After months of scouting, cleaning, and re-equipping, dozens of days spent working out seemingly impossible sequences, and scores of heartbreaking redpoint attempts, Tucson climber Alex Kirkpatrick has made the First Free Ascent of Doubt, a long-standing project at Mt Lemmon’s Reef of Rocks.
Doubt takes an improbable line through the subtle granite waves of an oceanic wall on an immaculate fin of multicolored granite, the North Face of Aegir. Flanked by similarly imposing formations to the north (Neptune) and south (Poseiden), Aegir is the centerpiece of the Reef of Rocks, a striking rib of highest-quality granite high on Mt. Lemmon.
For several months, I had been hearing about the “Reef Project” from Alex. It was his source of inspiration, his excuse not to travel, and my source of frustration in missing one of my favorite climbing partners. After a few aborted attempts to travel to Tucson to climb with Alex and check out the project, Carrie and I finally committed a weekend to climbing in Tucson, meeting up with Alex, and checking out his latest obsession.
After a day of arctic conditions on the Orifice Wall, we made the trek to the Reef of Rocks to climb some of the classic moderate lines and join in the process of Alex’s project. The cold front that had moved in the previous day still held Mt Lemmon in its icy grip, and conditions in the shade at the 8500 ft cliff were beyond crisp. Carrie and I sampled the classic finger crack to roof climb Rapture of the Steep 5.10c and the stemming corner of Naranja 5.11d, both on Neptune, the northernmost formation of the Reef. Offering granite reminiscent of the High Sierra of the highest quality, these rope-stretching pitches offered a great introduction to the technical and friction-dependant climbing characteristic of the area.
Scrambling around the west ridge of Neptune, our jaws dropped as the North Face of Aegir came into view. A sea of orange granite waves, streaked by tongues of lichen in electric hues of green, white, and purple-grey stretched up 300 feet above us and extended for over 1000 feet across. A few parties had ventured into the fringes of the wall, establishing aid routes or X-rated free routes up the very few weaknesses in the wall. As we sat, our eyes drinking in the complex chaotic geometry and vivid hues, Alex drew our gaze to the left side of the main wall. The line of his project cut through the waves and complex currents of the wall, an inobvious course plotted as if by a masterful captain navigating treacherous waters.
As Alex left the ground, within five feet of climbing off the belay it became obvious to me that Alex’s climbing had evolved to fit this route through countless hours of communion with the granite and all of its intricacies. He moved fluidly through long pulls, technical sequences, and 160 feet of relentlessly demanding climbing. After his first attempt ended with a fall from the crux sequence, he rested and shoed up again, launching into the most impressive pitch of climbing I’ve seen, and the most stressful and engaging belay I’ve ever provided. The Reef of Rocks, Atonement, and Alex’s journey in climbing the line are a story I am excited to share, and one best told in his words.
What is the history of the Reef of Rocks? Where does it fit in to the greater story of Mt Lemmon?
I am not certain of specifics, but to my knowledge, development at the Reef began in the late 1970’s with prominent first ascentionists such as Bob Kerry, John Stieger, Ray Ringle, Dave Baker, along with a few others. I have climbed some of their early routes at the Reef and had a hard enough time protecting them with modern gear, let alone nuts, pitons, leeper hangers etc of the day. Although recent development has made the Reef quite safe and user friendly, it has garnered a bad reputation due to loose rock, wild weather, hollow flake systems, marginally protected routes, and a few deaths. Several of these early routes remain un-repeated and will likely stay that way.
The Reef has always felt very different from the rest of the mountain. The rock is different and the magnitude and exposure are a far cry from most of the mountain’s crags. At one point, Ma’adim (a 4 pitch 5.12 at The Reef that at one point was one of the harder, sustained climbs in Arizona) even graced the cover of Climbing Magazine.
The North Face of Aegir is one of the most stunning walls I’ve seen. Has it seen much attention?
The short answer is no. If this wall were in Boulder it would be grid bolted to hell but has remained largely untouched over the years. There is a terrifying X-rated route called the Direct North Face that takes the chossiest, most meandering line possible up the wall to ensure the death of any would-be ascentionists. Ray Ringle bolted an early sport route called Crankbugs that traversed into the top of Doubt. He later bolted the bottom of Doubt, chopped the traverse bolt, and took the original line straight up. This direct variation has yet to see an ascent. My friend Eric has put up some good lines this year including a stellar looking 11+ that goes all the way up the wall. My friends Geir and Clay just finished an incredible looking 2 pitch 12c there as well.
Who found and bolted Doubt? Had it seen any serious attempts before you began work on it?
The route was bolted and manufactured by Ray Ringle, who became unhappy with the chipping on this line and several of his others at the time. Ray never tried the route and actually abandoned route development more or less entirely.
To my knowledge no one has put any serious work into it. Interestingly, only the relatively moderate lower crux is manufactured, leaving the hardest section natural. Dead-end chipping debates aside, the vision Ray had is staggering. His ground breaking lines are scattered all across Arizona. While 160’ 5.14s are a dime a dozen today, at the time Ray bolted this route, the oft overused adjective “futuristic” would have been an understatement. I feel privileged to bring his vision to fruition.
How did you get interested in the line?
Summer in Tucson is a hard time for climbers. I was traveling a lot but needed some inspiration at home. The Reef is one of the few climbable crags in the summer, and I actually had some other projects in mind there, but decided to check out this unfinished line thinking it was probably just an abandoned 5.12-ish thing that would go down easy and be a good introduction to hard climbing up there. I couldn’t have been more wrong and my draws stayed on it till a few days ago.
