Josh Wharton and Brian McMahon, two young unknown climbers in the post 9-11 isolation of 2002, had spent about 45 mostly storm-filled days in the Trango Valley, Pakistan, when they finally approached success. High on the granite spire known as the Flame, McMahon led the penultimate pitch, an aid section, and fell when a Talon blew off a rock edge as he drilled a hole for a removable bolt. The sharp three-pronged hook tore a 2-inch gash in his wrist. As he continued to climb, the blood pooled in his Gore-Tex sleeve, and, when he raised his arm, rolled down to soak his chest.
He stanched the bleeding while Wharton followed, then courteously offered Josh the next lead, what looked to be 30 feet of easy 5.10 to the summit. McMahon explains today, “It was Josh’s skill that had gotten us this far. Also, I was sure he wouldn’t accept, since we’d have to switch shoes at the hanging belay.”
“Being a greedy bastard, “ says Wharton, “I took it.”
McMahon says that was lucky.
“Josh took off from my good anchor and headed up 5.10ish climbing without any gear. After about 25 or 30 feet he got a knifeblade in halfway, and two lobes of a black Alien.” At that point Wharton saw the true summit, guarded by a 160-foot slab with no gear. He called down asking for input, and because McMahon badly wanted to summit, but as surely didn’t want the lead, he says with humor: “I pretended I couldn’t hear him.”
Wharton hung out for 10 minutes, then launched onto 5.10+ opening moves on dime edges.
Once started, he progressed steadily up the slightly decomposing pinkish alpine granite. Edges occasionally crumbled a bit underfoot; he brushed ball bearings off handholds.
The lead took an hour and a half. The 5.10 climbing lasted 50 or 60 feet, then downshifted to 5.9. McMahon says, “My only real thoughts were that I really hoped he’d make it, and that if he fell there was no way he would live.”
A fall from high on the runout would have bounced Wharton 60 or more feet down the slab, then into a 100-foot freefall. If Wharton were injured, help would mean hauling him up the overhanging pitch below, a night of rappelling, a few days of travel on the crevassed glacier, and several days’ walking to the nearest town. McMahon also had to wonder whether, if Wharton died, and he had to cut him loose, there would even be enough rope left to get down.
As Wharton reached the last 10 feet of rope, McMahon’s thoughts suddenly turned toward pretty much the worst bit of simul-climbing he’d ever imagined. But 190 feet above the belay, Wharton slung the rounded summit horn.
Wharton later told an American Alpine Club slide-show audience, “It was like doing Stoner’s Highway”—a sustained Yosemite 5.10— “where you make some moves and clip, and say, whew, and make some more, and clip, and say, whew. Except you don’t get to clip.”
John Harlin, editor of the American Alpine Journal, has called the pitch “one of the boldest summit leads in climbing history.”
Wharton, of Rifle, Colorado, is now 29 and a leading all-around climber, having attained major firsts such as the often-attempted Azeem Ridge of Great Trango, also in the Karakoram. But he still thinks of his and McMahon’s Flame ascent, Under Fire (VI 5.10 X A3 M5 AI 4), as probably his proudest.
Wharton’s major achievements have mostly been in Pakistan, where he has made five expeditions. Two years after the Flame, Wharton and Kelly Cordes climbed the Azeem Ridge (VII 5.11 R/X M6 A2), one of the world’s longest rock routes, with vertical gain of 7,400 feet. Taking four and a half days, they ascended in what they cheekily called “disaster” style, with but a 28-pound pack between them, and a basic rack. In 2006 Wharton and Cordes retreated 100 vertical feet shy of the summit of Shingu Charpa’s knife-edge North Ridge. From the ground they had misidentified the upper ice slopes as snow, and, traveling light, brought only a pair of soft aluminum crampons, while Wharton had only sneakers.
Ironically, the Ukrainian climbers who claimed to have summited on the same route just weeks before turned out to have lied. When the ascent was nominated for the 2007 Piolet d’Or, one team member confessed, posting on mountain.ru that he had “no moral right” to stand among the nominees at the ceremony. The team, he said, had turned around at the same height as the Americans, also for lack of ice gear.
“We thought it had been done,” Wharton says. “In retrospect, I wonder if we would have tried a little harder.”
