Dean_Potter

Discomfort Zone

Where are you in your climbing career?  Where were you a year ago? Two? Five? Stop, put this article away for five minutes or so and think about it.

Thinking hard about it - Photo: Julia Watson
Thinking hard about it – Photo: Julia Watson

Have you achieved the goals you set for yourself, or made progress towards them? If you have, I commend you! And even if you haven’t, it’s never too late!

Some would wonder what the point is of having goals. To me, it is a simple matter, because goals keep me from wondering “why the hell am I even doing this?” Climbing is supposed to be fun, and only you can define what “fun” means for your climbing career. It’s amazing how we can get used to even the most extreme situations. Just think back to the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car and had to drive on the freeway. For most, that was a fairly frightening experience; I know it was for me. It seems we humans can get used to anything. If we just stick with it long enough, even the most extreme situations can become mundane.

Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE
Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE

Climbing, in other words, can get boring, or if not exactly boring, we tend to fall into routine where we lose sight of that sense of wonder and amazement that brought us out onto the rocks to begin with. We grow complacent, we get comfortable and well-oriented at our home crags and gyms, it becomes familiar and routine. If you’re like many climbers, breaking routine is part of what brought you out to the wall to begin with. We lose focus and wonder “what does it matter? I could skip this session.” And then one session becomes two, and three, and one day someone asks why you quit climbing.  Remember your first trip outside or your first time at a climbing gym? How new and exciting everything was! Back then it was the definition of adventure, and now its just another day at the office.

The best thing about setting goals, is that it breaks the monotony and keeps things fresh. New climbs, more climbs, harder climbs, different areas, different types of climbing, all of these things spice up your climbing and as they say: “Variety is the spice of life.” In the end, isn’t that the purpose of climbing: To enhance life? You may risk venturing out your comfort zone, but I don’t think it’s truly an adventure until you get at least a little uncomfortable. You could be comfortable on the couch with a bowl of ice-cream streaming Netflix. (Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot easier than climbing if all you want is comfort!)

If climbing looses that luster, its much easier to burn out without even realizing it, only to look back at the past year, or two, or five and realize you haven’t done any of the things you set out to when you first flipped through a climbing magazine, browsed internet videos, and swore “I’ll be up there someday!” I hear it sometimes, this paradoxical lament from frustrated climbers who aren’t progressing: “I just don’t get it, I’m coming into the climbing gym and I’m sending everything I try, but I’m not getting any better”

Just go for it!
Just go for it!

Of course not. Sending will never make you a better climber, because sending is simply a demonstration of the skills and strength you already possess. It’s an acceptable way to benchmark progress and keep track of your progress, but at the end of the day sending does not force you to learn anything or even help you grow stronger. Edison did not create the lightbulb in a single try. He famously said that the lightbulb wasn’t the single success after a thousand failures, but rather a process that simply took 1,001 steps to complete. Sending is our lightbulb, a great achievement and the arrival at our destination. If we stay there then we’ll never progress any further. To advance we must fail, and acknowledge that there are no real failures, only a process with 1,000 more steps than we had expected.

There are different levels of fear and of consequence. The important thing is to be conscious of your surroundings, and never deliberately push it to the point of danger or terror. Fear and terror will only threaten the mental gains you’ve already made, and set you back. The key is to push it only just a bit farther than what’s perceived as your norm. Make it your goal to find the most extreme situation in which you can feel only a little uncomfortable, in relative safely. Reach just slightly outside your comfort zone and explore that space until you own it! Once you push to the point of terror, it can be very difficult to control your mind if you are unprepared, and then your mind may develop a new fear of terror that can hold you back in the future. Instead of planting a flag and claiming new land, that place will be labeled with a sign that reads “Here be monsters.”

We humans are hard wired to fear faiure, it’s natural. Putting yourself in a position to get lost at a new crag, fall off of an onsight attempt, wander off-route and pull off a micro-epic or give it your all and try your hardest can be uncomfortable. Discomfort, I think, is where we grow as climbers and as human beings. When we confront the unknown and unknowable, the outcomes are uncertain, and that’s enough to induce a certain amount of discomfort in anyone. The thing to remember is that we humans can get used to anything if we stick with it long enough, and it won’t be uncomfortable for long. That’s really all it takes to get better at climbing, and even to progress in life. Refuse to stagnate, embrace those moments of mental discomfort and stick with it until they become routine, for that is one of many markers of mastery.

Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm
Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm

Falling is not failing, it’s just another step towards sending your lightbulb and getting the idea for your next real adventure. Take pride in the process of trying, and shake things up. You can’t push your limit forward until you find it, and you won’t find it if you never fall. Climbing can enhance your life so much more than just a simple in-the-moment distraction from daily routine. All you have to do is embrace your discomfort zone!

18outdoors.1.600

Mile of Mojo: The Next Big Thing

Back in the days of the Stonemasters, the NIAD (Nose in a day) was the benchmark by which the most competent climbers measured themselves, and it’s still a huge accomplishment today. Climbing “The Nose” on El Capitan in one day requires covering 3000ft (33 pitches) of dead-vertical granite with an incredible combination of efficiency and fitness. To train for this goal, one tactic of the more audacious stonemasters was to practice at Joshua Tree by free-soloing enough laps on various climbs to total 3000ft of vertical in one day, and just like an actual climb on a big wall, you weren’t allowed to cover the same pitch twice in the day. They referred to it simply as an “El Cap Day.”

Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA
Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA

I’ve always loved big climbs, personal challenges, and free-soloing, so when I realized that I had the potential to pull off an El Cap day myself, the attraction became rather irresistible. After all, the opportunity to cover a large amount of rock with minimal hassle is one of the main reasons I choose to solo so regularly. “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing”, and this is the exact definition of “more climbing” distilled into a single day challenge. But how do you even begin prepare for something that massive?

The first problem was to find a cliff. Somewhere with 30+ pitches of terrain where I feel solid enough to leave the rope at home. Most crags were too short (for example: Sandrock, AL), or too sketchy (Looking Glass, NC). One year ago, when I first came to Shortoff Mountain and climbed “Paradise Alley” (5.8+), somewhere mid-way through the second pitch I knew I’d found the right wall for my shenanigans. Dead-vertical and slightly overhung walls with solid holds and good features for confident and controlled climbing. With wall height ranging from 300-500 feet and over a dozen routes on the “classics” list, I knew there was massive potential for soloing at this crag. This place felt like it was custom-made for soloists, but despite searching on the internet and submitting personal queries through the word-of-mouth grapevine, I was unable to get any info beyond a few rumors that a handful of routes might have been soloed at some point in the past. Nothing definitive, and certainly nothing expansive. Whatever soloing had happened here, it never became big news.

Michael Reardon's solos "Romantic Warrior" (5.12b)
Michael Reardon’s solos “Romantic Warrior” (5.12b)

After a few exploratory trips with partners, gear and ropes (you know, “normal” climbing) I decided to come in for a solo-inspection day by myself. The goal was to solo one particular climb that I thought would be the crux of my day, “Built to Tilt” (5.10b). Well, I’m not the smartest person in the world (obviously), and planned terribly for the event. We got positively HAMMERED in Greenville, SC on a Friday night, and when Sunday morning rolled around I was still feeling the effects. Un-deterred I made the 4 hour drive to the Wolf-Pit and was at the top of the Shortoff Mountain by about 1pm. The weather looked awful but I just happy to be climbing at all, and figured I’d keep going as long as the rain would hold off. I wound up soloing 2200ft, in an afternoon, mostly onsight, while sleep-deprived and slightly hungover. The rain caught me half-way up the final climb of the day: “Little Corner” (5.6 ~500ft). Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t as ambitious as I had thought. It was so outrageous, that I still read my own words about that day, and it’s like I’m reading about someone else. The guy that did that would’ve had to be crazy strong, and I didn’t feel like that guy. I mean, 2200 feet of free-soloing in one day. Who the hell does that?

But this had me thinking, what’s the next step up from an El Cap Day? And almost immediately I remembered reading about Michael Reardon’s Mile-Days and Two-Mile days out at Joshua Tree. I started flipping through the guidebook and mountain project to expand my list of potential routes. The goal is to solo one vertical mile (5,280 feet) between sunrise and sunset at Shortoff Mountain, without climbing any routes in the circuit more than once during the challenge. Extra laps on easy climbs seems like cheating, so repeats had to be nixed from the program, and since there are a finite number of climbs at a cliff, this drives the grades up. Looking at harder climbs, this was becoming less of a sure thing. Hard soloing is a scary notion, what does it take to be prepared?

First, I’ve been soloing a lot over this summer to keep my head in the game, and redefining what I consider “easy” climbing. Practicing onsight solos up to 5.11b/c and soloing rehearsed climbs up to 5.11d, then taking those same talents onto multi pitch routes, culminating in a solo of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11 ~300ft) at Shortoff Mountain. Now that I’m looking at 12-15 routes, instead of the 8-10 that would have been required for an El Cap day, I came up with a spreadsheet to keep track of the routes and what order to climb them. That’s when it hit me: This is going to be huge. Six of the fourteen climbs on my list are 5.11 and harder.

John Bachar soloing in Yosemite
John Bachar soloing in Yosemite

A couple climbs need pre-flight inspections, the cruxes are too hard and too high for me to onsight-solo comfortably. A few climbs I’m going to onsight during the challenge, and only a few climbs will be something I’ve soloed beforehand. In the end only half of the day will be spent on “familiar” terrain. Soloing in unfamiliar terrain like that begs one important question: How can you stay safe in the face of the unknown? Getting in over my head is not an option.

My evaluation comes back to the most important aspects of anchor building: Redundancy and solid placements. I have to be 100% sure of two things: First, that my hand and foot placements are solid enough that there is no risk of a fall, and second, that I have an escape option. There are four options in soloing: Climb Up, Climb Down, Climb Left, Climb Right. As long as I have at least two of those options remaining, then I have a way out if the climbing gets to be more than I bargained for. As a rule, I MUST back-off or utilize one of my escape options if I don’t think I have two of those options available in un-familiar terrain. That’s the only way to stay alive in this game, and I make sure to take more pride in the times I choose to retreat than when I send.

