Close But No Cigar

In 1981 John Bachar cast off into the uncharted expanse of Mendlicott Dome, a steep 500-foot, knob-spackled granite face in Tuolumne Meadows, California, with nothing but a hand drill and bolts, some slings, hooks and cams. Climbing onsight and belayed by Dave Yerian, he established the litmus test for runout climbing, the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c R).

By Rock and Ice | September 24th, 2009

In 1981 John Bachar cast off into the uncharted expanse of Mendlicott Dome, a steep 500-foot, knob-spackled granite face in Tuolumne Meadows, California, with nothing but a hand drill and bolts, some slings, hooks and cams. Climbing onsight and belayed by Dave Yerian, he established the litmus test for runout climbing, the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c R). Over the years, climbers have assayed their mental fortitude against Bachar’s standard by stepping up to onsight this piece de resistance. Some succeeded, but others, famously, didn’t. Wolfgang Gullich (one of the strongest climbers in the world before his untimely death in a car crash), for example, broke a brittle foothold and zipped 60 feet onto his belayer while trying to make the second ascent.

In July, the 19-year-old English climber George Ullrich attempted to better Bachar’s style by skipping the nine bolts and protecting the face entirely with natural runners. Ullrich had already repeated some of the British Isles’ boldest headpoints, both on gritstone and, more recently, in the Lake District, where he sent two of Dave Birkett’s sparsely protected lines, Impact Day and Dawes Rides a Shovel Head. Both lines are rated E8 6c, which translates to scary, dangerous 5.13 climbing protected entirely by natural gear.
With that kind of background training, it’s no surprise that Ullrich managed to onsight the Bachar-Yerian while clipping the bolts, but his decision to try the line without the fixed pro might leave people scratching their heads, since the route largely lacks cracks that accept gear. Ullrich spent another day on the climb sussing placements, which, for the most part, consisted of slings hitched around the suspect knobs, and then he went for the send. Six feet from the third-pitch anchors (and the end of the difficulties), Ullrich balked, opting to clip the last bolt, and bringing his historic bid to elevate America’s iconic testpiece to a close.

Why did you decide to try the Bachar-Yerian without the bolts?
After climbing it with Mason Bob Earle with bolts, I was excited to see that it looked possible to protect most of the climb by slinging chicken heads with small slings and cord, and I thought it would be fun to give it a bash.I climbed it once more clipping the bolts and I felt comfortable — kinda comfortable, actually. We got rained off the last pitch so I wasn’t able to check it out.

What happened at the end of the third pitch on your attempt without bolts?
Halfway up that bit, I realized that I didn’t actually have any decent protection to hold a fall, and I had only climbed the top section once before. After fiddling a crap wire into a hole, I was sketching and thought it sensible to clip the bolt a few meters up.A wise decision, as I did not feel comfortable on the top few moves. The crux of the route is halfway up the first pitch, protected by a sky-hook and a couple of cams below the break, but the top section is the psychological crux.

Other than that section, did you feel solid throughout?
Yes, it was more mentally exhausting than physically. It made my brain hurt, like math lessons used to feel.

In the video clip, the route looked well chalked. How much did you work it before your bolt-less attempt?
On my second ascent with bolts I tried to chalk things up as much as possible to make things more obvious. Plus it’d had a few ascents before me this season — one by two guys from Austria, one of which took a big fall from the top pitch and broke his leg.

Any plans to return for the complete ascent?
It will be on my list on my next trip to the States.

Ullrich’s attempt was filmed for a feature, Call It What You Want due out in the fall. See snippets at www.steepmedia.blogspot.com

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