Austin Piper - 23 / Jun / 2020
Fast and Light: Setting the Speed Record on Eldo's Naked Edge
The Naked Edge, a five pitch, 5.11b, sits as a sentinel at the entrance of Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. This sandstone arete known for its delicate face climbing and thin protection, stands as a test piece of the world class trad climbing of the area. In recent years, the route has become home to one of the most prestigious records in climbing; a “bridge - back to bridge” speed climb and descent of the route. First set in the early 90’s by Michael Gilbert and Rob Slater with a time of 1 hour 38 minutes, the climb has seen a flurry of attempts and record times in recent years. In 2014, Stefan Griebel, Jason Wells with a blazing time of 24:29.
On May 22nd, former Bentgate employee and friend of the shop, John Ebers, set the new speed record on the Naked Edge with a time of 24 minutes and 14 seconds. Ebers recently sat down with shop manager Austin Piper to talk about claiming this coveted record and the process for he and his partner, Ben Wilbur, to get there.
The late winter - early spring time in Colorado is what John calls the “Dark Ages” - the Cathedral Spires closed, lots of Flatirons climbing is closed, and the Diamond is not in yet. John always finds himself going to Eldorado Canyon again during these “Dark Ages.” “Every year, I re-fall in love with Eldo right at this time, and I don’t expect it. The initial inspiration to try to set the record on the Naked Edge came about two to three years ago when he first started rope-soloing the route, but the hardest part of the process was finding a partner.” John first started going fast with local climber Wade Morris, who has been one of his climbing mentors (especially in speed climbing). They seemingly reached their limit as a team at around 30 minutes. He felt like he could go faster, but never was imagining 24 minutes.
Ebers first met Ben Wilbur over spring break a few years ago, when they ran into each other working on Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. They became fast friends and climbing partners (no pun intended) quickly there after. Ben was trying to tick off all of the four star routes in the Eldo book, and both he and John have always been interested in link ups. “We did the Astroman of Eldo - Super Arete to Dub Griff to Mellow Yellow - it ended up being causal for us, so we wanted to get more in. We simul-climbed the Naked Edge as a cooldown. We tried to simul it with a 60m rope, which sucked, but it started the simuling craze (for us)”
John and Ben’s birthdays are three days apart. Last year for their birthdays, they did a 46-pitch link up in Red Rocks, and this year, they wanted to do another link-up. They set out to do their combined ages as the number of pitches for the day (47), but wanted to do it all on only 5.11 routes this time (in Eldo). “It was freakin sweet.” said Ebers “And even that felt pretty casual. It was a long day, but we only [had to do] one last pitch in the night. After that, every Wednesday, we started doing the Naked Edge after work.”
Where does the drive to try to set a speed record on a climb like the Naked Edge come from?
“In Rotpunkt (the Alex Megos film), this climbing coach says one thing in the film: “When you are climbing a route, and you know that someone else has held onto that hold, and knowing to yourself that you cannot - that is the most frustrating thing in the world.” This is one of the most motivating things. And very similarly, you know someone can go this fast, and so that is super motivating. But once you hold the fastest, you don’t know - you know someone can go faster, but you don’t know-know. There’s not that competitive force.”
What was your training and preparation like for a speed climb on a very popular 5.11 in Eldo like?
“We just climbed a ton. We decided to try to do it really fast one day, and on the warmup lap we did about 44 (minutes), and then on the actual fast lap, we did 28 (minutes)...which beat my [personal] record with Wade (Morris). And we didn’t even try that hard - we didn’t have everything sussed out yet. I used to run cross country, so I was more of the ‘cardio machine,’ and Ben was more of the anchor - he obviously has good cardio, but he is much stronger than I am. We realized at that point we should probably do some more cardio to actually make this possible. I wrote up a training plan, but I don’t think I actually spent one day on it. But I would try to hit a Flatiron every once in a while, and we kept doing the Edge pretty much every Wednesday, and we would usually throw a lap on it on the weekend to warm up or cool down. So we were usually getting two laps a week on it.”
