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.
There are a few governing principles to adhere to while building a good climbing anchor, and these have been outlined in John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” for decades now as the informal acronym SRENE:
S – Solid
R – Redundant
E – Equalized
NE – No Extension
I like to emphasize one more point that often gets ignored: Simple. The more simple the anchor the better, as long as it gets the job done well. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in an industrial setting on cell tower sites it’s this: People most often ignore safety when it’s a pain in the ass to achieve. If you insist that folks utilize a safety system with 27 knots for 10 points of protection it may be solid enough to lift your house, but we’re not in the business of lifting houses. They’ll most likely say to hell with your safety and go back to doing it the old way, or invent something of their own. Sometimes, it seems folks would rather risk an un-planned swan-dive (minus the water) than deal with the slightest inconvenience. Because of this, I try to make things easy enough that they don’t have even the lamest excuse to skimp. And yet some idiot out there still refuses to wear a seat-belt… We’re not here to come up with a good “in the lab” description of anchors, but to meet reality head on in the face of Old Man Gravity.
I’ve been constantly frustrated with anchor systems. Ever since my first multi-pitch trip I’ve always had this feeling that they were missing a certain “I don’t know what” and for about six years now I’ve been reading anything I could get my hands on to understand how to prevent accidents and understand the precise mechanics of keeping oneself safe and efficient on the vertical. The more you know, the more you can improvise and experiment. The more you know, the more likely it is you can come up with a good tool for the job. The more you know, the more likely it is you’ll find that certain “I don’t know what.” The more you know, the better you’ll understand the fine art of not killing yourself.
Now, for the first time in my climbing career I have an anchor system that I truly love building, and it’s made multi-pitch anchoring so straightforward that it feels like I’m cheating! But first a little about the anchors I disliked along the way, and the benchmarks we use to assess them.
Solid – For years climbers would simply slug a few pitons in the rock, clip them with plain oval biners, clove hitch the rope into them, and call it good. The system lacks complicated rigging, but anchor failure was still incredibly rare. Fresh pitons that have just been hammered in by your own hands are solid and multi-directional. Each piece of protection was utterly bomber, and that was the driving force behind safety in these simplistic anchors. One thing cannot be overstated: Without solid pro, no amount of rigging can save you. If every anchor point in your matrix can withstand a leader-fall on its own then the rigging is an afterthought. The main concern of rigging is that it is impossible to know all the variables. Someday, somewhere, you will get it wrong, and you’d better be prepared. Old Man Gravity is intolerant of incompetence, and remains ever vigilant in waiting us to make a mistake.
Redundant – For bolted belays, with absolutely bomber anchors that show no signs of corrosion or weakness, two points of protection are fine, otherwise three should be considered the benchmark. Occasionally I’ll place a fourth piece when the gear is small, though I suspect this is mental duct-tape. That fourth piece is mostly for psychological comfort.
Never trust a single piece of gear unless it’s the rope or your belay, those two items are so over-built that if they fail… well, we’ve got bigger problems than your anchor building skills. Everything else should be eyed with suspicion lest we wind up heading face first for a six-foot dirt-nap.
Keep in mind, since we’re relying on inviolate belays and ropes, they MUST be well cared for. Slings and soft-goods are to be hitched through your hardpoints, not your belay loop. This is how your harness is designed to be used. Using slings on your belay loop can cause it to wear prematurely. It is not designed for the wear and tear from your soft-goods and should only be used for connections with hardware, such as carabiners. If you don’t believe me, look up you manufacturer’s specifications and put a little research into the untimely demise of Todd Skinner. If you have to ask, replace it.
Equalized – Sure, your individual pieces are solid. Solid enough to hold a fall on their own, but just in case you had a judgement in error, and because sometimes placements can be compromised by shifting loads (for instance pivoting back and forth at a scant belay stance to avoid feeling your butt cheeks going numb), we want to help them out as much as we can. To this purpose we attempt to equalize our anchors, in other words we attempt to share the load as evenly as possible between the multiple points of protection in our anchor. For this to work well, the entire anchor must be aligned with the most likely direction of force. If it is possible for the impact on the anchor to come from varying angles (say there is a traverse for the follower after the last point of protection in the pitch), then we must have an auto-equalizing system, or employ extra pieces of gear for an omni-directional anchor.
No Extension – It should be noted that this has been revised by John Long and others to become “Low Extension.” There is no such thing as a “perfect” anchor, in large part because it is simply impossible to have a well equalized anchor with no risk of extension should a piece fail. The rigging which allows for self-equalizing must be able to self-adjust, and this naturally introduces some possibility that your rigging will extend in the event that a piece should fail. That extension will cause a shock load on the system.
Anchors are an exercise in Risk Assessment, and here we have two risks: The risk of a piece failing, and the risk that extension will cause a shock-load causing additional failures. To mitigate these risks we first try to avoid failing placements altogether with our first point “Solid.” Second we make sure to “Equalize” so that a potential shock-load will be shared between pieces, giving them a better chance to survive. Finally, we make sure that our anchor is “low extension,” as lower falls generate lower impact forces. That way, even if a piece does fail, we will minimize the shock load delivered to our anchor.
What is “low” extension? Everybody has their own answer to this, and it’s a very personal choice, but we want it to be as low as possible. One of the industrial guidelines followed by tower climbers asserts that a method of fall protection can be deemed acceptable if falls are reduced to less than two feet. In other words, the industrial definition of “low extension” is two feet. A two foot fall is fairly short and you won’t build up much momentum, and so I use this as my own personal guideline of the MAXIMUM allowable extension in a worst-case scenario, though less is always better.
Now for the anchors themselves!
Okay, this one looks cool, slick and simple, but let’s see how it would pass John Long’s SRENE test.
Redundant – The biggest failure of the Sliding X is the fact that the entire anchoring system consists of a single sling, and if that piece of software fails you’re hosed. It immediately missses the whole point of multi-point anchor building. Using a Sliding-X is little better than trusting life to a single nut or cam as it still has a single piece of gear that can lead to a total failure!
Equalized – On the face of it, this system seems to be a perfect auto-equalizing system that will adjust to any direction of pull; however lab tests indicate that the “X” tends to cinch up on itself in about 1 of 10 falls. This causes 90% of the load to land on a single piece, and that’s no good. Even if this only happens rarely, I don’t like a system that “usually” works. The soloist in me won’t allow a gamble like that, it has to be a system that ALWAYS works as advertised, or it’s not worth the trouble.
