Now, I’m not a certified expert on the subject of training, but I do have a lot of tips to give. I train like a complete masochist, pouring every ounce of my being into each session as if my life depends on it, because it does. Lets be blunt, when I’m soloing 200’ in the air there is nothing between me and the ground except for my fingers and my mind. They simply are not allowed to fail, so I put a lot of thought into training them properly. This blog mini-series will counteract a lot of myths and mistakes I’ve seen folks ascribing to in gyms around the nation, as well as outline the ideas and theories I use to come up with my routines so that you can hopefully make a program that works for you as well. Don’t copy what I do, but rather use these ideas to tailor a regimen that’s geared towards your fitness level and goals.
I’m not going to tell you what to do for your training routine. I want to tell you how to develop your own.
Goals: The most important thing is to have a goal. What do you want to climb? Hard bouldering? Hard lead? Onsight? Comps? Or do you perhaps want to climb 5.6 trad all day? Each one of these requires a different focus for training. If you do not set a goal there is no way to train for it. Without focus you will not be able to progress effectively. Think of it this way: If you don’t have a target, how can you hit it? Just as you need a goal for your training overall, you need to have an intent for each session. Is this a recovery day, a training day, or a day for fun? You can’t train properly without a little forethought.
The main reason people tend to stagnate is due to the fact that it’s easy to come into the gym and randomly climb whatever looks fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but without focus your training will stagnate eventually. Even if your training is “just climbing” and you’re not a fan of fingerboards or other tools, you still need to focus your efforts to make progress.
Specificity: In order to train one facet of your climbing, you must remove as many variables as possible and only focus on the one thing you are attempting to improve. The biggest mistake I see in climbers attempting hang-board routines is that they lack specificity. Walking up to a fingerboard and doing tons of pull-ups on two-finger pockets has next to no value as a training tool, because it’s not specific enough. Climbing hard sport to up your mental game doesn’t work because you have the variables of difficulty, and clipping in addition to fears of falling. To truly work on a goal, you need to target one thing at a time. If you want to get better at clipping, perform lots of clips. If you want to work on falling, stay on easy climbing and fall when you chose to instead of adding extra stresses. If you want to work on finger-strength, don’t engage the biceps. If you are terrified of falling, adding difficult climbing into the mix might be too much stress. Just take it one thing at a time, and remember you can train multiple things in a session if you plan well.
Rest and Recovery: Nobody ever built strength in a gym. Or on a rock for that matter. Your strength is built at night when you’re sleeping after a good session. Without proper recovery time your workout will be wasted because you didn’t have enough time to build strength before your next session. Drinking excessive alcohol, sleeping too little, and stressing your body in other ways that prohibit recovery will only exacerbate this and can lead to injury in the long-term.
When I’m training hard, I can only stand a maximum of 3 training days per week. That drops down to 2 days per week when I’m working on more severe strength/power exercises. Jan Hojer progressed incredibly rapidly through the grades, and currently has several V15’s under his belt. His training schedule rarely exceeds 12 hours per week.
Injury Prevention: I’ve been training like a masochist on fingerboards and campus-boards for nearly seven years now. I’ve never had a single over-use injury. No tendon tweaks, no tendonitis, no pulley tears, no shoulder injuries. You must respect your body in order to progress. Frequently you must make an active decision between climbing NOW and being able to climb tomorrow. Always exercise caution, and keep your entire body fit to prepare for the stresses of training. If you’re sore, you might want to lay off. Muscle soreness is a wonderful thing because it means your most effective training for the day is just sitting around and relaxing, or doing all that housework you’ve been putting off because of climbing!
Also try to reduce the number of sets on an exercise to a reasonable level. You wouldn’t attempt the crux move on your hardest boulder problem 20 times a session, multiple days a week and expect to get away un-injured. Why would you apply different logic to training?
Warming Up: Most people warm up improperly. It’s called a warm-up for a reason, your body temperature and heart rate are both supposed to elevate. If you haven’t begun to perspire ever so slightly, the odds are high that you haven’t been warming up on easy enough terrain. The ideal warm up is so easy that your muscles don’t get pumped on any of the moves, and for this reason it is difficult for most folks to warm up properly by climbing boulder problems unless your body is already highly trained. Climbing is hard, and bouldering is just the hard part, make sure you keep it easy in the warm-up. Personally, I love warming up on 5.6 auto-belay routes and V0’s.
Types of strength: We tend to use the term “finger strength” to include anything that will help us claw our way to the top of a problem, but what is that comprised of really? It boils down to four important aspects.
Strength: How much force can you apply with your fingers, what is the smallest hold you can grab? This is the limiting factor on boulder problems and stopper-cruxes. If you find yourself failing on a problem/route because you simply can’t hang on the crux holds, even when fresh, then training strength might break your plateau.