How many times do you think you’d climbed the edge before the record attempt?
“Me - I’m probably getting pretty close to 30. Ben’s probably getting close to about 20. Did you know Stefan (Griebel) is at around 190? And that Wade( Morris) is at around 90? We had been training for a bit, but then decided we should probably relax things, because it was in the heat of the coronavirus outbreak at that point. There was a lot of hate out there on Mountain Project for anyone climbing, and we didn’t want to upset people by simulclimbing. We were still climbing it every Wednesday, but we weren’t doing timed laps.”
Was that in response to Covid-19 and the tone of the climbing community, or because of where you were at with your preparation?
“It was a response to the community. We feel very in control, but to the external viewer, it doesn’t look like it. It looks reckless when we are sprinting across a bridge in climbing shoes and soloing very quickly. It just looks better - half the time, people don’t even notice you on the Edge when you walk to it slowly. If we thought we were going to fall, we wouldn’t be doing it. And we added a bit more gear, too (for extra safety).”
What happened the day you set the record?
“Once things started opening back up, we felt like it was maybe a good time to go for it (a speed lap) again, and we did it, dropped two minutes, and hit 26:03. We felt like it had been relatively easy. We tried it again, and had been going way faster, but then we dropped a cam on the descent, so we had to go get that - it probably cost us 40 seconds, and we still hit 26:13. We went for it again, and hit 24:35 - so we were 6 seconds away from the record. This was with timing it from a phone in our pocket, so there are probably a few seconds in there from having to pull the phone out of your pocket, type in your passcode, and start and stop the timer. That was when Stefan (Griebel) told us we needed to get him out there to watch. The day it happened, Stefan was out there to videotape us, and somehow Wade got involved - he had been planning to climb with Stefan, so he is suddenly timing us. Jason Antin is out there with his family watching us - so it turned into this ordeal that we weren’t expecting. We had been just trying to keep it like a normal goal - we weren’t trying to prove that we were the fastest to anyone but ourselves. But, it would have sucked if we had broken it and people started to dispute it, so it did help legitimize [our time] . Now even Alex Honnold himself has legitimized it.”
“In addition to doing the fastest ascent of the Edge, Ben has also done the slowest ascent of the Edge. I actually don’t know the full details, but he was doing it in 23 hours - because he was trying to get ‘sub-24 [a play on the current speed record being 24 minutes and some seconds],’ so he was doing it in 23 hours and a few minutes. They hauled and had a portaledge up there. They are planning on making a spoof video, so they were up there all day.”
Did you ever run into an issue on any of these attempts where you are ready to go, you run up, and a slower party is on the route already?
“On our warm up goes - yes, it happened to us twice. But usually we were doing it late enough in the day that by the time we are doing our second lap, everyone was off of it. But last night (on an attempt to break their own record) there was someone on it.”
What did your gear look like on this - I imagine it’s rather different than for a party racking up for an ascent of the Edge in a more typical style.
“It’s like you’re projecting a climb: you have the exact cams you’re looking for, on the exact sides, racked in the right order, so that your right hand exactly goes to the right cam at the right moment. So we do six cams and six draws. A lot of those pitches are short, so it isn’t crazy. Plus all of those pieces of gear are bomber, except for the pin in the bombay chimney. So, there is big fall potential, but not a lot of big danger potential.”
“We were using a 26 meter rope. I had actually core shot an old rope right in the center when I was trying to do a linkup in the Cathedral Spires, and I thought it would make a perfect Edge rope after it was cut off. It was a 70 meter rope and I didn’t need a full half (35m) of the rope, so I measured it out to 26 meters. That’s also just what we were told to use from Stephan and Wade. The rope length is huge, because if you use a normal rope, it's too long. And the rack is fantastic - I’ve even pitched it out into three pitches with that rack.
