Pile Ze Bags

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.

If you drive through the mountains, they have my Native American name on street signs.
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:

  1. What the FUCK!?
  2. Did he really think he’d even land on the bags from that height?
  3. 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.
  4. Everyone reacted instantaneously, as if this was a routine maneuver.
Boom goes the dynamite
Boom goes the dynamite

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!

“Shocker” Analysis

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.

Link Cams

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.

Photo from MountainProject.com displaying a climber on the upper seam of "Shocker"
Photo from MountainProject.com displaying a climber on the upper seam of “Shocker”

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.

Yeah, sure... that'll work... Photo Credit: ClimbingGifs.com
Yeah, sure… that’ll work… Photo Credit: ClimbingGifs.com

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.
Racking up for the revenge-send!
Racking up for the revenge-send! Small, Funky gear is the crux on this route.

“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.

Trip Report (TanksGiving: Part 1)

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.

James Crump on the FA of “Shrike” (5.12 R/X), a bold climb in the Enchanted Rock style. The crack was too thin for nuts, so the FA tossed in tons of copperheads in the hopes that one would stick.

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!!!

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.

Driving, driving, driving…. Fun fact, a Hyundai Accent loaded with two climbers and a ton of gear can still do 120!

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.

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…

Fixing the Adventure Hat on "Ghetto Simulator" V2. Hat's make you send harder, this is scientific fact.
Fixing the Adventure Hat on “Ghetto Simulator” V2. Hat’s make you send harder, this is scientific fact.

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
-limp off
-contemplate life

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.


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!

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!!!

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.

Airing it out on my favorite boulder problem at Hueco
Airing it out on my favorite boulder problem at Hueco

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!

Still less scary than bouldering on busted ankles!
Still less scary than bouldering on busted ankles!

Final Notes:
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!

Highballing at the Hueco Tanks on my first visit to the crag, all those years ago
Highballing at the Hueco Tanks on my first visit to the crag, all those years ago

Beware of Bad-Mojo

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?

I get this crap all the time.
I get this crap all the time…..

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.

Michael Reardon reminding us all to "Stay Calm and Climb On!" now THAT'S good mojo. it's all about attitude
Michael Reardon reminding us all to “Stay Calm and Climb On!” now THAT’S good mojo. it’s all about attitude

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.

C'mon guys, why so serious?
C’mon guys, why so serious?

New Crags:
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.

Peter Croft, always inspiring
Peter Croft, always inspiring!! I’m not the greatest climber out there, but none of us have to be. Just enjoy it like it is!!!

Accomplishing Goals:
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.

Life and climbing.... they ain't always pretty, but it's always a beautiful thing!
Life and climbing…. they ain’t always pretty, but it’s always a beautiful thing!

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.

woold-1-of-1-189x300Ultimately, 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.

Cheers, and Happy climbing!

Free-Mojo Rock Climbing

If we’re lucky, we all have that one thing that makes the world disappear and you with it. Seconds fade into minutes, hours, and the days are gone in a blur. Where was I for the past few hours? Dancing, skydiving, mountain biking, skiing, free-soloing, bouldering, top rope, riding a motorcycle, calculus, gymnastics, working high on a steel tower in a beautiful day, could have been anything, really. Have you ever lost yourself in an activity so fully that you lost track of time? How about losing yourself in the moment so fully that you forget to eat?

Did you know that you practice meditation? That’s all it is: Single point focus and awareness of one thing. You don’t need to sit on a mat humming “Ommmmm” to achieve a meditative state, just look at the example of Yoga. Put simply, Yoga is a moving meditation that centers focus on the breath. As the body moves through the different asanas (poses), your mind becomes distracted and you gently guide it back to the simple act of breathing. With practice the strain fades away and only peace remains. Much like a dancer feels the music while flowing through the movements of choreography. As the awareness deepens, your attention to the body disappears and it appears effortless. You stop thinking, you feel and react on instinct as you flow through the next body position, grab the next hold, feel the stone on your skin, solid. The body flows into the next asana, the dance continues, as the music cranks loud and I’ve lost myself entirely. Trees rush by on the slopes, no time to think, only to react to the ground beneath your tires. Information flows in rapidly, and the body immediately converts it to movement. Man has become one with the machine and they flow together weaving a path through rocks, roots and obstacles. Twisting, turning, grasping are you breathing? Are you there? There is only music, there is only movement. Fingers move across the fret-board of a guitar turning the body itself into music. There is neither “I” nor fear, only peace, and the moving bodymind.


