Smoke and Mirrors

On a glinting wall of glass lies a bizzare, long-ignored classic.
Jonny Woodward reflects on the second ascent of Hall of Mirrors,
an all-free Grade VI on Yosemite Valley's Glacier Point Apron.

Darrell Hensel and I sat at The Hang, high on Yosemite's Glacier Point Apron, vacantly watching the thunderheads build above Tenaya Canyon. We had managed seven pitches of delicate, runout slab climbing to reach the day's goal, and could now pause to rest our shattered nerves. Darrell had acquired a few more grey hairs during the long lead out on the Steel Wall, and I had spent a worrying half hour stepping up and down on small, slick edges far above pro, my shoes slowly rolling, trying to gain the third bolt on the Hall of Mirrors. "In my mind's eye, I will always see Chris [Cantwell] flying down the glistening Hall of Mirrors pitch and stopping just a few feet above my head." Bruce Morris' words had threatened to turn into a sickening personal experience. But now, on a comfortable ledge, looking at the route ahead with its more closely spaced bolts, the first chapter of the Hall of Mirrors was over, and we could look forward without fear to the business above.

For almost 20 years, Yosemite Valley ruled as the world's number one destination for serious rock climbers, who flocked from all corners of the globe to throw themselves at the huge, polished walls. The locals became heroes, at least in their own minds, and in 1980, at the twilight of Yosemite's reign, its hardest free climb was completed. Chris Cantwell, Dave Austin, and Bruce Morris, the masterminds behind the Hall of Mirrors, did not become Yosemite heroes, but they had a dream as magnificent as any of those who did - to establish an all-free Grade VI on one of Yosemite's big walls. No grade VI in Yosemite had ever been established all free as a first ascent.

Despite the completion of the route by Cantwell and Scott Burke in 1980, the route attracted only criticism and disparagement. Why? The wall they chose was the Glacier Point Apron, the lowest-angle rock face in the Valley, shunned by many. The climb was done by a fringe group who kept to themselves and climbed predominantly on slabs. Two articles on the route were penned by Bruce Morris, whose bombastic writing style inspired many a chuckle at his expense. Finally, and perhaps most pointedly, the team rated three of the route's pitches 5.13, at a time when Yosemite had only one other climb of that grade - Ray Jardine's overhanging, one-pitch crack climb, The Phoenix. In many ways Cantwell and Jardine were similar characters: both scoured the Valley for hard new climbs, both were more interested in the ends than the means, and typical of pioneers who bend the rules, both were criticized mercilessly for their efforts.

When the Hall of Mirrors was climbed, I was 18 years old and living in Britain's Peak District, obsessed by climbing, and yearning to visit that Californian climbing Mecca. Mountain magazine provided constant information on Yosemite, and like all naive young enthusiasts, I would hang on every word. Valley granite was of particular interest to a Brit because of its monolithic smoothness, almost unimaginable to a climber brought up on a diet of the scruffy little hold-spattered crags of Britain. I was awed by the scale and sweep of Yosemite's slabs, for climbing them represented the conquest of the featureless. The Hall of Mirrors was the ultimate slab.

Two years later I visited the United States, with the famous Valley routes on my agenda. The idea of multi-day big walls, with all the accompanying logistical problems and guaranteed epics have kept me, to this day, from embarking on one. At the time, the newly established Hall of Mirrors, with its Grade VI commitment, remained a distant dream.

But in Camp Four the route was always on somebody's lips, whether it was foreigners wanting to repeat the first seven pitches to the Hang, or locals proclaiming from a safe distance that the route had never actually been done. Despite all the talk, I could't find anyone who had done more than the first couple of pitches.

Scott Burke, who had been on the final push with Cantwell, became quite a good acquaintance, but even he was vague about the route, no doubt tired of people looking for the opportunity to criticize any slight deviation from the path of complete purity. The intrigue grew, with mystery and slander feeding it to the point where I had to know the truth. It was 10 years before I felt good enough to find out.