Low Extension – By its very nature, the Sliding X is prone to large extension. In the event of a failure, it will shock-load the single sling and only remaining piece of gear. The extension can be reduced with the use of “limiter knots,” but these introduce complexity into the system and can be difficult to un-tie and deconstruct the anchor if they’ve been weighted, which makes it less likely that they will actually be used by climbers in the wild, even though they are a very good idea.
W-Cordolette: This is fairly simple to create, it’s only drawback in the fact that it can sometimes be difficult to line up the legs appropriately and still be able to tie the master point. Overall, it’s good enough to pass the “Simple” test.
Redundant – This is a perfect example of redundancy! Three independent legs, one for each piece, with a master point that has three loops. If any part of the Cordolette was cut, there would be backup bits of string lashing you to the wall.
Equalized – At first glance this looks like a very well equalized system; however, a little bit of logic and results from drop-tests dispel this illusion rapidly. If the fall comes PERFECTLY aligned with the direction the anchor is constructed, it will equalize okay, but if the fall comes even slightly off course, you can see that slack will be introduced into one or more of the legs, placing the entire load on a single piece. Additionally, since all rigging materials have some amount of stretch, the shortest leg always absorbs the brunt of the impact force since it’s rigging won’t stretch as far as the other legs.
Low Extension – This anchor should have no extension whatsoever if the fall comes in the intended direction, and minimal extension when directed off course, but it’s poorly equalized because of this. Still, if your placements are solid, and there is no swing in the fall, you should be fine. This anchor was considered the standard for a long time, and the scenarios that can lead to an anchor failure are few, and usually involve a long swinging fall from the follower, which torques the anchor out of alignment since it cannot auto-equalize, and leads to failure as the pieces of gear swivel in place to follow the arcing fall trajectory.
Equalette: This was John Long’s answer to the problems of the W-Cordollette, it introduces much better performance, and a bit more complexity. With each 3-piece anchor you must (at the minimum) tie a figure-8 knot and two clove hitches. Unfortunately I have found that the clove hitches tend to bind awkwardly on most carabiners (except ovals). Additionally the master point is formed by two carabieners, and requires a third to hang your belay device, and the clove hitches have a slip-strength of only 1,000lbs (4.45 kN).
Redundant – Each piece has its own independent leg, and the master point has redundancy as well. Even if your clove-hitches slipped, they’re tied on different legs of a loop which is closed so they won’t slip off the anchor entirely.
Equalized – This system is always well equalized between two points (Our best so far), as the load swings through an arc it will swap between which of the clove-hitched pieces is sharing the load with your primary placement.
Low Extension – With pre-tied limiter knots this is a fairly low extension anchor, no worries here!
Quad: This one is so simple that I’ve actually built it in about 120 seconds in the field, onsight.
Originally introduced in the third edition of “Climbing Anchors” as a solution for setting up toprope anchors on routes with double-bolt anchors, I’ve found it can be adapted very well to three piece anchors on multi-pitch. This is my preferred setup, and I can typically build a bomber 3-piece anchor in 120 seconds, onsight, without tying a single knot. Once I tie the masterpoint, I leave it pre-rigged permanently.
Redundant – Three pieces, each connected to its own leg of the anchor. Three strands in the master-point, and a fourth strand closing the loop around your masterpoint just in case one side of the quad fails.
Equalized – At the worst case this will equalize two points, and if you add a Sliding-X to rig your second and third pieces to the quad your anchor will perform a decent job of 3-point equalization.
Low Extension – Just like the Sliding-X and Equalette, limiter knots prevent any excess extension in the system, and these stay tied permanently adding to simplicity of construction.
Why it’s fast - Basically you slug in two bomber pieces to do most of the work, and the third is clipped in to cover your tail if something fails. If I get the length going towards that third piece within 3″ of being snug on the anchor I’ll consider it “Low Extension.” This means the first two pieces go in very quickly, and the third one is a secondary concern, it’s just there as a failsafe measure.
Building the 3-point quad: Essentially it’s the same as any other anchor, plug three pieces in the wall, imagine a 2’x2’ box, extend your pieces so they fit inside the box and clip it up! All you need is an 8’ sling (to tie the quad initially), and one locking biner, though I tend to carry a pair of ovals for clipping into nuts or bolts as they make it easier to handle the gear cluster at the anchor with their wide openings for organization.
When I climbed my first multi-pitch, we used a “Sliding X” made from a piece of cordolette doubled over itself twice so that each leg had 4 strands. It was beefy, overbuilt, silly, and not very well thought out, but it worked. That was the dumb system we used when google was the only climbing instructor we could afford. It wasn’t the best or the safest, but nobody died.
After that I graduated to the W-Cordollette as was the wisdom of the times, and was annoyed at how a slight shift would un-load some of my pieces, reducing the equalization to nothing. John Long’s third edition of “Climbing Anchors” confirmed my gut-feeling and provided a solution. (Yes, I’ve actually read all three aditions of “Climbing Anchors,” and actually have read the third edition twice… I might be a bit of a gear nerd… and I might have experimented these setups on numerous banisters and chairs in climbing gyms that I frequent.. Unconfirmed reports claim that I’ve read the third edition a third time to round off the numbers, but we’ll go ahead and leave those reports unconfirmed for now)
I thought the Equalette was cumbersome at first, and quickly became reasonably proficient with the setup, but it still seemed a tad cumbersome when compared to the W-Cordollete. After two years of climbing exclusively on the Equallete, I’d had it! It violated my personal first rule of safety: Keep It Simple Stupid. Simple systems introduce less possibility for mistakes, and fewer unintended consequences, and so I started looking for alternate solutions.
After tinkering with the quad for some time, I finally decided I’d made the anchor system I’ve been looking for all these years, and haven’t looked back. Performance in the field has been fantastic, and it has yielded the fastest and most comfortable solid belay setups I’ve ever been able to make. If you can find a flaw in my design, please tell me. I’d love to hear your input, but after scratching heads with several of my past climbing partners, I feel pretty well sold on this option.
Questions? Comments? Hatemail? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comment section below!
Click “Share” to educate your friends in the art of not killing yourself!