Power: This is a climber’s zero-to-sixty rating. Right now, as you’re reading this, make a fist. Now squeeze as hard as you can. Do you feel how it takes a moment to engage all of the muscles in your forearm? Power is a term we use for how quickly your climbing muscles will engage. Power is the ability to snatch a small hold on a desperate move and apply full strength before you are overcome by momentum and swing off. If you have difficulty latching the hold on crux lunges, or your fingers slip off even after your fingers stick the hold, perhaps you could benefit from increased power.
Muscular endurance: This is your ability to keep pulling one hard move after another without pumping out, think in terms of 15-30 difficult moves with little rest. Commonly this is referred to simply as “endurance,” but endurance is more complex than that. If you fall off the crux of a route because your forearms feel like they’re filled with concrete, and you can do the moves when you’re fresh, then working on muscular endurance might bring the send!
Cardio Endurance: This is your ability to keep climbing hard routes/problems all day long at the crag. This is what separates folks with the ability to give one good project burn, from those who can work a hard route 5 to 6 times in a day and still make progress. It’s your ability to recover, and it’s what gets blood flowing in your muscles. This is essential for recovery between moves, between routes, and between sessions. If you find yourself overly fatigued after a short session at the crag, lack the ability to keep climbing “easy” routes at the end of the day, perhaps your days could be extended with a little cardio that’s specific to climbing.
“There are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.” – Alex Lowe
There are many questions that cause folks to get on or get off on each other in the world of climbing, questions of ethics, style, and doubt. It’s easy to lose sight of why you even climb to begin with if you get lost in the minute details of it. Now, why are you up there to begin with?
It can’t be for glory, attention or adrenaline. Those seeking a fix will ever seek more. You become desensitized to the whole endeavor and have to step your antics up even higher, and higher, risking more and more. The only acceptable reason to be up there, is because it brings you joy. If you’re up there for any other reason, you’re an idiot and you’re probably going to die.
Now, I’m assuming you’re not an idiot. You and I actually like being out there enjoying life. And yet we are all attracted to pursuits of varying risk within the vertical world (or the flat one for that matter). What makes one person choose certain types of risk? Ultimately it comes down to that sense of joy in the moment, humans naturally seek out activities that make them happy. But what separates those who prefer toprope from free-soloing, or Sudoku for that matter?
“We climb in the mountains because it brings us joy, but we have to ask ourselves: Will this joy lead to harm?” – Dean Potter
Dean nailed it on the head in his latest film “When Dogs Fly.” It’s the ultimate question in this human world: “Will this joy lead to harm?” We all have carefully trained skillsets for the purpose of avoiding harm, that’s what keeps us alive and active in our favorite pursuits. And there are a lot of forms of harm. There’s harm to yourself, harm to those you love, harm to those around you at the moment (rescuers, etc), harm to the places we love (chopping bolts, worn gear), and harm to our community in general (access and regulatory issues). And no matter what climbing you participate in, you have to understand that balance between how much joy this activity brings you, how likely it is to bring harm, and what sorts of harm could be visited upon you. If you’re unsure of any of those things, perhaps it’s time to go sit on a rock somewhere and contemplate life for a bit.
You can usually smell out access issues pretty easily. In the modern world we have websites and regulatory agencies with this information publicly available, along with any regulations in your prospective place of adventure. Follow them, don’t ruin it for the next guy, it just takes a little research to see if your activities could harm your community.
As for the rest? We all know we have a certain set of physical, technical, and tactical skills. You have to evaluate long and hard to decide if you’re up to the task. If the consequences are dire, and they easily can be when gravity is part of the equation, you have to be quite sure things will go your way. I intend to have a long life of climbing with many thousands of pitches logged. If there’s a 1% chance of deadly or serious injury, it will catch up to you VERY quickly.
Someone once quoted John Bachar to me as having said “The purest form of climbing is toprope with a little slack.” I don’t know if he said it, and I can’t find attribution to the quote anywhere on the internet, but it’s a sentiment I really appreciate. There’s a human on a wall, going generally upward. That’s climbing. Everything else is just a set of names we came up with to yell at each other on the internet.
Take whatever risks are appropriate to your skills, and make sure to know them well. Understand that there are unintended consequences of every action, and likely hazards that you haven’t thought of. Always to have some extra reserve just in case, especially when the risks are high. The closer you creep to the edge, the easier it becomes for something unexpected to tip you over.
Make a ritual, stop and contemplate at the base of every route you climb. If you’re not absolutely sure that this joy won’t lead to harm, then it’s simply not worth it.
“The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” – Alex Lowe
Shenanigans have a long and vibrant history within the world of climbing, stonemasters with spoons and carabiners hanging off their noses, michael reardon soloing naked, taking whippers off El Cap for fun, making huge rope swings, John Sherman chugging a beer in flip-flops on “Lord of the Rings”…. We have a long history of mocking the seriousness of gravity, we have to make fun of it to survive, you just can’t be serious all the time! Better to save that for when you really need it. And hell, since when did we forget that climbing is supposed to be fun? After all, what could be more absurd than throwing yourself at some rock and attempting to fall your way up it? (for example, sport-project climbing). If you’re not going to have fun, go home.