What did the process of working the route look like?
When I first tried the route I was totally overwhelmed. Just getting the draws up required a purple-heart belay of 2+ hours. I battled big time moss, bad bolts, and climbing I was totally unprepared for.
The route breaks down into two “pitches” something like this:
P1 13a/b – V7 to get to the first bolt, low, super techy crux (V8-ish), pumpy to mid anchor.
P2 13d-ish – cool 5.12 off the anchor, V10-ish crux at first bolt up involving slopers and garbage crimps and feet, V6 stacked directly after, really good rest, wild techy 5.12 crux, 11+ to the chains.
I would have abandoned it immediately if anything else was in season. Even after brushing, replacing bolts, and adding a mid anchor, I thought the crux was likely impossible. Even the low crux seemed incredibly hard and mind-blowingly technical. I quickly figured out this sequence involving an “arm flag” and a high step on a hyper-jengus foot. It took me around 8 or so attempts to even redpoint to the mid-anchor. I got there so pumped I almost abandoned the route again thinking about trying the crux after climbing the first half.
Several attempts later, I figured out the true crux move, but still didn’t pull it. I actually became even more intimidated knowing that it did go, but thinking it could be in the 14+ range and I would never be able to do it.
Around this time the conditions were pretty bad; really humid and rainy every day. Also, I didn’t have anyone else to work it with so I would do a few warm ups, sit around, get rained on, walk the 10 minutes to the base of the project, get one belay, shit temps, get rained on, belay other people, leave. It went on like this as I tried to figure out the upper crux moves (which are incredibly temp dependent).
It probably took me 5 sessions and 40+ attempts at the boulder problem until one uncharacteristically cold and windy day, I pulled the hardest move and freaked out. It was so foggy I couldn’t even see my belayer at this point. Even after pulling this move, I couldn’t come close to linking the whole crux boulder problem and only pulled the hardest move maybe one more time in the coming weeks. Feeling like the climb wasn’t going to be possible in these conditions, I abandoned it for most of the summer.
During this time I took a trip to the Needles, tweaked my shoulder climbing Romantic Warrior in full sun, took a month off climbing, and got really good at pool. Eventually I was getting nervous about being in shape for a different project in the fall, so I bought a gym membership and started training.
I went back up to the Reef thinking I would just strip my draws, but the conditions were getting better, and I started making serious progress. Within a few sessions I had linked the crux boulder problem, and in a few more I was able to pull the boulder problem and climb to the top.
At this point I knew it would go, and began throwing myself at it, eventually getting further and further through the crux from the ground. Finding partners was becoming more and more difficult as the weather got colder and people finished their projects.
I began stressing out about training (which I wasn’t doing because I hate it), and the nearing winter (The Reef is around 8000 ft.). Luckily Joel and Carrie were in town and convinced me to skip work and go up on a Monday with only one rest day and feeling like shit and I sent it second go.
I try not to keep track of attempts but Doubt took me roughly twice what my only other route at the grade took, and considerably more effort overall between the mega approach out to the Reef, fickle temps, and just the length and complexity of the route.
What were the greatest challenges in putting it all together to send the line?
Besides the struggles with weather and finding partners, the climbing itself is incredibly technical and required specific beta for almost the entire 160 ft length. The nature of the route did not necessarily suit my style, which tends to be more endurance oriented. I had never tried a route with a boulder problem that felt at my absolute limit.
I think the mental aspect was the most challenging. The thought of linking that much super hard climbing was so intimidating I tried just to not think about it. This is easy when you are working something and don’t think you can send it, but to buckle down and say “Alex you can hike your ass out there and link this thing to the top before the season ends”, that was terrifying and kept me up at night. The climb so long and at times you are hanging out and resting so it’s a really hard climb to keep focus on, but at the same time it unforgivingly demands full focus the whole way up.
Why put so much energy into these specific projects, and why Doubt in particular?
Big projects are a recent thing for me. I have been climbing for a long time and have never really pushed myself for various reasons, mostly a shoulder surgery at the end of high school that took years to recover from fully. I got into other things and climbed recreationally for a long time.
I always had regrets about not being able (or not choosing) to pursue climbing like I wanted to. Now I feel like I have this great and fleeting gift to be able to climb these incredible lines (although my projects are pretty pedestrian in the grand scheme of things). I think the confluence of passion and ability is an exceptionally rare gift and if I don’t take advantage of it now it could pass at any time and I will regret it forever.
I also really like this idea of having a relationship with a line. Learning it and giving myself to it sometimes with no hope of success. At surface level projecting seems very goal and success oriented, but for me on a really mega project, I am forced to let go of goals and success and climbing becomes a continuous process, not finite sending events. In this way, I think having a big project is like being in love with no goal, no real “end”, just a process, a communication. And sending is like breaking up.
In terms of the route specifically, it was the only hard thing I could climb during the summer and it just also happens to be one of if not the most inspiring line on Mt. Lemmon.
What’s next for Alex Kirkpatrick?
I would like to throw in more mileage days. I am headed to Hueco this weekend and just built a home wall/ campus board with a friend so hopefully I can build a bit of power. My job is getting pretty busy so I may be more on a weekend warrior schedule for the winter, but I have some serious unfinished business around Tucson. I’m also debating about growing my beard out, not that it’s much of a beard but it seems to be enough to keep the ladies away.
Thanks Alex for bringing life to an incredible and forgotten route and sharing your journey on the route with us! Good luck with the beard, training, and your future project(s).