Interview: Lonnie Kauk on “Magic Line” (5.14c R)
Kauk dishes on the process of sending one of the hardest traditionally-protected pitches in the world.
How long do you spend on your projects? A couple weeks? Maybe even a couple months? We all know how all-consuming it can be; think then what it would be like to be focused on a climb for years on end and you’ll have an idea of Lonnie Kauk and Magic Line, a 5.14c crack in Yosemite of which he recently made the first ever redpoint, placing all the gear on lead.
The route was established by Lonnie’s father Ron Kauk in 1996 with pre-placed gear. Lonnie has repeated many of his father’s most famous lines—from Midnight Lightning (V8) to Crossroads (5.13d) to Peace (5.13d)—but Magic Line, in this style, is his most special of all.
And even after years with it always somewhere in his mind, Lonnie was always positive about the process. “The fulfillment I got from just trying it kept the stoke alive,” he told Rock and Ice in an interview last week.
We grilled him all about the line—read the interview below!
Q&A with Lonnie Kauk
First off, congrats! How does it feel?
I’m beyond stoked.
Last season I tried to do it as well and it went pretty good and I did it with one fall, and then I just had no partner for probably like two-and-a-half weeks so I was running in circles trying to figure out what to do. It just wasn’t time.
And then this season I was like, “OK, you better just train on the route, dial it in big time.”
When you lead it you’re like, “Whoa, this is intense.” There’s like nothing in the crack waiting for you. It’s just a mind game the whole way.
What is the climbing on Magic Line like?
For the most part it’s a lieback. So there aren’t really other climbs like that where you can practice that style. So to get to know the route you have to really be on it.
How you stand on your feet is classic Yosemite style. You show up and you’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t even know how to climb.”
When I first started going to the route, there was this story that all the footholds had broken. But there are only micro-footholds anyway.
At first I was going up there by myself mini-traxioning it and I couldn’t do anything. Had no idea how to climb it. It was like being a beginner again.
Tell us more about trying it in the beginning, back before you had even sent it with pre-placed gear.
I first started working it in 2012, but don’t really count that. It was only like three days, and it was just way too hard. I wasn’t ready for it. I remember seeing Honnold—he had his rope up on it there first. I asked him about it, and he was like, “Yea, I tried that thing, and I got schooled by that thing.” So if he was saying that, I knew it was crazy hard.
So then 2016, that’s when I was like, “I think I’m ready.” I went and I made it a thing where I wasn’t going to climb anything else. I was mini-traxioning, but that sucked.
I still couldn’t do the crux section, ever. But then finally a day came and it felt like the climb told me how to do it. This vibe came over me at the base and I knew how to do it suddenly. And I made it through the crux that day.
Then my dad [Ron Kauk] started coming up with me. It’s really cool and quiet and chill up there. He’d bring his hammock up there and belay me out of it.
I finally made it through the crux from the ground on top-rope. It was starting to get later in the year, December, and I figured it’d be cool to try to do it around the 20th anniversary of my dad’s ascent. Like it was written in the stars. So I knew had to start doing lead burns.
There was this one spot, at the last piece of gear, that just wouldn’t let me through. You have to be in a playful mentality on this thing. But finally on December 30, 2016, I managed it. I barely did it! I swear, I got my right foot out, then you have to readjust your right hand, then you have to readjust your left leg or it gets caught on the rope. My foot skidded over onto the little bump that I needed. Just barely.
We made history, right there, twenty years later.
Were you always planning on coming back for a proper redpoint ascent in which you placed the gear yourself?
After sending it with pre-placed gear, a lot of people were like, “Did you do it with fixed gear or what?” It felt like I was getting harassed about the gear thing and I just wanted to enjoy it. It felt like an honor to do what my dad had done.
But all the focus on the gear made me not want to share anything. I wasn’t trying to one-up somebody. I just wanted to enjoy what we did.
Then I watched a clip of me on it. It did’t look right, like it was unfinished. The clip told me: “You’re not done. If you want to do this you have to place the gear on lead.” So I decided not to post anything, and come back the next season. Didn’t want to spray about it.
And so what was that whole process like? How much work did you have to put into it?
I spent the whole freaking winter—the first winter in my life that I missed snowboarding—focused on it. I just worked on it and slowly figured it out.
I worked it all year. I watched that oak tree near it go from green leaves to yellow leaves to dead leaves to no leaves to new leaves again while working the route. It slowly started to come together. Last year I think I fell at the top like five or six times times, one hangs, but couldn’t finish it.
This season I decided to stay away from any emotional thing that would mess with my vibe—family stuff, social media stuff, anything. I just stayed in a good place and basically chained myself to the base of the climb.
It was all good. Everything just went super quick. This season I put a total of 12 days into it in total.
What is placing the gear like and what kind of gear is it?
I place a triple-zero [C3] at the last part before the crux—which is kinda low—and then a double-zero below that that would probably keep you off the ground. But past the crux, at another double-zero, if you fell there, you’re already so high above the piece that if it rips out you’ll probably hit the ground.
The placement after the crux is totally blind. So it’s like an extra move. Once I figured out how to do that I knew it was going to be redpoint crux. And I knew that would be the moment of truth.
By the end though I had the gear so bomb that it felt like there were quickdraws on my hardness, like I was just clipping bolts.
Any scary falls?
I flipped upside down on one. All I remember was slow motion, seeing the sky. I was like, “Oh my god, am I going to hit my head right now?” I slipped and my foot got caught behind the rope. I fell on the triple-zero. Luckily there’s this weird scoopy part lower down, about 15 feet above the ground. I went perfectly into that scoop and I was just dangling there.
And the send go itself—did you just barely eke it like the same way as when you pinkpointed it?
This is the coolest part. I fell at the top on my one lead attempt, same spot where I was always falling. And it just felt like there was some strange vibe at that spot, like it wouldn’t let me do it. I’m half Native from my mom’s side, and we believe in spirits and things like that, and that there are vibes and spirits that will hang around like that.
So then it hit me—I had to clean that section up. I went up there and burned some sage and told that vibe that it was time to go. So I did that and said, “Just let me through.”
And then the next time it was a breeze. I got up to the rest and called down to my friend Connor who was belaying, and we just started having a conversation. I stretched my leg out. We were just laughing, hanging out. And then I just felt super solid at the top. Basically hiked it.
It felt like 5.13 on the actual send. I still had power in my arms. I didn’t slip. I couldn’t believe when I grabbed the last hold. Almost like I could have been whistling. It was way cool.
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