Persona Incognita – Great Climbers You May Not Know
What if the best climber out there was not the strongest?
Not the most daring. Not the most heavily sponsored. Not the most photographed or written about. Not the guy or gal with the most social media followers, or OR shows under his or her belt.
What if the best climber was right under your nose, all along, and you had never even heard of them?
Today, I want to share with you one great climber who you may have never heard of. But I also want you, for the sake of the article, to rethink your notion of what makes a climber great.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we live in a different world. Let’s pretend we live in a world where the criteria we have for judging climbers is not grades, but adventures. Where the best climbers are the ones who explore the most, who quest the most, who seek out new terrain and suffer through long or difficult approaches the most.
I’m not trying to say some other climber you have heard of isn’t great. I’m not trying to discredit anyone, or take anything away. And I’m also not trying to say that this particular climber is not strong, or daring.
The point is, just for a moment, without casting judgement on anyone or anything, let’s just play with that notion of greatness, and get to know Vitaly Musiyenko.
Vitaliy Musiyenko may be the most successful (or at least prolific) Sierra climber since Galen Rowell and Vern Clevenger. In my opinion, he belongs in the same boat as guys like Dave Nettle, Brandon Thau, and Peter Croft (as far as new routing goes). I don’t know if I’ve seen any single name in the AAJ over the past three or four years more than his.
So it wasn’t any great surprise to me to run into Vitaliy deep in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park last summer, looking completely obliterated from a gnarly approach hike, following days on end of new routing. The guy is completely indomitable, or so it would appear. I don’t know exactly what number and letter grade he climbs, and I don’t exactly care. When we met, that wasn’t what we talked about. What we talked about was amazing granite, the joy of adventure climbing, and the hardship of long approaches.
How long have you been climbing?
I started to hike and scramble in 2010. Getting scared on 3rd class in the Sierra and terrified after a climber friend took me up a multi-pitch 5.8 led me into a climbing gym. The challenge of the mountains began to fade as I gained the fitness, navigation skills, confidence and skills needed to ascend most peaks. After climbing Mt. Denali (unguided) in June of 2011, I realized there are limitless challenges and a whole world of unexplored terrain available to those who are willing to climb technical rock and ice.
When did you put up your first new route?
With a resume of sending two 5.10 pitches on lead, I met two strangers from an internet forum in the Fall of 2012. A day later we climbed a thousand foot unclimbed tower we dubbed The Fortress. It was far from being as clean as the Beckey-Chouinard in the Bugaboos, which I climbed about a month prior, but it was the big highlight of my year! Should I mention getting stung by about a dozen bees on the hike in? One of those strangers, Daniel Jeffcoach, became a good friend and a solid partner that I have climbed many new routes with since. Great thing about Daniel is that he does not want to repeat routes as much as he likes to climb new stuff and explore, it is easy for us to get along. 🙂
How many new routes have you done now?
By now, 33 new routes from grade III to grade V. Most of the new routes I do are grade IV climbs. Number of pitches? No idea. Counting them could be a fun activity while waiting out bad weather.
Which are your top three?
My top three routes would be The Emperor on Bubbs Creek Wall (V 5.12a). If losing 130 lbs from my waistline didn’t do it, completing the FA/FFA of this route gave me hope that pretty much anything is possible. Before I got on it, I had 0 redpoints of 5.12 under my belt. For the next year, I had to work hard to get better at free climbing, so that I could HOPE to free it. The Emperor is a 17 pitch route with over 10 pitches of varied 5.11 and a few of 12-. It pushed my limits at climbing rock and persevering in general. The quality of climbing had me hooked and I kept coming back till one day I put together the tricky crux and a continuous free ascent later on. This ascent can be an example to many who think it is impossible to find quality climbing on long new routes, as all of them must have been climbed already. One person asked me “If it is so good, then why hadn’t anyone climbed it?!” Well, no one knows till you try…
What advice would you give to someone wanting to put up a new route of their own?
