West of the Sun: Derek Powell Interview

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Derek Powell, a 42 year old San Francisco paramedic living in Berkeley, splits his time on an ambulance, with his wife and son, and most recently at Pinnacles National Monument establishing new routes.  

Powell started climbing 18 years ago when a friend took him to Remillard Park in Berkeley.  ” It was a trade. A friend of mine that was a climber wanted to learn how to surf,  I could surf and I wanted to learn how to climb,” said Powell.  “He lives in the midwest now. I got the better end I think.”

Earlier this year, Powell made the first ascent of West of the Sun, a 5.14a route on the Monolith at Pinnacles National Monument. Powell took some time to talk about his ascent. 

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Derek on West of the Sun– photos by Jim Thornburg 


What was the first ascent of West of the Sun Like- how did you establish it?

The line is on the “back-side” of the Monolith, just left of Move Over Rover a.k.a. Ranger Bolts, and is about 37 meters long. Initially, Chris Belizzi put in one bolt some years ago about 10 feet from the ground, and red tagged it.  He had not returned to finish the route, and Vian Charbonneau convinced him to open it up to other suitors last year. I had been climbing in Pinnacles a bit, had seen the line, and was interested in seeing it go. Apparently Chris Sharma had top-roped that rough section of rock as a teenager, and thought it might be difficult but doable. The really cool thing about this line is that it begins from a stance literally below the Monolith and ends  on the very top. I could see holds pretty much the entire way, though I was not entirely sure of the rock quality or ultimately what it would climb like. I estimated it would be about 5.13b difficulty wise, but it ended up being much harder.
I was lucky enough to enlist the help of Karl Agular, without whom, I am certain I would have abandoned the project.  We attempted to establish the route ground-up, drilling by hand, on hooks. This is traditionally how routes in the Monument are established. It got us about 4 days, 10 bolts, and one late afternoon into it  before we realized that our tactics would likely need to change if we weren’t going to drill a bolt ladder.  At length (and not without ongoing controversy) we decided to rappel in.  We placed 4 bolts on rappel and then returned to the lead for the remaining 3.  The route is 17 bolts long. Including time spent cleaning, establishing this route took an entire week, from morning to dark, and well over $1000 in equipment and gas.
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What was the climbing like?

Pinnacles in a nutshell (to me) is really good movement on occasionally marginal rock.  The Monolith itself has what is probably the highest concentration of quality of rock in the park. This route is no exception. The rock quality is imperfect, but quite good. The movement is both technical and powerful. There are three distinct cruxes. The first boulder is about v4, and is basically right under the original/first bolt, surmounting a small roof. After that there is some 5.11 climbing to the routes true crux, which is about 10 hand moves long at v9. The route continues for another 60 overhanging feet, give or take, with the final boulder at around v7 before gaining the slab to the top. The upper section is maybe mid 5.13 in total. It took me 5 days to successfully complete the crux, and 10 days of effort altogether. I wasn’t sure I could do it, especially in the beginning. With some effort I knew it would go but I wasn’t sure if I would be the one that would succeed, or if it would have to someone else–someone stronger.  Luckily, with the help of many supportive partners (mostly my wife) I sent the route in the first half of December.  I named the route West of The Sun after a book I like by Haruki Murakami called South of the Border, West of The Sun. In the end I rated the route 5.14a. The link up, from  West’s 8th bolt into the finish of Ranger Bolts I called Hajime, for the main character of the same novel who was “born” on the same day I managed to send the variation, January 4th. I gave Hajime a grade of 5.13d, and it is as of yet un-repeated.  West of The Sun was just recently repeated recently by Brad Johnson.  

What are some of your goals for the upcoming climbing season?

For now I think I need a break from the Pinns. I will say, however, that Pinnacles is quite an under-rated bay area climbing destination. It’s about 2 hours and change from SF, has some excellent climbing, and is truly a lovely place. Pinnacles is also a great winter crag, though It is worth visiting at any level and in every season except summer (for climbing).
After completing West of The Sun, I had a productive spring at Jailhouse, then took some time off for my shoulder–typical overuse stuff. Now that I am coming back, I am really looking forward to taking care of some unfinished business at Donner Summit, and maybe a recon trip for a free wall in Yosemite. If nothing else, there is a trip planned to the Red River Gorge this fall.  We shall see.