Like the incisor on the bottom of a jaw, the granite pyramid protrudes from Katahdin’s ridgeline. No guidebook exists that provides pitch-by-pitch analysis, protection tips, glossy photos. Only a couple of crude route descriptions and fuzzy trail drawings that come with one piece of advice: bring a number four cam. Show up without the cam and the rangers won’t let you climb. That’s because the Armadillo includes an off -width crack on its third pitch. Too big for a hand jam, too small to insert a shoulder, off-widths pose some of the most difficult problems in climbing. And in case you were speculating about what a fall would mean on Maine’s highest peak, realize that the Armadillo is located on the backside of Mount Katahdin in the northernmost, desolate reaches of the state. The party would need to be lowered off the face and then lugged down a bushwhack riddled with loose rock footholds and no fall zones before even reaching an area suitable for a heli evac. The stakes are always high when you clip your harness in, but on the Armadillo every step away from Chimney Pond pulls the safety blanket out another inch. By the time the first piece of gear is placed, the climber is a half day away from medical assistance.
~ On the Bates Outing Club’s annual ‘Assault on Katahdin’ I was packed ass-to-face with every New Englander and their mother taking advantage of the perfect October weather. As we climbed up the well marked trail, my thoughts kept flicking back to my four friends making the climb up the ‘Dillo that day. When I reached the summit and scooted out to peer over the edge, I saw what they were in for. Sheer globules of granite faces with well defined crack systems worked their way up to my perch. I didn’t gaze over the edge for long. Better to be roped in when the bottom drops out. But I couldn’t see them. We all hoped that the climbers would meet us on the summit. They didn’t. While we enjoyed sammy’s and hangovers on the peak of Big K, the two climbing teams—Josh Sturtevant and Charlie Grant, Sarah Xiao and Jordan Cargill—were only beginning a full on struggle up one of the North East’s crown jewel climbs. I sat down with all four of them to get their take on the day. ~
Sarah Xiao (S): I was really nervous. It was the first climb that I had done where we were all on the same experience levels. I was used to climbing with people who were more experienced than me.
Jordan Cargill (JC): I was excited. It was an epic climb to a scale that I had never done before. True alpine trad. There was a nervousness there, especially because I was leading for the first time.
Charlie Grant (CG): The weather was good. I remember being really nervous the day before the climb, because I hadn’t led trad in a while. The route descriptions we had were pretty vague. We didn’t really know what we were getting into.
Josh Sturtevant (JS): What kept popping into my head was that I was the most inexperienced climber in the whole group. I had done one, maybe two other decent multi-pitch climbs. I knew what I was getting myself into, but at the same time I didn’t really know how to build an anchor and hadn’t practiced it. I knew Charlie was familiar, I was comfortable with him leading, but I kept thinking that if something went wrong I couldn’t get us out of it.
~ The four of them set out that morning around 5 AM. Many climbers camp at the ranger’s cabin the night before to get an early start on the notorious approach, but they didn’t. With full packs and sweaty palms, the crew made the trek from the parking lot to Chimney Pond as the sun rose. ~
JS: In that first stretch there was an amazing sunrise, you could see the alpine glow on the cirque, right along the knife’s edge. Just this beautiful glowing bowl. By the time we got to the rangers station it was seven. We knew they had a really strict cut off time. If we had arrived at 8 or later they wouldn’t have let us go. We met the ranger, who was trying to intimidate the shit out of us, telling us how tough the climb was, how difficult it was to get medical assistance. But, he said he would keep an eye on us, checked our gear, and sent us on our way.
S: We had to meet the ranger who checked our gear. He needed to make sure we had a number four cam. He was a really rough guy. He gave Josh a hard time. He kept telling us that the climb was tough and how to reach him if we were in trouble.
CG: I think his name was Mark, I had met him before when I climbed Katahdin. This time when I talked to him he said that he had never climbed the Armadillo before. The one piece of advice that he had for us was to be careful because not a lot of people had fallen on the rock, letting us know that gear placement was going to be sketchy, not broken in. It was not what I wanted to hear.