Climbing on a knob encrusted spire in the Needles of South Dakota, I draped a sling over a chickenhead. “Hmn, no good,” I figured a decent gust of wind might blow the sling off the wall, so I hung my #5 Cam upside down from the sling to keep it stuck to it’s perch. “Hmmmmmm, still crap,” rope drag would definitely pull that off the knob, so I extended the piece with a 4′ runner. Well, I guess staring at it longer isn’t really going to make me safe, so I started climbing. Seventy five feet off the ground, and ten feet above a sling draped on a knob that could be knocked off by a good fart, my next piece of bomber pro was a nut at 20.’ Clipping a rusted piton never felt so good!
Back at the capground we started swapping stories with a guide named Cheyenne. The climbing at this place is old-school and bold, so naturally we circled around to every trad-climber’s favorite topic: “What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen someone do out there?”
I’ve got some pretty good stories, but his took the cake!
Pile Ze Bags:
Some russian free-soloist and his crew had bowled into town and made some waves by running around and (obviously) soloing anything he felt sassy enough to sack up for. One particular climb followed a 100′ crack up a 110′ pillar that started as a 10b offwidth and slowly narrowed until it no longer existed, just 10′ from the top. He grunted, scraped, thrutched and groveled in the offwidth, but it’s offwidth and that’s generally the accepted technique. As it narrowed to fists he sped up a little, but looked thoughtful as he placed rattly jams in the crack, but it’s fist-crack and the jams are rattly, so that’s okay. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! He tommahawked rapidly up the crack as it narrowed to hands, then slowed again as it became off fingers.
The crack ends, he’s got good finger-locks with good feet on typical Needles knobs, but he’s stumped 100′ off the ground with no rope. Left hand up… doesn’t like it. back into the crack. Right hand up… still doesn’t like it! chalk… chalk… think, head scratch.. AHA! SHIFT THE FEET! right foot, left foot… okay, again with the hands. Right hand up… still garbage. Left hand up, not promising. If only he could reach that knob that is just slightly.. well… out of reach!
He sits and thinks a moment more before looking over his shoulder and shouting at his friends “PILE ZE BAGS!!!!”
INSTANTLY, they start throwing all their bags at the base of the crack. As soon as the operation has finished, he nods contently as though all is arranged to satisfaction… and dynos up for the knob, sticks it, and nonchalantly continues his day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Here’s the reasons that’s sketchy:
What the FUCK!?
Did he really think he’d even land on the bags from that height?
Even if he did land on them, I don’t know about you… but my pack isn’t exactly full of stuffed animals and anti-gravity.
Everyone reacted instantaneously, as if this was a routine maneuver.
Fast forward through some years from that trip, and I’m on a cell tower east of Atlanta. Storms are building fast in the summer heat, but it looks like it’s going to just barely miss us. We’ve got a load on the line coming up to finish the job. KABOOM! Less than a mile away. I stare at Mike, on the ground and he yells back at me “PILE ZE BAGS!” and begins lowering the load fast, as we climb down 200 feet to the ground. We touched dirt just as the first raindrops began to pour on the tower.
Fast forward a little further, and Spencer is about 2ft above his bolt bemoaning the fact that “This is a sketchy 5.9!” Since I wasn’t belaying, I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my empty pack and tossed it at the base of the climb, poor guy laughed so hard he fell off.
Next time you’re feeling sketched, just remember to PILE ZE BAGS! Next time you’re at the crag, give it a shout! You’re just might hear a shout back from some cool folks!
There are those climbs, hidden around the corner, lurking under the bed, creeping in the night to haunt your dreams. They are hard, they are scary, they are beautiful and they keep us all fascinated. Or nauseated. The boogeymonster around the corner is an important part of the climbing scene, and must be respected.
POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!” I get cranky when I’m in pain… Once he realized I wasn’t dead, my stunned belayer lowered me to the floor, thus removing weight from my feet. “I just need to sit” Dylan had passed his WFR only a week ago, all the field triage techniques were fresh in his brain, and it showed in his immediate action in assessing my injuries.
An hour later I hobbled out of the park on Dylan’s trekking poles. The next morning I couldn’t walk because of the pain. All in all, I’m amazed he kept my ass off the deck. If you had pointed where I fell, and asked me “what do you think will happen if you pop from there?”… I wouldn’t have described a happy ending.
“Shocker” (5.12 R) is a cute little monster, only 35’ tall. Delicate slab moves to a juggy undercling, a powerful boulder crux, technical laybacking on a fingertip splitter with dime-edges for feet, and a desperate last move to a muffin sloper up high. This baby has everything you could ask for! Except for easy gear placements.
I had just had a productive trip to Tennessee Wall near Chattanooga, where I had gotten in the groove of falling on gear. I was ready to push it. I had fallen on a good number of placements, and that southern sandstone is so good, so parallel, you barely need to inspect your gear to know it’s good. Plug and chug baby! My mental game was in top form, ready to accept the risk of falling.
Shocker is one of those lines I had drooled over for eons; I was saving it for “someday,” when I was stronger. I was stronger, it’s here and I’m here, so I guess that means today is “someday.” Now, You can’t just charge at this thing like a psychopath and hope for the best. The boogeymonster has to be given respect, remember? First, I had to toprope the line and see if it would even go. Then, I toproped it once more, with gear racked on my harness to practice making placements on the lead with full-pump.
The only gear I had with me was a set of four Omega Pacific Link Cams. I had limited room for gear in my luggage since I had flown in, and wasn’t 100% sure I would get to climb. My partners had gear, but I insisted on using my own. I found a sweet spot in the crack, called for a take (on TR), and dialed in just the right piece to plug in. My 0.5 would go in perfectly just above a small nubbin on the crack. It was like a natural tick-mark to help me hone in on my target. The ideal placement was just above this nubbin, deep inside the crack where it was more parallel and did not flare.
Going for the lead, I fell three times off the lower boulder problem, but I had bomber gear in the lower flake, which boosted my confidence. After each attempt I left the gear in and pulled the rope, which I felt was a decent compromise between efficiency and style. Finally, I pulled through the desperate boulder problem. Underclinging the flake, I stretched high with my right hand to a poor fingerlock with a thumb catch… very very delicate… I made what felt like a hundred different foot movements to twist my body around into the layback, pulled a few more moves to a stance…. Breathe. Be calm. Fear is dangerous. I estimated that I had a 60-75% chance of sending. Getting good gear was essential. I eyed the nubbin, slammed in that cam, clipped it, and eyeballed it as I was pulling the next move upward.
