On the Big Stones
John Middendorf: the Dean of Big Wall Climbing
John Middendorf's 1992 ascent of the huge north face of Pakistan's Great Trango Tower makes the fitting capstone to a remarkable climbing career that has always focused on the world's big walls.
North Face to Acquire Middendorf's A-5 Adventures
The North Face, Inc. announced at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City that it has reached an agreement with John Middendorf to acquire A-5 Adventures, Inc., the premier manufacturer of portaledges used by climbers on multi-day ascents of big walls.
One factor in the increasing popularity of long face climbs has been equipment perfected by renowned big-wall climber Middendorf during decades of climbing, which provides and extra margin of safety and comfort on long, vertical routes. Portaledges designed by Middendorf are manufactured and sold through his specialized gear company, A-5 Adventures. The A5 Double Portaledge is a proven big-wall bivouac tent, and the A5 Diamond Ledge a new development which attaches to rock faces in such a way that the portaledge within is protected in all directions from storm, wind and rain.
The recent agreement by The North Face to acquire A-5 is a move that Middendorf sees as a great opportunity. "It's exciting to be working with the North Face climbing team," he told The Mountain Zone in Salt Lake City. "My company is small, I couldn't do everything, so I focus mainly on perfecting big wall gear. My equipment has allowed a lot more people to do big walls safely. By working with The North Face, I think the gear will be available to a lot more climbers-and that the safety it allows may actually help spur greater interest in doing big walls."
The North Face President Bill Simon commented, "The acquisition of A-5 reinforces our commitment to the climbing community at the highest level. The addition of John Middendorf and his extraordinary design capabilities will be a tremendous benefit to The North Face business."
The laid-back, unassuming Middendorf can count among his climbs Cerro Torre, El Trono Blanco, Zion's Isaac (the middle of the Three Patriarchs) and multiple ascents of Yosemite's Half Dome and El Capitan--a staggering 33 ascents of El Cap, including two entirely new routes and three significant variations. Yet the man remains approachable, self deprecating and persistently fascinated with not just the technical problems posed by big walls, but the serious head trips a climber can go through while spending days or even weeks in a vertical environment.
Hear about climbing the Trango Tower 100 feet at a time. (Shockwave Audio is also available.)
"Climbing big walls is largely a mental thing," Middendorf told The Mountain Zone in a recent interview. "You've been on a face for days,
and you might not want to go farther because it's hard or scary, but you just do it. You go 100 feet farther, or fifty feet farther. You learn to keep moving upward from experience on other walls, but you also learn it from life. Big-wall climbing is a lot like life. I love 'em. Big walls are the ultimate adventure for me-it's a kind of climbing that is always challenging, and always appealing, because it's a mental game as much as a physical one."
The route on Trango Tower.
And while Middendorf has climbed the longest faces in the world, from Norway's Troll Wall to the smooth granite of Yosemite Valley's famous landmarks, his Grand Voyage route on the Great Trango Tower stands out as one of the most remarkable climbs done in a decade. The Trango Towers stand adjacent to Pakistan's Baltoro Glacier, better known as the
usual approach route to peaks such as K2 and Broad Peak. In 1992, Xaver Bongard and Middendorf trekked into to the Trango group and put up their 4,000-foot route after 18 continuous days on the huge face. The pair encountered the usual difficulties of climbing in remote places, and the expected difficulties of doing hard rock climbing at 20,000 feet. They also faced a few more unusual ones, such as the constant danger of automobile-sized ice blocks that fell from the lip of the big face onto the climbers below. The objective danger was so great on one section of the climb, that Middendorf and Bongard actually climbed part of the route at night, when the ice above them was safely frozen.
"For me," said Middendorf, "the Great Trango climb has been a special one--a very personal experience. It's an accomplishment-the hardest climb I've ever done, no question. I felt like I pushed myself to my absolute limits. I'm not sure I'd ever want to go back. But Xaver and I had such a synergy, a very unusual and special synergy that resulted in our climbing in total synch with each other. Despite the objective danger and the psyche-out potential of the route, we were willing to take those risks, to see what our limits were."
Some of Middendorf's other notable climbs include the first winter ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall in Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the first ascent of the Atlantic Ocean Wall on El Capitan, and the first ascent of Kali Yuga on Half Dome. He was climbing long face routes when big walls were out of fashion, but Middendorf thinks recent efforts indicate a resurgence of interest.
"I think people want adventure," he said, "ever increasing adventure, so I think after a few years a lot of sport climbers might be tempted to try bigger walls."
-- Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff
Thanks to John Middendorf for the photos on this page.