~ In every online route description the approach is scorned as torturous. The winding bushwhack over boulders and through bramble fields can discourage even the hardiest climber; its pitch – bordering on fourth-class terrain – is enough to intimidate the novice one. The point is, when climbers leave the summit, they will remember the world class climbing the Armadillo had to offer and they will also remember the misery involved in accessing it. ~
CG: That was the worst approach that I have ever done in my whole life. There were times when you had to go through these brambles. If you weren’t wearing pants you got scratched up and we were on super exposed stuff that if you fell it would not be pleasant at all. It was so stupid, we should have roped up. There were times when we were going around corners on this scree that was sliding away from your feet.
S: The Mountain Project said plan for two hours. It took us four. The approach was sketchy. I remember Charlie saying, “I’m never going to fucking come back here again.” The ground underneath us was sliding away at points. That’s where Jordan was so amazing, he was doing his best to keep our psych high. He kept going out in front, powering through the brambles and he would stop and wait for me when I was slowing down because my legs were bleeding.
JC: Definitely stoked I brought pants. Their legs got fucking shredded, especially Sarah’s. It was a grueling climb through scrub brush. We felt like we had been the first people there in months. There were some stretches that were dangerous, fourth class moves, places where you would not stop falling. In a way it was more dangerous than the actual climb.
JC: To finally be on this flake and realize the true scale of this thing. The exposure was crazy. It felt like a thousand feet down to Chimney Pond from the ledge.
S: The first pitch was up alongside the flake, then you traverse left into a corner. There was a clean face with a thin crack that you could see, but there were also a lot of big rocks hanging out. Once I got to the corner the gear ran out. My last piece was good, it would probably hold, but I remember making a lot of committing moves over boulders. I had a backpack on. There was a chimney that you had to wriggle up. The chimney was getting smaller and smaller. The backpack was impeding me.”
JC: It starts out with a 5.5 chimney that Sarah led. You were kind of inserted up into this massive flake that you could see from the bottom. The backpacks made climbing harder. It was in some ways the most awkward lead of the climb. I’ve got to give Sarah credit, she did a great job.
JS: At this point, I’m shitting myself, because Sarah is struggling up this thing. I kept thinking if this is the 5.5, what the hell are the crux pitches going to be like?
CG: Sarah led the first pitch, the first one up. While she was leading she took off her backpack because she couldn’t squeeze into some of the places with the backpack on. So the entire route she was hauling her backpack up this chimney. Then Josh and I were up. It was one of the hardest 5.5’s I have ever climbed.
JS: I freaked as soon as I got into the chimney. My feet were slipping, my arms were so pumped, I couldn’t see the next move. I was weighting the rope a lot and I’m yelling up to Charlie saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, this was a bad idea.’ There was this one point where I had unclipped the rope but it had gotten caught on something, so I had to go back and down climb to flick it off the corner of this rock. If I had fell, I would have pendulum swung twenty feet to the next piece and then twenty feet more, like a cheese grater across the face. This was the first five minutes of the climb.
JC: At the end of the first pitch we came out onto this scrunched ledge. That was the start of the crux pitches, two 5.7’s. You come out onto a cramped, steeply angled belay ledge. And then you traverse onto an arête (a corner) and you go up 20 feet on that with decent protection. Then you get out onto the face, that’s when you get the crazy exposure. At that point you don’t have an option to mess up, so you don’t and you start having fun with it.
If I had fell, I would have pendulum swung twenty feet to the next piece and then twenty feet more, like a cheese grater across the face.
This was the first five minutes of the climb.
S: I could see him going around the corner. I remember stepping around the edge. It was a huge drop, maybe 500 feet. At that point the sun had gone to the other side of the climb, so we lost the light. It started getting cold. Even with Jordan’s jacket on I was freezing. I had to blow on my hands just so I could climb.
