The First Ascent of Astro-Gil, Tehipite Dome

The First Ascent of Astro-Gil, Tehipite Dome


The call came the way we always imagine it will, but never expect.  It’s Asa.  He’s concerned about Gil, he hasn’t heard from him in awhile.  He lays the cold hard facts out, one by one.  Gil and Ben are several days overdue in Peru.  Gil’s flight is scheduled to leave in a few days, but no one has heard from them.  They are probably fine, he emphasizes, but just in case he’s working to organize a search team.  We’ll all have a good laugh when we get to the bottom of this, he assures me.  I listen, and speak some words, but we both know he’s dealing from a stacked deck.  I hang up, and collapse into tears.

The memorial

What follows fades into a blur.  The Tomnod search, the national media blitz, the valiant efforts of the rescue team.  Finally, our worst fears are confirmed. Gil and Ben are gone. Gil - my friend, my brother in arms, and Ben - the de-facto spiritual center of Pull harder - are both dead.  I struggle to comprehend and make sense of this event, one of the most significant of my life.  On a beautiful Saturday morning in August, we hold a memorial service for Gil at the base of the Flatirons, one of the places he loved most.  After a group solo of Gil’s favorite climb, the First Flatiron, we scatter some of his ashes from the summit.  Collectively, our friends vow to scatter his remaining ashes amongst the three other places he cherished most: the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Sierra Nevada of California.


The objective

I moved to Boulder in 2009 after 9 years in San Diego, looking forward to the next stage of my life, but also leaving behind many great, inspiring climbing partners and friends, and also my favorite mountain range on planet earth, the Sierra Nevada.  Every summer, I try to make it back home.

Tehipite Dome has long been on my bucket list.  Any climber with an adventurous spirit who has perchanced across R.J. Secor’s succinct description in the High Sierra guidebook cannot help but become infatuated: “This is the largest dome in the Sierra Nevada.  There is an outstanding view from it’s summit“.  Rising 3800 feet above Tehipite Valley, Tehipite Dome commands a larger vertical rise than El Capitan.  The three most impressive Sierra valleys are reputed to be Yosemite Valley, King’s Canyon and Tehipite Valley.  However, in contrast to Yosemite and King’s Canyon, no roads approach Tehipite Valley.  Thus, to even catch a glimpse of this spectacular canyon one must first hike 14 miles.  Such remoteness has long dissuaded prospective suitors.  In 50 years there have been less than perhaps a dozen technical ascents of Tehipite Dome (furthermore, as far as we could discern from the summit register, they have all been first ascents).


The team

The plan was theoretically simple.  Hire a horse packer to carry 2 weeks of supplies in, establish a  base camp at the top of the Dome, perform recon and put up a proud line.  I first met Shaun through Gil when I moved to Boulder, and was impressed by his adventurous spirit and commitment to new routing.  Like myself, Sean was close to Gil.  In 2010, Sean, Gil and Logan climbed the Shield together, spending a week battling stormy weather and finally topping out after climbing through a raging waterfall on the headwall, and bivying in a snowbank on the summit of El Cap.   When I outlined my plan to Shaun, he agreed to join immediately.  Our decision was further emboldened by an expansive photo essay published in Climbing Magazine detailing Rob Pizem and company’s 2010 trip where they established a new line, Tehipite Sanction (5.12, 12 pitches, 1200 feet) on what Pizem called the best stone he’d ever climbed on.

When Brad committed to join the trip, the final puzzle piece fell into place.  Brad is a strong, bold climber from the South who has been on the mythical “endless climbing roadtrip” for the last few years.  He was close with both Ben and Gil, with whom he had ticked the complete Palisade traverse earlier in the year.  All three of us felt spiritually aligned with the core trip objective, which was to establish the most classic first ascent possible in honor of our fallen comrades.

The Climb

After flying in to Fresno and getting picked up by Brad, we emarked upon a blitzkrieg mission for supplies at REI, Trader Joe’s and the liquor store.  Next, we met up with Allan Clyde, local horsepacker extraordinaire and also a podiatrist (foot surgen) near Wishon Reservoir.  A classic western figure, Allan didn’t seem disturbed in the least when we showed up at his headquarters with several hundred pounds of gear and supplies, including a disproportionate amount of alcohol, to fuel our 12 days in the backcountry.  After a leisurely 14 miles without packs, we rejoined Clyde and managed to pitch camp in an incredible location, right next to the shoulder of Tehipite Dome and overlooking the sweeping grandeur of Tehipite Valley.  We spent the next several days reconing possible new lines, but eventually settled upon a new route on the southeast buttress of Tehipite Dome.  After equipping the line, we went for the redpoint, climbing the entire 11 pitch (1700 foot) route in a day without falls.  Following a day of rest, we returned to shoot some photos, retrieve our gear, and to scatter Gil’s ashes from the summit.  In 12 days in the backcountry, we had splitter weather (not a single storm, in fact barely a cloud the entire time) and  no other people except for one group of Sierra club hikers.  Many hours of campfire discussion were spent discussing possible route names, but in the end we settled on “Astro-Gil” as a fitting tribute to our friend, and named a key feature on the route the “Honey Badger Traverse” in honor of Ben.  ( Also of note is the “Gil Weiss Memorial Offwidth” on pitch 2.)

Reflections on adventure, friendship and loss

It is difficult for me to express in a trip report the impact that Gil had on my life, and how he touched those around him.  I know climbing and the pursuit of adventure were things Gil held dear, but more than that, I know that his friends and family formed the foundation for his life. I don’t have a really good point here, other than to say that I am grateful for my friends and family (even if I haven’t talked to you in some time), I cherish you now more than ever, and that Sarah: I love you and I am excited for next summer.  Going on this trip reminded me of how great it is to be alive, and how fortunate we are to have climbing, adventure and friends.  Brad and Shaun: I had a great time on our trip and I think Gil would be proud....