Other landmarks include the first free, and first one-day ascent of the North Pillar (VI 5.11+) of Fitz Roy, Patagonia, with Bean Bowers in a swift 14 hours in February 2006, and a near-success on the precipitous Torre Egger with Bowers and Jonny Copp in 2005. A labored four-hour lead had taken Bowers to within six feet of the top of the melting summit mushroom when the fin beneath him collapsed, sending him for a 100-foot whipper. He whizzed upside-down past bulging snow and ice, his back glancing off, then was hit by 100 pounds of falling debris. The fall tore out Copp’s V-thread-and-ice-axe anchor, lifting him to counterbalance Bowers on a single screw. Wharton was 20 feet below on a ledge, at a two-piece belay, with yards of slack between him and Copp. Had the screw gone, Bowers would have flown down the South Face below, taking Copp with him, onto Wharton’s belay.
“Are you alive?” Copp asked Bowers.
Bowers sustained only a minor back injury.
The previous year Wharton and Copp had climbed the French Route on Fitz Roy, and done the first free ascent of the Austrian Ridge on Saint Exupery.
Last summer Wharton and Bowers attempted the prized and still unclimbed North Ridge of Latok 1.
Wharton has received four AAC Lyman Spitzer Climbing Grants, also Polartec and Mugs Stump grants. Jack Tackle, longtime member of the Spitzer Committee, says, “He’s as strong a young alpinist and all arounder as anyone. The Great Trango Tower climb with Kelly Cordes is one of the best things ever done in the Himalayas by anyone. First ascent, alpine style, full commitment with dropped rack and no water for days … the full real deal.”
With McMahon, Wharton established King of Thebes (V+ 5.12c), on La Esfinge, Peru, in 2005 (Wharton also free soloed the Original Route, V 5.11, there); he and Copp have the fastest winter ascent (14:17) of the Diamond Face of Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, via D7 in 2004; and in 2002 he and Phil Gruber linked El Capitan’s Nose and Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face, Yosemite, in 18 hours. Wharton onsighted Eroica (V 5.12b/c) on the Diamond eight weeks after breaking his foot in a 60-foot fall, when he got off route on the Gothic Pillar (V 5.10 A3) in the Black Canyon.
In the Black, Wharton has done 74 different routes, almost certainly more than anyone else. Highlights include the FA of the Black’s hardest route, Black Sheep (IV 5.13), in 2007; linking The Free Nose (V+ 5.12c) and Tague Yer Time (V+ 5.12b) in 13 hours, in 2006; in 2005, with Mike Pennings, the first one-day ascent of the Serpent (VI 5.11+ R/X), a steep route known for difficult routefinding and bad gear, and only previously done in big-wall style; and, in 2004 with Thad Friday, the “Trifecta” speed enchainment (20:45) of the grade Vs Southern Arete (5.10+), Astrodog (5.11+) and the Scenic Cruise (5.10+). Also in 2004, he and Zack Smith put up Bloodsport (IV 5.12 R).
Wharton is not easily fazed. He has sustained at least five sprained ankles, and this past winter hit the ground twice: 25 feet from an M9 in Redstone, Colorado, and 50 feet off the first pitch of the Talisman (M6 WI 5+) in Ouray when a cauliflower formation collapsed underfoot as he was placing a screw. He landed in soft snow both times, and went back up and finished both routes.
Wharton’s not half bad as a sport climber, either.
He lives a life you could call dual if that did not under-represent practicing all aspects of climbing (he also “loves” bouldering, though declaring himself bad at it). He travels to the greater ranges twice a year, while his home is within a few miles of the sport trove of Rifle Mountain Park.
Inside the yellow frame house, on the front hall is a framed hypodermic needle. It is placed in a collage beside a dusky x-ray of a nasty tib-fib spiral fracture.
As a teenager, Josh ski raced at the Gould Academy, in Bethel, Maine, trying his hand in both the alpine and Nordic realms. He also bike raced, on both road and mountain bikes; in mountain biking, he rode both cross-country and downhill. Apparently he has always wanted to do it all.