We all meditate, whether we realize it or not, every time we lose ourselves in the moment. We all have the stereotypical image of the meditator losing herself sitting with legs crossed in a serene retreat. But the fact is that everybody has something that can take hold of them that makes the world disappear. There is no action and there is no actor, they become the same. When you find your flow and become lost in motion or thought, the separation between body and mind blurs. That is meditation in a nutshell. Some folks haven’t found their Mojo yet, but it’s out there somewhere waiting for them.

Why do I solo? Probably the same reasons that you dance, ride a bike, go rock climbing, ride a motorcycle, or perform the activities you love. We really aren’t all that different, the only difference is where we’ve found our mojo. It’s just the one thing that I’ve found where my mind becomes still, and the world is at peace. There is no adrenaline rush, I hate feeling afraid. It’s simple meditation. Seeking Zen with a smirk. Perhaps a better question is this: How did I get into soloing to begin with?

How I found my Mojo
Climbing was fascinating to me. I think it’s summed up by one of the most common bits of vernacular that we never think of… Nobody calls it a bouldering “route” or a bouldering “climb”. It’s a boulder-problem. On my first time at a climbing gym, I got stuck fifteen feet off the ground on a 5.8. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the moves; it was simply that I couldn’t figure it out. And that was the epiphany, suddenly it wasn’t a simple brute exercise and it had become a problem that I needed to solve. I can’t stand an unsolved problem!

The obsession was fairly immediate. I wanted to climb as hard as humanly possible, whatever that meant. Something like 5.12, right? So I started climbing regularly, seeking challenges to improve. I wanted to climb harder, and harder, while constantly seeking the next big thing. But there was one small problem. Top roping wasn’t real climbing. I wanted to climb outside, and you have to get the rope up there somehow; therefore, lead climbing is real climbing!

"What do I do with all these clippy things?" Photo Credit: Julia Watson
“What do I do with all these clippy things?”
Photo Credit: Julia Watson

Again, I was obsessed like it was a whole new sport that I’d never even heard of. I had to start all over again, working up the grades slowly. As it turns out, leading is HARD! And so I started all over again, back at the bottom of the grade scale. I sought out new challenges, attempting progressively harder and harder routes, constantly trying to improve. But then I discovered another small problem. I was only sport climbing. I didn’t just want to climb outside; I wanted to climb BIG things outside. If you want to climb BIG, you need to climb trad. There typically aren’t bolts in the wall stitching the high climbs together. On the high crag you have to make your own safety; therefore, trad is real climbing!

Again I found the obsession, the regimented training, the challenges, and the striving and straining for gains and improvement. At this point, those of you who know me well can probably guess what comes next, it seems obvious in retrospect. Sometimes I REALLY just don’t want to climb hard. Actually, I usually don’t want to climb hard. In a way you could say I’m lazy as hell, but I still want to get stronger so that my definition of “easy” becomes “harder” over time to give me access to more “easy” climbing. Everyone seems to forget the fact that no one solos on climbs they consider difficult, that would be insanity! Easy climbing… It’s peaceful, it’s meditative, you lose the struggle, and the fight. Whether it be on top rope looking at a wide swing into the trees, on sport lead feeling afraid of falling, or running it out through easy terrain on a trad-lead, we’ve all had this thought “meh, it’s fine; I’m not going to fall here.” It’s easy, why would you worry? When we climb on easy terrain, folks are generally more willing to forgo their normal level of safety. They skip clips, run it out longer before placing gear, and become less worried about the possibility of large swings on wandering routes.