Beyond that, It’s just a matter of spreadsheeting to find out what questions are un-answered. What routes are ready to go? How hard are the pitches? Where is the crux? Does it need a preflight-inspection? Research beta on the internet; can it be onsighted comfortably? For the next month I’m focused on taking trips out to check up on the crux pitches and making the go/no-go decision for each one in turn. If I can’t send a route on a rope while maintaining my composure enough to carry on a conversation, it’s probably a route I’m not ready to solo. That’s really what it’s about, being calm and confident, and carrying an extra reserve of strength far beyond what is necessary to simply send the route. Because, sometimes things do go wrong, but that’s just part of the game. I have trained and prepared for those problems, and I will never solo a route unless I can send it comfortably even if many of those things go wrong on the same pitch. I have to train extra strength to maintain that physical/fitness safety net.

John Sherman solos "Lord of the Flies"
John Sherman solos “Lord of the Flies”

And so I train, and train and train like a masochist. The dates are set, and I’ve scheduled my push for the end of October. With only a month and a half until showtime, I’ve never been more stoked! The list of routes for this day, the Mile of Mojo Mega Marathon, is going to be STACKED. I still don’t know if I’m going to be able to make the full mile, but even if I don’t hit my target distance, this is going to be the single most fun day of climbing I’ve ever had in my life!

Highballs

Mental Gymnastics

Climbing is supposed to be fun, never lose sight of that! However, climbing can be scary too. Sometimes that fear is justified; for truly there can be severe consequences for anyone throwing their body around in high places with less-than-fluffy landings. In places we know are safe enough, that fear isn’t serving it’s purpose. It’s keeping us from performing at our highest levels and enjoying the rock to the fullest.

Risk assessment is the most important skill you can develop as a climber, and it’s far too much material to cover here, but I think we can all identify with times that we logically knew falling was safe… and yet we were too afraid to make another move, and became overcome with hesitation.

That’s the sort of fear I’d like to address. This deep animal-fear of high places and falling, even when we know in our heads that everything is safe. It’s frustrating knowing you held back from giving your best because of fear, especially when you suspect that you could’ve made the move otherwise.

Trying hard to believe
Trying hard to believe

I’m far from the reigning authority on mental training for climbers, but it seems I’ve got something going for me in that department. Whether I’m runout on poor gear, pushing for the desperate crux move on a safe sport route, or high off the deck on a multi-pitch bouldering run, I’ve come up with a few tactics to keep my head together, I hope they can help!

Discomfort Zone:
I was leading in a gym, took the fall, and my belayer dropped the rope. I fell 35ft to the ground fracturing two vertebrae. Needless to say, when I came back to climbing I was a bit skeptical that this whole “belay” thing would actually keep me from becoming dead. The key to recovery was simple, but subtle. I had to find the edge of my comfort zone, and slowly push it outward.

The first step is to find the most extreme, but safe, situation in which you are simply uncomfortable with the idea of falling. Somewhere you are not afraid, not terrified, but simply uncomfortable, even though you know in your head it’s going to be OK. For me, I didn’t even trust a top-rope, but I was comfortable taking bouldering falls, so for me the ideal zone was to stack a crash pad at the base of the wall, clip the first bolt and take repeated falls below the bolt until I felt comfortable falling on command.

No problems falling, push it to the max!
The falls are clean, push it to the max!

Next I pushed it to falling with the second bolt pre-clipped, then the third. Once I’d established comfort falling below these bolts, I started pushing it a little more. I fell as my knot was even with the third bolt. Next I climbed until my knot was even with the fourth, I noted the discomfort, and performed controlled falls until I was comfortable. Then I pushed slightly above it. And so on, up the wall, higher and higher, lengthening the falls only once I became truly comfortable with the current step. It took about 4 months for me to regain my confidence in the ropes, but it worked! Now I can confidently take a fall anywhere, anytime, as long as I know in my head I am safe.

It was spooky, it made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t terrified. Discomfort is where we, as humans, grow and progress forward. We have a natural tendency to shirk away from the unknown and stay in a place we know we have mastered. This is useful, it keeps us from doing crazy things that could get us hurt, but the key is to perform a risk assessment whenever you experience fear. Afterwards you should stop, think back, and decide whether the fear was a response to actual danger, or hesitation from pushing outside your own realm of mastery. If it was the latter, then perhaps you’ve found a good spot to grow as a climber! Just remember, it takes time, progress is slow. After all, you are re-writing your instincts, and your mind doesn’t give those up easily. But be warned, if you push yourself to the point of terror and fear, then you will only re-enforce those fear-based instincts causing a feedback loop which further entrenches your hesitation and limits your enjoyment of climbing.

Dreadfully runout on "Gravitron (5.11d X)"
Dreadfully runout on “Gravitron (5.11d X)”

Chicken Laps:
I sometimes would notice that I had a tendency to “chicken-clip” and “chicken-whip.” By “chicken-clip,”  I mean I would get anxious, thinking I couldn’t clip from the necessary holds, grab the nearest off-route hold, and clip the next draw for a temporary top-rope. TAKE! “Chicken-whip” means coming into a move I thought I could not do, and taking a whipper (a.k.a. lead-fall) rather than try to make the uncertain moves.

The problem wasn’t that I feared the fall, I had already overcome that. The main problem was that I was too lazy to re-climb, boink, or do whatever was required to get back up to that spot and “wasting” that effort made me uncomfortable. Think about where you climb the most. There are probably a good many routes that you KNOW you could send on-command, right now. Pick the hardest one of those routes, and get on it.