May 1992. The deserts of northern Utah and Nevada have none of the appeal of those to the south, so the drive from Salt Lake City was long and tedious. I entertained myself by imagining what my tapes would sound like if the old, abused player ran at the correct speed. In Carson City, Nevada, I cursed under my breath when I found Tioga Pass still closed for the season. Darkness fell during the three-hour detour, and I finally reached Foresta, California - or rather, the ashes of Foresta - base-camp for this Valley trip. The fire of a few years before spared little, and the charred, branchless trunks stretched skyward into the evening gloom. I thought of a friend who had lost all his possessions to the blaze the day before his house was to have been sold, and wondered for the thousandth time whether bad luck of such magnitude comes randomly, or whether one accumulates it from misdeeds of the past to be dealt in one enormous crushing blow. Sleep came before the answer.

I met Darrell the next morning in the Apron parking lot. We had one week, which we figured was enough time to complete an unknown venture such as this. I had a veritable quiver of shoes, hoping that one pair would prove perfect for hard Apron glass. We packed several extra ropes for fixing, since neither of us was enamored of the prospect of spending the night on the slab and hauling all the associated baggage.

The first two days' attempts ended in thunderstorms at the Glass Menagerie. I did, at least, discover which boots would work: the glassy, textureless friction crux of the seventh pitch, originally done in E.B.s, proved just too much for some of today's popular wonder rubbers. The weather didn't improve for three more days, and we realized disappointedly that we'd lost too much time, momentum, and motivation to succeed that week. When the first clear day arrived, we spent it establishing a two-pitch variation left of the drainage streak on the lower section, allowing the route to be climbed in its entirety during the spring when the days are longest but the original line suffers from runoff.

It was our last day in the Valley. We felt robbed by the weather, and it was difficult to get motivated. Finally, we decided to go for the highest point we could - free or otherwise - to reconnoiter the upper pitches for an attempt in the fall. We reached the Hang quickly, avoiding a repeat of the first day's horror show by batmanning our fixed rope, and with a quick pull on a bolt, Darrell soon reached the belay at the end of the eighth.

The slings at belays had become increasingly tatty, and we began to think we were the first people up there in a very long time. One of the perks of being high on an old, forgotten route is finding relics from the past, and on the doubled bolts halfway up the Unfinished Ninth hung such a memento - a rappel sling, white with age, shredded and severed by wind action during its years of abandonment.

I pocketed the sling and looked in earnest at the next section of slab, a 20-foot unprotected traverse to a belay on a sloping ledge. It was the blankest section of climbed rock I had ever seen, desperate and untaintable. I tried everything I could think of to avoid climbing it.

My attempts to pendulum upward to the ledge proved futile, though the angle was low enough that I tried repeatedly. Standing on the highest bolt and running ended in equally comic failure. I eventually resigned myself to climbing the moves, and studied the surface for minute flaws, moving from one nick to another in a series of weight transitions so tenuous that they had to be executed in a single flowing motion. Over and over I took the swing of failure, each time picking off the shredded rubber from the edges of my soles. A friend of mine once wore out two pairs of shoes on a single move, much to the hilarity of the rest of us. Before I joined the two-shoes-a-route club, I finally made it to the ledge.

Pitches 10 and 11 passed quickly with the help of a couple of "chrome-moly monos," but the runout to the 12th belay was reminiscent of the ninth and caused almost as much trouble. So at last, there we were: at the famous 13th with its 13 protection bolts and 5.13 crux. I ventured out from the belay and stared open-mouthed at a sight that all my research had failed to prepare me for - a line of hangerless studs leading up the glassy wall above. How could Cantwell have inflicted this fate on such a climb? How could he so willfully disgrace his own achievement? Without the gear to continue, we fixed a rope from our high point and retreated.

October 1992. Darrell's job prevented him from accompanying me on the next attempt. Funny how jobs do that; it just reinforces my conviction never to get a real one. John Bercaw was keen to go, and we struck up a deal - I do Astro Man with him if he does the Hall of Mirrors with me. Feeling like I just pulled a fast one, I briefly entertained the thought of going into the real estate business, or maybe even law.

With the supposed crux pitch lacking bolt hangers, the route was not set up for a one-day free attempt. Armed with a bunch of wired Stoppers and multiple ropes, we hoped to get to the top of the route that day, fix lines, re-bolt the last pitches another day, strip the route of our gear and ropes, then return a third day for a clean one-day push.

Starting late, we made it to the top of the 13th and bailed as planned, leaving all our lines fixed. From my experience in the spring, I was convinced that the route's full-body-weight edgy smearing was not possible in flexible shoes, but despite my best derisive comments, John had stubbornly pulled out a pair of his favorite floppies and proceeded to fire past every crux with little apparent effort. Christ, I hope he never tries his edging boots. Best to compliment his choice of footwear and keep him handicapped.