The collage is one of several thoughtful, delicate combinations, using such elements as stamps, watercolors, maps and pencils, created by Josh’s artist-sculptor father. One collage, containing photos of Josh’s grandparents on crags in England and North Wales, and his father, John, in the Shawangunks, reads, “For Josh: for Christmas 1994. [From] your grandfather, grandmother and me. Climb if you love it. We did! Dad.” John, now 68, did an early British ascent of the Eiger, in 1966.
The hypodermic needle dates back to when Josh was 16 and broke his leg: “It was nothing cool,” he says. “Just skiing too fast in soft snow with my [tight] boots unbuckled. I looked back up the hill for a friend, caught a tail in a pile of slush, and that was that.”
Glancing at the needle, he laughs his easy, near-continual laugh. “I was told if I felt a cramp, it meant that I might have a blood clot, and I was supposed to jam that thing in my thigh,” he marvels. “Can you believe that?”
His father, John, says, “I’m not sure what was in that needle. I thought it was a diuretic, in case his leg swelled. He got off the plane and showed the needle to me with a flourish. I, of course, confiscated it.”
Josh has a natural, courteous demeanor, which occasionally cracks under the jangling surge of energy beneath. Today he is managing a life of fulltime climbing. It appears a charmed life, but nothing is ever that easy, and some of the good—in it, in him—has evolved through trauma.
When he broke his leg, Josh was at Tignes, France, for a ski-training camp with his school. “I wasn’t ever very good or excited about ski racing, but I wound up at the summer training camp in France because my mom had just died—I think my dad thought it would be good for me to get away. That backfired!” Yet from that era arose his climbing.
In 2001 Wharton and Copp traveled to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, remote northern Canada. They started with the classic Southeast Face of the 2,000-plus-foot Lotus Flower Tower (V 5.10) in 4.5 hours, then pulled the first ascent of Pecking Order (V 5.11+) on Parrot Beak Peak. After that they turned to a free variation of the Original Route, a 2,000-foot crack system originally rated 5.8 A4, on Proboscis.
Copp says Wharton, even early on, was “extremely motivated … safe, fast and psyched: the necessary elements for the big routes. And he had the laugh, a key to shrugging off the hard times, bad weather, scary situations and the unknown.”
The crux pitch, about halfway up Proboscis, had been cleaned and toproped free by Nancy Feagin, with Barry Blanchard, in 1999. (Rain prevented her lead attempt.)
The pitch was knobby granite that Wharton calls “kind of Tuolumne-esque,” next to a flaring seam, and through a bulge. Protection was “very, very scant.”
At 15 feet off the belay, Wharton, climbing onsight, reached a little stance and banged in a pin. At about 40 feet he clipped an old fixed nut. What followed was a 30-foot runout to a ledge, the moves sustained at 5.12a, with no particular crux, but nothing secure, not even a good fingerlock.
“It was super dicey,” he says. “It probably wasn’t death because there were no ledges to hit, but you’d fall a long, long way and it was a time when I didn’t onsight 5.12 all that often.”
Copp recalls, “The pace slowed slightly. I heard a few grunts and fed the hiccupping rope attentively, and then it was smooth again. I was barely in there following the pitch free.”
"That was the first pitch that I got a lot of confidence on,” Wharton says. “The first trip where I did something mentally challenging … in the middle of nowhere and with terrible gear. That was a turning point for me.” He was 22, still in college.
“I don’t think I am a naturally gifted climber by any means,” he says, “but I’m good at trying hard.”
It feels lucky even to find Josh at home, because he seems to be everywhere. Take the last calendar year: At first he was rock climbing at the Fortress, a crag near Rifle, and road-tripping for ice in Ouray, Colorado. Next he was “off for a couple weeks” with his fiancée, Erinn Kelly, 31, to climb in Las Vegas and in Bishop, California. Then it was back to Ouray for the ice fest, then off to Patagonia till March, when he dutifully showed up at the Red Rock Rendezvous and in Smith Rock, Oregon, for the annual American Alpine Club gathering. After that he expected “local [climbing] with short trips until July. … Then up to Jackson for the AAC climbing camp on the 24th for a few days. I’ll be around in July, apart from a short trip to Mount Hooker, Wyoming. Then off to Pakistan and back in late September.” Spring and fall he always climbs assiduously in Rifle and the Black Canyon.
Some trips are to present slide shows and teach clinics. Wharton is on “the list”—of name climbers, speakers, clinic teachers. He likes the last category best, and thinks that is where he can really contribute.