I wanted that send. I was fairly certain my gear was in the correct spot; however, I should have stayed longer to inspect my gear. But… I. Wanted. That. Send. I felt it… I was off balance. My feet were out of sequence, but if I could lift and stab my right foot on a small crystal… Well, it would have worked if I had hit the crystal. Instead my foot skittered uselessly, causing me to pop out of the layback like a loaded spring and twisting 180 degrees to face away from the wall. POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!”
At least my lower piece held.
I had grown too accustomed to southern sandstone, and easy gear placements. Had I paused to ponder the local geology, I’d have realized that the large crystals of this coarse granite demanded special attention to small gear placements. However, I wasn’t worried about that since Link Cams are known for having a large expansion range. They are touted as a “panic piece” that you can place quickly in a crux with little worry, so I felt sure that my gear gear would hold a fall.
What Went Wrong:
The cam was 75-90% contracted. On a “normal” cam, this would have meant security. On a link cam this places your contact on the inner links, which are made of steel instead of aluminum. The steel links can bite well in softer rock like sandstone, but are known to have less friction and less holding-power. I didn’t know that before the accident.
In Tennessee I had worked hard to override fear instincts, and reinforce the feeling that good gear will hold a fall. That’s ordinarily a good thing, but unfortunately this made me less vigilant about inspecting gear, since placements are generally more straightforward in Tennessee.
I had trained two instincts. One deliberate, one by accident. One was good, the other dangerous.
I wanted the send, so I trusted the gear too much. This wasn’t a huge deal, I accepted the risk of falling, but it was part in a chain of errors that tossed me to the deck.
Pride goeth before the fall….
I didn’t know at the time that Link Cam placements can easily be compromised by funky crystals, especially if it torques.
When placed in the smaller portion of the expansion range, the outer links obscure view of the inner lobes, making inspection difficult
The mechanics of Failure: When I fell, we are fairly sure that the cam must have been perched on a crystal. When I fell, the slight torquing of the unit knocked it off the crystal, and the steel lobes were not sticky enough to reestablish contact and hold the fall so it skittered straight out of the crack. It slowed me down less than clipping into a loop of duct tape.
I’ll be back…. When you have an accident, you don’t give up driving for the rest of your life. This incident has known factors that led to a problem, and knowing these factors I can come back with a safer plan of action.
Double ropes: When I return, I’ll be able to attack the route with more confidence. If I fall while clipping my second piece, I will still be protected by the lower piece.
Should I fall while inspecting my second piece, I will be protected by my first piece on the first rope, in case the second piece fails. No extra slack will be introduced.
I will return with X4’s, C3’s and Offset Nuts. I now have regular and offset X4’s to make extra sure I’ll have the perfect piece.
In the layback seam, I will place two pieces of gear for security, instead of trusting to one.
My first piece will be in the undercling flake, clipped with Rope #1
Second piece in the seam, clipped with Rope #2. I will be protected with Rope #1 and my first piece in case I miss the clip.
Then, I’ll place a third piece of gear, also in the seam, clipped with Rope #1.
If I fall off the upper section, I will have two pieces of gear, each clipped with a different rope, which will cause them to auto-equalize and limit the impact force on the small funky gear needed to protect this route.
Link Cams still have a place on my rack as a specialty piece, but I’ll never again risk placing one when I’m less than calm, and probably only rarely on the lead.
“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” – Unknown
Shit happens, and sometimes it isn’t pretty. We have to be vigilant whenever we climb, because without good safety practice, we’re all just accidental soloists. The important thing is that we learn from any un-desired outcome. Whether it be working out the beta for a particular move, or the gear for a particular route… It’s important to stop and understand WHY things didn’t turn out the way we had expected. If we don’t understand why, then we can’t change anything for the better and learn for next time. If we don’t understand WHY, we’d all just be acting off insanity. And that’s saying a lot for a group of folks that hurl themselves at vertical rocks on the regular, for fun.
We had planned this for months, or rather un-planned it. From the moment of this trip’s conception, it lacked any form of plan whatsoever. We were going to Hueco with no plan, and no reservations. On my end, I had just come out of a peak phase and a bonanza of soloing that basically included all of my heart’s desires within a 200 mile range from home and was finally stoked for hard training and hard climbing again. I was at peak fitness. Jeremy had been training for triathlons, and I think he runs at a pace of 5.17x or something like that. Whatever, I don’t understand running and cardeeyo, but I do understand that he lost enough weight to equal a small human over the past year. Dude. This was going to be much better than our last trip 4 years ago! We knew that we could climb our hardest, and we knew that a newfound focus on mental strength would largely be the key to that performance.
After a season of training for peak fitness, in the few taper weeks before the main event of the year, my swim coach in high-school had only one remaining piece of wisdom to impart. Whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid. It only takes one injury to pull you out of the race. Ordinarily, I’d say that Coach Little gave me tons of wisdom and good character that carried through my life so far, but on this one point I have only two words: “Sorry Coach!”
Exactly 7 days before we were supposed to leave for Hueco, I went for a trip to Enchanted Rock. The goal was to swing through saturday and take out some of my old projects that I had saved for “when I’m stronger,” and then solo my brains out on Sunday to revisit all my old favorites. I was in rare form, hiking climbs that once were hard, but it all turned sour on a trad line called “Shocker” (5.12a R). I mis-stepped a tricky sequence after the crux and swung off onto what I thought was bomber gear. I thought wrong, and my 0.5 Link Cam ripped out of the wall like I had clipped into a loop of duct-tape. The rope came tight hard on my lower piece ( a #2 Link Cam) with my ass about 12” off the deck. The rope saved me from a lot of injury, but it was still too late for my ankles. I barely walked out of the park with the aid of trekking poles, and was bound to crutches for the next week.
For the first time, I managed to walk around my hotel room without crutches, so I declared the trip to be “Go” for launch. Can’t stop the Mojo, Welcome to Hueco Tanks!!!
Saturday: I went to South Austin Rock Gym to test my fingers and ankles, and figured out that I was mostly okay as long as I crumpled ass-first onto the pads as soon as my feet touched the matt. In other words, as long as I didn’t weight them in a fall. Still, I couldn’t use small foot-holds or under-clings in vertical terrain.
Sunday: Driving, driving, driving…. Fun fact, a Hyundai Accent loaded with two climbers and a ton of gear can still do 120!
