Will Stanhope Climbs Legendary Cobra Crack
The Cobra Crack is located on the Backside of the Chief, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Squamish Valley. It is a long, sinuous and truly beautiful crack up an otherwise blank wave of granite. Enormous old growth Douglas firs tip toward the cliff, there's no highway noise, and the entire wall is free of protection bolts. Hikers, having never climbed before, often stop and gaze up at it, if simply for pure aesthetics. It really has to be seen to be believed.
I learned how to gear climb when I was in high school. At that point Cobra was a seldom talked about legendary project, first climbed by Peter Croft and Tami Knight but far from freed. I remember at the conclusion of my "Learn to Lead Climb" course Graeme Taylor talking about it, saying that Croft said he would quit climbing if he ever climbed it. I don't think Croft would ever quit climbing, for any reason, but that tongue-in-cheek comment sparked my interest big time. Others told me it could be climbed, but your fingers would never be the same afterwards. If there was ever a route worth mangling fingers over, Cobra was it. For all the talk and wild claims, very few had actually been on the line.
One of my biggest climbing heroes, Sonnie Trotter, eventually sent the route in June 2006. At the time I was planting trees in Northern BC. While checking my email at the London Drugs in Prince George, I got an email from Sonnie saying he had tamed the Cobra. I was totally shocked and amazed that the supposedly-impossible Cobra had finally been tamed. I left London Drugs high as a kite, dazed and really, really amped.
In the next few years I dabbled on the Cobra, trying to gauge whether or not I was strong enough to climb it. This spring, after a trip to Smith Rock where I climbed the East Face of the Monkey on gear, I decided to put life on hold and commit to the Cobra. After a certain point, dabbling just doesn't cut it - you've got to put everything else aside and put the Cobra first. All the previous ascentionists - Trotter, Nico Favresse, Ethan Pringle and Matt Segal - had made the route a priority. I was no different. I thought about the Cobra seven days a week for about three weeks. I stuck to myself mostly, avoiding parties, lathering my fingers daily in Polysporin to heal from the climb, and sleeping lots. My friend Andrew Wilson likes to say, "Embrace your geekdom!" and for that short time, I lived by that credo.
On June 20th I hiked up to Cobra for the umpteenth time, expecting another beat down. I had woke up at my parent's house in North Vancouver to the pitter-patter of rain, but drove up to Squamish anyway, casually optimistic. At the crag were just a few tight friends, in stark contrast to the crowd of people that usually gathered at the base.
I'm no sports psychologist, but I have two mental tricks I use before trying my absolute hardest on something. First, I try to abandon all thoughts of completion of the project. Nothing short-circuits my ability like getting attached to the outcome. Secondly, I make an effort to actually enjoy the climbing, not an easy task when every jam crushes your fingers. Simple tricks, and much easier said than done.
One of my best friends, Jeremy Blumel gave me a belay. On my first try my foot slipped out above the lip. Temperatures were perfect. I calmed myself down, and as a gentle rain started, I tied in again. This time I powered through the crux, quivering with excitement. At this point, the angle kicks back to vertical 5.10 crack climbing. It was filthy dirty and I climbed aggressively, harshly torquing my fingers into the crack, making damn sure I didn't blow it. At the top I was covered in dirt and blood.
By the time I had lowered to the ground my best friend Jason Kruk had arrived at the cliff with a pack full of Kokanees. I guzzled the first one and nursed another. I was in disbelief that the Cobra had gone down. Ten days later, I can still hardly believe it.
Some routes have a mythical aura surrounding them, something that can't be explained. The Cobra is one of those lines. As Sonnie says, "it's a gift to climbers." He's right. And I'm thankful.