How hard is 5.14? Let pain be your guide.

I’m sorry it’s been a while, (like a whole week), but life takes time to settle back into sometimes from a road trip, I still haven’t unpacked.  For those who don’t know, I was lucky enough to be in Southern California for a short time last week during a cool spell of weather, visiting Five Ten and chasing blue skies and dry rock.  My new/old van made it with flying colors, 2 days to get there, two days to get back.  Above is a CLASSIC picture of someone (presumably Hidetaka?  or Mike Paul? ) climbing Stingray 5.13,  the line I was interested in during my 8 day stay in Joshua Tree, (1980’s?)  I LOVE THIS SHOT so much.

I’m happy to share the news that I did in fact squeeze out an ascent of this truly INCREDIBLE crack climb.  This is an Andrew Burr picture of me climbing just after the crux bulge (which isn’t really visible in this picture) but as you can see, you get your FIRST REAL foothold.  That’s Pee Wee from Montreal in the background,  (not to be confused with Bonjour Pee Wee from Denver)belaying from the slab.  You may remember him from many cutting edge crack ascents, most notably La Zebre, in Val David.

The last crux moves, near the top are not nearly as hard as the lower half, (but equally as good) and the climbing is still very sustained.  Placing gear can be strenuous because of the right leaning nature of the climb, it’s hard to see your placements clearly, the rock can be complex, like picking a pad lock with a paper clip.  There’s a semi-fixed nut in the photo above me, placed from another climber trying the route, but not clipped on lead. Oh I’m so pure.  ha ha ha.  Geeek.

Below is a different, broader perspective.  I love the look of the rocks in this one, they look like soft pillows, not the flesh tearing 4 rated grit sandpaper it really is.  ha ha.  I also like the look of the lone rock sitting on top, as though you just wanna go up here and roll it off for some unexplainable reason.  AND just a reminder, If anyone out there is planning to share these images, PLEASE be considerate to the hard work our talented friend Andrew Burr put into capturing them, and PLEASE ask him permission and PLEASE give him proper credit where it’s due.  Thanks.

Mega Pee Wee using his wtf gaze in combination with his strategic taping super glue technique.  Pee Wee Ouellette is a total crack stylist, he makes impossible moves look good, on our last and final day he made a TR ascent with barely two quick takes and so he’ll be back in November to finish what he started.

In closing, I’d say STINGRAY is one of the finest cracks I’ve ever seen in my life.  It’s solid, (relatively speaking) it’s STUNNING in aesthetics, it’s steep, it’s leaning and it’s all by itself.  People NEED to climb this thing more often.  The only drawback is that it has been chipped in the past, aid climbed with the use of metal pitons, the same way that many of El Cap free routes have been climbed.  In my honest opinion, it may not be possible had it not be “aided” first, at least not by common folk like me, even with the pin scars, I could barely wiggle in my not so fat finger tips, one layer of tape was too many, so I went tapeless for the final working attempts, and the redpoint ascent itself.  But this should not be a deterrent, not at all, it’s a remarkable climb with extraordinary movement and a completely dazzling position, it gets no stars in the store bought guidebook, but it gets FIVE stars in mine.

How hard is it?  The climb was difficult to get any confirmed information about.  I read on that a man by the name of Mike Paul made the first Top Rope free ascent of the route in the 80’s.  Awesome.  Then the legendary Hidetaka Suzuki from Japan spent a winter in Joshua Tree where he made the first historical lead ascent, on pre-placed gear, from what I’ve been told, and it was likely one of the hardest in the world at the time.  Then, I heard another rumor that a Joshua Tree local, either flashed it, or “basically” flashed it on Top Rope – which is quite understandable.   I first tried the line this February 2010 for two days and three honest attempts.  I too flashed the opening moves on top rope on day one, and after a moment to rewarm my hands, flashed every sequence towards the anchor.  The climb felt like a 5.13b-ish (give or take) miles harder than Equinox, but not too shabby, and I was ready to make quick progress.  But then I broke a crucial foothold on the lower section (imagine that) along with two less significant footholds, and the climb made a jump in difficulty.  How hard, I have absolutely NO idea.

It took me three more tries just to do the new moves, then three days to feel solid enough to go for the lead.  When I went for it, I sent on my first ground up attempt (Thursday, May 27th) luckily not taking any of the falls we expected to take.  But in the end, the climb took me 7 days.  I basically tried the climb once per day.  The same strategy I used for Just Do it, 5.14c when I was 21, nine years ago.  7 tries over 7 days I think.  So does that make Stingray 5.14c?  Definitely not, I’m probably not as strong or as motivated to be strong as I was when i was in my early 20’s, but I have climbed 79 5.14’s in the last 12 years (super dork, I know, I actually kept count, L is for LOSER), and if this IS a 5.14 (which is HIGHLY possible) it will be my 80’th one, and for me at least, that’s something to celebrate.  I have climbed 5.14 on my second try, I have climbed 5.13d in less than 20 minutes, and Stingray took me 7 days.  Was it because of the pain?  Maybe I’m getting soft, maybe old, ha ha.  Or is it just plain hard?  I don’t really know.  A strong competent climber could do it faster no doubt, I wasn’t going for a speed record, I was playing with it and preserving skin,  having fun with my friend Pee Wee who was also attempting the climb and who has climbed 5.14 cracks in the past and I was hoping to do it it before I left, which I did, but barely.   So I will say this, as far as PURE crack climbs go, (not to be mistaken with trad climbs) it’s the second hardest one I’ve ever done next to Cobra.  If you can climb Stingray, you can climb Cobra, and vice versa.  The real bottom line is that’s it’s truly excellent and I hope future ascents will shed light on it.