Monday: Game on! I hobbled along behind Jeremy to make it up the chains on North Mountain. I was struggling on “Nobody Here Gets out Alive” (V2) and eventually sent after a few tries….. The ankles were in my head, and I couldn’t give my all to ANYTHING. It was infuriating to feel that I was at peak fitness and just couldn’t use it. I eventually sent, then followed with “100 Proof Roof” and practiced dropping off the lip to the pads.
We spent the rest of the day getting lost, and occasionally flailing on hard things. My head was in my feet, and it wasn’t coming out. Bouldering basically had me feeling terrified. I knew this wouldn’t be a sending trip. At this point, I had to admit I had an unspoken goal for the trip of sending V7. This made me depressed.
Tuesday: Enter Carlos Flores, and Alex Lin. These guys were ROCK STARS! Raggedy vans that required beta just to open the door handle. They lived on the road, sustaining themselves off a diet consisting of Tecate, Tortillas, sand, and freedom. The four of us loaded up and headed back to Martini Roof where Alex taught me the magic of heel hooking and toe-hooks. I learned something today. I was happy!
Carlos mostly ran around glued to a GoPro, making better progress on all the things that had pissed me off on Monday.
With Carlos’ help, we actually found “Ghetto Simulator” instead of just getting lost. Jeremy began his mental battle of the trip. Gripped with fear, he grabbed the rock so hard that I’m pretty sure there are now finger-imprints in the rock. Concrete forearms. Pumped. Done. His fears overwhelmed him so that he couldn’t relax, he fought the rock for every inch of progress, and the rock fought back. He was too burned out to finish the 35’ problem, so I shoed up. I was nervous, but despite this, I was able to focus on the climbing, and moved hesitantly, powering through my ankle anxiety. Send, the route goes. I went for a second lap, and sailed smoother now that I knew the heel hooks and toe positions wouldn’t shred my ankles. Briefly, I was able to forget my injuries, and then I had to scramble off…
Wednesday: We milled about warming up on 0’s and 1’s, and eventually someone started trying the classic sandbag “El Burro” V3 (V3myass). Using some unconventional deadpointy foot-cutting beta that involved a barrel roll, I managed to send! Everyone else just scratched their heads…. And moved on to “Left Donkey Show”, “El Burro” wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, I became fascinated with a crimpy set of deadpoints on the far left of the boulder. Still terrified for my feet, I tentatively began working the moves, coring out and dropping off if it seemed too severe. I started realizing that I could take small falls, as long as I made sure to collapse butt-first onto the pad, and so the process became thus:
-Limp up to the pad
-Wince as the shoe goes on
-Borrow some chalk (pleeeease?)
-Vaguely attempt trying hard
-Assrocket back to the pad
-Wince the shoe back off
I’m sure it looked daft, but I tried that same one move about a half- dozen times, constantly making little micro-adjustments to my throw to generate less swing and hold my momentum. It’s one of those things, nobody could see a difference, but I could feel closer every time. “YOU ALMOST HAD IT!” they screamed, but I knew I was far away on that last burn. All the micro-tweaks were out of sync. “Sit” they said “try once more when we’re packing up.”
Whatever, I’m not going to send this damned thing anyway. So I rested, and decided I needed a new goal since I wasn’t going to send. Numerous flops on the pad had given me the courage to gun for it, so I wanted to fix the trip and get my head right. I wanted to be one with the rock, instead of shrinking in fear from my feet. I decided to focus on climbing peacefully, with tranquility. I might as well do something productive since sending isn’t possible.
BAM! SENT!!! “Nuns and Donkeys” – V6
Well that was unexpected! For the first time in the trip, I truly managed to get my head out of my feet and onto the rock. That’s all it took. You can’t force a send at your limit; you have to align all the proper conditions to simply let it happen, and then get out of your way. A great quote I read on this trip from Adam Ondra: “Mental strength is the key, and luck might just be the consequence.” So it was for me, that focusing on developing my mental strength allowed me to get out of my own injuries just long enough to let some magic happen on the rock. But it was short lived, and I couldn’t get stoked on anything for the rest of the day. Now that I knew I could perform, it had become almost impossible for me to do so! Though I did send a cool problem later that someone said was a V3. While perusing my guidebook post send I read that it was actually a V5. No pressure, yes sendage! And by post-send, I mean about five days later.
After saving himself all day for his revenge-send on “The Vulgarian” V2, Jeremy couldn’t quite string it together. He was so completely hell-bent on sending this problem that he forgot the method! Try after try, after attempt, after burn, randomly trying one piece of beta and then another. When it was all said and done I had to ask him, “why do you think you were falling off?” He didn’t know, which is probably what sunk his attempt.
We had a long talk about tactics that night. If you’re not inspecting each attempt, wondering what caused your failure…. How can you overcome it? Being so completely focused on the send, he tried to power his way through, knowing that his weight-loss had improved his strength-to-weight ratio he relied on this to improve his performance. Unfortunately this turned on the blinders to all the minute performance tweaks that would have allowed the send to happen. He was obviously MASSIVELY stronger than his last meeting with this problem four years ago. Strength isn’t always enough. Since our last trip, he had amassed a broad depth of crack and slab technique. Knowing that he had “good technique” in these areas had turned him off to the learning that needed to take place at Hueco. His slab and crack technique had left him under-prepared for a technical, core-intensive overhang where your feet don’t want to stay on the wall.
Thursday: Sucked. We needed a rest day, so Jeremy went on a 10 mile run and I went soloing, figuring that the easy moves would help me de-stress since I didn’t have to worry about falling on injured ankles. I never red-lined, there was no danger of falling, but it just wasn’t fun. “Cakewalk” (5.6), was a slab so my head was constantly in my feet, then on “Sea of Holes” (5.10a) I was oscillating back and forth between peaceful enjoyment, and stressing over my feet. I called it a day and went back to The Ranch early. What’s the point in soloing, or any climbing, if it isn’t fun?
Speaking of fun, it appears we have invented a Hueco tradition. First, you get drunk enough to start jumping over the fire. THEN you keep drinking. FINALLY, the game becomes jumping IN the fire, and seeing how long you can stay in there. I heard some idiot won by doing a pushup, you know… won. Since there are points and scoring involved? Anyhow, good job on the pushup, Jeremy!
