Andrew Palmer Joins the 5.15 Club

posted by dpm on 10/21/2013

5.15’s are a rare breed in America. There are only three: Tommy Caldwell’s unrepeated Flex Luthor (5.15a) at the Fortress of Solitude, Chris Sharma’s unrepeated Jumbo Love (5.15b) at Mt. Clark, and Jaws II (5.15a) at Rumney, New Hampshire.

Back before Jaws II got the ‘II’ added to it, it was just plain-old Jaws, a 5.14b established by Dave Graham in 1998. Some time later, the route shed some holds in both cruxes and the route went from mid-5.14 to 5.15. It was Vasya Vorotnikov that finally clipped the chains on the broken version of Jaws which became Jaws II (though I personally was rooting for the new name to be Broken Jaws.)

Jaws II saw its first repeat by Daniel Woods in 2010 and the following year, local Mike Foley snagged the third ascent in the middle of the summer which, in all honesty, probably added a letter grade of difficulty to the line. Yesterday, Andrew Palmer, another Rumney local, claimed the fourth ascent which makes him just the sixth person to climb 5.15 on American soil and one of less than ten Americans to ever tick the grade.

Andrew Palmer. Photo: Matt Londrey

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Andrew Palmer, though in East coast climbing circles he’s well known for his undercover crushing of some of the East’s hardest routes. Palmer grew up in Richmond, Virginia and, far from any real rock, became a fixture in the climbing gym at the age of 13. A few years later, he was making regular trips to the New River Gorge where he’s now sent most of the hardest routes like Mango Tango, Trebuchet, Mono Loco, Proper Soul and Still Life (all 5.14).

Andrew Palmer on Mango Tango (5.14a) at the New River Gorge. Check the DPM shirt. Stylish. Photo: Aaron McCrady

In 2006, Drew enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Rumney became his local crag. It was at Rumney that he ticked through the numbers. His first 5.14a was Cold War, then it was China Beach (5.14b), followed by Livin’ Astro (5.14c).

I’ve been friends with Andrew for a long time now and, seeing him progress as a climber, there was no doubt that the 5.15 benchmark was achievable. I called him up to congratulate him and distract him from his cubicle at the Boston-based company, Digitos, where he works a 9 to 5 doing marketing analytics and data analysis.

Grinning big on the way down from one of America's hardest routes. Photo courtesy of Andrew Palmer

DPM: Drew! What gave you the crazy idea that you could climb 5.15? ...cause I never thought you could.

Drew: Support from people like you I guess... I definitely had my doubts. After I did Livin’ Astro (5.14c), I was looking for the next logical step which is the 5.14d link-up on the Waimea Wall. But it’s literally one independent move that links the two 5.14’s I’d already done. I wasn’t that excited for it.

I never really thought Jaws II was possible for me but it’s the next independent line if you want to try something harder than Livin’ Astro. It’s funny, but I was at work the day Adam Ondra sent La Dura Dura (5.15c) and I got so excited I had to do a lap around the office. My mentality shifted and all of a sudden I knew I had to try it at least. But my confidence was still really fragile for a long time. I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it except my climbing partners that obviously knew. I was afraid someone would scoff at me or something cause I still felt silly for even trying it.

DPM: So what was your first experience on the route like? When did you start working it?

Drew: The first time I tried it was back in the spring. I could do some of the moves but I couldn’t clip the draws. You have to clip from one of the crux crimps and it felt impossible. I tried all the different beta. I started with Vasya’s drop knee beta at the first crux, then I tried the Woods/Foley beta. I knew I had to be way stronger to do the crux their way so I went back to the Vasya beta.

DPM: What did you do all summer when it was too hot to climb on it?

Drew: I climbed on it anyway! I’d train three nights a week at my home gym in Boston with a focus on bouldering and campusing. Then I’d try the route on the weekends. It feels a lot harder when it’s hot outside and it’s amazing that Foley was able to send it in late July.

DPM: So when did the breakthrough come on the route? When did you know you could send it?

Drew: It wasn’t until two weeks ago. I finally got my right foot to stay on at the low crux. Then I fell at the low crux and got back on and went to the top. Up to that point I was still complaining that it was impossible. I thought it was crazy to keep working on it. But after I began to stick the low crux it got mental. You get a big rest before the upper crux and I blew it on the upper crux eight times. That’s a lot more than anyone else. Foley went to the top the first time he stuck the low crux.

DPM: Well nice job Drew, are you kind of bummed you sent? It’s the hardest route at Rumney, so now what?

Drew: There are a ton of routes left for me to do at Rumney and even in Western Mass. Right now I’m excited about going to Spain. I’m taking the whole month to travel to Oliana, Margalef, and probably Siurana.

DPM: All right man, make sure you send a 5.14d in Spain since you skipped the grade on your way to 5.15. Until then, get back to work! 

Click the image for video of Andrew Palmer ALMOST sending Jaws II. Photo: Mauricio Santos