City Park

Deep in the forests of the Skykomish valley in Western Washington lies the tiny town of Index and behind it, hundreds of feet of sheer granite cliffs that are home to some of the finest trad and sport climbing on the planet. The most easily accessible and popular sector, the Lower Town Wall (LTW), lies just across the rail road tracks from the parking lot. The wall is split in two by a singular line of weakness that scars an otherwise completely blank and dead vertical face. This is City Park. Index isn’t known for splitters (perfect cracks), with most if its classics combining crack and face climbing. That’s okay because I’m not much known for climbing splitters in the first place. Nevertheless, no one who has ever visited Western Washington’s local’s paradise could deny the appeal of the perfect and unmistakable line that is City Park.
City Park

It was first opened by the pitons of Roger Johnson and Richard Mathies in 1966 and has since become an iconic part of Index history and a popular aid route. It consists of 35 meters of 5.10 bolt ladder, 5.11 splitter fingers, 5.12 tech, and 5.13 pinky lock after pinky lock after pinky lock above nuts and size 00 cams. The smallest trad gear on the market. The caveat is that the entire climb shares an anchor with the most popular 5.9 in Washington, Godzilla. So it is that everyone and their mother who has ever plugged gear at Index has, at some point or another, lowered down over City Park’s striking pods and pockets and wondered…

So it was on my first attempt. Three years ago I visited Index with my friends Miles C., Jeff S., and Stefan B. for the first time and led Godzilla, my first 5.9 trad climb. What was this other thing I was looking at on the way down? Washington’s hardest trad climb and the top rope is already rigged? Of COURSE I was going to try. That day I don’t think I freed a single move. The crack was fully saturated with a winter’s worth of seepage and snowmelt, and it took alternating between two cams and my belayer’s gracious assistance for me to move even halfway up the climb.

At the time I couldn’t even fathom what it would take to send City Park. I knew nothing about how small the gear is, how runout the cruxes all are, how the sharp rock will only let one try once or MAYBE twice every 4-5 days, how the break/undercling seeps for half the year and how it’s too hot to stand on the microscopic feet for the other half. I also didn’t know how few people had done it nor how many had tried and given up. I didn’t know the stories of the five legends that had clipped the chains before me; about how Todd Skinner had to burn grease out for his first ascent, or how Hugh Herr had invented his own prosthetics to enable the second. I had never heard of Chris Schlotfield’s pinkpoint send or heard my friend Per try and describe why they call him “Snickers.”  I had never met Blake Herrington while wading across the Skykomish river to climb at secret sport crags, or belayed Mikey Schaeffer on his first 5.14a down at Smith Rock. I had no exposure to all the things that made City Park appeal to me, and yet even on that very first day, somewhere in my heart I knew that one day I would come for this beautiful, cruel rock climb. I didn’t know if it would be in one year or thirty, but somehow I knew. In a certain way it always seemed inevitable. I didn’t always know I would send it, but I always knew I was going to try.

Views at Index

In the fall of 2017 I pitched off of the final crux move of Pornstar, a 5.13d at World Wall that I had been working for several months. I had never been closer, and yet somehow simultaneously never felt farther away. “What more does it take!?” I screamed at the wall as tears streamed shamelessly down my face. Whatever the answer was, I no longer cared. My inspiration for the project was gone. I walked away with no regrets, right into the open arms of Index, a corner of the map I had thus far left almost entirely unexplored.

I fell fast and I fell hard, with a few early experiences changing the way I saw both the crag and myself as a climber. My favorite Index partner Pat S. introduced me to local climbers and classic climbs, spraying me with enough beta for all the classic Lower Town Wall 5.11ds to fall one after another. Guidebook author Chris Kalman showed me the beauty of some of the less travelled terrain and infected me with his contagious psyche whilst listening to me express my fears of leaving sport climbing behind and accepting what it meant to be something of a beginner again. “Don’t be afraid to redefine yourself,” he told me as we were driving to the crag one day; words I’ll never forget. All the pieces fell into place in exactly the way I needed them to most. Suddenly Index was the only place I wanted to climb.

I left Index when the rains came in November for drier conditions in the Red River Gorge, but when I returned Washington was graced by a rare weather window in December. My friend Jasna H. and I ventured out with one goal in mind: we wanted to top rope the one and only City Park to see if it just might be possible. By the end of the day on December 6th I was bleeding from more than half my fingers and had managed to link less than half the climb.

