Alex Honnold works on the first free ascent of a wall in El Salto, Mexico.
Alex Honnold works on the first free ascent of a wall in El Salto, Mexico.

BOULDER, Colo. –

The timing couldn’t have been better.

Three weeks ago, a team of four – spearheaded by the peripatetic Texan Jimmy Carse – had just finished bolting an overhanging, 1,000-foot limestone wall in the sport climbing paradise of El Salto, Mexico. Meanwhile, my friend Alex Honnold and I were preparing to head out after spending two weeks there.

Jimmy, with help from various partners, had invested three seasons of work into the route, drilling roughly 150 protection and anchor bolts up the otherwise unprotectable face. Now that he had made the first ascent, he hoped that it could be free climbed. It was steep and exposed, and there were several crux sections that appeared hard but doable. Jimmy didn’t have the time or energy for a free attempt on his brief trip to Mexico, so rather than let the route sit untouched for another year, he selflessly suggested Alex and I try it.

The allure of treading virgin ground is ingrained in humankind’s essential nature, and this carries over to climbing in the form of first ascents. First ascents can be as grand as scaling a new route in a previously untouched mountain range, or as humble as squeezing in another line on Eldorado Canyon’s popular West Ridge. First ascents are not only about breaking geographical ground, but pioneering psychological ground.

The same is true of “firsts” in other sports. When England’s Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile in 1954, he broke the nine-year world record. By proving the four-minute barrier was mental, rather than physical, Bannister ushered in a wave of four world mile records in the following nine years. The first took place just 46 days after Bannister’s achievement.

Similarly, important first ascents stretch mental boundaries perhaps even more than physical ones. Consider the first free ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan — the Salathe Wall VI 13b, freed by Todd Skinner and Paul Piana in 1988. It took 30 years from the time of El Cap’s first ascent, which was primarily aid climbing, until it was finally free climbed. In the following 20 years, however, more than a dozen new free routes were established on El Cap’s flanks.

One of my favorite first ascent stories is about shattering sport climbing’s gender barriers. The wiry Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tribout, one of the world’s best at the time, announced in 1991 that a woman would never climb 5.14, the top level of the day. That was all it took for the American (and now Boulder-based) climber Lynn Hill to attempt Masse Critique, a 5.14a sport route in France, authored by Tribout himself. After just nine days of effort, Hill redpointed Masse Critique — au contraire mon frere!

Cutting edge first ascents like Hill’s are inherently meaningful to climbing because they redefine what’s possible. But what about the 99.9 percent of first ascents that are far from cutting edge? Indeed, the vast majority of new routes aren’t relative to the next climb or climber. They are not about being better than, faster than, the best trained or the most talented.

When I ran my first sub-five minute mile in high school I didn’t even win the race, but the immense joy and confidence I gained made the race irrelevant.

To Jimmy Carse, the most important journey was the first ascent of that big wall in El Salto. To Alex and me, the first free ascent was what mattered. As it turns out, first ascents are not only about satisfying that deep-seated, deeply human drive for exploration and adventure. They’re about discovering oneself.

Contact Chris Weidner at cweidner8@gmail.com.