One of my favorite climbs at my home crag is “Texas Crude” (5.10b) at Enchanted Rock. It’s one of my favorite climbs, I led it every chance I got, and was very familiar with the moves. It had become “easy,” and I was placing fewer and fewer pieces of gear with each repeated ascent. “Meh, it’s fine, I’m not going to fall on this one.” Eventually I was down to placing two pieces of gear on the 80 ft climb, and I couldn’t even pretend I was being “safe” anymore. At that point, the gear was too sparse to prevent a ground-fall on the majority of the route. The strain of stopping and hanging one-handed to place the gear, and consequent rope drag were the only factors that caused me to feel taxed and tired. Given that the effort of making “safety” was making me more likely to fall than the actual climbing, I decided to ditch the gear and take a solo lap. The gear made me feel like I was going to fall, if I removed that obstacle… Well, what could be safer than simply not falling?

"Meh, It'll be aw'right, just don't fall!" Photo Credit: Bibiana Diehl
“Meh, It’ll be aw’right, just don’t fall!”
Photo Credit: Bibiana Garcia Diehl

I tried the route on top rope, and it was casual. When climbing it on lead, I could carry on a conversation the whole time. I knew I was ready, and I went for it with full commitment. No harness, no gear, just a pair of shoes and a chalk bag. Bringing a harness, pro, crashpad, or helmet makes you think you’re allowed to fall, and that’s completely unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10ft off the ground or 300; the calculus must be the same. I don’t use a harness when I solo, or any other gear because the presence of a safety valve allows one to think it’s okay to be less than 100% solid. It implies that there is a way out, and that is incredibly dangerous. The mind must be fully committed, and having the fallacy of an escape could get me into a scary situation. Don’t get me wrong, I always have a contingency plan, but it relies on good judgment and strong training. Full commitment demands full preparation and that is the ONLY way to stay safe, for any form of climbing.

And that’s basically why I solo. I love the simplicity, and the state of mind that it brings for me. I’m lazy, and I love easy climbing. When the climbing is easy I can drop the complications and just do more climbing! A few weekends later I came out to the park and soloed 16 of my favorite routes before lunchtime, and that was the point where I decided to commit to becoming a free-soloist.

Bringing it Full-Circle
I saw Cirque Du Soleil this weekend and the show absolutely blew my mind. Perhaps the thing that blew my mind the most was watching the aerial stunts performed by actors utilizing the theatrical fly system in the roof. The dismount platform was about 50 feet in the air, and they were performing stunts hanging from wires, poles, or rings and the only “safety” was a strap to wrap around the wrist for better grip. The audience hardly bats an eyelash, it was all choreographed so perfectly to the music that it was easy to miss how difficult and dangerous these stunts were. No one really stopped to think that there was a human hanging from a ring pointing face first at a 30ft drop.

When I solo, I have all day to make the movements, and I only climb when it feels right in the moment for me. Seeing folks performing on stage facing the same sort of consequences, in front of an audience, performing every move to the beat of the music in crisp choreography, and doing it every night for their profession was utterly mind blowing from my vantage point. There they were, soloing in front of an audience of hundreds, and nobody was up in arms. But if you strip away the music and add a cliff face, suddenly people get scared, and they lash out at the climber. Many will say that guy “obviously” doesn’t care about life. Many folks go out of their way to condemn me for my actions and make attempts at convincing me to stop, but here at Cirque Du Soleil those same people were forking over cash for tickets not only to see it themselves but also to ensure the show continues.

Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
Photo: Cirque Du Soleil

At the crescendo of the performance, there were as many a half dozen acrobats in the air and another twenty on the floor. The energy in the air was so powerful I could feel it resonating in my core. Every one of those people on stage were deeply synched in flow, it was their moving meditation. It was like watching an orchestra constructed of human movement instead of music, and the connection I felt was unmistakable. Everybody has Mojo. It’s that place inside where simply being clears your mind, and you lose all sense of time and the world around you.