Jasna was in the same boat. I consider there to be five distinct sections, and the one in the middle remained a huge blank question mark. In that part in particular the feet disappear almost entirely, and the crack gets especially thin. Nevertheless, I wrote down all my beta for the bottom and top, and figured I had to start somewhere, even if I couldn’t even see how to do such a huge number of the moves.

My first topo for the middle section

Three weeks in Mexico came after, and it wasn’t until I was back in Washington in January that I can really say my skin had finally healed after that initial siege. Winter was also here to stay this time, so I did not revisit the route again until May 11th when I returned from an extended period of travel around the south west. During the previous weeks I had watched conditions in Index start to improve as spring arrived, but I had unfinished business in Smith Rock so I did not return to City Park at first opportunity. That day in May I drove out after work with one of my best friends Eric H., after having not climbed together in months. Everything turned out to be wet, including my project. It may have been wet, but it was also COLD, and when I climbed it my feet stuck to the wall like they never had before. For the first time I was able to do all the moves. I finally also figured out a sequence that could consistently get me through the break at the end of the middle crux, right before it eases off a bit for the final sprint.

Looking down at the break, which was the source of a lot of seepage in the spring

The travel bug was still in my veins a little more than the City Park obsession, so I left Seattle once more and tabled the project yet again. Early June brought me back and I kept top roping, slowly putting the pieces together and checking off micro goals that I had set for myself. Top rope the top 2/3rds clean after starting at the bottom; make it to the top clean from below the break; things like that.

On June 15th I arrived at the base of the climb to find a line four people deep for Godzilla and none of them willing to trail my rope to set up a TR for me. After a pep talk from Eric I decided I might as well make this my first lead attempt. I was absolutely terrified, but as I racked up all the small gear I could find, Index staple Randy L. walked by the base and called out to me, “you’re my hero!” It gave me the last little bit of confidence I needed, and I tied in and left the ground.

That first lead burn took me well over an hour. I placed an absurd amount of gear, and aided through many of the moves. If I had thought I was closing in before, I suddenly felt miles away. Nonetheless, it was still another box checked on my mental list of steps that stood between me and one day clipping the chains.

By the end of June I managed to TR one hang it for the first time while climbing with Maiza W., and then the next day Julian B. belayed me as I made it through the break from the ground. Three days later I came out with Pat yet again to find the route soaking wet, so I figured out all the gear in better fashion then my initial rack from the lead attempt. I mock lead it despite the dampness, and managed to fail spectacularly on some of the easiest moves.

Top Roping

By now everyone knew that if I invited them to come to Index with me, I was basically asking for support on this single project. We wouldn’t be doing a multipitch, and we wouldn’t be hiking past the LTW. It had become a completely selfish pursuit, but I had long since accepted that if I was going to have a shot I had to do absolutely whatever it took. I often would write exactly that on my hand, so I could keep the discipline to stay away from the temptations of beer, junk food, or other routes… At the same time I was plagued by guilt at the sacrifices I was asking of my belayers. I tried not to talk about the route too much, or seem too egotistical about the process. I didn’t ask for photos nor spray too often about progress unless it seemed particularly meaningful. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted any rock climb, and thus I struggled to find the balance between selfishness and necessary evils, because that was what it would take for me to send. Sacrifice not just from me, but from my friends who left work early for me, sat in traffic for me, or offered constant words of support and encouragement to me.

July 4th I had managed to recruit Pat yet again for a belay, and I tossed around the dream that maybe it would come together out of the blue on my first real lead attempt. Instead I almost puked at the pure physical effort it took to reach the chains. I also managed to whip on a brass nut so many times that it took a hammer to remove. Later that day I also decked off a 5.11a because I didn’t have the strength to pull through after climbing City Park. Not exactly what I’d been expecting, but by the end of the day as I watched fireworks explode over the town of Index, tears fell down my face as I contemplated how grateful I was to be in such a beautiful and magical place, and how I would not have traded these moments for anything in the world. Surrounded by friends, filled with good food, and celebrating a place I love, I felt like I would burst with the power of it all. That, or maybe it was just some damn good weed that had me feeling particularly sentimental.