Where he’d sort of rather not be, as it happens at one point, is stopping, on his way to climb at Independence Pass, at the coffee shop by my office in Carbondale, for another in a series of interviews. When I vaguely suggest, after an hour, letting him off the hook, his car keys are immediately out of his pocket and on the table. My closing remarks are truncated, because he is out the door.
Wharton is 6 feet and a solidly built 170 pounds, with a brown crew cut, goatee, and tilted dark-brown eyes. “We joke about that in the family,” his father says. “My great-grandfather was a seaman who either married, or didn’t, a Tahitian woman. That’s where the eyes come from.”
At Josh’s house, which at the time of an early interview he and Erinn Kelly share with Jed Wareham-Morris, a tick list of Rifle routes, grades and “flashes,” or not, adorns the kitchen wall.
He is slightly sheepish about the list, attributing it to Jed (who in the interim since this interview will move out, but still comes over to train on the wall in the chilly backyard shed), but admits to being equally obsessed with his own métier: the routes of the Black Canyon.
“That’s one of my favorite areas, with the best rock on some of the hardest routes, the best training area for alpine climbing in North America. It’s committing, has adventure, loose rock, route-finding: all the elements that alpine climbing has, apart from horrible bivies. You learn to be uncomfortable.”
Meanwhile he also made it a project to do all the routes, even the choss ones, up to 5.12d in Rifle.
Overall, he’s onsighted (while also flashing others) 10 5.12c’s, three of them trad; seven 5.12d’s and three 5.13a’s: Infidels and Captain Rehab, in Saint George, Utah, and El Paso Blanco, in Altea Col, Spain.
Wharton claims he does best at areas “that nicely combine my strengths with soft grades.”
This spring he redpointed The Daily Planet (5.13d) at the Fortress.
“I never used to be into sport climbing before I lived here. It’s just fun to go try hard stuff even if you can’t do it. … A lot of people have their ego wrapped up, really good alpine climbers don’t want to commit themselves to something they’ll look bad at. I had to get over that.”
In alpinism, Wharton practices a genre of climbing that often involves three months away at a time, and danger. It is hard on daily lives. Yet he is in a stable relationship, gets along well with his family; both his father and his fiancée, Kelly, who is a teacher and a dancer with a master’s in dance education, support what he does. His father, who used to play professional soccer and race sailboats as well as climb, doesn’t just accept the dangers, he sends photos of peaks, suggesting or urging projects, and helps select and modify gear.
Wharton’s comfort in every facet of the sport has its base in his childhood in New England: “It’s always chilly there,” he says. At 15 he left Phillips Exeter Academy, where his father was an art teacher, for Gould, a small prep school (300 students) with a big ski program.
He had started bike racing at age 7, and his family traveled all over in an RV—to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and New Jersey—for that. John Wharton had summers off, and Josh’s mother, Patricia McKee, an attorney and district-court judge, joined them when she could, such as flying to Florida for a weekend race. His father had two other sons from an earlier marriage, but they lived in Seattle.
“My parents were really into it, if I was into something,” Wharton says. “I think they were just really psyched to have a little kid, and were willing to put other things aside.
“Days off, we’d always do something. Skating, go for a hike, something.” They’d hike in the woods and around the lake where they lived, and his mother was notorious for suggesting short cuts that, Josh says, “always wound up as long-cuts. She was a great mom. Even though she worked a lot, we almost always spent her free time doing fun things together.”
He had just turned 16 when Patricia, at only 54, died of pancreatic cancer.
“Since I only knew my mother until I was 16, I often wonder if my memory of her is all that accurate. But I remember her as very kind, honest and well-liked by pretty much everyone—300 or 400 people showed up to her funeral, which gave me the impression that as a lawyer she had helped loads of people.
“She was always honest. Once we went skiing with my dad’s friend David and his kids at Jay Peak in Vermont. David decided to buy all the tickets under the family discount to save money. My mother felt so guilty that a few days later she sent Jay Peak a check to make up the difference.”
Patricia McKee in her 20s “did all kinds of interesting stuff,” he says. “She lived on a sailboat, traveled around Europe. She was an adventurous person—I think she would have been worried about me [climbing], but not necessarily discouraging.”