Yvonne Chouinard says if you take the risk out of climbing, then it’s not climbing anymore. Personally, I think if you take the shenanigans out of climbing, you’ve ruined the whole endeavour. You’re going to have fun if you’re doing it right!
I’ve had the pencant for climbing chalkless for a long time, ever since college when I was too lazy to move the chalk bag from my car all the way over to the climbing gym…. Hell most of the time I pick up chalk that’s already on the holds, and that’s plenty to cobble together an ascent!
Barefoot climbing has always been a hilarious pursuit, and I’ve always maintained that climbing a route barefoot says more about the route than the climber. I onsighted 5.11a barefoot a few times at The Red, but if you had instead stuck me on a 5.7 slab in North Carolina…. Not gonna happen.
To this day, I still haven’t roped up on Dopey Duck. I onsight soloed it a little over a year ago, and tend to take a good lap up it every time I’m in the area, it’s just too beautiful of a line to pass on. I watched an instagram clip of this guy performing an “FNA” (First Natural Ascent) on some V3 boulder problem, and that put the bug in my head….
It’s there, I’m there, I’m going to be soloing anyhow, so why not? Lets get some prime shenanigans! The area was remote, so I decided to solo naked. If you’re stripping everything down to the basics, might as well leave the chalk behind! and barefoot? Well, that’s just funny!
Climbing naked? It’s just kindof a jackass stunt, but isn’t all of climbing just a jackass stunt when you get down to it? Now get out there and have some fun!
there are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.
The view was certainly good from up here, even though it’s not the type of high-angle view I’m accustomed to, I had to give it that. You could see all three hallmarks of Houston from these parapets, and I took a minute to survey them all. The downtown, medical district, and even the stacks of the refineries were visible, lit up by the midnight hour in their productive glow. I was a long way up. Looking down from the walkway at the concrete, I knew this place would do the job. But then I’d thought that out long before I ever got in the car and drove out here. Ten floors plus a little extra to land in the concrete pit just below the base of the building. I had come here to die.
The calculation was brutal. Midnight, so there would be fewer witnesses troubled. I didn’t want to make a scene, but this was the only place I could be certain. Ten stories, because I’d already survived a fall from 3 stories up (in a thoroughly un-desired climbing accident). Tripling that with a hard landing zone would make the end quick, relatively painless. Once I tipped over the edge, there was no chance of survival. None.
I stayed up there for perhaps an hour, trying to feel it out. Sometimes I sat on the ledge, looking down, sometimes I stared at those familiar horizons gleaming in the dark. I’m still not 100% sure what tipped the balance in my mind back towards the elevator. Some part of me, deep down was fighting to stay alive even though the parasitic thought patterns in my head were pushing hard to storm the castle and achieve their insidious victory over life. I don’t know why I walked away from the precipice while so many others committed. Perhaps it was luck?
“Can’t see the sky, nothing’s on the horizon
Can’t feel my hands and the water keeps risin’
Can’t fall asleep ’cause I wake up dead
I just keep rowing, I just keep rowing
Don’t know where I’m going I just keep on rowing
I just keep on rowing, gotta row”
I guess you do just have to keep on rowing, even when you don’t know the outcome. That track (Rowing, by Soundgarden) got me through a lot of tough times.
That was my only serious attempt at suicide, the only time I came close to letting the darkness win and actually ending it. I do remember a long, long history of wanting to die and pushing through anyway. In one of my youngest memories I sat on the couch in my family house and tried to choke myself to death with my bare hands while no one was around. I don’t know how old I was, but I was too young to realize I would eventually lose my grip. I recounted that story in a counselor’s office not too long after my rooftop ordeal, and he asked why I felt so strongly that I wanted to die…. I’d thought about it a great deal, why did I want to die? The events in my life were not particularly rough, I didn’t have a horrible past, the obstacles before me were possible to overcome, and I knew all of this. I didn’t think I had any good reason whatsoever. I didn’t even have a bad reason.
The greatest moment of terror in my life was realizing that there was no reason for my suicidal tendencies. If there was no reason, how could I fix it? At that point, I estimated my odds of surviving another year at 50%.