Friday: I met up with Stephen Crye, whom I’d been talking with for months about possibly getting some footage on “Sea of Holes.” Since we had been in contact for so long over the endeavor and I was looking forward to one last romp on my favorite climb, I decided to give it a run for the cameras. I really learned how much disdain I have for soloing on film that day. It’s one thing if I’m walking along and manage to set up a couple tripods with minimal effort… but lugging gear to the top of North Mountain was killing my mojo. I enjoyed the movement and the mental practice of performing the climb, but the overall tone of the day was soured by the effort put into filming. I limped back to the ranch somewhat dissatisfied and in a funk.
Jeremy, on the other hand, KILLED IT. He went to warm up on a V0-, given his hungover state (it was the morning after TanksGiving, after all) he had to fight INCREDIBLY hard to gain the topout, but he sent. As he came back to the pads, another crew had arrived and pointed towards the line he had just climbed “yeah, that’s a bit too hard… that’s a V3… “ Wait. WHAT?
As it turns out, Jeremy had just sent his hardest problem. He sent it onsight, and hungover, for his bloody warm-up. Like. A. BOSS!!!
Saturday: We were both rather burned out, and called it a rest day. Jeremy was sore from being awesome, and my feet hated me for walking around with tripods.
Sunday: Our last day at hueco, we have to leave by mid-afternoon. It’s reckoning day. We warmed up on “Warm Up Bolder,” appropriately enough. I tried some V7 over there that seemed impossible and couldn’t get off the ground. It scared my feet. Meanwhile Jeremy worked on “Warm Up Roof” V4. Lots of flailing, and a little sending later, we attacked the Blender Boulder.
I started off flashing “Hobbit in a Blender” V5, and then came back for a second lap. It’s just an awesome line! After a lap on “The Ostracizer” V2, and flopping off the second move of a gnarly gaston, I made a flash on “Brutus” V5. This boulder was perfectly fitting my style, the incut crimps felt ergonomic to me and the slightly desperate deadpoints were everything I look for! Satisfied, and figuring we’d be ending soon, I wandered off to eat and basically just lounged on the pads. I realized this was the first time that I wound down enough to truly appreciate the landscape around me. Despite the fact that my mind was so turned off, the magic of Hueco was seeping into my pores at last!
I must have dozed there for at least 30 minutes, and thought: what the heck, why not give it a go? So I stumbled back over to the gnarly gaston problem…. And cruised through it, much to my own astonishment! At the top I thought the grade was about V5… but they were telling me it’s a 7!? I flipped through the guidebook, and sure enough: V7. I figured I must have missed the start holds or something like that, so later that day, I flipped through the internet and watched videos… Still V7, and I had found the correct start. I did V7 on my second go? That’s it. Grades don’t make any sense anymore…. If anyone wants me, I’ll be back under my campus board.
In true form, as we were walking out the park, I slipped off a 12” rock and banged my head on a nearby boulder. Yes. Twelve inches. I’m that bad at walking. In any case, I bled more than I’ve ever bled in my life! But the good news is, I think my Adventure Hat probably saved me from a concussion!
Well, despite making every attempt to foil ourselves, we managed to have a blast, get in the park every day that we wanted to and send the hardest problems of our careers. I think the key was just remembering why the hell we started climbing to begin with.
Numbers, mumblers, stumblers, bumblers, does anybody remember when it was exciting just to get to the top? Jeremy and I have this thing in common about our climbing: We climb in a search for peace. We’re not at war with the rock, we don’t want to conquer it. Even though our egos would like to take over and rule the day, we don’t actually care about numbers. We truly care about being somewhere beautiful and being at peace in our surroundings. Anything that detracts from that, risks the whole point.
On this trip, our mightiest highs and lowest lows were determined by how we approached the rock. Any time we set ourselves up with the goal of sending some arbitrary problem, we became too caught up in how things were supposed to go to actually allow ourselves to perform. Over-gripping, under-thinking and generally stressing ran our mojo down. Then, as soon as we were down and resigned ourselves to simply enjoying ourselves, we managed the strongest performances of our careers. “Mental Strength is the key, and perhaps luck is the consequence.” We weren’t looking for luck, but it found us. As soon as we stopped striving and grasping, and just let ourselves be fully in the moment…. That’s when inspiration struck.
Maybe, instead of trying so much to climb harder, perhaps we should try to climb calmer and more peacefully. That release from flight and fear might be all it takes to put luck on your side and clip the chains!
In the beginning, there was one rule: Don’t let anyone know. Keep it hidden, and stay in the shadows. Who really cares that you’re climbing 5.9? Well, apparently a growing number care that I’m doing it without a rope, and they won’t hesitate to share their opinions and lambast me across any corner of the internet they can find.
Have you ever taken a photo or video of yourself while climbing? Most of you would answer yes, even if it’s a simple cell-phone selfie. I have to ask… What were your motivations behind that action? Almost sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? There are some folks who see that I publish my exploits on this blog, or in video form on vimeo, and attempt to ascribe traits of narcissism, vanity, and fame chasing to my personality, because I do exactly the same things that most other humans of the digital age would do over the course of a vacation or climbing trip. What makes them assume that I am any different from the rest of humanity? I document these events for myself and my friends, because I enjoy it. I am not extremely prideful of my ascents, but neither am I ashamed of them. Why would I hold back from sharing something that brings me joy if I am not ashamed? Don’t we all enjoy documenting the process of achieving our goals?
They say that we dislike traits in others that most exemplify that which we hate within ourselves. The biggest irony for me is that most of the criticisms I’ve seen come from Facebook posts. Facebook’s entire purpose is essentially to allow all of us to spray about our lives, and this is the platform where the negative crowd chooses to attack me for sharing mine. The next time someone tries to judge me, perhaps they should look inside and consider their own motivations… I solo because it makes me happy. I mean really, if you look at it, every post on facebook could be viewed as some attempt to get a pat on the back from your peers, so it’s an odd choice of platform to criticize someone you accuse over-sharing.
I understand that some are worried that seeing images of soloing will encourage others to do the same, but really any image of rock climbing can have that same impact. There are far too few folks who actually know how to climb outside safely, and anyone foolish enough to be inspired to solo by an image or video on the internet is unlikely to be wise enough to take the time to figure out how to use their gear properly. They’ll likely wind up in the same spot regardless of whether they take their inspiration from you, or me.