Folks ask how to get better at climbing, and really it’s the same way you get better at anything; Find your Mojo. Let’s leave the fear based thinking behind and instead focus on finding how to bring ourselves peace. Fighting fear can help you to a degree, but it can only get you so far. That same fear you fight can come to define your climbing, and its caustic presence encourages some to interfere with the peace of others. Instead, if you take time to recognize those moments of peace in life and make an effort to seek them out, that’s something you can take with you away from the rock to enrich your life, and that’s some good Mojo.

Soloing is meditation, and everyone does it, it’s almost ordinary and that’s the trick. It happens so often that we don’t realize how profoundly common it is and this makes us think that this peace is some impossibly unattainable state for the enlightened. I’m no Zen master, but I find my peace, my mojo, while soloing because the climbing is easy and it frees my mind to simply rest in the moment. Those actors were doing it in front of me on stage. And you? You’re doing it right now, because you have no idea how long it took to read this article.


Trip Report: Shortoff Mountain Mega Milage

1 chalk bag, 2 guide books, 3 pairs of shoes, 6 liters of water, 8 hours, 10 energy gels, 11 routes, 40 full-length pitches, 4500 feet of vertical, and one hell of a kick-ass iPod playlist. It’s definitely not your normal 9-5 sort of day, but it was one hell of a way to polish off my weekend!

The Approach:
I’m a wuss. It was a bit cold, so I slept in through my alarm and didn’t get up till 7:30 AM, but that was better for keeping the fingers warm anyway! I still was at the cliff-top by 8:30 to setup my stash of water, food, and shoes. I clipped my shoes onto my chalk bag with a biner and headed down the descent for my first route at 9AM

Little Corner (5.6) 500’
I slipped my climbing shoes on and clipped my boots onto my chalk-bag belt, game on! This was the perfect little warm-up jog, cardiovascular and sheltered from the wind! I’ve still never roped up on this route, so my gear beta might not be entirely accurate. Sorry Scott! After this climb, it was still a bit chillier than I’d have liked, so I opted to VETO my hardest onsight “Paradise Lost” (5.11d) and move straight to the next climb.

Onsight Attempt – Supercrack (5.11d) and White Russians Gone Bananas (5.11a) 100ft
I didn’t climb either of these in their entirety, I started off with my attempt to onsight Supercrack, and the climbing was astoundingly good quality. Solid, incut holds with intricate = technical sequences greeted my fingers up about 30ft of solid, locker maneuvering. I knew from talking to locals that the crux was a boulder problem low to the ground, and that the climbing above was far far easier in the upper reaches. As soon as you reached the hand-crack, it would be over. I pulled through some tough boulder moves and reached up into a finger crack. With only one move separating me from the locker hand-jamming above, I thought to myself “I’ve probably got this!”

And that’s when I down-climbed back to earth. Probably isn’t good enough, 90% isn’t good enough, 99% certainty is a failure rating. I will not solo anything if I am anything less than 100% certain that I can solo the route on-command when the feeling is right. I don’t like folks who say “I’ll just solo it this one time”, that’s sketchy. Only committing to the one act sounds a lot like you’re getting away with something, like you’re relying on luck to carry the day and that WILL catch up to you. More than likely it’ll catch up to you sooner than later. Climbing like that you’d be lucky to survive even a mere handful of solos, and that sort of risk is utterly unacceptable. Sure, there are climbs I’ve soloed only once, and there are climbs that I probably won’t solo again. By and large it’s because I’m satisfied with them. Each solo is a unique experience, so there is no need to constantly grasp for more. Even though I know I could solo certain climbs again…. I just don’t feel any strong desire to, I have my memory of peace and I’m happy with my relationship with that route as it stands. Why go for more? I always have the option to change my mind, but it’s all about whatever seems fun in the moment. If it doesn’t seem fun, that’s not what rock climbing is about and I’ll have no part in it!