I’ve been around these United States of ours in a wild way this past year, and I’ve seen that we humans are all frighteningly similar. No matter where I go I find amazing people, people who have survived great hardships of mind, body, or circumstance and, frankly, they all kick ass. Learning to overcome these sufferings makes you a powerful survivor. Even if you’re not out of the woods yet, you’re still surviving. I’m going to say right now that I love you all, more than you’ll ever know. The more people I meet, the more convinced I am that these internal struggles are just a part of the human condition, and the most interesting and beautiful humans I’ve ever met seem to have the most vicious fights for survival. I think it’s part of what’s made them so strong. Those with the demons inside have to be or become strong. The alternative is to perish. These people are beautiful in their awareness of others and the world, but perhaps being aware comes with a cost. Not only are you attuned to the good in the world, but also the frightening bits within you. And biology has us hard-wired so that fear makes a loud noise. I think most folks have wished at some point that they didn’t have to deal with life, wished they were never born, or wished that something would end it for them. These are just steps along a continuum, and it’s a small slide on the scale to think “I wish I could kill myself” or “I’m GOING to kill myself.” And then it’s only one small step for a man to actually do it.
For me, the desire to die was nothing new, it was old-hat and had been around my consciousness as long as I could remember. I don’t know a single moment in my life where the ghost of suicidal thinking was completely gone. I had come to think of it as part of me, it didn’t scare me anymore. What scared me was the day that I stopped enjoying climbing.
Turning Around: I went to four different counselors in total over the years. It’s not that any of them were inadequate, but imagine learning a complex subject from one single teacher. They have a great depth of knowledge, but perhaps they don’t know how to phrase it in just the right way to make it “click” for your learning style. Seeing multiple therapists helped me find the one that clicked. Today, I don’t even remember his name, but he gave me the single most crucial insight of the whole journey. I am not depression, I am not depressed, the depression is OF me, but it is not me. It’s more like a cancer.
Most of you are familiar with the idea of a computer virus. Depression is like a mind-virus, a series of repeating processes that disturb the normal operation of an otherwise healthy system. The mechanism of depression is to shrink your world. Depression shrinks your world by eliminating the things that make you happy. Depression wants to eliminate your friends. Depression wants to eliminate your daily functioning. Ultimately, after your world is gone, depression wants to eliminate you. Depression is the mechanism of suicide. Lucky for me, my counselor caught on that I was a somewhat self-aware individual, and accustomed to following my thoughts. I suppose it’s hard to be frightened by your mind if you never notice it. Perhaps if I wasn’t self aware, I wouldn’t have entered this state to begin with. But then I wouldn’t be writing this article either. The key is to simply notice passing thoughts, and to notice when a thought was coming from my desires, and when the thought was coming from my depression. Did I want to sit around the house all night, or was that the depression trying to eliminate more of my world?
Fuck you depression, I’m going climbing.
And so I went back to climbing, and I began training hard. I threw myself back into climbing like my life depended on it, because it did. I knew 100% that I was doing it for me, and not for the depression. All through this time I maintained my penchant for runout climbing, and for soloing as well. The depression wants to eliminate the things that make me happy, I wasn’t about to let it take that away from me. When you’re 30’ above your bolt and a foot slips, in that moment of surging adrenaline you truly come to know how strong your will to survive is.
For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down. There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together. Soloing has taught me to look inward and observe my thoughts to see when a climb feels right, and when I should back off. For me, soloing furthers that sense of still calmness for me in a way that nothing else can, and I can tell you I’ve never once considered letting go on a route. I would be far to pissed off if my epitaph reads “I told you so” to ever consider that.
You are not alone: Soloing, saved my life. It gave me the power to fight back against my depression and take back what’s rightfully mine, and it gave me the mental tools to look inward and inspect my own mind. But that’s nothing unique to me or soloing, I’m not particularly special, and I’m NOT advocating soloing as a way to overcome depression. But everybody who’s dealt with this has that one thing they gave up to the depressive state that shrunk their world… I know friends who were similarly saved by triathlons, painting, cycling, writing, climbing, swimming, playing guitar, and a myriad of other pursuits. Many of them had far worse trouble to overcome than I did. Shit, even Tommy Caldwell contemplated suicide.
“Free soloing El Cap” is sometimes used as a euphemism for suicide in certain circles because it would mean certain death to attempt. “Hanging out on the summit in a thunderstorm? You might as well free-solo el cap!” In the aftermath of divorce Tommy considered attempting the feat. Granted, he’s one of the few humans physically capable of such a thing, but even for him it could easily have resulted in a swan-dive. Either he’d succeed and become the first human to free-solo El Capitan, or the emotional pain would end… He sat above the rostrum (a site famous for Peter Croft’s solos) contemplating the idea… And that’s when the Dawn Wall was born. Instead of choosing to be consumed with something that would destroy him, he chose the project that would save him. The Dawn Wall saved Tommy’s life. That’s resilience.
Steph Davis, a high level soloist and BASE jumper, went through similar bouts with depression and suicide. After the death of her husband in a BASE accident in Italy, she considered jumping without the parachute… but in the end she too saw herself separate from the darkness and BASE brought her back to life. She deliberately chose resilience.
Robin Williams fought with it too. It’s not always obvious who is suffering.