Highballing at the Hueco Tanks
Highballing at the Hueco Tanks

Great send! Now climb it again. and again. and again. Pick your most trusted belayer and, climb laps on it until you fall off. Here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to chicken-whip, or chicken-clip under any circumstances. Choose the hardest route that you know you can send on-command, with safe falls on the whole route. Even if you absolutely KNOW that you can’t make the move, or can’t make the clip try with everything you have. PUNCH IT IRMA! You just might discover that you had a lot more in the tank than you anticipated. I’ve seen people climb for 50’ straight thinking “there’s no way I can make another move!!!” But somehow they completed the whole route! You get stronger without having to wait for the results of finger-boarding to kick-in!

Just Wait:
Sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes there is actually some good reason to be afraid of falling, and you’re stuck, committed, and you can’t back off. Sometimes you have fears on a route that no amount of falling or trickery will save you from. When I started climbing I was terribly afraid of heights. I was terrified, and that was the entire reality of my situation. Every move trickled more dread, adrenaline and fear into my system, threatening to overload my senses, but it wasn’t over yet.

Just wait. Don’t make another move. Stop. Pause, breathe. Think. This hand-hold is good enough, this foothold is sticking. I’m not going anywhere right now, I’ve got time. Use that time. Breathe, let your heart rate come down, and stop thinking about the fear. Think about what you have going for you, because you’re not falling yet, but if you keep hurtling towards overload you definitely will. Pause, create some space in your head where you can think again, focus on that breath. Pause, look at the fear and just inspect it in your mind. Realize that the fear is just a sensation like heat, cold, nervousness, or wind on your skin. Once the waters of your mind have stilled enough to think again, perform a risk-assessment and come up with a plan to climb on or back-off.

The important thing is to think and act, rather than marinate in the

Fully committed on the slabs of "Dreamscape (5.11c/d)"
Fully committed on the slabs of “Dreamscape (5.11c/d)”

terror and react desperately without control. Building this habit of control in stressful situations will serve you well both on, and off the rock!

Lazy Projecting:Some folks like to take on the “Never say take!” method of climbing, which can is great for performance, when you’re trying to climb your hardest, but greatly limits your ability to project routes and discover beta. Instead I prefer to take on gym projects with a Take-Take-Fall approach. Climb until very hear your limit, TAKE! Shake off, rest, recover, climb to another “take” position. Shake off, rest, recover, climb straight until failure. This way you can figure out moves and beta, and still maintain your mental training all in the same run!

After a practicing you might find yourself climbing through your two “takes” then reaching the anchors without falling. Now cut it down to Take-Fall, when you reach the top this way you know the send is imminent, and you can begin climbing straight until you fall. Then the key is simply to push your high point farther and farther up each day.

Final Notes:

It’s important to set goals whenever you climb, and even more so when training. If you don’t have any goal, how do you know if the training is working? How can you select methods to train with no target in mind? Having fun in the climbing gym is a worth goal, but I see many climbers frustrated with their current levels of performance wanting more, but not knowing how.

The simplest shift you can make to get better is to designate a goal for your climbing day. Are you here to send, to train your body, or train your mind? Any of these are compatible with having fun, and showing up just to have fun is crucial for maintaining stoke and preventing burnout. But when you want to progress you have to decide: Do I want to send, or do I want to become a better climber?

Sending is just a demonstration of the ability you already have, if you really want to get better then you have to push yourself to the limit. If you’re truly at your limit, you’re bound to fall. And if you’re uncomfortable with falling, you’ll inevitably fall short of your limit and progress slower. Just don’t forget, no-one ever built strength in a gym, on the rock, or on a hangboard. They built their strength asleep in bed the during nights after a high-quality training session! So if your body is sore, sometimes sitting on the couch is the best training program you could hope for. Resting after a good session is like building strength without having to work!

Enjoying the exposure
Enjoying the exposure
Whoops!

Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 3)

Onsighting is rad, but man can it be scary. My second multi-pitch route ever wound up with becoming marooned off route on seemingly impossible terrain (my head couldn’t understand 5.9 slab at that point in time). After rigging some insane contraption with leftover cordolette to essentially create a via-ferratta back to the route, I was finally safe again… but I’d definitely used up all of my water and about 90 minutes of our limited daylight in the SNAFU.

I can’t remember for the life of me whether that happened on the same trip as my first solo, or a different one. Either way you’d think it would’ve served as a distinct warning for someone wiser that diving in over my head was definitely a bad idea.

There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore
There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore

So there we were, staring up at “Cave Crack” in Enchanted Rock. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the top to setup a toprope anchor for belaying, so in an act of infinite wisdom I made a decision. Hey, it’s 5.6… how hard can it be? So I harnessed up, packed up the rope on my back in a backpacker’s coil, clipped on a couple wads of webbing for TR anchors and set off.

It was essentially a train-wreck from the onset. I had approximately 4 days of cumulative experience in learning to perform hand-jams and the hardest crack I’d ascended to that point was a 5.8, but the slabbed crack was just easy enough to lull me into a false sense of security, and I wasn’t stopping.

