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True grit and grip

A passionate climber, Didier Berthod spent the summer training to ascend a narrow fissure in British Columbia's Cirque of the Uncrackables.

October 04, 2005|Emmett Berg | Special to The Times

DIDIER BERTHOD dangles from a rock wall 65 feet above the ground. He hangs on by a single finger twisted into a half-inch crack. The granite's rough texture provides just enough friction to keep him from tumbling down the face of the rock.

With no time to rest or relax, Berthod swings his 145-pound frame like a pendulum to gain momentum and his right hand scrabbles toward a small handhold just out of reach.

For 12 consecutive moves, he has relied on brute strength, hand over hand, as his fingers searched the crack for holds and his legs dangled uselessly. Now his fingertips burn and his forearms ache with exhaustion as he enters into the final move of the climb.

If he completes this maneuver, he will be the first to conquer the legendary Cobra Crack, a skinny, almost imperceptible seam on a whitish granite cirque in British Columbia.

If he falls, his summer of sacrifice comes to nothing.

For serious crack climbers -- those who favor narrow fissures in rock faces -- few regions of the world compare to the backside of Stawamus Chief, a series of granite bluffs south of the town of Squamish.

There lies the Cirque of the Uncrackables, a massive slab protected by tall evergreens and known for difficult and long crack routes with names such as Hidden Umph, Ivan Meets G.I. Joe and Bop Till You Drop.

The granddaddy of them all is the Cobra Crack, a dramatic overhang that stretches 70 feet, its cheese-grater surface milling hands into hamburger.

Many crack climbs in the Squamish area are "off-width," wide enough to squeeze a body inside. But the Cobra Crack, which snakes its way up an outcropping resembling the head of a snake, never widens much more than half an inch, offering only painful finger locks. It is precisely this tight fit that has attracted climbers for decades.


Mental prepping

BERTHOD is silent as he hikes barefoot, carrying his backpack up the steep trail to Cobra Crack. The feel of the rock underfoot awakens his senses, though it is his hands and fingers that will soon take the strain.

Once he arrives at the base of the crack, Berthod, 24, uses sandpaper on his hands to round off calluses, and then stretches his hands as if in prayer.

The Swiss electrician has spent months preparing for this ascent. Spring turned to summer as he waited out the rains. He cleaned a local hostel to staunch the cash burn.

And unable to sustain a support team, Berthod enlisted about 10 people to belay him over the course of the summer, while he worked on the route.

In the 75 days since he arrived in Squamish, only 16 were dry enough to go climbing. Berthod has managed only 30 attempts of the crack -- all of them ending in big falls, although no injuries. If climbers' egos are fed by successful ascents, Berthod's inspiration stems from his feelings about a sport he has loved since he was 13.

"It used to be I would go climbing as much as possible, every day. But after 10 years, it's less interesting to me," Berthod says.

"Trying the Cobra Crack once or twice a week was enough for me, because it's so pure. And besides, I had to rest many days just to recover all the skin on my fingers."

Berthod has completed some of Europe's harder rock-climbing test pieces, such as a first ascent of Greenspit, an overhanging climb in Orco Valley, Italy; and challenging routes in Yosemite, including Cosmic Debris and Phoenix. Prior to traveling to Squamish, he warmed up on the sandstone cliffs of Indian Creek, Utah.

Berthod is beginning to establish a name for himself in a field where recognition is hard won and respect is measured in first ascents. His relentless quest mystifies even him.

"I ask myself why I do it, why I need crazy and painful climbs to be satisfied," he says.


Race against runoff

THE terrain above Cobra Crack emits a constant trickle of runoff that makes handholds slick. Before each attempt, Berthod dries the entire length of the climb with a propane blowtorch.

Rappelling down, he blasts heat into the crack before setting aside the torch. He has just 30 minutes to climb before the seeping begins again.

Berthod takes a last look at the massive rock and begins his ascent, inserting at various points in the crack a special device that will stop him if he falls. One mistake in how he places the gear could mean a deadly fall.

The crack is all he has; the rock face surrounding it is blank, lacking any hand- or foothold. In parts, it's like climbing a wildly tilted pegboard at a high-school gym using only your fingers.

After so many attempts, the opening moves are now muscle memory to Berthod.

Like a contortionist, he squeezes into and out of positions, moving up the crack until he reaches the crux of the climb, at the jutting snakehead. He stops and rests just before a point where the overhang is 45 degrees past vertical.

Berthod then methodically works his way to a high point in the crack that has stopped many other climbers, finding a tiny flake big enough to jam his middle finger underneath.

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