I remember a scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” where John Nash was accosted by a hallucination, a symptom of his schizophrenia. He turns to the imagined person and says “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you anymore.” The delusion wasn’t gone, but he was much more able to function by simply choosing not to interact with it. And so it is with me and my depression, that mental cancer is still there. I haven’t exorcised the demon, and judging from my childhood memories, it may always be within me. But now I can recognize those thoughts, I can see when the depression is attempting to influence my behavior, and I don’t talk to it anymore. I just recognize it as an old friend that I can’t engage.
The worst battles I have currently are with anxiety. Coming that close to death leaves an imprint upon you, and now that imprint is mixed with any feelings of sadness that come across my mind so that they trigger a wave of fear and terror. Sadness? Oh shit, depression is coming back! But now I’m learning to recognize that as just another trigger, just as I would recognize a wave of fear mid-solo as irrelevant to finishing the route, I am beginning to recognize these irrational waves of anxiety as separate from me. I box them up and file them in that same corner with my old friend, and we don’t dance in circles so much. Soon, I won’t talk to them either. Sadness, I know, is part of the human condition. It comes and goes, but sometimes it takes longer to depart and we wonder how long this winter has to last! But spring will come, it always does.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that nothing lasts forever, eventually spring will come. Depression, suicidal thinking, eating disorders, anxiety, substance addiction… almost everyone I know has had something to deal with because we’re all human. The more I travel around the country, and the more amazing people I’ve met, the more convinced I am that this is a universal battle that we all face to some degree or another. We all lie somewhere on the continuum. Reach out to those around you, you’d be amazed how many can understand what you’re going through. For those of us who battle our own minds: You are beautiful! How amazing is it that you’ve been able to survive something this long that has taken so many wonderful people from us?
You are amazing. You have a beautiful mind. You are not your demons any more than I am. And you are not alone. We are not alone. We are many, and we will be okay. Spring will come, because the only thing constant in this world is change. Tune into that change, and ride the wave. This is life and death. This is war. Don’t let the mind virus win. Give it hell.
But if you can’t do it alone, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s normal.
In “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales notice a tendency among those who survive life and death wilderness situations: They are able to see the world around them as it changes, they are not caught up in preconceived notions of how things *should* be, they simply see them as they are and move forward with a plan that fits the new reality. There is no particular way that humans should be, we are so beautifully diverse that practically anything could be considered “normal.” and as the Buddha said: “Suffering is.” Don’t be afraid of sadness, or a certain amount of despair, for those are normal human conditions to have from time to time.
Gonzales estimates the percentage of the population that have this natural born ability to ignore what they think “should” be and survive is only about 20%, but there are countless anecdotes of group survival. All it takes is one member of the group standing up and taking the initiative to inspire the others and buoy them up as well. That’s 80% of people who need a little help to see that they can make it out of the woods, but the point is that they DO make it out!! So for the sake of 80% of those still stuck in the woods, if you’re surviving…. Don’t hide it. Let everyone know, and be that beacon in the night. You might even help me some day.
Saying these things publicly is a bit scary for me, and this is the first time I’ve done so. It’s amazing what people are capable of if they only know that it’s possible, and so I feel I have a duty to display my struggles as an example. If it helps even one person, that’s well worth making my story public. For that reason you have my permission and encouragement to share this article anywhere you can. Those of us still in the woods need to know they are not alone.
The mind is a powerful thing, it can help you or hurt you. The mind can be controlled, or controlling, and like any complex system… it can be hijacked and derailed. Here are a few links, consider them my starter survivor’s tool kit:
Details on Tommy Caldwell see “Rock and Ice: April 2015”
Looking up at the wall, it was hard not to feel small. It’s one of those boogeymen around the corner, and legends still persist from the race for the first ascent. Rope gouges a quarter inch deep burned into a belayer’s palms and dashing backwards hard to pull in rope were the only thing that de-escalated the situation to a simple broken back. It could’ve been a broken family instead. It’s a good thing that legendary belayer didn’t care much for his palms, and it’s a good thing he wore his running shoes to the crag. Two hexes and a pair of balls were all that protected the lead during that prehistoric bid for the first ascent. A snapped spine was the consequence. Modern gear brings the route down to a modest “PG-13” rating, though some insist on the “R.” At the time of the FA, before the widespread use of cams, it was a full-blown X-rated horror show.
Fear of Flying is burned into the psyche of central Texas climbing. I swear sometimes it seems folks are afraid even to toprope the line because of its reputation. The higher you climb, the wider it gets. The crux is at the top of the route in the last body-length where the crisp laser-cut corner becomes rounded and sloping from wind erosion. That means the hardest individual moves are at the precise point where you are most exhausted and the farthest run-out from your gear. That’s enough to entice a fear of flying even in the most committed climber. Reports on rockclimbing.com once listed the route as 80ft tall, and I’d often hear climbers swear till they were blue in the face that it clocked in at 100. I took a 200’ rope and measured one day…. The line is only 53ft tall, but the impact in your head is much bigger than that. When your back is turned it tends to grow a little, only to grow a lot more when you come back to face it. Turning to face it with only a pair of shoes, a chalkbag, and cajones for fall-protection it suddenly seemed much, much taller even than the internet reports. Back to that X-rating again. I swear it’s at least 120’ tall.