Higher and higher I climbed up into the chasm of cave crack, with webbing drooping off my harness snagging in my feet as I tried to move. I readjusted, tried to re-tie it one handed, and continued onward. Useless. It was still getting snagged. Move. Jam the hand, work the foot… stop, tease body parts out of the webbing, continue, repeat. Finally, I made it to the overlap where the wall behind cuts off the crack. From the ground I had assumed that the gap between the walls was enough to squeeze through, or that I’d at least be able to span out around the corner from where they met…

Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear
Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear

That wasn’t the case. The walls pinched far too close together to squeeze through, and as I reached blindly around the corner I found… nothing. There was nothing there! and that’s when the panic set in. I couldn’t climb up, the walls pinched together. I couldn’t climb out to the right, the walls formed a cave that cutoff movement. I couldn’t down climb, I was too inexperienced. and I couldn’t make my way out left through the opening because there were no holds. Actually, the holds were plentiful, but I was too inexperienced to understand the slab movement required to escape my predicament.

The guys on the ground were getting nervous, and I could hardly blame them. I was about to die. I was sure of it. I sat there, perched with my foot on a chock-stone in the crack, pondering my options and considering what life choices had led me to this awful end.

We didn't know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!
We didn’t know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!

And then it hit me. There was a chockstone deep in the crack. I had webbing! That same accursed web which had ensnared my feet through the entire ascent would be my savior! All I had to do was lasso that chockstone and I was home free. I loosened the wad of webbing into a single long loop, wound up my arm and threw….

Too short. Wind up, toss, WAY too short. So I started spinning the webbing for momentum using the carabiner as a counterweight to throw farther into the crack. Finally it shot past! but it didn’t come back close enough for me to catch it and hitch the chockstone. I pull it and try again. And again. And again… and again…. Oh HELL! I’m dead. There’s no way out of this. my last line of hope just failed, the carabiner was stuck in the chockstone and I couldn’t reel my line in to try again.

My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)
My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)

And that’s where I started laughing like a maniac. Ohhh no its stuck…. what am I going to do? Wait. It’s stuck. IT’S STUCK! Yes! Thank every diety imagined by man! It’s stuck. If it’s stuck, that means it’s not coming out, and I can pull on it to get myself to safety. I set a solid hand jam and test-tugged at my “lifeline” with all my might… seems solid enough. I leveraged myself out into the hold-less void and around the roof… JUGS! I’m free.

With minimal discussion I set the toprope so everyone else could climb, and made a vow to myself right then and there. WOW! That was stupid, and I’m NEVER doing that again!

Never again eh? "Never Believe (5.11b)"
Never again eh? “Never Believe (5.11b)”
Jeremy wonders "Wat are these clippy things for?"

Life is an Inherently Dangerous Sport

Once again I find myself out visiting my favorite routes, enjoying the day, cranking the tunes through my earbuds, occasionally singing along out of tune to the amusement or dismay of those nearby, when someone suddenly yells at me “Get down from there! You have so much to live for!”

Yes, I know. I’m doing it right now.
I am a free soloist, and I’m not the only one.

"dude you forgot your rope!"
“dude you forgot your rope!”

Climbing is inherently dangerous. We mentally hit “I accept” every time we see the big red warning in a guidebook or climbing gym, but it never feels real to most. At least it doesn’t seem real until you read a news story of a soloist perishing on a climb, or you meet me at the crag on one of my mojo missions. Now it becomes real. I frequently draw a mixed bag of reactions, from genuine concern to horror, rage, elation, contempt and simple confusion. Well intentioned folks try to point out all the possibilities that could lead to an accident: there could be loose rock, there could be bugs, there could be wet rock. These all have happened to me, and I expect them to happen again. But somehow these things never come up when a roped climber dies. Everyone stares at their feet muttering “how sad, what a tragedy,” but they never seem to get angry at the victim for climbing. What about all those times you’ve said “It’s okay, I’m not going to fall” in a sketchy situation, is that not the same thought for which many criticize soloists so angrily? You solo every time you get into a car and drive down the road with much more than your own life is at risk, you could kill someone else as well. Then that’s it, it’s over, and it had nothing to do with that person or their abilities. Life is inherently dangerous, and climbing is just a part of that.

Somehow the death of a soloist heightens climbers’ awareness of danger in ways that the death of a roped climber seemingly never will. When a soloist perishes I see an outpouring of rage and confusion. “why couldn’t he just be safe,” they say, “then he would still be here.” Unfortunately, it seems that we are not the ones you have to worry about the most at the crag. We assess and calculate risks frankly and coldly, for it is impossible not to see the potential consequences of mistakes without a rope, falling is death. Then, often, we walk away. No climb is worth my life, this is why I don’t climb for adrenaline, and stay off the rock if I ever feel adrenalized. The only one who feels a rush is one who truly feels life in peril and believes the situation has become dangerous. I don’t like danger, danger gets people killed, I like calm days of relaxed climbing.

yup, definitely better than soloing
yup, definitely better than soloing

How about you? How often have you contemplated the risks and consequences of your actions at the crag or gym? How often have you roped up with a complete stranger without a second thought (he has a belay cert, that means I’m “safe”)? What about the guy at the crag that loads his gri-gri backwards, another who isn’t practiced in lowering and thumbs the lever fully open, the fools guiding trips for their friends without proper understanding of anchor building, the unfortunate ones who think everything will be okay because the Cinch is an “auto-locking” belay device, the ones who climb for adrenaline ever seeking more and more thrill, and the ones who confidently spout unsafe information with an air of authority? And what about you for believing them without questioning, doing your own research, or testing the theory? Safety is no substitute for competency, all the gear in the world is useless if you don’t understand it’s uses and limitations
(no, the cinch  is NOT an “auto-locking” belay device, particularly not on modern skinny ropes.) Do your self a favor, read John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” and extend your life expectancy. Oh, and just for the record, the man that wrote the bible on climbing safety? He was a soloist too.