Have you two thought about that as a way to try to reduce your time - to go down to one or two micro[traxions] instead of three?
The micro[traxions] are hard to get rid of, but, at the same time, you can get rid of them. If you have someone really solid below you, you could use less. Scott Bennet and Brad Gobright did it with one micro instead of three, because they had Brad Gobright, who soloed the thing regularly, so they weren’t too worried about it. [Losing] the micros would save you tons of time. That is one of the things that takes the longest to put on and take off. We’ve kind of decided there are two ways to go faster on the Edge: subtract gear, or get stronger. We are going to try to get stronger.”
You guys are at the level of risk tolerance that you are comfortable with?
“Yeah, there are certainly a few pieces in my head I think about taking out, and yeah, it would go faster...but we still haven’t.”
What advice would you have for people in their normal climbing that are looking to go faster? Do you have any tips for people who just want to go faster on their normal day of climbing in Eldo?
“Oh yeah...there are so many pieces. For one, simulclimbing is huge. You can simulclimb and get a lot more ground covered. Even if it's just the easy terrain, you simul to the crux. Microtraxions work really well. Most of that [time], though, is just in the change of the belays. Taking less time at belays, for sure [is a big way to save time]. Everyone has to get their snack, everyone has to dilly dally, and drink their water. And remove the pack! I see so many people climbing with packs. Carry a tiny water bottle, carry a little jacket with you - you don’t need a pack. If you’re on a route that you know, and you know you don’t need this certain gear, then you can not place it on the first pitch and save it for the second pitch, and know you’ll need it there.”
“Just knowing what gear you need and just not faffing around. So many people get nervous about their anchors and other things like that. Okay, place your gear, look at it, be logical, and if its solid, belay off that. It doesn’t have to be a crazy anchor. So many people faff around for these three piece anchors with their massive 23-foot cordalettes - that’s going to take a lot [of time]. Getting a descent wired is huge -you can get so much more climbing in if you just know where your descent is, especially if you’ve done it before. The Naked Edge techniques can be applied to other things, but only if you know your gear, and you know your descent, and you know approach, and you know what you are capable of, and you know what you’re not capable of. We can’t apply these techniques heavily up on the Diamond, because things are at our limit up there. You have to get it all sussed out first, and then you can go run laps on it.”
I think it's fair to say this is a pretty big accomplishment - are you already thinking about what the next project is, or are you letting yourself just enjoy the moment for the time being?
“No, haha, this was just the project to do in the meantime before a bigger project comes in because it’s quarantine. The big projects are up on the Diamond. So, immediately, it is on to the next project. And that’s really the best analogy that I can give about this feeling - I came home, and I was just satisfied, like you just sent your project. I came home, I made pasta, and I watched Star Wars - I didn’t celebrate at all.”
“But then the articles came out, and it became craziness since. I was stoked, but I could have moved right to my next project the next weekend. It’s actually perfect timing because the Diamond is opening up, and that’s exactly where I want to be, so I’m pretty excited about that. But yeah, it's satisfying, but it doesn’t consume your head as much anymore. There was some stress leading up to it, because I had a 15 hour work day, and then a 10 hour work day, and THEN I went for the record that night. And then I climbed Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and then another 12 hour day (at work), just sitting there thinking about climbing the Edge really quickly and trying break a record, and there is going to be people watching, and at the same time we have this huge submittal due [at work]...it was a lot. It’s kinda fun to be that underground guy who is working a ton and still climbing a bunch.”
John works as a civil engineer at a firm in downtown Denver, punching the clock from 9-5 like so many of us do. You will likely find John for the rest of the summer up on the Diamond of Long’s Peak, working out the moves of his next project, casually climbing through waterfalls and other conditions up there that would have sent the rest of us mortals back down to the trailhead long before, and being stoked the entire time. You can find John on Instagram at @johnebers.