Team America on the 4th of July

Three days later, July 7th I gave my third lead attempt while surrounded by a crew of some of my favorite Index personalities; Mike Massey, Pat, Eric, and others. I blasted up to a dramatically new high point, avoiding whipping on the nut and instead testing out the security of my next piece, a 00 shakily placed during the briefest moment of reprieve that two slightly above average pin scars offer after finishing the first real crux and before starting the second. For some reason I decided that I should change the way I held the undercling hold at the break, and try and place more gear to protect the next moves in case the 00 didn’t hold a fall from the upper crux. I thought it was a breakthrough discovery, but in the end I abandoned the change and reverted to my original sequence. That night we ran the Via Ferrata and I one again felt Index’s beauty take my breath away.

Enjoying breathtaking Via Ferrata Views with my best friends

During my lead attempt that day as I was climbing, a party descending from a pitch above began to lower a rappel line on top of me, not suspecting that someone would actually be trying to free climb City Park. It’s not exactly a common scenario, and as I watched the line snake down from the skyline I felt my heart sink as I and everyone around yelled at the party above to pull their rope back up because I was still on point (hadn’t fallen yet). The folks at the belay were very understanding and accommodating, and even took a few photos as I was nearing the anchors. The graciousness with which these strangers treated me made me more than ever consider the many complex emotions I had wrapped up in this climb.

I had only been climbing at Index regularly for a short time before I started trying City Park. I had never done so many of the classics, or even visited many of the other walls. I had never bolted any new lines, nor cleaned off old ones. I didn’t know how to rope solo, and I hadn’t even camped in the climber lot more than once. I looked at City Park and the people that had climbed it before me with stars in my eyes every single time I left the ground. Who was I to be trying to follow in their footsteps? Sure I knew I was strong enough to do it eventually, but did I deserve it? Should the first female ascent belong to me, who could barely climb Japanese Gardens and had never even been on the Davis-Holland Memorial Route? This route was so intertwined in Index history that I often wondered these things; in making my mark, was I doing justice to a place that meant so much to me? More than sending City Park, I wanted to send it in style. When Todd Skinner first began trying it, locals poured grease down the crack to thwart his efforts because they didn’t want him to have the honor. I wanted to be someone that deserved the honor. Someone that people could celebrate not for, but with, and someone that would inspire others to get on the route in the years that would follow. To me, City Park is the perfect rock climb, and I wanted so desperately to be worthy of something so pure. Every time I pulled the final moves I imagined what it would feel like to do them while sending, and every time I trained at the gym I dreamed of the day when it would all come together. I wanted my send to inspire not simply because of the act itself, but because of my work ethic, what I give to my community, my passion, dedication, and all the other pieces that would be critical for success.

Alpinglow views at beautiful Index

On Tuesday, July 10th I saw the last weather window for as far ahead as the forecast could predict. I got the day off work, and I locked down my partner Eric. Having last tried the route only a few days ago, my skin was shit. My new shoes had been backordered for months, and got shipped only the day before, so my shoes were also shit. I spent all morning being agitated at car traffic on the roads and human traffic in the many stores I visited while looking for my preferred brand of superglue so I could make tape stick to my pinkies. Eric was late (through no fault of his own) and as I sat in my car in Monroe waiting for him I listened to a homeless man yelling at nothing as he ambled around the parking lot. Basically my mental game was shit. My elbows hurt from training and my back hurt from heavy lifting at work. Nothing was right, but nonetheless I had to try.

As I stood on the ledge at the top of the bolt ladder, first cam in place, I looked down at my body. My heart was racing so fast I could see my shirt twitching with each heartbeat. I waited, but it showed no signs of slowing down. Accepting that this was just going to be one of those fear burns, where I never caught my breath and never found flow, I set off in resignation. I reached my high point and placed the 00 with energy to spare, though I could feel myself slipping. I moved into the break and tried to place the new nut I had added to the rack, and in doing so lost my grip and fell. I fiddled with the gear, then fiddled with the crux, and discovered a bit of micro beta that seemed to make a big difference in getting through the most insecure moves right after the break. As I rocked up on a heel hook at the end of the final 5.13 section, for the first time it felt real; like I had a shot.