What scares me is that there are folks who don’t know they’re soloing, because there was an idiot on the other end of their rope, their leader had built an incompetent anchor system, or they simply don’t have a full understanding of their equipment. Now that, this inherent trust we grant to each other, and this sense of entitlement to safety which makes us feel everything will be okay, is terrifying. Gravity is heartless. Gravity does not care if you wore a rope. Existing at height is dangerous, and can only be made safer through applying a certain skillset. Thinking otherwise is foolhardy at best, deadly at the worst.

To me, this is the biggest threat to our lives as climbers. The gym culture we live in has almost completely removed any understanding of calculated risk from an inherently risky activity. How hard do we think before trusting a new partner, their draws, their rope, and their competency? If the climbers yelling at soloists from the ground and the safety of the internet offered each other as much skepticism as they offer me, I think we would have remarkably fewer accidents and close calls. Perhaps Tito Traversa would still be alive.

Do you know how to inspect your anchors?
Do you know how to inspect your anchors?

It’s not a matter of me holding my life in my hands on the wall, but about every climber taking responsibility for their own and often someone else’s life, many without a second thought to the consequences of a mistake. We so rarely stop to contemplate the gravity of our situation on the wall that it has become routine for someone to hit the deck at the gym without anyone batting an eyelash. This is why I’m thankful when someone double-checks my equipment, and this is why I have an informal “pre-flight checklist” before leaving the ground with or without the rope.

There are people out there behaving dangerously on the wall. But anyone who is going to solo knows what they’re up against, and they will not be dissuaded through your attacks. If it were that easy to deflect my course, I wouldn’t be in that position of high-consequence to begin with. Accidents will continue to happen in climbing, but attacking the soloist is a poor way to prevent them. Save your anger and use it somewhere it can be helpful.

Life is an onsight, and there are no second chances. In the end, you’re not so different from me; It only takes one mistake, one false step and you’re gone. Calculated risk can never be eliminated from climbing, it is all part of the game of defying gravity. Nothing will prolong your life more than simply acknowledging and understanding the risks you take on a daily basis, whatever they may be. Life truly is inherently dangerous, and I think John Bachar nailed it when he said “You’re soloing right now.”

 

 

 

Thanks to Julia Watson and Philip Hutcheson for help editing, and to Jeremy Carson for allowing his face to show up at the top of the page!

PS: Though Jeremy looks confused on the Featured Image, he’s the most solid climbing partner I’ve ever had!

Photo Credit: Julia Watson

Back in the Saddle

Recently, I sent my hardest climb ever outdoors at 5.12b. This might sound surprising since I’ve also recently soloed 5.11c/d, and those numbers are really close together!

I have a very odd relationship with hard climbing, and we truly haven’t always gotten along. I once was completely obsessed with hard routes, chasing the next number and progressively seeking out harder and harder climbs to test myself and project them into submission. Unlike most sport-climbers, I never was stoked on bouldering, which always served my quirky side (which is pretty large side of my personality). Years ago, I was determined to skip from 5.11 to 5.13. I had trained hard with campus boards and finger boarding and was sending hard enough climbs in the gym that this didn’t seem utterly preposterous. The guys who were my peers on a rope would regularly boast about sending a V8 outside, or doing several v7’s in a training session, and even crushing V10 at Hueco. Me? I did a V5…. this one time.. I think… it was pretty much a fluke… A good bean burrito may have helped with the rocket-power I needed to “float” the crux…

Rocket powered crux mojop! Photo Credit: Daria Lumina

But I was definitely climbing hard grades on a rope.

This eventually led me to climbing in comps and generally performing absolutely, incredibly, poorly. Despite demonstrating dogged delusions of grandeur, I never made the podium at a single event, and rarely even managed to turn in a full score-card! It was bloody demoralizing. This awful bitter taste of raw competitiveness and the stress of being required to send things wasn’t enjoyable to me, and this led me to complete burnout for a while.

Some gals (and guys) are strong, and they generally run around the boulder pit crushing my projects as warmups. While I might not be as strong as some, I hold on like a complete bastard! Endurance is my thing, and it works out great because that just allows me to do my favorite thing: More climbing. But that doesn’t work out so well in a comp setting when many of the routes have cruxes that specifically test inhuman crush-power. Having my weakness so thoroughly exploited made me decide that I hated hard climbing, and I almost resigned myself to climbing easy for eternity.

