Weekend Warm-Up: The Airport Wall

Cover of The Airport Wall FA documentary

Climbing films don’t always transmit the unglamorous side of the activity: dirty manual labor, weeks of upward slogging, heavy harnesses, and tired fingers. But like it or not, those are the roots of the sport. For every outrageous dyno, high-standard send, and brotastic fist bump, there are a thousand workmanlike, gritty hours performed in the grueling vertical progress of an FA.

The Airport Wall, produced by New Zealand company Macpac, puts you right there. After watching the 17-minute feature, I looked at my fingers and half expected to see peeled cuticles and dirt under my nails.

In it, Daniel Joll and Karl “Merry” Schimanski tell the story of coaxing a 700m mixed rock route, ground up, on Fiordland’s Airport Wall — and everything that went into it. When I say a thousand hours, I’m not sensationalizing. Joll estimates the new route, graded 27 (or about 5.12c), required 100 full days of work from both men.

It’s not hard to get a sense of why the labor was so intensive. The bayfront wall is littered with corners, alcoves, overhangs, ramps, vegetation, and an endless and convoluted web of crack systems. Unlike some others (universal comparison in point: El Cap), the New Zealand wild does not simply give away climbable lines to the naked eye.

If anyone were going to get up it, they’d have to commit. Enter our plucky protags.

Ground up on the Airport Wall

I’m not here to spoil the story. It begins with a kiwi (a flightless bird, innit?) and proceeds through weather intrusions, massive waterfalls, and personal histories. The pair grinds out the pitches, drilling on lead from bad stances and scraping placements clean of wet moss with nut tools.

Merry contends with what looks like the crux pitch, a complex 40-50m overhang that follows a down-angling traverse. Joll crimps through desperate, blind slapping on the first free push in the wake of Merry’s amusing and thought-provoking commentary on exposure.

And it all ends with a brotherly embrace. The team’s route takes a clever line through the wall’s terraced vegetation and convoluted geometry. Joll places it between the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and the Freerider for complexity and difficulties.

What more could you want? A bolt ladder? Not on the Airport Wall, mate.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand Photo: Shutterstock

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About the Author

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.

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