To a select few, the allure of a first ascent is more than an innate curiosity to explore new territory. Deep in an explorer's bones lies a purity of adventure. He or she must go forth and carve a new path to the top.
The climbers who possess this trait/curse/gift pave the way for the rest of us. From the greats like Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard to the local legends in our own backyard, we humble craggers owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneers.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Tod Anderson, Colorado's very own pioneer of rock, an author of several climbing guidebooks and a renowned route developer. Tod has spent the past 35 years hauling gear through dense forests and across perilous glacial terrain to see if crags and mountains are worth a climb.
Dan: What is it that draws you to first ascents?
Tod: Probably the biggest thing is a sense of exploration. I'm always curious what's just around the bend, or what that cliff over there will be like. Whether it's a traditional rock climb, alpine face or sport route, it's always interesting to unlock the secrets of the mountain and find a way up the wall. I'm always amazed how some of the most improbable looking lines piece together as you go along.
Dan: What do you do with this information?
Tod: After it's all done, it's great to be able to share something that others can enjoy, too. Sometimes it's recorded in guidebooks and that allows others to know where to find good climbing and, in some cases, what to avoid. I know that there are dozens of routes that I have simply lost track of, so now someone else can have a first ascent, too.
Dan: Tell us about the most epic trad route you ever developed.
Tod: Way back in the early '80s, Shannon Stegg and I were doing some routes on Shortoff Mountain in Linville Gorge, N.C., when we decided to take a look at an unclimbed line. In order to have a shot, we had to drive up from Atlanta after work on Friday and didn't get there until the wee hours of the morning. Since it was summer, it was already miserably hot and humid, but we climbed anyway. Shannon led the first pitch up the corner, and when I seconded the pitch I found him anchored into a single stopper and half asleep, no doubt related to the late night before. The climbing continued to be pretty good, up corners and thru the usual Southeast jungle to a right-facing corner that I remember well.
Dan: What happened then?
Tod: This particular feature started off easy enough but soon started to overhang. I placed a rigid #1 Friend (that's all there was at the time) in a horizontal and continued up. As the pump increased and with loads of sweat and chalk paste coating my hands, I gunned for the end of the dihedral—only to find a sloping lip. In a last-ditch effort to get over it by traversing right, I lost my grip and pitched. I fell upside down for 35 feet, hit the end of the rope, spun around and stood up on the belay ledge without taking any slack. I can't recall what we named the route, but I still remember that fall!
Dan: After 35 years of developing and ascending new routes, what keeps you motivated?
Tod: With all of those years now behind me, I should be getting tired of all of that stuff. Maybe I have slowed down a bit, but I still like doing new routes. Fortunately, out here in the West there is an infinite supply of places to explore. With the ever-increasing number of climbers, I think it's great to have some new places to go to spread people out a bit. There are some areas that will always be busy because they are close to a road or near big cities, but it's nice to have some crags to get away from the crowds.
Dan: Anything else?
Tod: Another thing I keep looking for is good stone. Some of the most classic climbing areas are what they are because of the unique rock and features that they contain. Places like City of Rocks, Ida.; Tensleep, Wyo.; Maple Canyon, Utah; Devil's Head, Colo., and Red River Gorge, Ky., have very interesting rock types with great features for climbing and enough rock to provide tons of routes and keep people's interest. A cool environment with great views further adds to the outdoor experience whether it's a pretty forest or a desert landscape. If it was all just about pulling down, then the gym would be the end all. But most everyone is there for more than that, including me.
Top photo: Tod Anderson climbs a 5.11a route called 'Perles;' photo courtesy of Tod Anderson. Middle photo: Gordy Anderson on one of Tod's routes at Devil's Head, Colo.. Photo below: Melinda Sproch on one of Tod's recently developed 5.11 routes at Devil's Head, Colo. Middle and lower photos by Dan Holz Photography.