Kevin Jorgeson on Pitch 1 of Fantasia, Lover's Leap, Sierra Nevada, California. Royal Robbins established the route in 1973, with Ken Wilson belaying. Wilson, the founder and editor of Mountain Magazine, regularly preached a fierce set of ethics from the pulpit of his magazine. Conscious of Wilson's strict standards, Robbins placed no bolts on the climb, and went so far as to set the route's one piton by hand at a belay, only to be chastised by Wilson for skimping on protection. The route commands respect even now: Jorgeson, who climbs 5.14 sport, encountered a nervy moment running it out above a tied-off knob, particularly when the sling fell off. [Photo] Jerry Dodrill
Fantasia (II 5.9R)
Posted on: October 1, 2006
Click here for signed prints of this topo. [Illustration] Jeremy Collins
One early morning, May 1973, Ken Wilson and I found ourselves hiking toward Lover's Leap—Ken in the innocent belief that I knew what I was doing, and I in the deep conviction that I knew what I wanted. As the Main Wall loomed above the river, Ken remarked, "It's about the size of Cloggy, ya' know, about 600 feet and dark like that." His comparison seemed auspicious: Cloggy was one of the best cliffs in North Wales, and I was hoping Ken would agree with me that the Leap was one of the best in California.
I pointed out a crack straight up the middle of the East Wall. "It's only three pitches," I said, "but the first pitch reminds me of Cenotaph Corner." I knew Ken was familiar with that other North Wales climb, an intimidating Joe Brown classic, whose crux moves emerge near the top, just as you begin to get tired. After all, Ken was the founding editor of Mountain Magazine and a scourge of any who'd take the adventure out of climbing. I'd long admired him for his skill with words and for his fearlessness. During the 1960s, Mountain had covered American climbing extensively. All the fuss about Yosemite had made Ken curious, and now he'd finally come to investigate it for himself. When I'd visited Britain, Ken had shown me around some of the local crags. Eager to repay his hospitality, I'd just taken him up El Capitan's East Buttress with Allen Steck, the first ascensionist. Then I'd lured Ken here with promises of beautiful free climbing—and the chance to grab a new route.
Although the Leap isn't as famous as Yosemite, its horizontal bands and ledges provide natural ladders, opening up areas for free climbing where steepness and runouts might normally require bolts and aid slings. It was just the sort of place, I calculated, that might appeal to my adventure-loving friend. With any luck, this climb would be as necky and surprising as Dream of White Horses, another of our favorite Welsh climbs.
"There's where I figure we'll go," I said; I pointed to the rounded cliff to the right of Haystack Buttress. "Somewhere there."
"Oh, great, Robbins. We come all this way up here, and you don't even know where we're going."
By now I was used to Ken's leg-pulling. During the drive, he'd applied his nonstop eloquence and mercurial wit to a medley of subjects: from the local urban scenery and the latest political situation, to Americanisms such as "garbage" and "trash can." Then we'd gotten onto a more sensitive topic: American football. Ken couldn't understand the depth of my love for the San Francisco team or my hatred of the Dallas one. Well, such issues for dissension would not arise on the rock. That's what I love about climbing: life becomes simple.
We followed a scratchy path through the chaparral and talus to the base of the East Wall, where the characteristic horizontal bands led up to a little roof. I guessed I could follow the roof for about fifteen feet and pass it above a patch of orange lichen. After that, I didn't know. Something would crop up.
I climbed a right-curving arch to the roof and eased, unprotected, into an alcove where I carefully slotted some chocks. Then I began the strenuous traverse. "Watch me," I shouted, knowing that Ken didn't need any instructions. As my arms wilted, I became desperate to set something in the crack above the roof. My feet beneath the overhang and my hands above it, I switched my weight from one arm to another in an effort to save my strength. We didn't have cams in those days; chocks had to fit just so. By the time I got a good one in place, I was spent. I worked my way back to the alcove to rest.
I'd lost some of my cool, and Ken was enjoying it. "Heh, Robbins! Looks like you were having a bit of trouble!"
I was beginning to remember that my friend was an editor. A dramatic fall on my part could give him some good copy.
"Oh," I said, "you'll find out when you get here. It's not as hard as the Corner."
"Were you freaked?" he asked; his earnest imitation of American slang sent me into sudden, hysterical laughter. Bewildered by my reaction, Ken, for once, could think of nothing to say.
By the time I'd stopped laughing, I was more relaxed, and I armed back across the traverse, a few feet past the last runner. I swung out and over the roof, this time committed. Then I was on easier ground—no more gear, but more of those ladder-like holds. This luck lasted for a while, until I ran into a blank face with just three rounded knobs. I was twenty feet above my last protection. Even if the chock held, I'd bounce on my way down.
I could ask Ken to send up the bolt kit I'd brought along just in case, but that wouldn't be very necky. So for the next hour I moved up and down, learning the moves and making sure I could down climb anything I went up. With a bolt or other protection I could have just attacked it. All I had, however, was caution and care, backed up by persistence. Soon I began to resent my own self-discipline.
Ken waited patiently, with only an occasional, "How's it going up there?" I knew how hard it was for him to contain his restless energy.
If I could step on that central knob and cant my body to the right, I could pull on a left-hand hold. Then, I just might be able to grasp a key ledge to the right, stand tall on the central knob and reach the broken area above. God, I wish I had a bolt. No, not yet—I hadn't reached my limit.
Panting and trembling, I returned to the task. I had most of the moves wired, and in a short, desperate effort I was at the belay, elated but still shaking. I wedged a couple of nuts into a crack and looped a sling over a horn. In a happy, inspired moment, I dropped my one long piton into a straight-down crack; it seemed a reliable placement for any downward pulls.
I expected my traditionalist friend to be delighted with such creative chocking, but when Ken arrived at the stance and caught his breath, he complained about the "lack of secure anchors." Delighted with my clean climbing, I insisted they were more than adequate.
For the final two pitches I wandered up the line of least resistance, slinging what knobs I could, occasionally putting a chock in a crack. There wasn't much protection, but I didn't want to spoil the hammerless ascent. At thirty-eight, I thought I might not have many such elegant routes left in me, and I wanted it to be a climb that Ken and I could remember with pride.
In the early afternoon we found a way through the final overhangs and performed the ritual handshake atop the East Wall. "Good lead, Robbins," Ken said, generously avoiding any mention of the anchor dispute. "That's one of the best routes I've ever done. It was fantastic!"
And that's where I got the idea for the name.