It’s a hell of a thing to stand at the base of a climb and look up knowing my life will soon hang by my fingertips on that stone which towers overhead. My heart was thumping in time with some 1980’s Metallica just from letting the thought skate around the edge of my consciousness. I’m tying my shoes, I’m adjusting my chalkbag, I’m shaking out and getting warmed up, I’m adjusting my chalk, I’m scratching itches, I’m smelling the rock, I’m ready to solo Fear of Flying. Fuck! There it is, no denying it, I am about to solo Fear. I’m here to go one on one with the bogeyman. No running belayer, and no rope-gouged hands will save me from my folly if I’m wrong.
It’s not something I set out to do, but I’m always training and always re-visiting old lines that have provided inspiration. One day I can toprope it, the next season I can lead it, a year later I can lead it on command, finally one day I can just feel it click. I’m one with the line, I can smell the scent in the air. Electric life fills me to the brim and I realize that I’m primed for the solo, but not today. All at once I realized I could do it, but too much electric life makes one edgy, and edgy is bad mojo.
When the time was right, I returned for the solo. I am afraid, but I know there is no reason to be so after all the practice and training I’ve invested towards this unintentional goal. And besides, I had a secret weapon. Using my entire REI Dividend, a seasonal 20% off coupon and a couple Christmas gift certificates I’d managed to score a pair of TC Pros. After taking one of those silly quizzes on Facebook (I blame the Tequila Monster for that) I learned that Tommy Caldwell is my spirit animal, with his specially designed shoe I knew I could climb more impeccably than ever. At that point, I’d soloed 5.9+ slabs and almost every 5.10 crack in the park. Physically, I was beyond prepared. Psychologically, however, I couldn’t just walk up to the boogeyman and expect passage on my own merit. What I needed was a magic weapon pulled from the stone. When I pulled Excalibur those shoes on, I knew the time was right.
Fuck. Turns out the camera was turned off. I should probably do it again for posterity…. It’s all about safety through control, and that control means being able to do it on command. Right? After all, any asshole can get lucky once. Second time’s the solo.
I’ve never paraded this video around, because I shied away from the negativity one incurs through soloing. Only reason I took the video at all is because I believe this was only the second (and third) time the route had ever been soloed. But the video is goofy, and it’s my record of a moment that just felt right. Any negativity can stuff it for all I care.
Note: embedded links will forward you to various other bits of humor that have added to this story.
So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different thing. We had no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. It was certifiably bad. “Damn you Jimmy! How the hell did I let you con me into this!” The Austrian legend Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was a world renown alpinist, big wall climber, sport climber, race-car driver, theoretical physicist and the proud owner of a small bakery whose claim to fame was a loaf of bread so delicious it caused the third world war, ended the fourth before it even began, and led to humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. Given that Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft was too long to utilize while shouting mid-pitch obscenities, most of his friends called him Jimmy. I mean really, how did I get myself into this situation?
Thirty days earlier:
So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet off the ground, a mile from where the car was parked, no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. We were benighted upon the summit of “The Frog” because Jeremy couldn’t throw a rope properly. The tangle was an incredible solid mass about the size of a basketball, we didn’t know how to get down. “Having some trouble!?” The voice sounded familiar. “Oh my god! You’re Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft!” I exclaimed. “Call me Jimmy,” he said. Jeremy couldn’t take it anymore and had to say something “what was it like,” he said. Perplexed, Jimmy asked what he was referring to. “The first free ascent of Mt Sauron!” He zoned out for a moment and he instantly recited “It was probably the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done.” It was obvious that he answered this question on a daily basis. Given that the entirety of Mordor had been evacuated on account of the ongoing eruption of Mt Sauron at the time of his ascent, It was amazing that anyone could climb it at all, let alone free. Of course the media didn’t understand it, and simply tagged the affair with the headline “MAN FREE SOLOS VOLCANO.” He finally drifted back to consciousness 15 minutes later, “Sorry, I zoned out, I get that question all the time. Where were we? RIGHT! Rescue!”
Four hours later:
So there he was, stranded. Thirty feet from his car, Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft Jimmy had no idea where he’d put his keys. To this day I’m still not sure how he managed a three man rappel using only his moustache. He had consumed too many celebratory margaritas during our rescue and couldn’t properly explain the technique, or find the keys to his vehicle. Thanks to the wonders of Tequila it was now our turn to save the day! After we drove him home he gave us a coupon for “one free adventure.” And we happily cashed it in one month later. I gotta hand it to ya, Tequlia Monster, sometimes you do get things right!
