My Favorite 5.10: The Commander [5.10b] - Rock and Ice





In 1996 I was a beginning surfer with high aspirations. At 36, I didn’t feel too old to start something new and humbling. That was when I met Chris Hubbard, a big-wave surfer.

Chris knew about my climbing and, as he later told me, wanted to see what I could do in the waves. I think he also hoped I could help him with climbing. What I didn’t know was that I’d just found an unconditional friend who would always have my back.

The surfing world is unforgiving. The big waves are unbiased and thrash every aspiring bigwave surfer. And if the waves don’t do it, the angry locals will as they protect their last slice of a crowded line-up.

Chris (I call him CH) was a black belt in Taekwondo, and not shy to reply to locals intimidating his bros. More than once I heard him say, “Well, we could fight now … or surf, then fight later. It’s your call.” There were never any takers, maybe because CH added the caveat, “I know I’m outnumbered, and you guys will probably win, but I guarantee some of you will get fucked up.” He gave me the confidence to paddle into some good waves.

I also started bringing CH with me on some climbs, opening his eyes to the world of airy heights and first ascents. His eyes got so wide on the classic Romantic Warrior (IV 5.12b) in the Needles that two pitches were enough. But as Chris helped me transition to surfing big waves, he gained confidence on bigger climbs.

In 2003, CH would forever improve my opinion of San Diego climbing. He told me tales of El Cajon Mountain, adding, “You gotta take a look.” El Cajon hid in the clouds the rainy day I first visited, but I saw enough of the 500-foot wall to return, and fast. It turned out that Brian Spiewak had already established a multipitch classic 5.9 sport climb, Leonids, on the left wall. Nothing went up the tall, steep central headwall, so Brian, CH and I began work on a route that split the business. The Commander became a five-pitch masterpiece, with pitches of 5.11c, 5.11b, 5.11b, 5.10b and 5.12a.

About halfway up the wall was a perfect flat, clean ledge so wide it would easily sleep six, which we named the Command Center. To access it and the upper headwall, we
put in Supply Line (5.10a). This effort also helped gain a ledge where we established Pockets of Resistance, the best 5.12b I have done (see cover Rock and Ice, No. 144).

We put up about 30 pitches in that labyrinth of featured granite, but no matter how many times I return to the wall, I most enjoy the fourth pitch of the Commander. Here in the proud central sector, you cast off from the best imaginable exposed ledge, up rosy pink and tan featured granite on ridiculously incut jugs and plates to gain a headwall that climbs like a great sandstone sport route. The bolts wander up and left for a steep, dramatic finish that gives you the airy feeling you are on a 5.12 rather than a 5.10.

"You cast off from the best imaginable exposed ledge, up rosy pink and tan featured granite on ridiculously incut jugs and plates."

This pitch is my favorite in the whole San Diego area to show visiting friends. It may be the fourth pitch of the Commander, but it deserves to be its own designated rock climb, and I call it that, Fourth Pitch of the Commander. Usually, I approach the pitch via the Supply Line (5.10a), then finish to the top of the wall on Tears of Envy (5.11b)—I will write about that pitch when Rock and Ice has a section called “My Favorite 5.11.” But you can easily finish at the top of the fourth pitch: A sloping ledge with a two-bolt rap anchor (thanks, Glenn Svenson and Mike Matelich!) allows an easy rap back to the friendly Command Center ledge.

The names we chose were influenced by the times; the second Iraq war was underway. But Chris’s father, a Navy commander, was the real inspiration. Chris had inherited a penchant for military history, and on the 70-minute approach hike he would lecture us on how the military campaign in Iraq should be run. “It should be more like a Napoleonic campaign,” he would pontificate. So I started calling him the Commander.

In 2003 when we completed the first ascent of our first climb on El Cajon Mountain, he asked, “What should we name it?” I had only one name in mind, a tribute to our friendship: the Commander.

Randy Leavitt has developed hundreds of new climbs, from 5.14 (sport and trad) to new big walls on El Capitan.


El Cajon Mountain is in the eastern part of San Diego County. Take Freeway 8 East to Lake Jennings Park Road North. Turn right on El Monte Road and drive about 5.5 miles. You can park in the pullout (look for the second set of vertical wood pilings) on the left (river) side about .25 mile before the reservoir entrance. The approach begins about 50 yards up the road toward the reservoir. Cross the riverbed and head up toward the power lines, then left along the old dirt road, and finally right at a Forest Service sign at the final trailhead. More info at


The wall faces south—aim for days when the highs in Lakeside are below 75 F. The best seasons are winter and spring. The afternoon shade in the spring is ideal. If the day is windy, the crag can feel surprisingly alpine.


Bring 12 quickdraws, a few long runners and a 60-meter rope.


Climb the first pitch of Supply Line (5.10a) past the initial low crux to easier ground on a bolted ramp. Pass the bolted anchor (5.9) on your right to gain the Not So Grassy Ledge in one long pitch. Pitch 2 can continue on Supply Line (its P2 is 5.8) or take the right-hand line Thunder (5.10a). The second pitch of Supply Line is subject to seasonal runoff and needs an annual brushing. Both leads take you up and right to the Command Center Ledge. From the middle of the ledge, continue straight up and eventually angle left on the Fourth Pitch of the Commander (5.10b), ending on a sloping ledge. Whether you stop here, go for a summit
pitch via Tears of Envy (5.11b) or do the fifth pitch of the Commander (5.12a), it is advisable to rap back down. A 60-meter rope allows four rappels straight down the wall from the top of the Fourth Pitch of the Commander. ALWAYS knot the ends of your rappel ropes!

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 214 (December 2014).

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