Friendship and Failure on the World’s Hardest Alpine Free Climb
With charm and grit, buddies Matt Segal and Will Stanhope make a difficult first ascent in Boys in the Bugs.
Will Stanhope and Matt Segal joke that their climbing project, in British Columbia’s Bugaboo Provincial Park, was the “Dawn Wall of the north.”
Stanhope and Segal had spent the past three summers in the Bugaboos trying to free-climb their own version of the Dawn Wall, a reference to the world’s longest, hardest rock climb on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. Their experience is captured in the heartfelt, riveting, and action-packed film Boys in the Bugs, headlining this year’s Reel Rock film tour. Of all the films, this one contains perhaps the most compelling footage of hard, cutting-edge free climbing, making it a favorite among core climbers. But more importantly, the film captures the importance of the climbing partnership and the sacred bond that forms when you tie in for a long-term project with a good friend.
Though Stanhope and Segal have a particular brand of wry humor that they carry with them on all their ascents like a useful piece of climbing equipment, their joke about their climbing project being really damn hard wasn’t too far off. With a stack of difficulties in the 5.13 to 5.14 range, this climb was certainly a forbidding challenge.
The Bugaboos are a world-class alpine playground with striking granite spires that contain some of the most beautiful vertical cracks on Earth for rock climbing. On the east face of Snowpatch Spire (10,118 feet), one of the Bugaboos’ most prominent peaks is the Tom Egan Memorial Route. This climb was originally completed in 1978 as an aid climb, meaning the first ascensionists hung from gear as they slowly made their way upward.
As climbing standards have progressed over the last 40 years, many of today’s top climbers are seeking out former aid routes as objectives that they compete to “free.” This means they will try to become the first people to ascend the route without falling, without pulling on gear, and by using only their hands and feet to make upward progress.
The goal of a free ascent is to climb each pitch, or each rope-length, without falling, only relying on gear as a precaution in case of a fall. (The Dawn Wall, for example, was also an old 1960s-era aid climb that wasn’t freed until Caldwell and Jorgeson’s ascent in 2015.)
It was initially Stanhope, a Canadian climber who was then 28 years old, who identified the Tom Egan Memorial Route as a candidate for a potential first free ascent in 2010. On the east face of Snowpatch Spire, Stanhope noticed a 300-foot crack bisecting the gray granite rock face. The crack was striking, if incipient, and not even wide enough to accept a full fingertip. He rappelled the route and reported what he discovered on his blog: “Rough alpine granite barely wide enough for fingertips the whole way,” he wrote. “Lower down, the crack pinched off into nothingness. If there was going to be a way to free it, there would have to be a way in from either side, a grim prospect considering both faces looked almost completely blank to the naked eye.”
To find a free-climbing sequence that might provide access to the crack, Stanhope needed to inspect the blank-looking granite wall. He hung from a nine-millimeter rope and swung across the side of the granite mountain, scouring each square foot for features in the rock that could be climbable. Ultimately, he found an unlikely path across tiny holds. He installed some protection bolts, and the projecting phase began.
Matt Segal, a bold climber who is originally from the flats of Florida, where he learned to climb in an indoor gym, joined his good friend Stanhope in the Bugaboos in 2012.
Ultimately, the two climbers would spend a total of over a hundred days over four years working toward a free ascent of the Tom Egan Memorial Route. They lived on the wall. At night they slept in portaledges, rocked out to music, and drank whiskey. By day, they threw themselves at some of the most difficult rock climbing sequences either of them had ever attempted.
The first challenging pitch was dubbed the Drunken Dawn Wall pitch. The incipient crack was named Blood on the Crack, after Bob Dylan’s record Blood on the Tracks, but also because the sharp granite crack often left Stanhope and Segal with bloodied, battered fingertips that looked as though they had stuck their hands in a blender.
The ultimate free ascent went down over four unexpected days in August 2015. Stanhope broke through his prior fall point and achieved a free ascent of the Drunken Dawn Wall pitch.
Next, he continued by firing off the Blood on the Crack pitch without a fall. It was one of the best, if not most surprising, climbing days of his life.
Segal tried to free the Drunken Dawn Wall pitch, but he never quite managed to do it without a fall. After Stanhope succeeded, he went into support mode and belayed Stanhope as they continued gunning for the top. Segal free-climbed everything except the Drunken Dawn Wall pitch.
“Matt fought like a champion but wasn't successful,” Stanhope wrote in the aftermath. “It could've gone either way and I got very, very lucky. Cheers to you, brother. You're the best partner a guy could ever ask for.”
National Geographic Adventure caught up with Will Stanhope and Matt Segal to hear more about their experience establishing what is being called perhaps the hardest alpine free climb in the world.
In another Reel Rock film this year, Kai Lightner’s mom says, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” Matt, after four years of working on this route, what did you learn? What did you win?
Matt Segal (MS): In the end, I think Will sending was a win for both of us. It was such a team effort. I also think that me failing was a huge win in the sense that it motivated me to diversify my energy. I’d always put 100 percent of my everything into climbing, and having such a major fail motivated me to start paragliding and start my own business.
When Will succeeded on those hard pitches, were both of you surprised?
MS: I knew it was a possibility, but honestly, I was pretty surprised when he sent! Neither of us had really been climbing that well on it, and it still seemed just out of reach.
Will Stanhope (WS): Like you said, it was just very surprising. We had been banging our heads against that pitch for so many seasons. Finally climbing it felt like waking up from a dream. Hard to describe. A very strange sensation. It almost didn't seem hard, though I knew it was.
The Blood on the Crack pitch seems extremely painful. Could you try to describe the sensation of what it’s like to climb something like this?
MS: It is definitely one of the most painful finger cracks I’ve ever climbed. You basically have to stick just the tip of your fingers in the sharpest alpine granite you can image and put all your body weight on it, just hoping it doesn’t slip and fully gorge your finger! I took a lot of ibuprofen!
WS: Yes, for sure, very painful. But at a certain point, especially on lead, adrenaline would take over and I wouldn’t feel any pain. I'd just be immersed in the moment and nothing else mattered. On this pitch you are positioned on a bone-white wall. It’s totally blank except for this seam. It feels like a geological anomaly, like you shouldn't be there, like it's against some rules. Initially the feeling of exposure really got to me and I couldn't try my best. Eventually, through repeated efforts, I got comfortable on that mind-boggling wall.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
How important is it to have the right climbing partner for a big, hard objective?
MS: For me the right climbing partner is everything. It makes the whole experience possible!
WS: Absolutely imperative. I can't remember all the times we marched across that glacier together. Sometimes I'd be leading the charge, sometimes Matt would be. We riffed off each other's energy and amped each other up when one of us was in a doldrum. And we had fun.
Matt, you learned to climb in the gym. Now you’re out there helping to establish one of the hardest alpine free climbs in the world. Do you think there are youth climbers who will follow this path?
MS: I hope there will be kids who always search for a richer experience in our sport. That will eventually lead them to the mountains. Maybe one day someone will link all the pitches on this route and create the world’s first alpine 5.15.
Do you plan to go back and try to finish the unfinished business?
MS: Maybe, but I’m definitely going to take a full season off first. It was such a huge part of my life for so many years, and, personally, it feels incomplete. Maybe it will always feel that way. At the moment I’ve decided to put more effort into other aspects of life, like paragliding and my new business, Alpine Start. For me to send that route will take full dedication.
Will, what’s next for you?
WS: Tons of stuff, and many more adventures planned with Matt. We get along great and often bring the best out of each other.