I know a few folks who have soloed, one mentioned that he was inspired by images of John Bachar, and wanted to be just like him. Looking back decades later, he realizes that John probably saved his life. Without that guiding inspiration, he would have soloed anyway, only with no guidance on the “proper” way to avoid getting in over your head. I know that Michael Reardon probably saved my life. If I hadn’t watched all those videos of him soloing, I know for a FACT that I would have done it anyway. It takes a long time to develop that “pre-flight” checklist, and understand the “eight foot eggshell” that keeps a soloist safe. Without those guiding concepts that I picked up from watching others, I am certain I would have wound up in some very deep shit.
I do not advocate soloing. In fact, over the years, several climbers have reached out to me and asked me what I thought of their plans to solo. None of them had decided it to do it because of me, but they reached out because I was the only person they knew who engaged in the activity, and (ironically) they did not want to expose themselves to un-necessary risk, so they asked my opinion. Thus far I’ve managed to convince every single one of them not to go through with it. Ultimately, if anyone can dissuade you from going up there, you didn’t have any place being up there to begin with, and if you have to ask, it’s probably because you want to be talked out of it. Likewise, anyone who is going to solo will do it regardless of what you think. It takes a powerful intrinsic motivation to overcome the mind’s natural fear response and become comfortable at height. Without that sense of peace, one simply cannot sustain the activity. For that reason, I believe soloing for external reward is rare, for there are no rewards outside one’s own internal desires and motivations that can outweigh the negativity that will be incurred from soloing. Nevertheless, since it has become the personal mission of an outspoken few to question my motivations behind publishing/sharing my exploits, I will do my best to provide you a description of how I came to my current stance on the subject.
In The Beginning:
I started soloing at Enchanted Rock in Texas as a simple call to simplicity. I wanted to travel fast and light, and get a lot of climbing in with minimal hassle without lugging a gigantic pack all across the park. It wasn’t a big deal, no one knew. And I really preferred to keep it that way. But, a few of my buddies were curious about it, and I soloed a famous route in the area called “Fear of Flying.” So I decided to document the route and one of my circuits. The notion was “don’t EVER do anything stupid for a camera, but if you’re going to do it anyway, why not pack it?” I didn’t publicize the video, I didn’t even share it on facebook. In the intervening years it perhaps received 100 hits.
I tried my best not to spray about my climbs to folks, but I get excited about the things I enjoy. If anybody has heard me after something as simple as buying a new $30 pack from REI, they know I simply can’t shut the fuck up about something when I’m excited about it. Perhaps it’s a character flaw, but it’s a part of who I am and I prefer to simply accept it as it is. Years of beating myself up over that tendency never changed a damn thing. So, occasionally I’d spill the beans and let someone know that I soloed. I didn’t (and still don’t) think it was a big deal, but people tend to give me hell about it so I figured it was only fair to warn them if we were going to climb together. I had plenty of climbing partners at this time, but I still preferred to solo on occasion. It just appeals to me. We all engage risk and consequence in our own unique ways, and that’s a beautiful thing!
Back in the old days at enchanted rock, the climbs were spread out, and there was a fair amount of hiking to get from one to another. If there was a party on or near the route I wanted to solo, I would almost always move on and find something out of view. I rarely broke this rule unless there were simply too many people to avoid. I was only observed rarely, and no one ever recognized me. So I didn’t catch hell very often, but it was never enjoyable when folks did find out. If you solo, people want to judge you in a very negative light. So I kept it down, and kept it quiet. Fast forward a few years, I’ve still been soloing but I haven’t made any videos after those first two. The idea seemed stupid, superfluous, and vain. “Ooooh look at that guy! He’s so cool climbing a 5.9” fuckoff, that’s not how things work, and it shouldn’t be either. This is when I moved to Atlanta. That’s when everything changed.
New territory, a new home and new crags surrounded me and I was eager to explore. So explore I did, I toured the local crags scanning for anything that looked cool. Now I was in a new town, and didn’t know a soul. The only folks I knew were from work, and they couldn’t be less interested in climbing. So I went out alone to onsight solo whatever felt comfortable at Sandrock Alabama. The temps were a bit cold and that might have kept everyone away for my first couple trips, but there were a few folks climbing, and I tried my best to make sure I was soloing on the other side of the rock where they couldn’t see me.
On probably my third or fourth solo trip to sandrock, it was perfect spring-time climbing weather! I was warmed up and climbed three quarters a 5.10 named “Gravy Train,” when I stopped to hang out, shake out, and enjoy the view. “SHIT!” I thought as I looked below to a crowd of perhaps 15 folks from Stone Summit who were now staring up at me in expressions from disbelief to horror to excitement. Unbeknownst to me, they had driven up from Atlanta to climb at Sandrock for the weekend. Apparently I had terribly underestimated how popular this crag was. At this point, I’ve met some climbers at the gym and had a fair amount of friends up there, and I dreaded returning. I recognized several faces in the crowd, and returned to the gym on the following week with considerable reluctance. I simply didn’t want to deal with any social-circle shit-storm that would evolve from getting caught ropeless.
Fuck it. Cat’s out of the bag, and there is no way to stuff it back in, particularly not at a social hub like stone-summit, but fortunately it wasn’t a big deal. I thought it was awesome, nobody seemed to care! And so I continued training at the gym to grow stronger. That’s what I do. For whatever reason, I actually enjoy training hard. As I grew stronger, I could climb harder. As I climbed harder, I could solo more difficult routes. Soon I found myself soloing in the 5.11 range, and that’s when folks started to take notice. Slowly at first, then more fiercely, rumors began to circle. Everything from folks speculating that I had no will to live to rumors that I had been chased out of Texas by the local climbing community due to my penchant for soloing. I tried my best to ignore it and just continue climbing my way, unaffected by anything around me. But lets face it, I’m human. It doesn’t feel good to be attacked.
For a year, the climb “Dreamscape” (5.11c/d) had held my fascination. It was the king-line at sandrock, beautiful, fun, and hard enough to be interesting, but not hard enough to be terrifying. I remember climbing it at the end of a climbing trip and realizing “oh my god, everything feels right! Someday, I’m going to solo dreamscape.” Unexpectedly, I realized that It had passed every metric on my pre-flight checklist. I led the route at the end of the day, when I was already tired. It was my 12th climb, I didn’t use chalk, I used my worst pair of shoes that were worn-out and I left the laces untied. Despite these handicaps, the whole way up the climb, I was relaxed enough to hold a conversation with my belayer through hanging each draw, clipping the rope, and pulling the crux throws.