So, I backed off of both White Russians Gone Bananas, and Supercrack, but I still clocked about 100ft of total climbing between the two of them.
–Running total: 600 feet–

Onsight – Early Times (5.9) 350’
Well, after backing off of two routes and finding my feet planted on the floor again, I needed a way up to the top and opted to romp my way up an easy onsight of “Early Times.” A wonky first section gave way to easier climbing and a sea of lichen all the way to the top. Chill, locker, fun swimming through massive jugs! Highly recommended! Recon: I was familiar with this section of the wall through climbing neighboring routes, so at least I had an idea of what sort of climbing to expect.
–11:10 AM – Running total: 950 feet – 2 complete routes–

Full-Tilt Wizard (5.11b) 300’
Turns out I’ve never actually climbed “Pinball Wizard” in its entirety. A stop by Unique Outfitters allowed me to flip through Fernando’s copy of the old guidebook for the area and snap some photos of critical pages… The beta for this route in the latest book is confusing (to say the least), but in the old book it’s plain to see. What I’ve actually climbed was a link-up of the first crux on “Full-Tilt Boogie” into the pump-finish on “Pinball Wizard”. The route is still quite 5.11, and still fun as hell! Recon: I’ve climbed this once on a rope, and soloed it twice.
–Running total: 1250 feet – 3 complete routes–

Soloing through the horizontals on the finish of "Pinball Wizard" (5.11)
Soloing through the horizontals on the finish of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11) Photo Credit: Andy Toms – Tom Tom Photography


Help Mr. Wizard (5.11a) 450’
The crux is mellow, but it just doesn’t let off the pump! An invisible thank-god jug leads to balancey technical pinches and awkward hand-jams for a 40 foot pump fest, and a mellow lichen infested romp to the summit, eventually joining the end of Maginot Line’s final pitch. At this point, I was finally starting to feel a little bit of fatigue, and opted to skip out of another onsight “Stopperhead Arête” (5.10+) to save my efforts on climbs that were a sure thing. Recon: I top-roped the first pitch a month ago, and soloed the entire line on the day before my mojo-mission
–12:46 PM – Running total: 1700 feet – 4 complete routes–

Julia (5.10b) 500’
Only 30 feet from Little Corner on average, but follows an independent line with an absolutely wild feel! Looking at the feet leaves one in a state of utter disbelief, but the secret is pasting your feet and remembering that you know how to rock climb. Once those toes are in place, you’re on! Now just perform a few barrel rolls while weaving in and out of the flakes and you’ll find yourself high and exposed with your ass to the wind! I’ve now climbed enough rock to equate Half-Dome. Recon: I’ve never roped up on “Julia”, and onsight-soloed the route back in the spring. Knowing that it was so close to “Little Corner” was helpful, because I didn’t have to worry about down-climbing the entire route since I could escape on the easier 5.6 corner system if I got pissed off.
— Running total: 2200 feet – 5 complete routes–

Soloing "Julia" (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter
Soloing “Julia” (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter. Photo Credit: Michael Stichter

Built To Tilt (5.10b) 300’
What a ride! You know that boulder problem they have in every gym? The one where you climb out a dead-on horizontal roof with the biggest jugs in the world and turn the lip on even bigger jugs? And it’s only V1? Copy and paste that 300 feet off the ground and that’s what it’s like climbing “Built to Tilt”

This was the scariest moment of the whole day. As soon as I was fully established in the roof, I felt something shift. I looked around and my fears were confirmed, my phone had slipped out of my pocket, and was currently hanging from its headphone jack! Calmly, slowly, I reached down with a spare hand, and reeled it back in gently before sneaking it into a butt-pocket and continuing on to the top. Gotta love them butt-pockets! Recon: I onsighted the route on lead, and came back to solo it later. Knowing how solid the climbing felt made it a clear addition to my list.
–2:01 PM – Running total: 2500 feet – 6 complete routes–

Onsight – Straight and Narrow (5.10a) 350’
With “Built to Tilt” out of the way, I was finished with the most intimidating climbing and opted to slip out of my TC Pros and into my Mythos for comfort. Romping up blocky 5.5 terrain for a hundred feet brings you to the business. The last 200 feet of climbing are fairly sustained very steep technical climbing consisting of thin edges and awkward jams with off-balance foot positions that invite one to dance up the wall in a ballet like flow. It’s beautiful, and engaging. Recon: I’ve asked a lot of folks how fun this route was, and stared at it from stances on “Help Mr. Wizard” there were no tales of weird or hard moves, so onsighting felt like a reasonable choice given my current level of climbing.
–Running total: 2850 feet – 7 complete routes–