Josh got into climbing when she became ill, gravitating to it because it absorbed him: “Your mind is kind of free when you’re climbing, you’re not thinking about anything but what’s in front of you. I was not fit and athletic. I had no gifts for it. I was kind of a chubby kid with no upper body.”
Wharton has made no secret that his climbing in part stems from his being, in the wake of his mother’s death, a “mild Trustafarian.” He also lives frugally. “I would hardly call it set for life,” he says. At the time of this particular conversation, in summer 2007, he figures he has about a year and a half before his “little slush fund” runs out. Fortunately for him, in the months after this conversation, he will be picked up as a Mammut athlete, thereby able to earn a living wage.
“In a lot of ways I’m not sure I would have gotten to do the things I have if I hadn’t gotten some money. Or a dad who let me use it how I wanted to.”
His father was always his climbing mentor. “He took me to Pawtuckaway a few times when I was a little kid and I would just cry, I hated it. He took me to Wales when I was 11, and we did some super easy things. We’d walk up to the crag, and I’d cry for half an hour, and he’d convince me to do it, and afterwards I’d feel like a superhero and talk about it all the next day.”
He was much closer to his mother, Patricia, while growing up, he says. “When my mom died, my dad and I were forced to get close. Ever since then we’ve been really close.
“It’s really weird to think what would have happened if Mom was still alive. I might be a lawyer.”
John Wharton eventually remarried, to Adeline Aquilino, a history instructor at Phillips Exeter. “She was impressive, too, really nice,” Josh says feelingly. “They were married two years—she got sick three weeks after they got married. They found out she had the same kind of cancer my mom had.” Aquilino died at 49.
In August of 2000, on his first trip to Pakistan, Josh climbed a first ascent on the Little Trango that he called The Patricia McKee Wall (IV 5.10+). He was 20.
On the Great Trango, years later, two serious sections fell to Wharton. The first was on day two of his and Cordes’ ascent, when Wharton climbed 80 feet of marginally protected 5.10, which included a wide crack, to a ledge below a 15-foot headwall. It had obviously been aided on a previous attempt.
“There were just studs, threads [with no hangers], and we only had one hook. … I put a hook in a hole, put tape on that, and had Kelly take tight on the tag line to keep the hook from falling off as I free climbed past.” The previous piece was a cam 20 feet below.
“I would have hit all kinds of ledges and stuff. It was probably 5.11, with one really hard move, but that’s what I like about alpine climbing, you have to solve it. I would never do that at the crag.”
The second trouble spot was much higher, on the knife-edge at 20,000 feet. It came after the climbers had had no water for 30 hours, and after some 15 pitches of traversing, when retreat was hardly an option. The two had lost six of their 18 cams on the first day when a gear sling came undone, and they had no bolt kit.
Wharton stepped around a corner, lowered 40 feet and swung out left to reach a corner: an 80-foot offwidth full of ice. He had neither gear to fit it, nor any ice screws.
Strapping one crampon onto his left rock shoe, he began climbing, protected by a bad cam at 30 feet and, at 35 feet but off 25 feet to the side, the equalized beak and knifeblade he’d used to pendulum. For 70 feet he climbed rock with his right hand and ice with his left, using “a tiny little Grivel tool that my dad and I had chopped down.”
“My right side was having to climb 5.11 and the left side was having to do M6 or something.
“You can’t just rap to bail, so you look around and think, ‘What are our options?’ and they’re pretty terrifying. You’re nervous and calm, you have to be both at the same time. So you are hyper-aware and focused. You can’t make a big mistake. That’s what’s cool about it. You have to do it.”
By high-school graduation Wharton was ready for a large school, and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he studied English. “I got less and less into school as I went more into climbing. My mom was always the one who pushed me in school, so when she was gone,” he says with a laugh, “my grades took a major dive.”
Now he climbs 200 days a year, with no signs of burnout: “I’m psyched to climb. If anything, I get frustrated when I can’t climb as much as I want.”
In his downstairs office, he produces a three-ring binder of records of Black Canyon climbing.
“I’m kind of goal-oriented,” he says. “I feel like if all I’m doing is climbing, I might as well be, otherwise I’m treading water.”