The route breaks down into two distinct sections, with a No-Hands rest in-between. There’s an easy slab, followed by 5.11 thuggish throws. I had those crux throws DIALED, but I’ve never done the bottom section the same way twice in a row, there are so many holds that I always seem to find a new way each time. The lower portion is only about 5.10a slab climbing and I still enjoy the benefits of my slab skills gathered from days at Enchanted Rock where I had redpointed notorious slabs such as “Gravitron” (5.11d X), “Real Gravy” (5.11c R), and “Clockwerk Orange” (5.11a X). I repeated them all on my second or third go, and I had them nowhere near dialed. I just understood the style of climbing very well. So 5.10- didn’t even register on my radar as difficult, that was well within my onsight-solo range. Given that I had led it with that level of comfort while climbing chalk-less in a worn out pair of un-tied Mythos, I knew it would be a simple order once I slapped on my brand new TC Pros and a bag of chalk. Sure, it wasn’t dialed. But I know slab. Slab is a chess game, you think 6 moves ahead and take your time. You aren’t going anywhere immediately because every stance is nearly a no-hands rest. You simply have to take your time and plot your move to the next stance. There is no pump. There is time to think, and be careful, there is no need for rush. Figuring out the moves was no big deal, I had onsighted slabs like “The French Route” (5.11a R) back in Texas. I knew I could figure the moves out on the fly at that grade, and this solo wasn’t onsight. I knew well enough how to do the moves several different ways; I just had to figure out how I wanted to do them this time. So I soloed the route, and we didn’t video it.
Six months and a lot of training later, I decided to go back and solo the route again. Some friends of mine wanted to watch, and offered to shoot film since they happened to be at the crag anyway. Why not? I had already planned to climb it. I posted my video on that same old vimeo account with a hundred hits thinking nothing of it. Whatever, plenty of people climb 5.11, it’s no big deal, but at least we got to document the second solo of this locally famous route. My friends were stoked, because it was a rock they were familiar with. At the urging of a friend, I decided to post the video on DPM’s video section. What the hell, why not? And I think that’s when EpicTV caught it, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve never talked to them. They created a Bio for me, and uploaded their own description for the video without any input from me, and titled the video something along the lines of “No hands free-soloist” to hype it because I used the no-hands-rest at mid height. That title and the bio have nothing to do with my words and motivations. It went semi-viral, and I long ago stopped watching the hit count. Watching the hits climb just weirded me out too much. It made me sick, and so did the commentary attached to it.
So that’s why I write now, and that’s why I continue to make videos. This is MY story, and I want to tell it. No more slander being spread behind my back, no more stories of being run out of my home (they were actually quite neutral, I moved away to take a job climbing towers… that rent won’t pay itself!), no hyped titles and bios. Just me. The cat is out of the bag, I can’t put it back in, and I refuse to let you or anyone else tell me how to live. I started doing this for me, if that wasn’t the case I’d have stopped a long time ago in the face of the backlash.
On Inspiration: Perhaps the strangest part to me, and most unsettling, is that another subset of people find my acts inspiring. Not in the sense that I inspire them to solo (that’s the last thing I want), but rather that I inspire them to chase their own goals by achieving mine. It seems that documenting my goals and training can inspire others to achieve their own goals which have nothing to do with how I climb. That’s an incredibly powerful and positive thing. I remember a time when I was broken beyond what my imagination could handle, and it was hard for me to see the way out. My belayer had dropped me 35ft at an indoor climbing gym. I suffered two fractured vertebrae and a compressed spine, and in those times I knew two things: when I healed, I needed to be able to walk, and I needed to be able to climb. But recovery is a long thing and it’s hard to stay stoked.
About this time I started watching videos of Tommy Caldwell and his rad-sending on El Cap. That was the definition of climbing to me, and it blew my mind. I started walking laps around the house while squeezing a pair of “Grip-Masters” every time I saw that video. Tommy is truly inspiring. Me? I don’t know why anyone is inspired by me, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything inspiring. But if there’s one thing that I’d like to see folks take away from my climbing it’s this: I don’t believe at all that I am a truly gifted climber. It took me six months to tick my first 5.10a, in a gym, on top-rope. I wasn’t instantly talented, but I train like a masochist all week long to be able to climb like I do. It’s the result of dedication, and that dedication is hard to maintain in life’s toughest patches, but with the help of watching some very talented climbers on the internet, I’ve managed to keep the mojo rising for a good while now.
Ultimately, that’s the biggest reason why I’ve continued to produce blog posts, videos, and photos on my various pages. Not because I think I’m impressive, but because I feel fortunate to have received amazing inspiration in my climbing career. I still don’t even consider myself a “hard-climber” (Whatever THAT means), but if I have the ability to give that back to even a small few, then it’s all worth it.
Could you imagine having the ability to inspire someone through the tough times just by documenting a bunch of crap you were going to do anyway? I still can’t imagine it, but do I know rejecting that possibility would feel incredibly selfish.
Final Notes: I don’t handle the negativity well. It eats at me, I’m only human. Never for a minute have I considered quitting soloing because of a few assholes on the internet, but it has often made me re-consider posting and sharing. I don’t think I’m in the moral wrong, or right, just neutral. But the fact is that every facet of my climbing is governed by what I consider to be fun, and the fact is that making the media isn’t fun for ME. Its fun for others, and I just catch hell.
The biggest benefit is that possibility to inspire a would-be soloist to approach the cliff in the right mindset, just like those videos of Bachar did for my friend. Just like those videos of Reardon did for me. The thing is, I don’t see that message in my own videos. I’m not a good videographer, and I’m no good at telling my story that way. So I won’t. I’m done making my own videos. I just want to climb.
I’ll continue to write, as always, because it brings me joy just to put my words in writing. Plus, it really helps me keep my motivations in check to write it out. As far as my other media sources? I really think I’m going to pull back a bit. It’s too complicated right now and It’s dragging me down, so I need to simplify.
If someone else takes video of me, and does something cool with it… that’s fine. but I’m not going to push for it in any way. It’s time to get back to something simpler, more organic. Just climbing, Just fun. No internet circus. I will climb, I will write, and I will update my friends on what I’m doing and where I’m going (we don’t want any 128 hours kind of crap). Whatever happens from there, happens. Que Sera, Sera.