Day two - a day of toil, best forgotten, when we had to climb and haul 13 pitches before even starting the real work. As we had feared, the remaining three pitches of the route were also hangerless, save for the belays where the first ascent party had been kind enough to leave a hanger or two. John got the only laughs of the day, at my expense, when the frequent sight of me jumping up and down on a crowbar 1500 feet off the deck triggered his sense of the ridiculous.

In the end, we had enough power to replace every stud but three, and those were non-critical. We had now, at last, seen every pitch. Though we didn't say so for risk of comeuppance, what we saw did't look 5.13. I, at least, needed this shot in the arm to balance my doubts: we were down to our last day, a late October day which was more darkness than light; we had to re-lead all the mind-frying lower pitches again; we had to reclimb the hideous Ninth, which more than anything else could bring us to a skidding halt, a barrier as impassable as Tioga in winter; and we had yet to free the re-bolted upper pitches. The thought of driving back to Salt Lake again with this albatross of a climb still unfinished after so much effort was unbearable, though I did think about it - all night.

Our day arrived and we succeeded. The Hall of Mirrors turned out to be far more reasonable than the multiple 5.13 pitches shown on the old topo would suggest, but a one-day ascent by climbers unfamiliar with the route remains to be done, and would be one of the most impressive feats yet accomplished on rock. There is no 5.13 - 5.12c is more like it - but on the 13th, 1500 feet off the Valley floor, we were rewarded by one of the best hard slab pitches to be found anywhere. In fact, every pitch on the route is memorable. We completed the last rappel in the dark, stumbled down the talus, and with weary satisfaction, drove east.

I left the Valley with enormous respect for the route and all who had contributed to its establishment. Despite the inflated original grade, this climb still stood, unrecognized, as Yosemite's all-around hardest until the freeing of the Salathe' a full decade later. The Hall of Mirrors is a story of a few climbers' visions, of endurance and force of will spanning many years, and of the ultimate creation of one of the world's truly remarkable rock routes. Mark Wilford had started the ball rolling in 1975 by climbing a harrowing, two-pitch route named Misty Beethoven. Acres of impeccable white granite soared upward, steepening imperceptibly, in an unbroken wave ending at the foot of a U-shaped bowl 2000 feet above the ground.

This sweep of perfect slab, glistening in the sunlight, captured the imagination of Dave Austin, who, three years later, with Cantwell and Morris, continued the line of Misty Beethoven, pushing the route to the crux of the ninth pitch. Here they were stopped, supposedly by the limitations of E.B. rubber. The following year, with a prototype pair of Galibier Contacts, Cantwell and Scott Cole squeaked past the previous sliding point and reached the 13th pitch before winter set in.

It is difficult to imagine the perseverance, courage, and passion these climbers displayed in pushing the dream toward fruition. The sheer length of the project, the huge number of bolts that needed to be drilled, many from hair-raising stances, and the amount of horrendously difficult climbing, were just a few reasons to quit. Imagine Cantwell at the ninth belay, having completed a stretch of climbing he had thought impossible the year before. Imagine his elation at this immediate success, and the daunting enormity of the task above - 800 more feet of steeper and presumably harder climbing. Below him lay one of the most aesthetic swaths of rock in the Valley, pure white, curving away in a gentle arc like an enormous petrified wave.

Finally, in the fall of 1980, the last difficult pitches to the U-shaped bowl were completed by Cantwell and Scott Burke.

Regardless of our success (though I would be far less inclined to write about the experience without it), one of the forces that drove me up the climb was the desire simply to find out what the Hall of Mirrors was all about, and so unravel one of American free climbing's long-standing mysteries. Many questions still burned. Why had Cantwell left the last pitches hangerless after equipping the lower 80 percent of the route? Why had three pitches been given the unprecedented 5.13 grade when we had found them to be much easier, much more than could be explained away by modern rubber? Several of the hardest sections were clearly uncheatable, so why were there such widespread rumors that the route had never been freed? I sought out Cantwell himself to supply the answers.

I was nervous as I waited for Cantwell to answer my telephone call. What if he wouldn't talk about his ascent? What if my penchant for occasional tactlessness pissed him off?