Contemplating life before attempting an onsight Photo: Julia Watson
Contemplating life before attempting an onsight Photo: Julia Watson

At that point, I stopped redpointing outdoors, and got bored with climbs I couldn’t onsight. Somehow, that didn’t stop me from accidentally sending two 12a’s a few years back. Failing to onsight them had me far more bummed out than I had any right to be. I mean, those are the hardest climbs I had redpointed until this past 4th of July weekend and that’s kinda crazy! My hardest redpoint was a climb that I had intended to onsight. I went on to fall off the onsight attempt on a few more 12a’s at the Red a year ago, one-falling them and such, and haven’t ventured much out of 5.11 since then, because I’ve been living in a blur of onsight climbing, visiting different crags each weekend. There’s just too much rock to enjoy!

I LOVE the onsight, in part because it’s so unrelentingly difficult and absolutely intolerant of mistakes. It’s high stakes because you drive miles and hours on end, pumping and thumping the engine, swerving corners at relativistic velocity as you pilot your vehicle through mountain roads and dirt tracks (or maybe that’s just me?). Then you stride through a gentle approach… or don’t.. You trudge grudgingly up some forlorn pile of scree dropped straight from Warren Harding’s worst nightmares, get lost, wander around, mistakenly find the summit of your cliff, cuss yourself, cuss the rock, almost cuss your adventure partners, ACTUALLY cuss your adventure partners, then finally you make it to the rock intact and rested… or not. And then it’s go-time, and you don’t want to disappoint the climbing partner that you dragged along for the ride. You go through those little familiar rituals like tying the rope, smelling the rock, checking the belay devices, doing the hokey-pokey football home-run dance, and you’re off.

And that’s it. It’s full on now, you haven’t but the vaguest notion of what is ahead of you, there’s a crimp! it sucks, check the side-pull, that’s worse, pocket undercling? RUN WITH IT! Bam you’re at the jug, way above your last gear, or maybe there’s a bolt at face-height. Regardless, things look grim, you contemplate life… and you’re off again.

It’s this constant push and pull where you’re uncertain about moving

Soloing barefoot, with a hat, because... why not? Photo: Bibi Garcia Diehl
Soloing barefoot, with a hat, because… why not? Photo: Bibi Garcia Diehl

forward and afraid to go back in defeat. Moving forward and getting every bit as tested as a red point because you’re taking in information about all these holds and the geometry of the rock, thinking about fall potential, considering body positions and rapidly spinning it into an action plan on the fly, it feel’s like doing calculus during a gymnastics routine and you have to go with it. If you say “take” it’s over, you’ve lost the onsight. You make a plan and you’re stuck, committed, backing out takes too much effort so you push on even if it’s the dumbest move you’ve ever made, and you come out the other side triumphant. Or don’t. And then you’re on to the next one. In some ways the onsight attempt is a neat little metaphor for life. You don’t know what’s around the corner, you have to take it all in a rush, push on when you’re not sure, commit to a course of action and be ready to accept the outcome of your efforts no matter how the cookie crumbles.

And that’s the thing, lately, when I “fail” on an onsight, oftentimes I’d fall laughing. And that probably should have been my first sign that my psyche was ready to climb hard again, but I kept shirking away from difficulty until I was at Foster Falls and we’d committed a day at the end of the trip to projects, which meant I had to find one…

So, naturally, I tried to escape by finding another potential onsight, and took a glorious 20’ whipper near the last bolt for “Bottled Up Warrior” (5.12a/b). Now I was out of options and it all finally clicked. You’ve all heard it before (#lastdaybestday), third day of climbing in a row, last day of the trip, hot and humid weather, third hard route of the day, tired as hell with raw fingers, I’m not feeling this so… HOLY CRAP I SENT IT!!!! Wait, if I just sent that on a day like this…. I wonder how hard I could send if I really tried?

My hardest redpoint is 5.12b, my hardest free solo was 5.11d, my hardest onsight was 5.11c, and my hardest multi-pitch is a climb that I onsight soloed on a day that I felt like crap. A few months ago, I asked someone stronger than me for training advice, and after a quick verbal assessment of my training he said “it sounds like you’re not trying hard enough,” which shook me up a bit because I thought I was trying hard already. Little did I know how right he was. Now free-soloing has almost caught up to my maximum roped grade, it’s time to warrior up and start trying hard!

I still don’t intend to spend multiple trips projecting anything over weeks and months, but I’m definitely on the lookout for difficult climbing. As my solo grades inch higher and higher, I’ll increasingly need the experience of hard climbs to expand my comfort zone enough to keep it sane on my mojo-missions.

Looks like I’m back in the saddle again, and it’s time to climb hard! (now I just need some time off from work!)

Champagne Jam at Sandrock, AL
Champagne Jam at Sandrock, AL

Origins: Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 2)

I did it! I finally did it! I climbed 5.10! (wondering what 5.10 is? here’s a guide for the un-initiated) After six months of throwing myself against the wall desperate for forward progress against the merciless clutches of gravity, I was sweating, I was tired, I was completely and utterly spent, and I fought like I’d never fought before in my life.

I DID IT!!!! now put me down before I bass out....
I DID IT!!!! now put me down before I pass out….

I remember that feeling; “This means I’m a REAL climber!” It was pure elation, the culmination of work and training, and it was a sentiment that I would echo over and over again throughout my climbing career, and will continue to echo in my future. “This is it, I’m FINALLY a real climber!” To me, 5.10 was the entry point, It’s where things get real, where most folks can’t get away with luck anymore and they have to try for the first time. This is probably why it’s the standard requirement for lead-climbing tests at most gyms, they want to make sure your mettle has been properly tested before you take to the sharp end.