One must believe it is possible – the Golden Age is NOW. Climbing into terrain where no man has gone is attractive because it takes you to the root of climbing – overcoming challenges that are physical and mental, without any idea for the beta intensive crux. Fred Beckey was only a 5.8-9 free climber in his prime. Modern goal-oriented society pressures people to have tick lists, chase grades, accomplish objectives and have a load of expectations. When it comes to climbing long new routes in the backcountry, it is important to have a desire to explore new places, with no big expectations. I confess to having a load of goals and loving to climb rock! Hiking ten miles in without climbing a single pitch does not sound as fun, for most of us! For me personally, hiking out to obscure walls with already established routes within my ability justified exploratory outings – if I can’t find a new route to climb, at least I can repeat another! 🙂
Most important for any sort of a climb is a partner who is safe, easy to get along with, with a good sense of humor (similar maturity or lack of it) and a similar comfort zone. Hopefully not only a partner but a friend.
Learning to french-free (pull on gear if pure free climbing does not work) and knowing how to aid climb can be useful. It can get you through sections where free climbing is above your, or anyone’s limit.
A set of small offset cams and offset nuts can be nice for finding tricky ways to protect terrain that otherwise would be run out. If you are planning to climb a large formation and can see the crack system snaking up it, it is likely a very large crack, the big cams WILL be useful.
Having a team with the ability to climb cracks of all sizes, face climb and slab climb can be nice!
Expecting for things to NOT work out according to the plan is a must. Be flexible, on new routes – there are no topos or much plan, aside from “I get the wide pitches, you get the slab pitches.”
Hint: learn to climb the wide pitches.
Having light gear and researching ways to pack light is essential for not exhausting yourself on the approach.
“Glass half full” is the mantra that you should consider adopting. Don’t get upset because you don’t onsight 5.14 trad and there is a single cloud in the sky. Be happy with what you have.
When on the climb, take it one pitch at a time. If you feel safe making the next moves, keep going. Doing something out of your comfort zone is unusual and can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but remember Beckey climbed 5.8 and used pitons! If he got up 2,000 walls, so can you!
Don’t be afraid to bail, you brought a few bail nuts, biners and webbing for a reason! Remember, it is the experience that you came for. Neither bailing or sending will make you a good person. Have fun and don’t be an asshole or blame your partner for bailing.
How do you feel about publicising your FAs?
When I post about new routes worth repeating or walls with potential for more, I feel it is a positive contribution to the climbing community, as it offers other climbers a variety of options off the beaten path – an opportunity to have a unique experience. Life is too short to trade away a huge chunk of it for money, experiences seem to be more valued in the end. Receiving several ‘thank you’ emails from people who have gone to check out some of these places was very rewarding to me personally. Even though some may see such reports as bragging, by modern free climbing standard none of the stuff I do is very impressive and climbing itself is not an activity one should use to impress.
What do you do for work?
I work as a Registered Nurse at a daycare center for seniors. I worked here close to seven years, without benefits, health care coverage, or paid time off, BUT with a flexible schedule which allowed a good amount of time off to go climbing!
Vitaliy is still out there just annihilating new routes left and right. I can’t keep track any more, but I know that since interviewing him for this piece, I ran into him between bouts of new routes in King’s Canyon, and before he established a new line on Mt. Whitney (tallest peak in the lower 48 – you may have heard of it), and on a feature called The Cleaver. He shows no sign of stopping. If you ever wanted to try a new route but didn’t know where to look, just follow Vitaliy’s blog, Sending the Gnar. He may be picking the plums, but he’d be the first to admit, there’s plenty of new routes left!
Do you know an incredible climber that nobody ever talks about? Do you want to tell their story? Well, what’s stopping you? Send an email, and get in touch! I have at least one other climber cued up for the Persona Incognita series. But I don’t know everybody. I think it’s a really cool idea, but if it’s going to keep going, I’m going to need help!