We just wished we’d appreciated his definition of “adventure” before we made the decision to accept that I.O.U.
29 days, 19 hours later:
Pop. THUD. “Shit, Here’s your corpse. Now we have the world’s first confirmed A5!” Jimmy almost seemed excited about it. Three hours earlier El Spaniard had set off on the lead for the crux aid pitch. We’d laughed good-naturedly at his predisposition for hard-aid joking “What’s hard about aid!?” Well, now that we had the world’s first confirmed A5, we finally had our answer. Given that El Spaniard had been sent to his death by an untimely fart, we all decided to concede that perhaps aid climbing was hard. The vectored thrust from his Chipotle burrito had been just enough to un-seat his hook from the dime-edge that supported his weight. We were stranded with no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind so we couldn’t afford to waste a single minute. Jimmy untied the rope and pushed “El Spaniard” off the ledge, there was no time for niceties. “Who’s next?” We all agreed that Jeremy likely had the best sphincter control. Judging by his latest triathlon times we figured he was adept at utilizing just the right amount of vectored thrust for a particular situation. In fact, they say that Jeremy won’t drink Red Bull because he doesn’t need wings to fly. Finally, we all agreed that Chipotle had to be nixed from the breakfast menu going forward, and then Jeremy set forth on the lead. Thirty seconds later he reached the end of the pitch, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. I immediately regretted the intake of breath required to breathe that sigh of relief, but Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft wasn’t phased. Apparently that moustache doubles as a gas-mask as well.
We were so close to the top, when the worst happened. The top of the cliff was suddenly inundated by a flood of Boy Scouts, and it began raining boulders! I had feared all along that it was too dangerous to pioneer a new route on such a popular scenic overlook, but Jimmy had lobbied hard to assuage my fears. And he bribed me with Tequlia. Damn you Tequlia Monster!
One of the boulders from the top smashed into our rope pile, severing the cord instantly, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft dropped our only hammer. “Damn you Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft! You’ve doomed us all on this godforsaken cliff!” I didn’t feel much like calling him Jimmy at this point, not after all we’d been through that morning.
So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different things, it was certifiably bad. “Alright Fitzhermannmensch, what do you expect us to do now!?” I was practically screaming at him, and I was mad enough to fight if I’d had the energy leftover for it. Dazed, he says “Rapell? Ve cannot Rappel… Ve only have thirty foot rope!” as if that explains everything, and without another word he began up the final 30 feet to the summit.
There were no holds, just a thin crack that would fit only the smallest pitons, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was attacking it like a mad-man. With a bottle of wine in one hand and the rope in his other he hammered the pitons in with his teeth, a technique he had learned from Warren Harding. That final pitch consumed our last three hundred and seventeen pitons, and he ran out of gear four feet from the summit. We sat there stunned at our misfortune to be utterly benighted so close to the summit, I closed my eyes for a moment to think if there was any way out and I heard him scream “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHHH WE MADE IT!” Unbelievably, when I opened my eyes he was standing triumphant at the top of the cliff! “Just had to pull a Donkey-Lock into a Figure-Pi, works every time!”
We’d done it! We’d made the first ascent of all 32 pitches in only 4 hours. Our speed we largely owed to Jeremy’s chipotle power, while our lives were owed to Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft’s signature Donkey-Lock maneuver, which still hasn’t actually been witnessed by any living human. We only know it exists because the maneuver earned him a sponsorship from “ShenaniGrams: The Breakfast of Champions,” which is guaranteed to supply 100% of your daily recommended value of Shenanigans in only one bowl. After jumarring the tattered rope to the top of the cliff, I saw Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft standing triumphantly near the car, holding something in his hand. “Hey guys, look what I found!!” At long last, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was reunited with his car keys. And that is the story of how I took the most terrifying car-ride of my life. In true keeping with the lineage of Warren Harding, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft had consumed a bottle of wine after every pitch on our ascent, and something about hearing the proclamation of “PITCH 47, SOOOO DURNK!” at 137 miles an hour in a Volkswagen Beetle just doesn’t inspire a feeling of confidence in one’s life choices.
Post-Script: Months later we questioned Jimmy about the car keys. Tempers had cooled and I no longer felt the need to beat him over the head with his full name. As it turns out, he had already onsight-free-soloed the route buck-naked wearing only a hat at the grade of 5.15d-and-a-half after drinking an entire crate of tequila and named it “Hufflepuffy Jacket.” He’d lost his car keys at the top, along with his memory of the ascent. That damn Tequlia Monster just won’t give up…
Below I will share with you a deeply compelling story from one of climbing’s central figures, and one of our best writers. Hearing the tale in John’s own voice imparts a depth and gravity to the story that will stay with you long after the audio cuts off. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the story of the day John Long quit free-soloing, but rather it is the story of a day where he gained a deep and powerful insight into the nature of climbing, life, the universe, and everything.