~ I had no expectations going into Katahdin. I had spent the previous spring in Utah’s Canyonlands and the summer in New York’s Adirondack High Peaks. Standing on top of “The Greatest Mountain” that day, I had to laugh. In all my tromping in the ADK and the Canyonlands those previous months, I had never been on a rock like this. A pile of chock stones over five thousand feet high. Around noon that day I stuck my nose over the back edge. But as far as I dared to lean out and look down, I could not see my friends. I did not know that it would be another ten hours before I would hear from them. ~
CG: There is this scary move where you transition off the flake, it was a frightening move with very few pieces of protection. There is one pin you can clip, but it looked unreliable. Turning onto the face was the scary part. You couldn’t fall.
JS: I was already sore, tired, and concerned about the rest of the climb. I was sitting there on this tiny ledge, feeding out the rope, Charlie’s gone, can’t hear him, can’t see him, the winds howling. Then I rediscovered my excitement for being on this mountain, I rediscovered my technique and I settled in. The rest of the climbing was pretty fun.
JC: Then starts the 3rd pitch, this is it, the best rated climb on the Armadillo. Perfect fist and foot jams up this enormous face, full blunt exposure. You just walk up this thing like a zipper with a few moves. Then it splits open to what people call an off width, too big to jam, too small to put your body in. This is where the number four comes in. Even though it’s secure it’s actually pretty sketchy. I was leaning on this piece, moving it up as I went up the awkward climb.
JS: The third pitch, the namesake of the climb, is this fists width crack. I had learned how to climb crack earlier that year. To be a good crack climber you have to be masochistic, slam your hand in there and let the rock battle it out with your skin. The route had the most beautiful fist jams, finger cracks, fist cracks. That was the most fun part of the climb for me. I was making my hand uniform with the rock.
S: The third pitch was the best pitch that we did because it had this amazing crack. There really isn’t that much crack-climbing in New England so it was really surprising to find that. I had gotten a taste of it in Yosemite last summer and this was on par with that.
JS: Charlie got insanely hung up on this part of the climb. He ended up killing it, but this was the most exposed part of the climb and Charlie didn’t know how to crack climb.
CG: I have led trad, some jamming, it must have been the exposure or the lack of solid gear placement, but it was one of the scariest pitches I had lead in my whole life. As you continue up you realize you can use a 3 cam, but you have to get it deep in there. I was freaking out, sweating a lot. I would place a piece, walk up a fist or three and then move the cam up. Eventually you got to a place where the crack narrowed and I could lay back, from then on the climb became fun.
~ The descent lasted well into the afternoon as descents often do. My head lolled, either from dehydration or too many nips of whiskey the night before. When we reached the van I started calling. An unanswered phone at 5 PM was not a cause for worry. Four and a half later when the calls were still going to voicemail as we pulled into Lewiston I said a prayer. At that point, what else can you do? ~
JS: Then we had some little class four stuff to scamper on up to the summit. I will always remember the last few pitches of class four, It was an intense version of the knife’s edge. One thousand foot drop offs on either side. As soon as we came up and over that lip, we had been on the northern side of the mountain, in the shadows and the wind, but finally we came up to find the sun. The feeling of the late afternoon sun on your faces, everybody could not stop smiling.
JC: I like climbing for where it gets me. The people I was with made it special. The exhilarating feeling of being exposed and isolated on that mountain. It really felt like living. Climbing takes me places far away, but to find something in your backyard that can rival anywhere else in the world. That’s rare.
JS: More than anything, I will remember it for how scared shitless I was, and not being able to do anything about it. In several moments, no matter how bad I wanted to get out of it, there was no escape button, there was just up. If I had the ultimate emotional breakdown, I still would have had to go up. And I think you rarely find yourself in that position in life, where you can’t turn around, and there’s only one way. It’s so, just, intimidating, terrifying, fear, true fear. And fear is a good motivator.