Dopey Duck (5.9) 350’
This is one of the most fun climbs on earth, if I ever get bored of it I should probably just stop climbing altogether! This is where the bicep cramps set in, and I slammed back an extra gel-shot and a liter of water to combat the fatigue as soon as I got back to my stash. At this point I’ve climbed enough vertical to equal The Nose on El Capitan. Recon: Dopey duck is another route that I’ve never roped up on, having onsight-soloed the route in the spring I knew that it would only feel easier now that I knew where the line goes!
–3:29 PM – Running total: 3200 feet – 8 complete routes–

Getting funky on "Dopey Duck" (5.9)
Getting funky on “Dopey Duck” (5.9) Photo Credit: Lohan Lizin

Paradise Alley (5.8+) 450’
I ran down the descent gulley looking to onsight a 5.9 called “Lost and Found”, but in a moment of delicious irony I was unable to find the start of the route! Rather than let this slow me down, I continued down the cliff to “Paradise Alley” intent on finishing the last route on my list which actually required biceps to climb. According to plan, the extra energy and electrolytes had hit my system and the climbing went smoothly without any cramps. Recon: This was the first route I ever climbed at Shortoff, or indeed in Linville Gorge. As I followed behind Julia Watson up the route the whole time I was thinking of how fun it would be to solo!
–Running total: 3650 feet – 9 complete routes–

Toxic Shock (5.9) 350’
Conscious of the toll on my body from the days efforts, I decided to aim for the corner system of “Cascading Colluvial Kaleidoscope” (5.8), and after 50 feet of climbing I caught a serious case of the fuckits and climbed back down to the ground. I just didn’t feel like onsighting a damn thing at this point, so I walked over to “Toxic Shock.” But heck, at least it was another 100 feet climbed! 50 up, and 50 down. One pitch of technical balencey 5.9 led to a 5.6 romp to the top in a secure corner. This one was good for the body, as it required mostly technique instead of muscle. Climbing was almost starting to suck, and even though I was far from my goal I could feel it was nearly time to end the day. Recon: I onsight-soloed the route on a trip to Shortoff, having discovered that “Dopey Duck” was occupied by another party I opted for this alternate finish to the top.
–5:00PM – Running total: 4100 feet – 10 complete routes–

Maginot Line (5.7+) 400’
Despite the increasing fatigue, and a growing case of “The Fuckits” I felt like one more climb would be just right. Lucky for me, I had saved one of the most spectacular and least physical routes for last. “Maginot Line” works up an utterly MASSIVE and steep corner system for 400 feet leading to a dramatically exposed finish. This might be the slowest I’ve ever climbed, and I hit the top just as climbing stopped sounding like a fun idea. The Fuckits had finally caught up with me, and it was time for that beer I’d been thinking about all day! Recon: I onsight soloed the line back in the spring, and had played on it a few times since, the climbing was always secure with good no-hands rests sprinkled on the way up so I knew it was a good way to finish the day as I grew tired.
–5:51 PM – Final Total: 4500 feet – 11 complete routes–

Final Thoughts:
First: “dude, cardio is HARD!!!” Mad props to anyone who does that whole “running” thing on a regular basis, especially Jeremy “motherfuckin” Carson. Without his advice on nutrition and how to keep myself energized, this day would have been significantly less epic.

Second: Okay, so I didn’t make the mile. I came up about 780 feet short. I’m not really planning to come back and try again. At this point I’ve got a big grin plastered all over my face and had one of the most fun days of climbing of my life. Who can complain about that? Sure, part of it was Type 2 fun, but overall I am completely satisfied with the experience. This won’t be my last mega mileage day, but for now it’s enough for me!

Full exposure on the mega-classic "Dopey Duck" (5.9)
Full exposure on the mega-classic “Dopey Duck” (5.9) Photo Credit: Lohan Lizin

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!


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