Lunch atop the backside of Enchanted Rock, this place is good mojo!
Lunch atop the backside of Enchanted Rock, this place is good mojo!

But I’d top roped the climb, I hadn’t led it, and that left me wanting more. A month or two later, everyone laughed with me when I won the rope bag at the climbing competition. I didn’t know how to lead, or build anchors, or even own a rope, at least not until the pulled my name out of the hat and I won that too! That moment set the course of my entire climbing career, I had the bag, the rope, the 5.10 skills and no knowledge. $40 and a 4 hour course later, I was lead certified, I was finally legit. It felt like I’d been given my “Certified Badass” card, and I felt eight feet tall as I set myself to leading all the 5.6’s, 5.7’s, 5.8’s, 5.9’s…. I had to scale the grades and test my mettle, and then I had to lead 5.10. That mythical grade would truly be mine now. That felt good. I thought to myself again, “THIS means i’m a REAL climber!” It was summer in Texas and it was HOT outside but that lead certification was good for one thing; once I’d won that rope, we immediately planned our first trip outside, but I didn’t have a clue what to do, none of us did. Between the gracious council of my instructor and many tips gathered from google, our first trip to Enchanted Rock was a success. We didn’t climb anything hard, mostly lots of sketchy scrambling to reach toprope anchors so we could drop into something, but I felt that feeling again. For the third time in a month this meant I’d finally made it. At last, I was a real climber!

The moment of truth, gearing up for the day's climbs
The moment of truth, gearing up for the day’s climbs

Later in that same summer, I knew I was onto it. I had the scent and the game was afoot. Climbing was about going big, and if you want to go big you have to go multi-pitch. The only hitch was the fact that we couldn’t afford a guide, so we booted up the laptop and googled the practices of building anchors from natural features and bolts. After roughly 30 minutes of perusing articles we figured we understood the gist of it, and were underway on another grand adventure to become “real climbers.” We were engineering students, how hard could it be to figure out how to tie a few pieces of rope together and flop our way up a 5.7? Well, I nearly browned my pants. Turns out nobody has any semblance of a realistic slab within the walls and confines of a climbing gym, especially not anything like the friction slabs at Enchanted Rock where the difference between success and failure is often just finding a piece of rock that appears a bit rougher than that around it. I was completely unprepared for the type of climbing before me. It was the most terrifying 5.5 I’d ever climbed, only my second outdoor lead, I knew in my head that there was no possible way my feet could stick, and I nearly broke down on the final pitch. Staring at that anchor-to-anchor runout for nearly 100ft of 5.3 terrain left me feeling almost limp with mortal fear. There’s no way I’m a real climber, not if it means dealing with this! As it turns out, nobody really prepares you for the mental game in a climbing gym. Move after move I painstakingly inched my way forward, hoping for an anchor with none in sight, legs shaking, breathing hard, sweating like a dog, fearing the long drop that I knew was inevitable. Eventually I spied an anchor station 50ft to the right and traversed over to join it. My first multi-pitch climb was completed, and now I was a real climber.

the long stretch of rope separating triumph and terror
the long stretch of rope separating triumph and terror

I don’t know if we ever make it there, honestly. It seems that the more I know about climbing, the more I want to know and realize there is to learn. As to what is a “Real Climber,” who cares? Alex Lowe nailed it on the head: “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”

"Am I doing it right!? I don't know, but it feels awesome!!!"
“Am I doing it right!? I don’t know, but it feels awesome!!!”

That’s all we’re here for. It’s not to be impressive, boost your ego at the expense of others, competition, or to achieve some arbitrary ever-changing definition of “real” or “authentic.” It’s not about climbing hard, trad, sport, boulder, multi-pitch, big wall, this grade, or that. It’s about having the absolute most fun you can have, that’s how you know you’re doing it right. Climbing should feel good. It makes me feel better about myself, it makes me happy with things that genuinely suck, it boosts my self-esteem and after a good trip out balances the world leaving me ready to return to work and the weekly grind. If it happens to be impressive, or competitive, or hard, sport, trad, boulder, pebble, or whatever, as long as it’s rad and it’s enjoyable I know I’m doing it right.

where. are. the. holds???

There is no definition of “real” climber, the important thing is to climb what feels real to you. Everyone has their own flavor on the vertical and nobody can dictate that to you. Don’t climb like you do just because you “should.” If we all ascribed to imitation of others’ games,  the notion of sport climbing would never have evolved at all, for at one time bolting on rappel was considered to be the most utter blasphemy. Someone had to go against the grain. If some style of climbing inspires you and resonates with your idea of a good time, try it and create your own brand of climbing! In the end, you could argue that we are conquistadors of the useless. Sending a hard climb won’t get us ahead, it won’t improve the world, and it doesn’t pay the rent. But maybe, hopefully, if we do it right, we can transcend ourselves for just that one moment it takes to clip the chains and inspire someone.

This past weekend, over July 4th, I got to experience it in an all new way. I took my friend “Opie” out to Foster Falls for his first real outdoor climbing trip, and he onsighted his first lead. That’s good mojo, and now…. well, he’s a real climber too!

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