. Solving mystery of route finding and rehearsing the moves on top rope. Watching the beautiful sunsets and drinking instant coffee to jump start our day at five in the morning. Connecting with other outdoor enthusiasts and lonely rope soloing up fixed ropes. There was some of everything - surprises, happiness, fear, embarrassment, sleepless nights, frustrations, injuries and many learned lessons. It was about taking it all in and feeling alive. In the end, this experience is an opportunity to admit that there is a lot to be proud and embarrassed about when you pick a real challenge. Personal journey I had a pleasure to share with multiple people whose presence and help is much appreciated and never will be forgotten. In particular, my friend Caitlin was there for the first day I started up the route. Neither of us thought the first pitch was easier then 5.12 crimps, by the end of the season she went out with me and I free climbed the first eight pitches. After several months off, I went out to the wall on four consecutive weekends and figured out a way to free climb the 9th pitch. On the last of these Caitlin volunteered to support me in my attempt to free the line. It was quite impressive to see someone gain so much competence in under a year. Going from single pitch sport climbing to being able to follow a route no shorter then the Regular NW. Face of Half Dome. 
Bubbs Creek is an awesome spot
Charlotte Dome and Bubbs Creek Wall 
Mama bear
Pitch five is a pretty cool layback. Not too long, but pumpy, fun and has a deadpoint move to a giant chicken head in the end :)
The day produced a bag of surprises. After figuring out a way to free the 9th pitch a week earlier I fell trying it again. I fell again and again. After almost sticking the move, I fell again, and again. I was getting frustrated. Over a 1,000 ft off the ground my patience was on the edge. For me, the move involves no hard crimping and is all about balance, so getting pissed was not gonna help my cause. I lowered to the belay again, tried a slightly different sequence and moved on to much better holds. Part of me was psyched, but there was another tricky 5.10+/5.11- crux in the end of the pitch that could have been a heartbreaking to blow. I took my time and passed on to the belay. From there it did not get easier. The next pitch had a difficult move that took me two tries to send. Pitch after that was much easier, but quite exciting because 140 feet of climbing are protected by a total of five bolts, one of which is right above the belay. After the eleventh I took in some of the last food I brought and tried to regain the momentum. The previous week had several thunderstorms which resulted in significant seeping on pitches twelve through fourteen. At first I did not think it would be doable to free them, but they turned out to be dry enough to continue trying. After barely sticking the 5.11 mantel on pitch twelve, getting scared as hell climbing a moist groove with no good holds and a little plant crimp breaking - which would result in at least a 35 footer - I stuck the tricky layback on the thirteenth.

Hiking in - not the best weather
One of the days on the route in 2014
Caitlin on the Groove
I want to go to sleep, can we please be done with the hard climbing?!

Heavenly views from the route

Time of the day was running out and I still had to add two bolts, one on the thirteenth and one on the fourteenth. Fourteenth was the big question mark in my head. A year prior I made a few rivet holes and aided it on hooks. On the first ascent, in the end of the day it seemed too blank to free climb. Even though Luke said he free climbed it while following, that was no guarantee that the pitch would go for me, Luke is a much stronger climber. But to my surprise after placing the bolt and trying the moves they did not seem that tricky. I lowered back down and sent the pitch as the sun went below the horizon. I could not believe that the madness we started a year prior was almost complete. Before Caitlin got to the belay a few tears of joy came down my face. We climbed the remaining five hundred feet of easier terrain in the dark and she even shared a few bars with me on the summit. The day was a good finish to one of my battles on the Bubbs Creek Wall. I like the climb so much that I will make sure to climb it again. Maybe find a direct finish to the upper pitches? Maybe improve my skills and sent the harder variation to pitch - I took the 5.11B variation on the day of the free ascent. Linking up different routes in a day? Climbing the Beckey? Sky is the limit, but I will make sure to take advantage of a small break from this wall! 
Fun climbing on pitch 10 - the double dike. Brian Knowles stemming and pinching. 
After I finally sent the 9th pitch, week prior to the attempt to free the whole route.
PITCH 14 GOES! So does the Emperor! YAY! 500 feet of climbing in the dark later we are on the summit!
Topo - I will make a MP page soon and will post one with better quality. In the mean time, anyone can ask me for one and I will be glad to sent you a pdf.

To conclude the report, I would like to mention that this experience, even though very satisfying as a personal accomplishment, will not be as pleasing if other people will find the route to be shit. I did my best to clean the loose rock, equip the belays with good hardware and even placed rap rings for most of the pitches, all the way to the 13th pitch. It is possible to rap most of the route with two 60 M ropes, or even with a single 60 if you are ok with leaving several carabiners and rapping off single bolts. Pitches that were onsighted on lead are left with the same number of bolts as were placed on the FA, but those that I rehearsed on top rope after aiding, I made sure to equip with a safe number of bolts to suit a climber trying to onsight the pitch. It is not a scary route, but could be quite exciting in spots, which should not scare anyone off - guy that constantly falls off v4 boulder problems in the gym could do it! The ratings are my best guess. I did my best to honestly rate the pitches and asked my partners who have climbed them to give their honest opinion so there is some sort of a consensus. I will make sure to update the topo if I have more feedback. The ratings can be adjusted if people feel something in particular is easier or harder. I think the quality of climbing on the Bubbs Creek Wall is worth a trip, especially now that there are THREE FREE ROUTES WITHIN 300 feet of each other. Ronin - The Samurai Warrior, The Emperor and The Sensei are all grade V 5.12 or 5.11 A0. All are in a spectacular location and could be linked with possibly the best 5.8 in the Sierra Nevada, the South Face of Charlotte Dome. As many of you know, I get out to the mountains quite often, and would not stick around one place if it sucked. So get out there, have your own adventure and please share the experience. I would love to hear about it!


  1. My god that looks good! Nice work.

    1. Yes, it is a really a cool climb. Whole Rae Lakes Loop is stacked with stunning peaks, lakes and lots of good climbing. Check it out!