Yet where does such a well of motivation originate? “I think my parents,” he says. “If I was going to do something and they were going to support me, I better really do it and do it all the way.”
In the end, Josh thinks Patricia’s death makes him more able to do what he is doing, including remote and dangerous climbs, and his father to understand it.
“Having someone close to you die makes you more accepting of death, whether on a climb or from cancer, because these are the days we have and you want to live them to your fullest.”
Asked his strengths in the mountains, Wharton reflects, “I do a good job preparing. Generally, I’m relatively even-keeled. … The important thing is, I try to be open to criticism, it’s a really good way to improve, and to accept my role. Like, ‘Maybe I’m not so good at ice climbing so maybe I should let Jonny lead the ice.’” (Some climbers want to swap leads evenly.) On Trango, he and Kelly Cordes decided that Wharton would lead the difficult rock sections, and Cordes would lead the moderate ground, where he was very fast, and any ice.
One strength also creates a weakness, though. Wharton calls himself a little obsessive: “Maybe sometimes I’m a little too intense about being prepared, a little harsh on people, expect them to do more on the climb or be as prepared as I am, like maybe we don’t really need to pack the bag the night that we get down from the first attempt.”
His friend Bean Bowers chuckles at the appraisal, and says only that it is spot-on. "He is just a humble guy with a lot of talent and motivation. … I think the funniest thing with Josh is the dichotomy of working hard: When it comes to a climb I know no harder worker, but watching him try to put in an honest day of common labor, like painting, is hilarious because he has no endurance for the mundane. I think that’s why he dislikes hiking so much.”
In February of 2007 Wharton took an activist stance. In a chapter detailed in Rock and Ice no. 161, Wharton and Zack Smith decided to try to climb the 1970 Compressor Route, Cerro Torre, but to skip the 400 bolts placed by Cesare Maestri. If successful, they would chop them on the way down. Wharton considered the placements “a huge act of hubris” that changed the nature of the mountain from its original state as “one of the hardest in the world.”
The bolt-removal attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, created a firestorm, pitting the two against the longtime climber Steve Schneider, who had come to Patagonia to climb the route and mountain.
Wharton doesn’t regret the venture, but won’t try again. “I don’t regret anything I learned from it, like how quick people are to judge. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that in the past.” Others assumed, he felt, that “Steve was the nice guy, [but] judged Zack and me as egomaniac jerks, and that I was a spoiled trust funder and a media monger. And maybe it wasn’t so simple.
“This [issue] is something I care about. I genuinely thought it would be a positive thing.”
In May of this year, Wharton and Zack Smith left for the Kichatnas, and returned with an FA of a mixed line on Kichatna Spire. As of August Wharton and Whit Magro will try the undone North Face of Latok 1, which Wharton called in his 2007 trip report for the AAC “one of the baddest alpine walls I’ve seen anywhere in the world.”
Asked if he has any regrets in the mountains, Wharton only comes up with the fact that he and Cordes bailed off Nameless Tower the week after Trango “for no really good reason—little cloudy, little icy, little cold, etc.” They were simply mentally played out. “At the time it didn’t bother me a bit, but in retrospect I’ve realized we should have tried harder. Getting to crazy places in the mountains requires loads of time and energy, and I’ve realized more and more that you’ve got to seize every opportunity.”
What, as much as anything, becomes clear as distinguishing Wharton and his peers is the way in which they absorb setbacks and blows, stay positive, and keep on climbing. Maybe they just have faith in themselves.
Bean Bowers says that during the descent from Torre Egger, “We were joking a bit to take the loss well. … Josh, as are Jonny and me, is of the mind that it is the process [that matters] more than any given summit.” Bowers had tweaked his back, but Wharton and Copp turned right to a 52-hour enchainment of the three towers of Saint Exupery, San Rafael and Poinçenot. I notice that in the American Alpine Journal account Brian McMahon wrote on the Flame ascent, the gusher in his arm didn’t even rate a mention. Bowers once took a 60-footer—“a really bad, horrible, tumbling 60-footer in a 60-degree gully on the North Pillar of Fitz Roy,” as Wharton recalls. “He landed right next to me, said, ‘Pass me the fucking crampons’ and that was it. You get on with it. You push yourself.”
Alison Osius is executive editor at Rock and Ice.