Cantwell, in fact, was genuinely happy to hear of our repeat of his "only great accomplishment in climbing." He had invested three years of his life adding pitch after pitch until the Hall of Mirrors was finally complete, and saw it as his own version of the Winchester Mystery House. (The Winchester house, in San Jose, was the home of Mrs. Winchester, as in Winchester rifles. She believed that if she kept adding rooms to the house, she would never die.) This is particularly apt, since shortly after the route's completion, Cantwell gave up serious climbing. In recalling his ascent, he regretted only one thing: he, like us, had rappelled from the U-shaped bowl rather than summiting Glacier Point.

To train for the specific difficulties of the Hall of Mirrors, Cantwell and Morris went on a first-ascent binge, establishing practically all the Apron's short testpieces on the steeper north side. These routes, available as they were to public scrutiny, were responsible for Cantwell's reputation for "cheating." Cantwell reasoned that since the ground-up, free-bolt-stance ethic put a burden on the first ascent party not encountered on any subsequent ascent, ultimate technical difficulty could never be reached by these means. At that time, most Valley climbers adhered to the stricter ethic that ultimate difficulty should be sacrificed in favor of purity of style.

On his north-side testpieces, Cantwell pre-protected the routes prior to free climbing. Upon encountering a particularly long blank section with either horrifying or simply impossible drill stances, he would install a bolt ladder to within range of the next "reasonable" stance, return to the belay, then free climb the ladder and the ensuing run-out.

On pitch 13 of the Hall of Mirrors, Cantwell took this idea one dubious step further, electing not to pull the rope after installing the bolt ladder, and thereby accepting an ascent which included a couple of short sections which, although free, were not led. This may have been the source of the locals' contention that the route was never freed, though they had made claims that more flagrant aid was used. Although it is a shame that Cantwell's style lapsed so close to the top, few such ground-breaking routes are accomplished without some compromise. It is worth laying the facts on the table and letting the routes magnificence stand for itself.

The 13th had other peculiarities: the numerological coincidence that the 13th pitch had 13 protection bolts and a 5.13 crux proved just too much to be true. When Darrell and I came upon the pitch in May we were speechless; leaving hangerless bolts for protection on free climbs was a tactic employed only by fools, paupers, or Australians. Cantwell is American. He was, at the time, penniless. But in my conversation with Cantwell I never did understand his reasoning for leaving the bolts hangerless; I prefer to think he couldn't afford hangers.

Above The 13th were yet two more pitches graded 5.13. Cantwell maintains that the grades reflected the difficulty as he found it, and were not used to induce awe. He despised deliberate under-grading, common among top climbers, and tended to the opposite extreme by grading on the high side, allowing the rating to settle down to a consensus, with nobody getting nasty surprises in the process. The grades of pitches 15 and 16 not only settled, but sunk without trace - to perhaps mid-5.11. We had to assume that the cumulative effect of five days' mental and physical fatigue had taken its toll.

It is easy to dwell on such oddities, but to do so would be unfair to both Cantwell and the route. The Hall of Mirrors deserves to be recognized as one of the world's super-classic long free climbs. Now that the route has come out of the closet, with the final pitches re-equipped, there will probably be a few more takers. If you are one of them, and not one of those for whom slab climbing has become the hip thing to despise, you're in for a treat. The quality of the pitches, the difficulty of the climbing, and the historical notoriety ensure its status as America's archetypal slab. It is a fitting tribute to its creators that even after the passing of so many years, the Hall of Mirrors still has no equal.

Jonny Woodward, 31, has been climbing since the age of 10. He moved from Britain to the United States in 1982 in search of sunny climes after discovering moss growing in his hair one drizzly day in Chee Dale. He currently lives in Salt Lake City.

Photos from the article:

  • p.97-98: Glacier Point Apron from the east, with Hall of Mirrors in profile, by Greg Epperson
  • p.101 (inset):

    "Bruce Morris and David Austin at The Hang during an early attempt on the route in 1978", by Chris Cantwell
  • p.102: "Climbers low on Hall of Mirrors in 1983", by Bob Gaines
  • 3 inset photos, of EBs, gear, and a rusty bolt clipped with 2 biners, by Greg Epperson.

    DECEMBER 1993/JANUARY 1994 - CLIMBING #141