Cave Crack (Summer 2007) The cops in Georgia will throw you in jail and give you a comic book hero name at a measly 85 miles per hour. This is widely regarded as obscene since dropping below 80 runs the risk that you’ll be run-over by someone in a Lexus. “Super Speeder” you become, forever marked as a degenerate in the states files. In Texas we didn’t have such absurd punishments for simply getting where you’re going. Hell, we even have spots on the interstate where the speed limit itself is 85 miles per hour, so cruising over 100 to the crag was a routine maneuver, regardless of the local limits.
“HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!” we agreed that we couldn’t be sure given how late at night it was, but it looked disturbingly like a chupacabra, and was alarmingly close to the road. Suddenly we decided to take the speed limit, and those “Loose livestock” signs a lot more seriously. It might have just been a trick of the light and the fact that we were traveling at relativistic velocities, but that was the ugliest cow I’d ever seen. We kept it in the 30’s for the last leg of our journey.
Later that day:
With a sickening sensation in my stomach I realized the wall behind me arched overhead to cutoff passage along the crack. From the ground I had hoped that there was sufficient space between the two bits of wall to squeeze through, but the gap was far too small. Can’t go down, I didn’t trust myself to downclimb the 50’ crack back to the floor. Can’t go up, the wall cuts off passage that way. Can’t go right, the wall is blank and offers no escape. Logically, the only escape is out left, across a blank slab. My mind cracked in two, each half attempting to console the other, neither half attempted to come up with a solution. I’d only been climbing for something like 8 months at this point in time, I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the wall behind me offered easy chimney climbing.
As my brain began to pour out my ears (it had melted from the heat of my stupidity), I formulated a “plan,” if you’re feeling gracious. If you’re not, you’d call it a half-crazed desperate attempt to avoid accidental self-destruction. I’m feeling gracious, so I believe we’ll call it a plan.
“it’s only 5.6,” I’d said. “I’ve done crack in the gym,” I’d said. “I bet I can squeeze through that gap,” I’d said. “How hard can it be,” I’d said. In all honesty it would’ve been better had I said “I’m a bloody idiot, lets go back to the car.” But then we wouldn’t have this story.
I swirled the sling like a lasso and tossed it deep in the crack. I missed. Toss, miss, toss, miss, toss…. STUCK! Shit. It’s stuck. How the hell am I supposed to get it back to try again? There was a carabiner on the end of my sling acting as a counterweight, the idea was to toss it beyond a small chockstone, lasso the little bugger, and girth hitch my sling to it as a direct point of aid. The carabiner hadn’t gone far enough for any of that, and now it was stuck.
Stuck! Aha! If it’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere! If it’s not going anywhere, I can pull on it to yank myself to safety! I sunk one hand in a bomber jam, and yanked on it with all my might on the other hand. Seemed solid, so I yarded my way out left around the corner and onto the ledge. It was good to be alive! Just to see how solid my lifeline had been, I gave it a tug.
It practically jumped out of the crack with a light flick of the wrist. Must’ve been about A3.
“Well,” I decided, “I’m never doing that again.”
Alpspitze (August 2008) First, If I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry dad!)
We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that affect. He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route.
The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet and I rapidly escaped the ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or maybe it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face, since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.
I wondered how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. The moisture sapped heat from my fingers and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb and the only way off was up.
After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into the vertical segment of wall that it intersected. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, finally I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned backward as far as I could stomache. With this vantage point I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.
The crux 5.8 traverse on vertical rock climbed 50ft sideways like a ballet number. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.
As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit, and they looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, they grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down in confusion and I explained (in german) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”
“Oh.” They said, and walked off like that explained everything. I’d really like to know how that explains anything.
After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station I slowed to a walk, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.
Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)
I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat: (5.9+). It was a slab, and slabs are supposed to be sketchy, but I had felt incredibly solid and decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base, and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.
That’s when I noticed the bolt above my head. Apparently when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid.
Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon. One move, that’s the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.
Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead I said “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?”
It’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing.
The Nose (December 2013) “Its no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.
Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. Features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.
At the bolted belay for the first pitch I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, but after checking mountainproject on my phone, I could tell I was on-route and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing, and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.
The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. No crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy pimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust that foot.
I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.
I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I tried to downclimb, and found that my stupid self had performed a rather irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15×15 box in the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, there was no direction that looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.
I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier, when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed, when I was to hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn’t think of any.
I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving painstakingly upward. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back-off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all.
In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time and it keeps me laughing, if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.
That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another 300 since without any incidents. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous”.
Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You doing have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some very stupid things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator one day that sums it up:
“holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”
-No, can’t say I do
“Well why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”
-No, I can’t say it is
“Well why not?”
-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.
“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”
-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.
I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to die. It’s that simple.
If I feel that rush or adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.
Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.
I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It’s no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I’m still here. Not even the ones who’ve played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we’re all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You’ve only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one.