Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall have made another hard first ascent in the Utah desert – Black Mamba 5.14b – which may be their hardest roof crack yet. This latest ascent comes just days after they made the first repeats of Necronomicon 5.13d/5.14a (UKC news report).
In 2011, the 'Wide Boyz' made the first ascent of Century Crack 5.14b in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Following the ascent of the infamous offwidth line, they were introduced to a number of other projects in the area by local developer Rob Pizem. One particular section of the caves included a rarity of Canyonlands – a 50m roof crack that mostly involved crack bouldering close to the ground. In the final 10m, the floor drops away leaving a roped section of climbing to finish on flat ground above.
'It's not often that I see "angry Pete" come out of the closet, but the final off width section definitely pushed him hard! Halfway through the last 10m, he started grunting and shouting. I actually thought that he was going to climb out of his harness he was shuffling so vigorously.' - Tom
Tom told UKC:
'When Pizem had shown me and Pete the project, it appeared at first instance a bit unappealing as we were into these big majestic lines way off the deck and which were mainly offwidth. As a result, we wrote off the majority of the line but did end up leading (well Pete did, as actually I failed to send!) the last 10m which became "The Angry Pirate Finish" at 5.13a.
Returning to the area this year, we were keen to have another look at the whole line, as despite there being some vague rumours about someone having bouldered out part of it, we were certain that no one had put the time or skin loss into doing the whole thing. To be honest, me and Pete had sort of written it off a few years back as all being a bit too much! Walking back into the tunnel of darkness and viewing the individual sections this year, we realised that for sure it was possible, but potentially the length or complexity of it might be too much for a single trip. Trying to remember a really sequency 50m roof isn't easy when there's little room for error.
Further to this, we went back on the final 9 inch offwidth roof section and were pretty dismayed to find out we'd sandbagged ourselves at 5.13a and 13b was the realistic minimum for that section alone. Coupled with the fact that this comes right at the end, with the final move at the lip being the crux, it's a full package! In terms of sections, it breaks down into a 10m hand crack into a short Bombay horizontal body slot, followed by another 10m of hand and fists. From here, you shake out the pump and go straight into a hard finger crack crux followed by a Necronomicon-style thin hands move or two. From there, you sustain the pump in some more hands and fists for 8m to set you up for a second, powerful finger crack sequence on sandy holds which then allows you to sprint (or collapse) into an 8m section of hands and fists before the final daunting offwidth.
If anyone's done any low-end 5.14 40m cracks, they'll know that going straight into a 5.13 offwidth that's short and hard isn't exactly ideal! It's just a touch bigger than the Wild Country 6s, so we borrowed a couple of Valley Giants which cover to 9 inches and with a bit of shuffling the final 10m could be climbed fairly safely. Right at the end, when you have literally nothing more to give, you get a final grovel move that feels familiar to many of our shorter gritstone routes. You've got to fight, but sometimes just fighting isn't enough… you've got to somehow climb fairly well too!
'I had a moment of panic as the belayer, when after 50 minutes of climbing, Tom's body slightly sagged at the final lip turn. His hips dropped and his body was too full of lactic acid to hold the final crimps. Somehow he ended up free-styling.' - Pete
Pete described the first ascent as follows:
'The route is like a mining tunnel, you walk to the back and start in a crouched position with a head torch on and can't believe you now have to climb the same distance you just walked…but completely upside down.
Nevertheless, it's as much about being tactical as it is about having the strength and endurance to be able to climb it. It required a head torch-lit start, 3 hand jam glove changes, a rope tie mid pitch and toilet roll cushioning for tricep protection. It usually ends up that we use these bizarre tactics because we're so focussed on the climbing we forget to bring the more conventional tools to the crag, i.e. elbow pads or proper lanterns.
There are 4 distinct cruxes. 2 are finger jamming, 1 is thin hands and the final redpoint crux comes as a heart-breaking last move; rounding the lip of the finishing offwidth. The key beta here was to make sure that the nose of the roof sat in the indentation below your sternum. Any lower with your torso and you'd unfortunately come up short every time.
The final offwidth in general is a little fighter. On its own it is a struggle, but with the continuous upside-down climbing beforehand, it's a real world of dread when you finally get there on the big redpoint. If the route stopped before this, the whole thing would be like a beef sandwich - reasonably meaty. In totality, it's that final 9 inch section that really makes it a full Sunday roast.
We both had the biggest issues with the finishing section of the route, where we'd transitioned from bouldering into roped climbing. However, on Tom's go I knew he was on his way to a successful ascent when I started to see that he was losing his boxer shorts. When you start to experience "panty-slip" you know your right hip is in deep enough in the final wide section. On both our ascents we managed to start stripping our underwear off our body, maybe another 20m and I might have been completely commando.'
The first ascent of this latest project draws on much of the experience and know-how that the duo have developed whilst climbing in the region and concurrently training in Randall's cellar. With one final week in the desert, they plan to return to their long term project, The Crucifix.
Pete summed up:
'We've trained a bit less this year than previous years, but still found we're a notch above where we were in other years. Both our cellar projects and White Rim lines seem to be going better than expected and it's great to be in good form. "Black Mamba" is one of those routes we'd never have got up a few years back, but everything's come together now, so it's much more reasonable to climb things like this in a relatively short time.'