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Women at Work [Video]

Posted on: May 9th, 2011 by Luke Bauer

American Alpine Club members Emily Stifler, Madeline Sorkin, and Lorna Illingworth received the inaugural Copp-Dash Inspire Award and the Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award to support their attempt to free the original, 1963 route on the Cirque of the Unclimbables’ Mt. Proboscis (the Club has recently expanded the Spitzer Grant by $8,000 a year, making the total award $20,000). Watch “Women at Work”, the trio’s film about the experience and read Lorna’s trip report below.


Women at Work Part #1 from Emily Stifler on Vimeo.


Women at Work Part #2 from Emily Stifler on Vimeo.

Women at Work

—Lorna Illingworth

Emily Stifler, Madaleine Sorkin, and I flew by helicopter to the base of Mt. Proboscis, in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, Northwest Territories, Canada on July 27th, 2010. We spent 25 days tenting at the base, and flew out on August 21, after a twenty-inch snowfall ended our climbing endeavors. Our objective was to free climb the full SE Face Original Route, first climbed by Jim McCarthy, Royal Robbins, Layton Kor and Richard McCracken in 1963 (VI 5.8 A4). We received support from the AAC through the Lyman-Spitzer Climbing Grant, and the Copp-Dash Inspire Award.

After a week of travel, packing and little sleep, we said goodbye to Warren LaFave, our helicopter pilot, at the base of Proboscis, got out of the helicopter, and waited for him to shuttle a sling load of our gear from Glacier Lake. It was sunny, and we sat in a daze for a few moments before the gear arrived and we set up camp. We had great weather overall, with a total of 10 climbing days and 11 rest days before completing what we thought was a free ascent of the Original Route.

We climbed the Original Route ground up through pitch 6, going free at 5.10+. On Pitch 7 we attempted both free and aid leads. We were stymied by loose rock, a shallow seam, and uncertainty about the line. We retreated and decided to free climb the Via Costa Brava (a variation from pitches 5-8) and see if the way we had started had been climbed and looked good for free climbing. From a converging ledge atop pitch 8, we were able to rappel and confirm that it was indeed the original way.

With knowledge about the work to be done and a good weather report we climbed to the summit ridge of Proboscis on August 5th, 2010. It was a warm, sunny day and we reached the top of the route with large smiles and kind words at 7:30 pm. We brought a free climbing rack and did not haul any extra gear from pitch 8 upwards. This was great in that we could climb lighter. Later, during our 7-hour descent by rappel, we thought fondly of our bolt kit at pitch 8.

Mount Probocsis Women at Work

Pitches 7 & 8 proved to be the crux and we spent our 4 final climbing days setting up the line for a first free ascent. The start of pitch 7 has questionable rock and follows a seam that turns into a crack higher up. Pitch 8 continues up this seam/crack and then traverses left under-clinging a hollow flake feature, and then follows another crack up to the ledge at the top of the pitch. We put in two anchor stations: above pitch 6 and pitch 7. We also put in five bolts on the route: two on pitch 7 and three on pitch 8. In total we placed 9 [3/8”] bolts, all in good rock including the anchor bolts. Emily placed the majority of the bolts, while Madaleine scoped, and I belayed.

Madaleine led the crux pitches free on August 17th.  We gave pitch 8 an R rating due to the hollow rock and consequently long distance between the first and second bolts of this pitch. While a long sling pre-hung on the second bolt allowed Madaleine to avoid this risk, an on-sight lead would prove riskier. Pitch 7 and 8 are rated 5.11R and 5.12R respectively. They have excellent, atmospheric climbing with fun knobs, technical seam action and careful footwork. All three of us had the opportunity to free climb every pitch on the route.

Figuring out the line was a puzzle. We didn’t solve it fully until returning to the States; despite thinking we had figured it out in the field. We even called Jim McCarthy from the base of the wall to inquire which way they’d gone above the large ledge, where they’d bivied, 2/3 the way up the wall. A very poor satellite phone connection allowed us to believe they’d traversed far left along the grassy ledge. We’d followed this traverse and found many old pitons that looked of the right era.

If I went to do the route we did again, I would probably climb wall style. If climbing the Via Costa Brava variation to the summit ridge I would replace the anchor at pitch 12 on our topo. Madaleine has a souvenir piton she pulled out with her hand from this now two-pin anchor. This led to a discussion and a re-lead of the sideways traverse pitch: Emily re-led the pitch on our summit day descent as the evening light embraced our world. One idea is to add a rappel anchor station or two on the face and get back to the route at the top of pitch 9. This would avoid re-leading the traverse pitch and even with the re-lead rapping off two less-than-ideal anchors. The Via Costa Brava route otherwise has bomber anchor stations for rappelling, courtesy of Nancy Feagin and Barry Blanchard in 1997. We rappelled the Original Route from the ledge at the top of our pitch 11.

So, we thought we free climbed the entire Original Route. Now I believe we did not finish on the Original Route, above pitch 11 on my topo. We followed the Via Costa Brava variation and traversed left about 2/3 of the way up the wall. The original line, I believe, continues straight up from the ledge at pitch 11. Jason Lanz’s 1998 topo indicates he climbed this way, showing three pitches of right-leaning, right-facing A1 dihedrals, followed by moderate 5.5-5.8 climbing for three pitches. In a subsequent conversation Emily and Madaleine had with Jim McCarthy, McCarthy described the final pitches: “I remember it being steep but very featured and full of cracks. It didn’t look that hard.  I thought it was certainly a grade easier than those pitches on the traverse and the steep section.”

Our group remembers the A1 pitches looking steep and thin. I would love to check it out. We have been keeping a trip journal of stories, photos and videos at


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