I came down and said as much to Eric and he agreed and asked how my skin was. I had just assumed it would be a horror show after how thin it had been at the beginning. It was raw and painful, but not bleeding. Maybe I could try again. I had nothing left to lose.

That was when a crew of aid climbers arrived and declared their intentions of spending the evening on City Park practicing their techniques. That was fine, I needed lots of rest anyway and how long could they possibly take? Eric and I went to the country, did a few pitches, and returned around 8:45pm as the sun was beginning to set. Paloma was still on the route, and she wasn’t very close to the top. Apparently some of the nuts were very stuck. As she cleaned the rest of their gear I watched the daylight fade along with my hopes.

A day when an aid climber saved me from getting on the route before it went into the shade

Finally there was only one nut left, and it was around 9pm. I had used normal white chalk to mark where my hands went (tick marks on the right side of the crack for right hand, left for left, with the direction of the tick indicating if my pinky went down or up), and colored chalk for gear. When I saw that the nut was not blocking either, I begged her to just leave it and let me try one last time. (to clarify, I did not clip the nut, I climbed around it as if it were not there) Thankfully, she agreed and descended. Yet again, I chose selfishness because I felt like it was my only option, asking others to make the one sacrifice I couldn’t make myself.

I started up the climb and everything felt different. Because of skin my expectations were realistic, but I was calm for the first time. The fear was finally gone. The pressure, gone. Just City Park and I, alone together as the darkness descended over the Lower Town Wall and the crowd below let their chatter fade to silence as they watched in anticipation, breaths collectively held. The air was the coolest it had been in weeks, yet there was a strange warmth inside the crack; normally one would expect the opposite as the sun heats the surrounding rock but not the slot itself. I knew I would no longer fall on any of the moves below my high point. As I did them I felt my feet stick when I expected them to stick, and slip when I knew they would slip, and I planned accordingly. My new gear beta worked like a charm, and before I knew it I was above the break.

The chalk in the center of the photo is marking a critical foothold. Par for the course on City Park

I felt myself slipping out of the last pinky locks but I told myself to weight the foot more and trust that it would stay, the micro beta I had identified on my previous attempt. As I pulled into the final hard section I felt tired, but in complete control. I sang to myself a song I had written about the climb and recited countless times during training over the past several months: “Watch those anchor gates, open up for me, for our City Park sending train.” With each move I became more and more certain that this was it, the moment that City Park had finally deemed me worthy. I placed each hand perfectly, each foot perfectly, and made not a sound until I was standing on the ledge below the final 5.11 section.

“Oh my God!” I yelled, as the small crowd below erupted in cheers of their own. In the past I have stayed on that ledge for up to several minutes, but within seconds I knew the true summit was calling my name and I could not wait. I began climbing once more and the voices below instantly silenced. All precision vanished as I slammed my hands into the final fingerlocks, feet skittering across the polished granite with no grace remaining. As I latched the final hold I let out a scream and felt tears immediately form and begin to fall. It was almost completely dark by now, and by the time I was back on the ground we had to pack up all our gear by headlamp.

In that moment I knew I had accomplished one of the most important and proudest things I have ever done with my life. City Park was never a goal, it was a dream. My dream. It was not about the process of ticking the boxes of each mini milestone, but about the relationship I formed with the route as it was happening. I fell more in love with each move every time I did it, each emotion each time I felt it. Fear, pain, adrenaline, hope, determination, joy, pride, and did I mention physical pain? There was a lot of it. In the end though it is all dwarfed by the overwhelming honor I feel at having been able to join my heroes in Index history as the first woman to climb City Park and the fourth person to place all gear on lead for a true redpoint.

While working it, many questioned if it was fun, or if it was worth the pain. To that I say this: to many it may not be. It’s just another climb, and it’s one that will notgo down without a fight. That is why so few people have done it. City Park is a logistical nightmare. Conditions are critical yet elusive, skin is a constant issue, gear is finicky, thin, and downright scary, and no matter how you slice it the moves are just downright hard. There were parts that weren’t fun. There were parts that plain sucked. Those parts were when it was truly testing me however, and that was when it meant the most.

City Park I love you.

A near complete version of my beta (the final one has gear included)
The rack for most of the hard climbing
Another day, another gobe.
Having a good cry after sending my dream route

3 thoughts on “City Park

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