I’ll close this one out with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite climbers, Dave Macleod, he puts it so perfectly, “grades are memes that shift around like tectonic plates sometimes, sometimes one pushes others up or down, but they are all floating.”  🙂

P.S.  Thanks for the GOOD times Pee Wee, and you too BURR, always FUN, and you two lads from SLC, ya, u know, thanks for the extra BACON,  YAH!!!!

  • Alright Sonnie! I live in So Cal and I gotta say that when I read on your blog that you were out in Josh trying Stingray I was tempted to go complete stalker style and chill by the route so that I could meet you and check out the action. I’m sure you would of loved that… But, alas, work and laziness got in the way and now I can’t help but feel like I missed out. Anyway, congrats on the send, I’m really psyched for you!

    One question: I have a pretty strong girlfriend, who only gets tougher every season, do you think this is one of those climbs where freakishly small fingers coupled with a sub 100lb frame could make things go a little easier???

  • Great! Joshua Tree is such a super site. Nice work Sonnie.

  • Congrats on your 80th 5.14 Sonnie! This one looks like a stunna! I can’t wait to give er the ole whuat for someday.

    You did you’re first 5.14 12 years ago?!? Dude, I was 12 12 years ago! Haha… you’re still young at heart. Stay gold pony boy!

  • Wicked. Stingray was one of those routes I had pictured on my wall when I started climbing.

  • Butch

    The real question here is not the grade, it’s whether or not Sonnie was able to play guitar after the ascent. Any tips left?

  • Marc S.

    Dood- you rock. This is an inspiring piece and the pictures are amazing. I appreciate photo’s that makes my palms sweat. Also- please keep writing, i enjoy your articles and perspective very much.

  • SLC

    next time it will be Quinoa salad…. 🙂

  • joel

    i keep wondering to myself how beth roddedn would do on these routes. curious that more women aren’t hopping on these things.

  • Sonnie

    SLC, you know how I love Quinoa! ha ha. Alex, thanks for the nice words, your presence would have been welcomed out there, and I’m sure your “tougher every season” girlfriend would be a fine candidate for a line like this. I would say (without trying to generalize) the problem would not be her finger size, it would be the ability to lock off between scars without much help from the feet. It’s not like dead-pointing to a flat crimper, or a pocket, where once you latch the lip gravity sets in and it’s all good, each lock needs to be carefully fiddled with, so strong lats are recommended. It’s steeper than it looks. Just my two cents. I’m sure she’ll do just fine, and honestly, there’s only one way to find out, gas up the car, take a day off work, crank some Black Sabbath and get out there on the rocks. It would be interesting for the rest of us to see as well. I’m curious.

    Speaking of strong girls, I’m sure Beth could put this thing down quickly as well, but again, it’s more powerful and shouldery than one may think, I would say it’s more powerful than it is thin. Beth climbed a thin technical crack called The Optimist about 5 years ago in Smith Rock. Clipping the bolts it’s rated 5.14b. About 6 weeks later I put in some days and fired off the second ascent. Although it was beautiful and very hard, in the end I didn’t think it was as hard as most of the 5.14b’s I’ve done, but it’s VERY technical, and very thin. Technical climbs can sometimes be worked out, powerful climbs (without training) will always feel powerful.

  • Awesome pics! Thanks for the shout-out. Ha ha ha.

  • Marc Leclerc

    Great send Sonnie! Incredible pics too!

    When it comes to girls with little fingers climbing these thin cracks…. It definitely helps to have little fingers, as the locks are easier and less painful. But once it hits overhanging and the feet disappear its gets VERY powerful, try locking off and reaching between the locks on Cobra Crack! Its like doing a set of 100 frenchies on shallow 2 finger pockets!
    Tiny tips cracks on a vertical or more slabby wall might be better for the ladies with tiny fingers, like ‘City Park’ in Index (even that has no feet though!!!)
    Point is, pure bouldering power may be more of an asset than little fingers on these steep footless finger cracks!

  • Danny


  • Thanks for the explanation Sonnie. From the pictures I’ve seen, it didn’t seem like the line was overhanging, but now that I go back and look closer I can totally see what you mean. That’s cool to hear about your send of The Optimist, I remember seeing the video of Rodden on that and thinking it looked THIN. I’m surprised Tommy didn’t nab the second ascent since he was there and all, do you know if he tried it?

    Speaking of Beth Rodden (I’m sure you’ve been asked this before plenty of times but maybe you can indulge me) what are your thoughts on her route Meltdown? The nature of the climbing and the fact that both routes were featured in separate volumes of the Dosage series made Meltdown seem like the thinner, harder sequel to The Optimist.

  • Paul Parker

    Congratulations on an excellent lead! I think I am the climber you mention above, although I didn’t flash it, I did it with just one hang on my first attempt in the late 80s, feeling like I got pretty lucky on some desperate reaches on the upper part while running out of energy. I never tried to lead it, and if I had tried, I probably would have considered pre-placed gear or some other dodgy technique. I agree it is light years harder than Equinox. It is also very finger size dependent – I think Croft might have had trouble with it, whereas he sailed up “Vanbellodrome” in Yosemite which is wider but seems just as hard to me.

    I think the climber in the picture above is Brooke Sandahl, and the belayer is Mike Paul.

  • Michel Paul

    Chiming in to say way good send… Back in my day I was ridden daily for my hang-dog tactics on this and even got ratted out in the end…but great crack line…”EH”

  • bvb

    Re: that Stingray photo — that’s Mike Paul belaying, Brooke Sandahl climbing, winter 1985. Mike had just found the thing and it was our second or third day of trying the route.